Brain Health Optimization Secrets (Part 1)
Dr Mark Atkinson
To feel your best and live your best life you need to train your brain and take charge of your state. This is the secret to brain optimization, to feeling your best and living your best life.
In this two part series, I will focus first on how to ‘train your brain.’
Imagine this - you are wanting to walk down a road towards a location called Optimal Health. You start walking, but something happens and you decide to turn around after 100 yards and walk in the opposite direction.
This puts you on the path towards Poor Health. You walk for another 200 yards, then decide to walk back towards Optimal Health.
And so it goes. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Much movement, many decisions, going nowhere.
Until you make a decision to make optimal health a priority and build into your daily life consistent routines and habits that keep us heading towards optimal health, you go nowhere.
Overtime and without the presence of specific protective habits, brain function will naturally transition from functional to dysfunctional and possibly to disease.
Everyday, in every waking moment, you are training your brain.
The decisions you make and the experiences you have are dynamically reshaping both the activity and micro-structure of your brain.
Tuning into gratitude will shape it in one direction.
The more we repeat these decisions and create these experiences the more these become default pathways for the brain.
We become what we train.
Given this, it would be wise to ask yourself:
‘Am I consciously making decisions and creating experiences that are moving me and my brain in a direction I want to go?’
As a functional medicine physician and human potential teacher with 25 years experience helping clients optimize their health, I’ve seen and learnt what is necessary to protect and improve brain health.
What level is your brain at?
An optimally functioning brain and nervous system gives rise to a body and mind that is vital, resilient and adaptive.
Your mind is clear, intellect sharp and memory great. You shift mental gears easily, going from deep focus to relaxed awareness effortlessly. You direct your attention consciously. You are happy, at ease, fulfilling your potential. You are present and aware, open and responsive, experiencing inner freedom and flow.
A brain and nervous system that is becoming dysfunctional gives rise to hallmark patterns and characteristics. To name a few - excessive mental chatter, distractibility, low or agitated mood, psychological 'stuckness', tendency to reactivity and being defensive, blame, irritability, fatigue, brain fog, addictions, compulsions, obsessions, anxiety, low motivation, deteriorating memory, cognitive decline, depression, absence of purpose, ill-health, lack of fulfillment, relationship difficulties.
So what kind of brain training can you do when symptoms of dysfunction are present?
There are two types of brain training:
1) Lifestyle-Assisted Brain Training - Positive lifestyle changes provide the building blocks for brain health. These are foundational.
2) Tech-Assisted Brain Training - Specific neurotechnologies, applied appropriately, in a way personalized to your desired outcomes, accelerate movement towards optimal brain function and health. I call these Tech-Assisted Brain Training.
Focusing on both is optimal.
Let’s dive in.
Lifestyle-Assisted Brain Training
There will be few surprises here as most people know what a healthy lifestyle looks like. The challenge is usually not knowing how to bring about sustainable change.
A great book on this is Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.
Below are some healthy lifestyle habits that I would recommend exploring.
Ditch/limit added sugars, seed oils and ultra-processed foods.
Few people want to hear this, but for optimal brain health, these have to be limited. A good resource is Patrick Holford's book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind with Patrick Holford.
Eat close to an optimal diet.
Optimal means tailored to you and your genetic / metabolic needs, values, preferences, lifestyle and finances. Ideally work with a health practitioner with a specialist interest in optimal health who can help you design a diet based on the results of tests that could include nutrition-focused DNA tests, metabolic blood tests, microbiome tests and continuous glucose monitoring.
A step down from that, but good for most would be a low glycemic, modified mediterranean diet. Essentially a nutrient dense, whole food diet rich in green leafy vegetables, colorful vegetables, berries, nuts (especially walnuts and macadamia), fish and extra virgin olive oil.
Studies have shown the diet can help reduce the rate of cognitive decline and reduce shrinkage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. For further exploration take a look at the MIND diet.
Get moving and keep moving.
Daily physical activity -walking (30-minutes plus a day), aerobic fitness training (3 to 4 times a week), high-intensity intervals (1 to 2 times a week) and strength training (2 to 3 times a week) are all essential for enhancing brain health and minimizing cognitive decline. They stimulate the release of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), improve insulin sensitivity, discharge stress and improve body mass composition.
Optimal exercise for most people would involve about an hour of exercise a day. A recommended resource for movement is the book The Align Method by Aaron Alexander .
Most people need between 7 and 9 hours per night. Sleep improves metabolic health, activates the glymphatic system to clear metabolic waste and reduces inflammation. Don’t use your alarm to wake you up, but use it to tell you when to go to bed.
Minimize exposure to blue light at nighttime and expose yourself to sunlight and/or full-spectrum light early am. Top supplements to consider to support sleep: magnesium bisglycinate and l-theanine. A great book on sleep is Matt Walker's Why We Sleep.
Learn to regulate your stress and emotions
Many people live under pressure and experience the signs and symptoms of distress. Worry, impatience, apathy, fatigue, tension, reactivity, combined with an absence of inner ease and wellbeing all point to stress.
Acknowledging and admitting you are stressed is a good first step. Then ask yourself ‘what do i need?.’ Don't rush to an answer. Allow it to percolate and you might be surprised by what comes up.
It could be anywhere along a continuum of ‘I need an early night sleep’ to ‘I need to admit I am in a job / relationship I no longer want to be in’. You can use your breathing pattern to modulate your state.
Dr Huberman's double inhale is very good for relaxing. For a complete breath training system I recommend Patrick McKeown. I cover more on how to modulate your state and manage your stress response in part 2.
Keep engaged and mentally active
You lose what you don't use. And so it is with brain function. Finding hobbies, keeping curious and interested in life, learning new things, challenging yourself and finding meaning in your day to day existence all help to stimulate and challenge your brain. Add to that, keeping socially active and listening to music can help and support optimal brain functioning.
Address the underlying drivers of brain dysfunction
If you are experiencing unexplained problems with cognition, then consider working with a functional medicine practitioner.
Most will be able to help you address drivers of brain disease including: stress, trauma, inflammation, insulin resistance (pre-diabetes and diabetes), infections (such as EBV and Lyme disease), GI imbalance (leaky gut, dysbiosis), toxicity (mercury, mycotoxins), food sensitivities/allergies, dental problems, sub-optimal hormones (thyroid, DHEA, testosterone, progesterone, oestrogen), APOE4, sleep apnea, nutrient insufficiencies/deficiencies, iatrogenic (medications, illicit drugs).
A very enlightened program and excellent resource is Dr Dale Bredesdens RECODE program. He also has a book called The End of Alzheimer's: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline.
Integrate the practice of meditation
Long-term meditators as a whole have a nervous system and way of being that is generally more present, calm, balanced and responsive.
The key is to find a system of meditation that you enjoy. There are many forms for you to explore. Go with what feels right. Some options include: mindfulness training, loving kindness training, effortless mindfulness, movement meditation, 5Rhythms, OSHO active meditations and what the spiritual teacher Adyashanti calls True Meditation. Many systems of Yoga also integrate meditation and breath work.
Also refer to this article to dive deeper into the different meditation styles and figure out which one may be right for you.
Tech-Assisted Brain Training
Building on the foundations of a healthy lifestyle, we can use technology to accelerate and amplify our ability to harness the full potential of our brain and us.
This is a game-changer for many people. For many years, its use was restricted to clinics and expensive neurofeedback 5 to 7 day intensives. However, more affordable home-use neurofeedback technologies such as Sens.ai have become available.
Its headset and app provide real-time reading of a user’s brainwaves (neuro) and conversion into audio and visual cues back to the user (feedback). The system rewards (more cues) the desired brainwave patterns to reinforce strengthening (training). It works through the process of operant conditioning, a type of training that involves rewarding desired brain wave frequencies.
When repeated overtime this rewires brain patterns. Sens.ai allows you to select and train a particular brainwave frequency, which are in turn associated with particular outcomes.
The key with neurofeedback is consistency of use (daily is ideal), personalization of the protocol (based on desired outcomes) and accuracy and fidelity of signal. Check out this article from Paola Tefler, Sens.ai’s CEO for further reading
Anytime you are feeling connected and in tune with another human being or an internal sense of harmony and aliveness, chances are you are in coherence. It’s a trainable state of optimal mind/body functioning in which our physiological systems function more efficiently and our emotional stability, mental clarity and cognitive functioning is enhanced. In coherence, we feel energized and engaged, calm and balanced.
Here is a quick way to access coherence.
Allow your attention to be based in the area of your heart. Allow your eyes and tongue to be soft. Breathe into the count of 5 through the nose and 5 on the out-breath. Repeat for a minute or two. This is what coherence feels like. It's a great way to bring your nervous system back into balance and to prime your brain's responsiveness to neurofeedback.
Light Stimulation (photobiomodulation)
Light is a powerful stimulator of biological processes. Transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM) uses light of a particular near-infrared wavelength to activate mitochondrial function within the targeted cells and tissues of the brain. Several studies have found that tPBM can enhance brain cell oxygenation and improve cerebral blood flow, metabolic activity, neurogenesis, and neuroprotection by antioxidant and anti-inflammatory pathway activation.
Okay that is part one, how to train your brain!
See Part 2 for how to take charge of your state, the second master key to unlocking your capacity to feel your best and live your best life.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or sens.ai the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.