Have you ever wanted to get something done but didn’t have the mental energy or clarity to do so? Have you ever struggled with shutting down your mind at night in order to get a restful sleep? Have you ever found yourself reaching for your fourth cup of coffee at 3 pm to power through the rest of your work day? Or maybe find yourself laying around endlessly scrolling through Netflix because you don’t have the “get up and go” to do anything else?
If you are from this planet, you probably answered “HELLZ YEAH” to at least one of those.
In this day and age we are flooded with an endless stream of information every second of every day. Our pleasure seeking brains cause us to be reaching for our smart phones every few minutes in case there was some crucial new grumpy cat video posted on Facebook. Our stimulating, high speed world has given us the need to constantly be able to do more in less time and “stress” (particularly in physiologic terms) is at an all-time high. So now we find ourselves reaching for more caffeine, energy drinks, sleep aids, and psychiatric medications as a quick fix to keep going instead of natural regulation through things like quality sleep, sunlight, fresh air, movement, natural nutrient support. In result we set ourselves up for perpetual burnout, fatigue, and resulting health issues such as insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, adrenal dysfunction, thyroid and hormone disturbances, and many, many more.
So now that we’ve identified the gargantuan problem, what do we do to break the cycle?
I’m a strong believer in that it all starts in the brain. A complete approach to health and wellness absolutely needs to address neurological function through psychological and lifestyle strategies, as well as nutritional support. “Positive thinking” practices probably won’t overcome severe nutritional deficiencies and likewise supporting your brain chemistry through nutrition won’t over power a lack of stress management.
Our bodies are programmed to have many mechanisms of “checks and balances” in order to drive us towards survival. We are wired to bounce from a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state to a sympathetic “fight or flight” at any moment if need be. These biorhythms ensure we are prepared for whatever activity is necessary to our wellbeing: fighting off a predator, scavenging for food, sleeping to recharge, digesting to refuel etc.
By understanding some of these mechanisms, we can regain control of our neurological function to optimize our mental clarity, energy, mood, satisfaction, cravings, productivity and more!
For the sake of this article we will focus on sleep patterns, light stimulation, and food choices for optimizing brain function.
Light Stimulation and Sleep routine:
Our eyes perceive electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 380-760 nanometers as “visible light”. It is this light that sets our circadian rhythms and onsets the chemical cascade in the brain to ultimately prepare you for a restful night of sleep, or heighten senses to begin our day of “hunting and gathering”. Common sense would then tell you that controlling your exposure to light and optimizing sleep patterns are the first steps towards gaining control of your brain.
· Increase exposure to bright light in the morning to halt melatonin production and stimulate the release of excitatory, energy promoting neurotransmitters.
· Sunlight is obviously ideal, but as the day shortens in winter months light therapy devices can be a possible alternative.
· A mid-afternoon stroll outside on a sunny day is an easy way to take a break from the office to boost neurological function instead of reaching for the extra coffee.
· Reduce exposure to bright lights 1-2 hours before bedtime to allow the conversion of serotonin to melatonin to ease you into a rested state for sleep.
Protein and its constituent amino acids not only provide the building blocks for muscle tissue, but they also form to create your neurotransmitters. With that in mind we can now see how controlling protein intake can optimize brain hormone levels throughout the day. Now the catch is that amino acids compete with one another for entry into the brain. Your blood levels of the different amino acids will thus dictate your brain levels of the different neurotransmitters. In the morning we might want more dopamine and norepinephrine which are associated with motivation, focus, mental clarity and energy. L-Tyrosine is the amino acid responsible for the production of these neuro-hormones. On the opposite side of the day we would want more serotonin and GABA to promote a calm and relaxed state to unwind from the day and ease into a restful night of sleep. L-Tryptophan and L-Glutamine are the aminos responsible for those neurotransmitters.
· Eat a protein rich, low carb breakfast to supply adequate aminos for stimulating neurotransmitters to start the day.
· If possible, try having some dark green cruciferous veggies early in the day as they supply the vitamins (folates) necessary for converting these amino acids into the specific neurotransmitters.
· Different meats can be both a great supply of specific amino acids (tyrosine, tryptophan etc.) and also supply vitamin b12, another necessary cofactor for neurotransmission metabolism.
· I understand meat and veggies isn’t always a realistic or appetizing breakfast, and certainly most people should probably be taking a high quality multi vitamin anyways. Products such as this AM/PM formulation are designed to supply different quantities of vitamins minerals at different times of day for such biochemical reactions.
· The popular method of eating multiple protein containing meals throughout the day can give your body a steady stream of amino acids for various functions including neurotransmitter synthesis.
· You may want to avoid carbs pre-workout to enhance motivation and focus. However during the workout sipping on BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids) can ward off fatiguing brain chemicals by competing for entry into the brain. This, on top of muscle protein synthesis (muscle repair) benefits are a prime reason why BCAA’s are so popular to drink intra workout, or throughout the day as needed.
· Insulin obviously lowers blood sugar whereas our “stress” or excitatory hormones (dopamine, epinephrine, cortisol) for the most part, raise blood sugar. So controlling amino acid supply AND insulin levels will determine what gets into the brain, and what needs to be produced. If you need more stimulation at a certain point of the day, perhaps avoid the higher carb foods. If you need more relaxation, a heavier carb meal could qualm that stimulation by directing most aminos to muscle tissue while allowing albumin bound tryptophan a straight shot at the blood brain barrier. If you tend to be wired at bed, try saving some of your carb intake for your last meal of the day.
Neurochemistry is a very complex topic and simply can’t be summarized within one article. With that said, we have more power over our body’s biochemistry than most of us realize. You don’t need to be a scientist to implement basic strategies to optimize how you feel throughout the day. The first step is developing the awareness to monitor subtle changes in your body and recognize the “biofeedback” to make adjustments as needed.
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