HEALTHY, SEXY BRAINS:  How to Neurohack Your Brain For Better Focus

Written for Focus Magazine, Summer 2018- Romance Issue – on Newstands Now

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DISTRACTED MUCH?

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What “just trying to focus on breath” sometimes feels like.
But add tortilla chips to the thought bubble. And a squirrel.

Ever since that Microsoft study hit the headlines stating that “Humans Now Have Shorter Attention Spans Than Goldfish!” and we learned that our focus has been reduced from ~12 seconds down to ~8 (on average), I’ve been concerned about the direction we’re headed. (I mean really… we’ve become out-focused by goldfish? Will we be distracted down to gnat level next?) Thus, I started paying more attention to human behavior and how it impacts brain health and our focus. More specifically, I’ve delved into questions like,

“What is restorative, and what is depletive to our brain health?”

(Or, on a bad day:“What would Freud … Hey, yum, Plantain Chips!”  Because yes, even though I study this stuff, sometimes I get distracted too.)

Certainly, all of the incessant phone-checking and multi-tasking we do is depletive since it wastes so much of our precious, limited bandwidth on transitions vs. on the actual tasks at hand. And maybe that would be worth it if multitasking were more successful, but it’s usually not: multitasking has proven to be comparatively less effective when measured against the productivity of singularly focused time. Turns out, when we put our lives on Airplane mode, hunker down and get into our flow, that’s when we tend to perform our best.

Additionally, According to a report by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So, distractedness isn’t good for productivity, nor is the emotional gain  positive.

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As one might expect, multi-tasking and a lack of focus are not so attractive on a date either. Giving someone your undivided attention is one of the key components of falling in love. In fact, Harvard psychologist Zick Rubin conducted research that indicated that “couples who are deeply in love look at each other 75 percent of the time when talking and they are slower to look away from their partner when interrupted.” Comparatively, in regular conversations with nonlove interests, “the subjects only looked at each other between 30-60 percent of the time. The brain knows the difference too! When it detects that a potential love interest is “looking at them 75% of the time, it registers in a particular region of the brain and phenylethylamine (a.k.a. PEA), an amphetamine-like secretion is released by the nervous system when we first fall in love.” (Ever felt butterflies in your stomach when with someone you like? Or felt your palms sweat and/or your heart race? You can thank PEA, this self-made love-drug for that.)

Knowing all of this about the power of a lengthy, engaging gaze (and again, I clarify “by a love interest” because an uninterrupted, lingering gaze by someone else might be creepy) …wouldnt it be a shame if a great love match was not made just because someone couldn’t stop checking their Instagram feed? Is the new headline going to be,

EXTRA EXTRA!

iPhone Induced Gaze-interruptus Ends Love!!

PEA insufficiency: Kills Off Stomach Butterflies Too!

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But before we blame technology for our distractibility or we call Peta about the dead stomach butterflies, it makes sense to ask what else might be contributing to our lack of focus, because this issue isn’t confined just to new daters or daydreamers. If we cannot focus optimally with our partners, our children, our work, our finances, our community, etc.- then we are in trouble, and the Goldfish wins. So let’s take a look at a list of other factors that may be making our brains distracted:

Things like:

  • Lack of adequate sleep
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • A diet void of essential minerals, vitamins, and amino acids
  • A seemingly “good” diet but one that includes food intolerances
  • An unvaried routine that lacks ample new learning experiences
  • Toxins
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Head injury
  • Epigenetics
  • Medications

…just to name (more than) a few.

So in addition to putting our phones in a box when we need to be focused—what other behavioral and/or lifestyle choices can we make to offset the brain-depletive factors above?

Here’s a list of my Top 5 Life Hacks for Better Brain Health and increased focus:

  1. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night

Sleep is an absolutely essential reset for our brains. It gives our brains a chance to clear away toxins and flush out dangerous proteins. In his TedTalk, Jeff Iliff, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University reports that this beneficial process makes us smarter, more attentive, perkier, and healthier during our waking hours.  As such, if you or a loved one within earshot has sleep apnea, it is highly advised to properly address this. Not only can it cause morning fatigue and/or headaches, significant daytime drowsiness, attention and memory problems, irritability and mood issues, but according to Dr. Daniel Amen, “Sleep apnea doubles your risk for having a stroke and triples your risk of dementia and depression” so it is not something to ignore.

 

Brain Healthy Sleep Lifehacks:

Angstrom Magnesium can help people relax before bedtime

Turn off the lights and get rid of bedroom tech. When our bedrooms are lit up like the dashboard of the Starship Enterprise, we allow the light to disturb our Circadian Rhythms which often causes sleep disturbances… and lack of sleep often means a lack of focus. Additionally, the erratic EMF signals coming from our cell phones can disrupt our sensitive nervous systems. (See previous blog piece for many more sleep tips)

 

2. Exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, 5x a week

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends getting in at least 150 minutes a week. But you may be wondering—whichexercises, specifically? The best exercise for you is the one that you will actually do consistently! As with all aspects of health and wellness, what works for one person’s body and circumstances may not work for another, so know your body and what it needs.  That said, aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body exercises are all reported as providing benefits for brain health. Having some diversity in our workouts sets us up for multiple benefits.

 

Brain Healthy Exercise Lifehacks:

If physically able, try to have some interval training included to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF.) BDNF is a protein produced inside nerve cells, and it’s known as “fertilizer” for the brain, keeping them functioning and growing, and propelling the growth of new neurons too.

Adding in workouts that encompass bi-lateral movements can further engage both hemispheres of the brain, encouraging neuroplasticity. Examples may be dancing, swimming, fit boxing, Qi Gong and/or Yoga… anything that uses both sides of the body and particularly anything that encourages cross body movements.

Classpass Subscriptions are an all-time favorite lifehack because they offer such a wide variety of classes. The subscriptions have expiration dates that do not typically rollover (thereby providing extrinsic motivation to those of us who need it, to hurry up and get into the gym or else risk wasting our investment!) The extra bonus is that it also engages people more with their community, which can add to both the accountability and the sociability factors. Being social is an important component of longevity and brain health as it can help ward off loneliness, which is shown to be worse for health than even smoking. These various classes get people out and about, sampling new places, creating new opportunities to broaden social circles, meeting new friends while offering new challenges to our brains as we navigate new parking lots, moves, skills, gyms, etc. (Classpass for the win!)

Get out in nature where there’s fresh air and walk, hike, bike, walk on the beach…take Tai Chi…whatever works for you. As soon as we get outside, we change our body by breathing in new air and spores that adds to the diversity of our microbiome. As we age, we tend to lose this diversity, which is not ideal.

3. Keep learning new things

This is a key recommendation by neuroscientists who study the brain because novelty increases our neuroplasticity. By learning new things, we not only form new synapses but strengthen the ones we already have.

 

Brain Healthy Neuroplasticity Lifehacks

Find new routes to drive and be extra observant of all that’s around you

Take a class to learn something new, try new things, challenge yourself consistently

If you are age 50 and above, check out UCLA’s Longevity Center where you can audit a UCLA class for $150!

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4. Have a mindfulness practice

Mindfulness has been studied extensively and has proven to be a powerful, worthwhile tool in the pursuit of brain health. It helps us protect ourselves from toxic stress, supports self-regulation and better decision-making capabilities. It even has the potential to, literally, change our brain. In a time when we are inundated with stress and distractions, we need practices that are restorative to counteract the depletion.

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Brain Healthy Mindfulness Lifehacks

Muse Headband $249 –www.choosemuse.com

We all know by know that mindfulness and a Zen status is helpful…but we do not all know how to achieve that state. This wearable device is a headband that tracks your brainwaves and communicates with you through nature sounds as you develop your meditation practices. It helps by using increasing or decreasing sounds to inform you of your mind status. For instance, when you’ve successfully quieted your mind, the waves are quiet… or they pipe in loud crashing waves or a storm to indicate when your mind is busy, so you know to return to your breath at that time. Over time, the real-time EEG feedback can make meditation easier to learn. Also your progress is trackable and measurable, which may inspire some to keep on trying when their mind chatter and distractibility (the unofficial term “squirrel brain”) tells them to stop.

 

5. Prioritize Nutrition

The brain uses 30% of our daily caloric intake, according to Dr. Daniel Amen,  and how and what we eat has a profound effect on us biochemically. While there are some general guidelines that the most well-respected experts agree upon (minimal or no processed foods, reduce sugar intake, eat more veggies and antioxidants, eat organic when you can, stay hydrated, avoid trans fats, eat healthy fats, etc.) and there are some great recipes to share in that regards, there still remains many conflicting opinions about what we should eat, how we should eat, what time, etc. The truth is, we are all so unique! What works for one person may not work for another, so once we get beyond the basic agreed upon standards– “Best Recipes” are mere suggestions until you know what your body does and does not respond to well. This is why I believe that researching, understanding and respecting our own Bio-Individuality is the missing component when taking people from feeling good (or “just ok”) to feeling great! For optimal health, a customized nutrition program based on the individual’s biochemistry, genetics, toxin levels, symptoms, etc.  This information can often be determined via the work of an excellent Functional Medicine MD and/or a Functional Medicine nutritionist/coach. From there, a specific plan for a patient’s ideal protocol can be formulated, encouraged and addressed with behavioral modifications that help make the good habits stick. Thus, the depletive can be identified and eliminated, and the restorative is supported in a very targeted, tailored well-informed, efficient way. That said, there are a couple of incredibly helpful books out to help people gain awareness of how and why the general recommendations are essential.

Brain Healthy Nutrition Lifehacks

Find a good Functional Medicine MD and/or Coach well versed in Genetics, Nutrition and GI health- so they can help a client get their GI tract in optimal shape—since there is a direct connection from the gut to the brain.

A favorite book about brain wellness and food is GENIUS FOODS by Max Lugavere because it is interesting, easy to read and filled with well-researched life hacks from an objective point of view. He covers topics like Fish, Fish oils, Good Fats, Bad Fats, Calorie Restriction/ Intermittent Fasting, Proteins, Carbs, Antioxidants, etc. and he discusses the pros and cons o the various recommended diets that we read about in the media.   GENIUS FOODS by Max Lugavere

Another Favorite is WHAT THE HECK SHOULD I EAT – The no-nonsense guide to achieving optimal weight and lifelong health, by Mark Hyman, MD  FOOD: WHAT THE HECK SHOULD I EAT by Mark Hyman, MD

Stay hydrated – Our brains depend on proper hydration to function optimally and thus, lose efficiency when we are dehydrated. Try adding a bit of Redmond’s Sea Salt to your water (or a pure Himalayan seas Salt) if you have been perspiring a lot and you are concerned about magnesium loss. Ingesting good quality salt (i.e.- tested for purity) is a quick and easy way to replace what we lose. Salt also contains the electrolytes magnesium, calcium and potassium. REDMOND’S SALT

Drink non-fluoridated water – fluoride is a neurotoxin, and it can make its way to the brain and nervous system.

Natural coconut water is another good source of hydration, as it contains five essential electrolytes: sodium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. HARMLESS HARVEST COCONUT WATER

Eat Clean! Check back for my big list of favorite resources for Clean Eats. There are some wonderful ways to eat clean while saving time, money and the energy it takes to restore our health from the depletive things we eat. For now- here are two favorites:

THRIVE MARKET

IMPERFECT PRODUCE

Take a healthy cooking class! If you live in the LA area, get on my mailing list because we will be offering Everyday Brain Healthy Cooking classes. Superfoods. Super Vibrant. Super easy. You know…the kind you might ACTUALLY make.)

Wishing everyone health and happiness!

 

The most important PEA you will ever meet: Phenylethylamine (PEA) known as the ‘love-molecule’, is a neuromodulator remarkable for its abilities to:

  • Improve mental cognitive performance
  • Boost mood and concentration
  • Control weight
  • Induce that great “Runners high”
  • Create those butterflies in the stomach when meeting someone special
  • Dilate pupils when in a state of lust (which, by the way, is reported as making people look significantly more attractive)
  • Cause ‘runner’s high’, phenylethylamine is your brain’s most powerful stimulant.

And…drum roll please… it is also found in chocolate!

 

( For more Lifehacks: See in depth blog about sleep! And subscribe to the feed for more tips.)

 

Next up:

Concussions/ Head Injuries

Medications

Hormones (I’m no expert, but know some)

Better Memory Tricks

Fast Easy Healthy Eats

Favorite Snacks

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