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How to Hack Your Brain

Faster, Better, Smarter

Everyone’s looking for that extra edge. And it’s no wonder. Long hours, tight deadlines, gnarly commutes and always lots of competition. The drive to push yourself harder to succeed is intense.

Selling one’s soul to the devil for success is an old story. But short of hellfire and brimstone, there are less dramatic things to try. Like brain hacking.

Brain hacking is the smarter younger sibling of the biohacking movement which advocates techniques to enhance body and mind performance.

Hacking the brain puts the spotlight on the gray matter – that precious stuff we allegedly use only ten percent of. Brain hacking involves a conscious effort to boost brainpower in key areas including productivity, concentration, memory, reasoning and mood.

We won’t get into the no-brainer brain hacks like sleep, the brain’s own refresh button, and exercise which stirs up the biochemical stew to bring fresh blood and oxygen to your brain better than anything else can.

Instead we’ll look at some of the more out there stuff people are doing.

The Brave New World of Nootropics

Tech workers want it all. They want to be able to work 10 – 12 hour days, eat lots of junk food, not sleep much and still function at peak brain levels. Enter Nootropics. Vitamin pills and powders used to be just for old people and body builders. Now they’re for brain builders and called nootropics.

Nootropics is the name for new lines of supplements made with ingredients promoted to improve memory, focus and mood. They can be chemicals, hormones, enzymes or other substances considered to improve cognitive function, stimulate nerve growth or boost blood supply to the brain.

Users of nootropics like to tinker with their “stacks” – the term for the combinations of nootropics customized to suit one’s own preferences. Nootropics advocates claim the benefits are real and not merely a placebo effect; i.e. it works only because you believe it works.

What definitely is working is the boost to the bottom line of supplement sellers in an industry estimated at somewhere between $12 billion to $37 billion by Forbes. These types of supplements now called nootropics have been around since the 1970s, Forbes claims.

“The twist now is that these pills are being repurposed, repackaged and sold to Silicon Valley and Wall Street overachievers who work long hours. In December, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced a $2 million seed investment in Nootrobox — a nootropics company that markets its pills in attractive little glass bottles labeled “Rise,” “Sprint” and “Yawn.” A product called “Go Cubes” is gummy coffee bites. San Francisco-based Nootrobox bills itself as the leading name in nootropics and biohacking, but it’s just one of many firms manufacturing nootropics.”

Rise, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, is made of bacopa, a plant-based substance with possible brain enhancing effects, combined with the amino acid L-theanine and the amount of caffeine in a half cup of coffee. It sells for $26.10 for 30 pills, and can be taken once or twice a day.

Another San Francisco-based company called Nootroo markets supplements that contain bits of gold and silver and cost $64.95 for a month’s supply.

Aside from lack of legit medical evidence of their efficacy, another concern about nootropics might be whether they could become gateway drugs propelling a user to go Limitless-style into illegal use of prescription brain disorder medications.

This is Your Brain On Drugs

If John Doe (who did not want his real name used), a 28 year-old San Francisco software salesman, knows he’s facing a tough day, he’ll drop some acid. As in LSD. Instead of getting all psychedelic and trippy, John micro-doses. He says by taking just enough of the pure stuff which a friend on the East Coast sells to him, he can focus more clearly and enhance his performance.

John Doe is an outlier only in his drug of choice. While not many people are taking acid to hype up their cognitive function, a lot of people are taking drugs. Without a prescription. Or with a prescription that has been obtained under false pretenses by faking a condition like ADHD.

There’s methylphenidate, the active ingredient in Ritalin and the amphetamine sulfate aka Adderall both intended to treat ADHD. In controlled trials, according to an Atlantic article on brain hacking, it has been shown to improve memory, concentration, and motivation in individuals who have no cognitive impairment. There’s also modafinil for treating narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. In people who have no sleep issues, it has been shown to increase executive function, memory, and attention. There’s also donepezil, developed to treat Alzheimer’s. Like other anti-dementia drugs, it has been shown in clinical trials to improve both verbal and procedural memory (the memory we use to perform a complex set of actions, like driving a car) in healthy individuals.

“I know some will say I’m lacking in discipline or that I’m abusing. I don’t think that’s the case, a belief that is buttressed every time I approach my desk to see the swaying stacks of research materials. On Adderall I function better and get immediate relief from the chaos—not to mention meet my deadlines,” writer Steven Petrow said in a separate Atlantic article about his own use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The theory is that as the first wave of high school and college students with access to Ritalin and Adderall advanced into the workplace, they brought their drugs with them.

Researchers writing about the phenomenon in 2008 observed, “Today, on campuses, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin — not to get high, but to get higher grades..”   Noting also that, “These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison,” these researchers from Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge urged that steps be taken to legalize the use of these drugs for cognitive enhancement after research confirms their safety for this purpose.

This concern was echoed by a commenter in a recent Harvard Business Review article on this topic, “… more worrisome is that doctors don’t know the long-term side effects of the drugs. I’ve been told that they may range in things like hypertension and heart disease, decreased cognitive function over time, dependence (which happens regularly and forces me to switch between the different drugs), addiction, immune system impairment, neurotransmitter imbalances.”

Fast Times at Work With Intermittent Fasting

Padlock the office microwave on alternative days. The fridge too. If your tummy growls, go run a 10 minute mile. Hardcore scientific evidence – the kind that gets published in medical journals – says intermittent fasting spikes the brain. If vigorous exercise gets thrown into the mix, even better.

The eight employees at Nootrobox, a San Francisco start-up that sells nootropics, brain boosting supplements, are pretty proud of themselves for fasting for 36 hours every week. They do not eat from Monday evening until Wednesday morning when they meet up for a big breakfast. It works for them. Some scientists say that optimal fasting for better brain focus needs to be every other day. Another strategy is a time-restricted diet in which you pack all your meals into one eight-hour period and abstain for16 hours. All these methods are known as “intermittent fasting.”

In one study, lab mice fed on alternate days had the best learning and memory performance. The study conducted by researchers from the University of Virginia researchers and partly funded by the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), offers the conclusion, “These results suggest that intermittent fasting improves brain functions and structures…”

During extended periods without food, the body converts from using glucose for energy to ketones, an alternate fuel source produced by the liver. That ketone energy can improve brain metabolism, Mark Mattson, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore told Forbes.

Mattson suggests in a scientific article that our mammalian brains evolved for success in seeking and acquiring food. So the brain functions best when we are hungry and physically active like an animal stalking its prey. “Indeed, studies of animal models and human subjects demonstrate robust beneficial effects of regular exercise and intermittent energy restriction/fasting on cognitive function and mood…” the article states.

Neurochemically, Mattson explained, when the brain is challenged by physical exertion, cognitive tasks, or caloric restriction, the body produces a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which not only strengthens neural connections and increases the production of new neurons but can also have an anti-depressive effect.

Brain Food – The Best of the Best

Vitamin pills vs. food? A no brainer. A pill contains a synthesized extract of an isolated nutrient while food contains a cornucopia of nutrients in a natural synergistic balance packed within a matrix of fats, fibers, proteins that may make all the nutrients more effective and bioavailable to the body.

That said, there are some foods identified as potentially offering more brain boost per bite than others. So there’s better more specific info now that goes beyond “eat more fish” or “eat more vegetables.”

These foods contain nutrients needed to create, protect, and repair brain cells. They also provide the building blocks of neurotransmitters — brain chemicals that control how well you learn and remember.

“Every bite of food you eat is a choice that either depletes or nourishes your brain,” admonishes the website BeBrainFit.

Symptoms like mental fatigue and brain fog may be a sign that you are not eating a healthy diet.

Here are the top four of 12 best superfoods to feed your brain according to BeBrainFit. For all 12 (including sea vegetables and fermented foods) check their list.

  1. Fatty Fish – Brain neurons need fat for optimal functioning. And the optimal fats are the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring. They also provide healthy protein needs for your neurotransmitters.
  2. Eggs – Whole eggs are a great source of choline, a B complex-related nutrient. Choline is a precursor of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in memory and learning. Choline is also the precursor to another important brain nutrient citicoline which enhances the brain’s ability to utilize blood glucose, its main source of fuel.
  3. Berries – Berries are bursting with flavonoids, a group of potent antioxidants that protect brain cells from oxidative damage. Flavonoids play a role in numerous cognitive skills including memory, learning, and decision making. These substances promote the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the formation of new brain cells.
  4. Avocados – Okay, you guacamole fans. Chow down. Avocados are an excellent source of vitamins your brain needs like C, E, K, and the B complex vitamins. They also act as a “nutrient booster” to aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Avocados are high in tyrosine — an amino acid that’s a precursor to dopamine — the brain chemical that keeps you motivated and focused. Plus, like olive oil, they are rich in healthy mono-unsaturated fat.

So maybe if you eat these super healthy foods, your brain will be happier and you won’t need to pop pills. The best advice for optimal brain function at present may simply be:

  • Eat less
  • Eat smart
  • Exercise hard