But now you want to take things to the next level. You want to experience better living through science. You want to be able to read books faster, converse with ease and intelligence, maximize your work productivity, and have laser-like focus and motivation during your workouts.
With the right combination of nutrients, supplements, smart drugs, gear and even brain exercises, you can achieve this level of mental superiority. And it’s not as hard as you might think – nor does it necessarily require expensive brain-hacking electronic equipment
The word nootropics is used to define any drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration (4).
In this section, I am purposefully not going to include any nootropics that are potentially harmful, unproven in long term studies, give you a biological free pass that you may possibly regret in the future, or are banned by sporting organizations due to their potential to overstimulate your cardiovascular system. This includes compounds such as Aniracetam, Modafinil, Centrophenoxine, Picamilon or Sulbutiamine. If you want to explore these, I’d highly recommend you grab the free online manual The Limitless Pill, which was written by Mark Joyner, who was a guest on the podcast episode, “Are Your Expensive Multivitamins Even Absorbed…Or Are There Better Ways To Deliver Precious Nutrients To Your Body?“
In addition, you’ll notice a repeating pattern with many of the items listed below – they are either fat soluble compounds or they are dependent on fat for their absorption or proper utilization. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many brain-hacking nutrients you take if you’re eating a low fat diet or shooting for a low blood cholesterol value.
1) Vitamin D
Within the pages of this book, I’ve praised the efficacy of Vitamin D for everything from boosting hormone levels to promoting bone health. But there are actually receptors for Vitamin D in the central nervous system and in the hippocampus (memory and spatial recognition) region of your brain. In these areas, Vitamin D not only protects neurons, but also regulates enzymes in your brain and cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth (3).
One recent study investigating Vitamin D and cognitive function found that the lower your Vitamin D levels, the more negative your performance is on mental tests. Another study fund that people with lower vitamin D levels have slower ability to process information – with this effect even more pronounced in individuals older than 60.
It’s important to understand that when it comes to Vitamin D, none of the strategies I’m about to give you will hold a candle to daily sunlight exposure combined with adequate fat intake. But to get the memory-enhancement effect of increased Vitamin D (especially if you live in a northern climate or get limited sun exposure) include a few teaspoons of cod liver oil frequently in your diet, eat beef and butter, have calf’s liver now and then, and take approximately 2000-4000 daily international units (IU) of Vitamin D, preferably from a highly absorbable liquid source, such as a spray or anoil.
When it comes to Vitamin D, there can be a law of diminishing returns, so I highly recommend you pair Vitamin D testing with your intake, and keep your levels between 40 and 80 ng/ml. Finally, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan or eating inadequate amounts of fat, do not just take a bunch of D, because it can be toxic unless you pair it with A and K.
2) Vitamin K2
Your brain contains one of the highest concentrations of vitamin K2 in your entire body, and it is in this area of your body that Vitamin K2 prevents free radical damage to neurons and contributes to the production of the protective “myelin” sheets around your brain cells.
In this book, I have already discussed Vitamin K2 in Chapter 14 as a very important supplement for vegans and vegetarians, Vitamin K2 is a relatively new darling on the supplement front, and many folks are rushing out to buy and use it for it’s bone building, brain building, and other remarkable benefits (2). But the fact is, unless you are vegan or vegetarian, or you have a serious deficiency or disease that requires K2 intake, you’re better off getting your K2 from natural sources such as grass-fed beef, fermented dairy products (like kefir) and natto (a fermented soybean derivative). Go back and read Chapter 14 if you want to learn more about K2 supplements and dosage.
3) Fatty Acids
A substance called “arachidonic acid” is one of the most abundant fatty acids in the brain, and is crucial your neurological health, since it helps build the cell membranes in your hippocampus, helps protect your brain from free radical damage, and activates proteins that are responsible for growth and repair of neurons in your brain (5). In one study, 18 month old infants who were given arachidonic acid supplements for 17 weeks showed significant improvements in intelligence, and in adults impaired arachidonic acid metabolism or insufficient arachidonic acid intake is linked to brain issues such as Alzheimer’s and bipolar disorder.
In my opinion, it would be silly to supplement with arachidonic acid since it is readily available in food sources, including Tilapia, catfish, yellowtail and mackerel (sushi anyone?), fatty cuts of meat, duck, eggs and dairy. If you want a better brain, you should frequently go out of your way to get your chompers on fatty foods.
Incidentally, this highlights a reason why very active women need to be careful not to let their body fat levels fall too low if they plan on having children. Hip and butt fat are full of the the specific omega-3 fatty acids and DHA necessary for major brain development during the development of a baby, and if women are low on body fat and low in DHA, this will severely compromise intelligence in the baby.
Compared to other similar triglycerides and dietary fats, phosphatidylserine is found in abundance in neural tissue, where it serves as a structural component of cell membranes, and acts to increase your available acetylcholine levels (more on why that’s a good thing later) (12).
Phosphatidylserine has been shown to improve memory and spatial recognition in rats, and may also improve cognitive performance and memory in humans, although the majority of studies have been done in elderly individuals (where phosphatidylserine has been shown to be beneficial in decreasing progression of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia).
Although you can find phosphatidylserine in supplement and pill forms (especially in the form of krill oil), it tends to be expensive, especially when you consider that you can get it in fairly high levels in seafood, particularly herring and mackerel. Perhaps you’re seeing a pattern here that it might be a good idea to become a fan of sushi and sashimi if you’re aren’t already including in your diet – or at least start getting some good canned herring or mackerel to put on your salad every now and again.
5) Fish Oil
As you learned in the last chapter, signals used in thought, memory and processing bounce around in your brain and get transferred from one brain cell (neuron) to another via a point called a synapse, where the signals cross a physical channel before moving on to the next neuron. The walls that these signals need to pass through are comprised of cell membranes made up of about 20% essential fatty acids – like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.
Specifically, these Omega-3 fatty acids may make the membrane that holds these channels more elastic, making it easier for the channels to change shape and for signals to propagate throughout your nervous system. With inadequate Omega-3 fatty acids, these channels lose flexibility and electrical impulses become hindered. Inadequate fatty acids may also harm the function of structures called G-proteins, which are the inside the cell membrane and of vital importance to the transmission of signals between brain cells.
With as little as 2 grams per day, the use of omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil may also reduce severity of dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s, brain atrophy and cognitive decline, while simultaneously improving mental function (17).
Don’t waste your money on cheap, ethyl-ester forms of fish oil that you’ll find in most supplements. Instead, pair 1-2 grams of a daily dose of triglyceride based fish oil with regular intake of cold-water fish like mackerel, herring, anchovies or sardines. It’s also a good idea to consume a fish oil that includes antioxidants such as astaxanthin, Vitamin D and Vitamin E, and to also step up dark, leafy green and dark fruit intake, or include a good antioxidant supplement. This is all the more important if you decide to “mega-dose” with 8-10g of fish oil per day (which I personally do on any day I’m not eating fish).
When your body burns fatty acids as a fuel, it produces an end-product called Acetyl-CoA. Acetyl-CoA is then converted into ketones, which are a fuel that is preferentially used by your brain. At high enough levels of blood ketones, you begin to experience significant cognitive boosts and an increase in focus, which is one of my reasons for including ketosis as a dietary performance strategy in Chapter 14.
One of the quickest ways to generate ketones from fatty acids is via the use of a special kind of fat called medium chain triglycerides, or MCT’s (9). While you can get ample MCT’s from coconut oil, you can get them in an even more purified and concentrated form from liquid MCT oil.
MCT’s are easy to use. You can blend several tablespoons of MCT oil with the coffee recipe you’ll find below or you can eat a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in the mid-morning or the mid-afternoon. Too many MCT’s can easily cause an upset stomach, so start small, and gradually titrate your dosage up.
Interestingly, although at the time of this writing, it has yet to be approved by the FDA, a special kind of ketone called “BHB” is sold in the form of beta-hydroxy-butyrate salts and can instantly increase levels of blood ketones without you needing to consume any fat at all. This could be an interesting supplement to keep an eye on, and I suspect it will become mainstream very soon.
100mg of caffeine, which is close to the amount you’ll get in a cup of black coffee, has been proven to improve memory recall (11). Caffeine’s psychostimulatory effects are primarily because it blocks a receptor in your central nervous system that is responsible for binding a compound called adenosine. When you inhibit adenosine, you get increased activity of dopamine and glutamate, two feel-good, alertness-increasing brain-stimulating compounds.
However, as you learned in the previous chapter, more caffeine is not better, since higher doses may decrease blood flow to your brain, and you can quickly build up tolerance. Furthermore, at least three caffeine-induced disorders are recognized by the American Psychiatric Association: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced sleep disorder and caffeine-induced anxiety disorder. Furthermore, you need to choose fresh coffee from arabica beans, and not coffee powders or substitutes, since cheap coffee and coffee knock-offs are high in mycotoxins, which ironically give you fuzzy thinking.
If you want to combine caffeine’s benefits with MCT Oil and ketosis, my recommendation is to drink caffeinated Bulletproof Coffee (recipe in Chapter 11), but at least once every few weeks, switch to decaf to avoid building up any caffeine tolerance.
L-Theanine is one of the major amino acid components in green tea and black tea, and it appears that it has a role to play in reducing stress and anxiety. Specifically, L-Theanine blocks glutamic acid to glutamate receptors in your brain, and in doing so can increase alpha brain wave activity, boost cognitive ability and provide a calming effect. So not only can L-Theanine help you sleep, but it also assists with relaxed focus (18).
I prefer to mix L-Theanine with caffeine to experience the combination of a slight “pick-me-up” from caffeine with the improved focus and mood from L-Theanine. The three best sources for theanine are green tea (I prefer edible green tea), the Neuroscience Travacor supplement described in the previous chapter, and delta-E, a powdered supplement that can be added to water.
L-Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is converted into L-tyrosine. L-tyrosine in turn is converted into L-Dopa, which is further converted into dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline) – the primary chemicals in your body responsible for increasing alertness and focus (15). The nice thing is that L-Phenylalanine can achieve this effect without throwing your HPA axis off kilter.
In other chapters of this book, you’ve learned about the performance-boosting effect of essential amino acids supplements (EAA’s). Most EAA’s include good doses of L-Phenylalanine in a balanced ratio to other amino acids. So their brain-boosting effect is yet another good reason to have them around.
As I reported in my article “What Are The Best Biohacks Of The World’s Top Biohackers?”, I recently discovered that creatine not only has strength and power-enhancing effects, but can also be a very effective nootropic. Creatine can have a neuroprotective effect by slowing down neuronal cell death, and can also increase levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, improve memory and learning, assist with depression, and suppress steep spikes in serotonin (1).
This is especially important news for vegans and vegetarians, who may find that by consuming adequate dietary fats combined with creatine, they can stave off much of the cognitive fuzziness that can accompany a plant-based diet.
Most studies on creatine use a “loading protocol” of 0.3g/kg bodyweight for 5-7 days followed by 5g of creatine per day after that. However, if you’re already eating meat, as little as 2g daily is enough supplementation to maintain average stores of creatine. I recommend the highly absorbable CreO2 from Millennium Sports.
Carnitine is another precursor to acetylcholine, and plays a variety of roles within your brain, including synthesis and stabilization of cell membranes, regulation of neural genes and proteins, better function of the “mitochondria” (the energy powerhouse of the cell), protection from free radical damage to the brain, better transmission of acetylcholine, and enhanced glucose uptake to the brain (13).
Carnitine has been shown to be very effective in alleviating the side-effects of aging, such as neurological decline and chronic fatigue, and also improving insulin sensitivity and blood vessel health. It has beneficial effects on neurons, repairing them from damage induced by some states such as high blood sugar. As you learned in Chapter 4, carnitine also increases fat burning and mitochondrial respiration. So you get a brain buzz, along with more energy when you use the stuff prior to workouts.
Brands vary, but I recommend 750mg-2,000mg/day, split into two daily doses. Both this and creatine would be good supplements to use if you’re doing lots of strength training or explosive exercise, and want to kill two birds with one stone.
12) Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA) is a fatty acid that can protect neurological decline with age, and can also be used as a treatment for diabetic neuropathy. Alpha lipoic acid can easily cross the blood-brain barrier (a wall of tiny vessels and structural cells that protect your brain), and pass into the brain to have these neuroprotective effects (10).
ALA has been shown to reduce oxidative damage in neuronal cells, increase the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate in your synapses, and increase dopamine and acetycholine availability. Brands vary, but the general dosage for a brain-boosting effect is 300-600mg of ALA.
I think “Huperzine” supplements have been flying off the shelves since Tim Ferriss mentioned them in his popular “Four Hour Body” book. Huperzine is an “acetylcholinesterase inhibitor”, which means you get more of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine rushing around in your brain. You call these type of compounds “cholinomimetics“.
Acetylcholine is a very important neurotransmitter that is found in many nootropics, and the foundation of several smart drugs is to simply halt breakdown of acetylcholine, or maximize production of acetylcholine (also known as aceytlcholine agonists).
Studies have shown that Huperzine supplementation has neuroprotective effects and enhances cognitive function in animals and humans (16) – but what most people don’t know is that there are natural herbal sources of Huperzine. For example, in Chinese herbal medicine, an herb called “Club Moss” is used slow progression of Alzheimer’s. Guess what the active ingredient in Club Moss is? That’s right – Huperzine.
Be very careful if you’re going to order Club Moss. Most Chinese herbs sit in big bins in China for several years and get old, ineffective, and sprayed with toxic ethylene oxide.TianChi is the only Chinese adaptogenic herb complex that I’ve found which actually has effective doses Club Moss, along with a cocktail of other brain-boosting ingredients – including citicholine, which is one of the best ways to acetylcholine. It’s spendy but in my opinion well worth it. I take one packet of TianChi on an empty stomach every morning, and if you were going to do one thing in this entire post that you could feel instantly in your brain, this would be it.
Brain Enhancing Gear
14) Light Therapy
A dip in alertness and focus during the day can often be due to excessive melatonin, which can induce sleepiness. Unfortunately, most websites, magazines or books tell you that the answer to this issue is to expose the eyes to more light in the morning via using something like a “light box”, which produces blue light.
The problem with this is that although it suppresses melatonin production and can increase alertness, this type of blue light is a wavelength of light that can cause damage to your retina, and eventually macular degeneration and loss of good vision.
It appears that the best way to increase mental acuity and focus during the day is to advance the melatonin cycle so that it finishes before you even wake up. Basically, you do this by 1) limiting your exposure to blue light in the early evening – via both limiting use of TV’s, e-readers, phones, and computers at night, and also using blue-light blocking glasses, applications like Flux, and computer screen covers in the evening; 2) getting as much morning sun exposure as possible, and if that’s not an option, waking with a Sunrise clock or waking light in your bedroom.
15) Sound Frequencies
As you learned in Chapter 3, your brain waves respond quite readily to sound frequencies, beats, notes and music. There’s a direct correlation between amplification of these brainwaves and neurotransmitter production. I’d highly recommend you go back and read that section of the book, in which I recommend Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s neuroacoustics CD’s, the Entrainer Acoustics downloadable .mp3 audio tracks, and the wristband that emits specific frequencies to amplify alpha brain wave production.
In that chapter, I also mention audio–visual entrainment, which takes the concept of sound one step further, combines it with visual stimulation, and uses flashes of lights and pulses of tones to guide the brain into various states of brainwave activity. There’s an interesting device called the DAVID Delight Pro made by MindAlive that does this. I do not personally use this device, but many biohackers swear by it.
16) Electrical Stimulation
In Chapter 21, you saw how cyclists could be “tricked” into performing at a higher capacity when they were electrically stimulated prior to a ride to exhaustion. Pulsed electrical currents across head not only distract the cortex in a manner that can increase physical performance, but can also increase blood flow to the brain, and increase production of neurotransmitters and alpha brain waves.
Devices available for electrical stimulation of the brain include:
-Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), which passes a current across your forehead, and is being tested by the U.S. Air Force as a cognitive enhancement device. At Foc.us, you can grab a smartphone-controlled tDCS device that looks like high-tech pair of sunglasses for $249. Another popular device is theFisherWallace stimulator, which is a headband based cranial stimulation device.
-Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES), which is similar to tDCS but applies a current to your earlobes rather than your forehead. MindAlive also makes a CES device called an Oasis, as well as a device called the DAVID PAL 36, which combines light and sound with electrical stimulation.
-Pulsed Electromagnetic Frequencies (PEMF). A magnetic frequency in the 10Hz range (completely safe and far lower than what a cell phone would radiate), increases cell membrane potential in your brain and amplifies alpha brain wave production. This can be useful for both focus, and sleep. I personally use the Earthpulse PEMF device under my mattress while sleeping, but also place it on my desk while working.
The field of both electrical devices and neuro feedback is growing my leaps and bounds at the time of this writing, and by the time you read this, I’m sure new devices will have already hit the market. To stay on the cutting-edge of brain-hacking gear, I’d recommend following the website QuantifiedSelf.com.
Neurofeedback (AKA biofeedback) devices – which were first introduced in Chapter 8 – actually do nothing to your brain. They simply show you what your brain is doing so you can train your brain to focus, block pain, learn faster, etc..
For example, at UpgradedSelf.com, you can get the “Upgraded Focus Brain Trainer”, which includes a headband with small red and infrared LED lights that shine through the skin and skull to assess the color of your. brain tissue. This light is then reflected back to a camera that measures the exact color of oxygenated brain blood. The headband then sends your brain’s data to your computer so you can correct what you’re doing in real time (e.g. think relaxing thoughts, focus better, make a faster decision, etc.) – and increase blood circulation to your brain.
In this case, the neurofeedback device is based on studies that show a direct relationship between an increase in brain performance and oxygenation of blood supply. More blood flow also results in faster removal of waste metabolites from brain tissues, and more capillaries and neuron connections within the trained area of the brain.
Another example of neurofeedback is the game “Journey to the Wild Divine“, which measures skin resistance and heart rate to detect your level of stress then train you to achieve a higher level of awareness and decreased stress.
In the recovery section of this book, you also learned about coherence training, in which you can train yourself to increase heart rate variability by using special software made by the Heart Math Institute, connected to an earlobe device called the emWave2 ($169) or the smartphone Inner Balance sensor ($99). Based on the intimate connection between your heart and your brain, as your heart rate variability increases, you can increase both alpha brain wave production and neurotransmitter production. Amazingly, the heart’s electrical field is up to 60x greater than the brain’s field, and can not only interact with your own brain, but with the brain of others around you. So you may find that as you teach yourself how to improve your heart rate variability, you may also enhance mental focus and relaxation of co-workers, friends and family.
Finally, you can visit a licensed biofeedback practitioner, which you can find atBCIA.org. When you visit a biofeedback practitioner, you can expect to take a comprehensive questionnaire, followed by an electroencephalogram of your brain. This results in a brain map (QEEG), which shows overactivity under activity in certain areas of your brain. You then engage in feedback sessions that may involve a simple light or tone or game that will move and play when desired brain activity is detected by the system. For other brain activity the rewarding tone, or light or game is taken away. Typically, it takes 20 to 40 biofeedback visits for to overcome issues such as cravings, anxiety, depression, etc. – so this is a technique more commonly used for actual brain problems rather than for actual brain enhancement.
Brain Enhancing Activities
18) Brain Aerobics
There is continuing research that doing brain aerobic exercises (like Sudoko) can help to “age-proof” your brain and slow the onset of symptoms of brain aging, and can also help to keep your brain functioning at peak capacity. To qualify as a good brain aerobics exercise, an activity must have novelty, variety, and challenge (8).
In other words, going to work every day to your “mentally challenging” job does not provide the novelty to challenge your brain, sticking with the same “brain aerobics” activity day-after-day does not provide the variety, and engaging in brain activities that are familiar to you or easy (such as playing the same challenging computer game every day) eventually does not provide the challenge.
In other words: make your brain lift heavy stuff. One of my friends, Dr. Arlene Taylor, has a bunch of completely free brain aerobic exercises on her website.
You can also go do a search in the Apple iTunes store, or any other app store, for “brain exercises” and find good apps that will challenge your brain (Angry Birds probably doesn’t count). Two of my favorites are the Brainscape app, which allows you to create your own flash cards and learning activities which you can easily access from your phone, and n-Back training, which involves memorizing a progressively more difficult sequence of colored squares.
Incidentally, if you play a sport in a way that causes you to think ahead and solve problems as you go, activities such tennis or golf also count – as do board games like chess and checkers.
19) Chewing Gum
Many people chew gum to relieve stress, and some believe that it helps them to concentrate (14). Some neuroscience researchers have studied whether chewing gum might improve attention, memory, and other aspects of cognition. Although the research is not entirely conclusive, the idea is that the act of chewing gum may increase blood flow to the brain, delivering not only nutrients but also additional oxygen.
Despite the back-and-forth nature of research, chewing gum is a frequent habit of mine when writing and engaging in mentally demanding or stressful tasks. Just make sure you chew a good brand that is free of artificial sweeteners, chemical colors and sweeteners (I recommend B-Fresh).
20) Aerobic Exercise
Theer is a compound called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, which is a protein that acts on neurons in your central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS) to help your existing neurons survive and thrive and also to encourage the growth of new neurons and neuronal connections (also known as “synapses”).
Research has shown that exercise, and specifically aerobic exercise, can significantly enhance secretion of BDNF (6). Why should exercise need to be aerobic to affect the brain? It appears that various growth factors must be carried from the periphery of your body into your brain to start a molecular cascade there for BDNF creation – and to make this happen you need a fairly dramatic change in blood flow. You could get this same blood flow with weight training, but unfortunately, weight training stimulates the production of growth factors in the muscles that stay in the muscles and aren’t transported to the brain.
So how can you implement exercise to make you smarter?
I recommend fitting in an aerobic 20-45 minute run, bike ride, or other bout of cardio on the morning of any day in which you have high intellectual demands. It doesn’t have to be hard or make your legs, arms, or lungs burn. Just do enough to get your heart beating and your blood flowing (about a 4-6 on a 1-10 difficulty scale). In this case, harder is not better, and could actually leave you excessively fatigued. In addition, excess cortisol has actually been shown to reduce BDNF.
In addition to helping you exercise harder, music has been proven in studies to assist with “dopaminergic neurotransmission”, which basically means that – similar to the use of binaural beats and sounds – it can cause a giant dopamine release in your brain, and make you smarter and more mentally responsive. Exposure to music also significantly increases blood, which, via something called a “calmodulin pathway”, may cause a reduction in blood pressure and increased blood flow to the brain (7).
However, music can also be distracting, so don’t constantly pump it into your ears. The most powerful effects of music on brain development have instead been demonstrated through actual learning of music. Yes, I am suggesting that you pick up a musical instrument, play Guitar Hero occasionally, or install that “mini-piano” app on your phone. Seriously.