Nootropic Basics Part 2: Alternatives to Nootropics

BASICS OF NOOTROPIC

Non-pharmaceutical brain boosting

Everyone is looking for the cure-all pill that will boost mental performance, stifle depression, and augment every aspect of life. Nootropics are certainly not this panacea; instead, the focus of these supplements is on achieving and maintaining a more productive balance of chemicals in the brain over the long term, in order to maximize productivity and well-being. While a careful nootropic regimen will go a long way towards achieving these goals, it is not the only way to improve mental health. A truly motivated seeker of maximum mental performance will not stop at taking a supplement; he or she will look at all areas of life and make the necessary adjustments to achieve health and higher cognitive function. This post has both general principles and specific tips for a lifestyle that will drastically improve focus and prevent aging.

Physical Exercise

It can be easy to look at exercise as something unpleasant. The idea of waking up early to go for a run in potentially nasty weather, getting sweaty during a lunch break, or exercising after a long day at work or school can seem daunting. When it comes to improving cognitive function, however, brain-boosting physical exercise doesn’t need to be an ordeal. It can be as simple as getting up and going for a short walk around the office, taking kids or siblings to the playground, or going for a walk with the dog. Small substitutions, like walking and taking a bus instead of driving or taking a cab, or going out for a walk during a break, can make an enormous difference over time.

Exercise, including low-stress activities such as walking, is so important because it improves blood flow to the brain. This provides vital nutrients to the cells responsible for not only performance but also feelings of well-being. Exercise stimulates the brain in the short term, enabling faster understanding of new material, and higher levels of retention. Even a short exercise session provides drastic improvements in the ability to draw connections and learn new skills.

The increased supply of nutrients due to exercise also contributes to the health and resilience of the brain cells over the long term by maintaining the protective myelin coating that surrounds neurons. Scientists have found that, regardless of previous fitness levels, adding 30 minutes of light exercise improves the long-term health of white matter and helps stave off conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Exercise also helps the brain regulate levels of hormones, preventing depression, headaches, and other conditions that can get in the way of a high-functioning brain.

Many neuroscientists see exercise as the single most important factor in maintaining lifelong cognitive health. Aerobic fitness corresponds to a better-supplied and more resilient brain, as well as greater brain mass in areas associated with memory and problem solving. High aerobic fitness makes for a healthier brain, but adding exercise at any age increases the strength of the brain and helps prevent aging.

To make new brain-boosting habits sustainable, find a way to enjoy the additional activity. Bring a friend, listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook, or use it to reset and take a mental break after a flurry of activity. Exercise can also be a great way to literally step away from a project, and give the brain a chance to see a problem from new angles. Some of the most beneficial forms of exercise are the ones which demand the most from the brain, which can include sports, dancing, and aerobics. Look for variety, and make sure an activity is enjoyable enough to sustain over the long term, before promising to do it every day.

Exercise should be an investment in living the best life possible, and enjoying it, not a monotonous and miserable duty. Don’t feel the need to toil away on a stationary bike, or running around a track, unless that’s what genuinely makes you feel good. Go for engaging, fun activities that will keep you coming back for more, while developing your brain at the same time.

Diet

Everyone wants to live the fullest, healthiest life possible. Nootropic supplements can play a large part in achieving this goal, but cannot do all of the heavy lifting. Relying on a supplement, while still eating a highly-processed, unhealthy diet, would only address some neurochemical imbalances, leaving others untouched. This would make it impossible to achieve optimum mental function, the goal of anyone interested in nootropic supplements. The modern stressful lifestyle and processed diet have a host of effects, which require a comprehensive focus to fully address. To get the most out of a brain-boosting regimen, or even achieve similar effects independently, a healthy diet is simply a must.

Recent research has discovered that dietary fats are not all created equal, and counter to previous findings, some fats are extremely health-promoting. Among unsaturated fats, there are some which are much more beneficial than others. Omega-3 fatty acids are the champion brain-boosters among fats, with a multitude of studies showing their effectiveness is combating depression, preventing aging, and ensuring optimal cognitive function.  Increased omega-3 consumption has also been linked to combating depression in thousands of patients.

The most concentrated sources of omega-3s are (in order) flax, hemp, herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, halibut, and tuna. Eggs, lean red meat (especially from grass-fed animals), and turkey also provide small amounts. In addition, chia seeds and walnuts are good sources of alpha-linolenic acid, a specific type of omega-3. Though not as complete a source of brain-boosting fats, these are still beneficial foods.

Some of these sources of fat can be expensive to purchase in their ‘whole food’ state, especially high-quality fish caught in the wild. A cheaper but relatively unrefined alternative would be oil capsules (popular ingredients include fish, flax, krill, or hemp), or in liquid oil form. Make sure to research the specific source of fat in a supplement before buying it, as many oils and pills are marketed for their omega-3 content, but actually contain very little. If buying a fish-oil product, ensure that the fish is wild-caught, as the source of its food will dramatically affect the quality of the nutrition on offer.

Healthy sources of fat can also be good sources of beneficial vitamins and minerals. For example, walnuts contain high levels of Vitamin E and folate, which have been linked to maintaining healthy brain function over a lifetime. Chia and flax seeds are known to be potent sources of antioxidants, in addition to their impressive omega-3 contents.

Many nootropic supplements contain antioxidants meant to counteract the effects of oxidative stress, sustained over a lifetime, on the brain. Many of these antioxidants are also found in foods, from tomatoes (high in lycopene) to blueberries (good source of anthocyanins) and green tea (contains both flavonoids and catechins). Some others include kidney, black and pinto beans, cranberries, artichokes, prunes, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pecans, and plums.

The effects of these antioxidants are not vague ideas put forward by quack doctors; scientific studies have shown measurable increases in memory and cognitive function following consumption of antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberry juice. Green tea has also been shown to effectively prevent common mental impairments that result from oxidative stress. While it may be more convenient to simply pop a pill, some studies suggest that the human body extracts the most benefit from nutrients contained in real food. It certainly doesn’t hurt to add these ‘superfoods’ to one’s diet, especially as part of a balanced routine that also includes supplementation.

Adding these foods rich in antioxidant and omega-3 to a diet will go a long way towards promoting mental health and high cognitive function, but optimal results will require a broad look at one’s diet. Foods high in sugar or highly refined carbohydrates like pastry and white flour (which the body treats like sugar) could be creating cognitive problems of their own, and should be avoided if possible. Because these foods break down and enter the bloodstream quickly, they are also burned or stored as fat quickly and fail to provide the kind of sustaining energy that keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. The “sugar rush” phenomenon results from this quick digestion, as does the inevitable crash that follows.

Sugar-laden liquids, especially soda, but also iced tea and fruit juices, can do more harm than good. For a healthier and longer-lasting boost, choose a green tea without sugar, or coffee with a snack. White bread and pastries are no better, the body treats them like piles of sugar. For optimum mental well-being, replace them with whole grains and reasonable portions of dark chocolate (another antioxidant-rich food).

These dietary choices may seem unpleasant at first, and may prompt cravings for previously-cherished foods. However, this will not last long. Research shows that it takes about two to three weeks for the taste buds and parts of the food that concern themselves with food to adjust completely to a new diet. After this point, the healthier foods will taste completely normal, and your brain and body will thank you for the changes you’ve made by yielding higher performance.

Mental Exercise

Some boosts in cognitive ability can be achieved in only a few minutes a day, without making any major lifestyle changes. Mental exercises, from games to new techniques for approaching work, offer easily-achieved benefits for anyone willing to try them.

The idea that the brain “is like a muscle, and needs to be exercised like one,” holds a grain of truth within a major misconception. Exposing one’s brain to new and challenging problems has been repeatedly shown by studies to increase brain mass. However, prolonged exposure to the same problems actually results in a decline in brain mass. After about three weeks of constant exposure, the brain tends to create simple rules for handling the various sub-problems associated with a given exercise, and the newly-grown brain mass quickly atrophies. Only by exposing one’s brain to new and varied problems can this growth be sustained. These could be puzzles, such as crosswords or Sudoku, video games, card games, or challenges encountered at work. At first, these exercises will help the brain grow, but once the puzzle seems easy, it is time to look for a new exercise. In a sense, the brain is like a muscle, because exercise will help it grow, but at the same time, prolonged exposure to the same exercise will actually shrink it.

Some mental exercises, which put the brain in a desirable state rather than stretching its abilities, can sound incredibly simple, but also produce rewarding results. For example, intentionally focusing on the sensations experienced during a period of work or exercise can improve performance and memory. One specific technique is focusing on the sound of one’s breathing, which can help shut out distractions. Scientists call this practice of focusing on the experiences at hand “mindfulness” and have found dramatic differences in performance when test subjects focus on their current task and shut out errant thoughts. Quickly thinking about one’s goals or intentions for a coming exercise or project can also improve mindfulness.

Meditation is a similar exercise, which can reduce stress and improve cognitive performance. Taking a few seconds to ignore the information overload imposed by our busy world can both improve focus and help to minimize the effects of stress.

Mental exercises can be fun, relaxing, and simple while still producing dramatic returns in brain function. Varied challenges, mindfulness, and relaxation can go a long way in improving cognition.

Do’s and Don’ts

Here is a quick, easy to reference summary of some of the points above.

Do

  • Take quick breaks to exercise throughout the day. This will boost your mental performance over the short and long term!
  • Look for enjoyable exercise that stimulates the brain. This is about living an enjoyable and fulfilled lifestyle, not spending hours enduring monotony.
  • Replace other sources of fat with flax, chia, fish that live in cold water (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, etc.), eggs, walnuts, and turkey. Flax and chia are great in smoothies, healthy dessert bars, and baked goods.
  • Look for an omega-3 supplement that comes from wild-caught fish.
  • Add antioxidant-rich foods and drinks like blueberries, tomatoes, and green tea
  • Look for new problems that will prompt mental growth. Find new games, puzzles, and challenges to keep your mind on its toes.
  • Look for ways to focus and shut out distractions. The most effective techniques will vary by individual, but it may be helpful to quickly think about what you hope to achieve before starting work, or taking 30 seconds to shut out everything except your own breathing.
  • Find ways to enjoy your new habits. Listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while you exercise, find healthy and anti-oxidant rich indulgences like red wine and dark chocolate, and get your friends involved!

Don’t

  • Think that exercise has to be boring, uncomfortable, or done at the gym.
  • Keep eating a highly-processed diet and think you’ll see drastic results from supplements.
  • Reach for sugar-filled drinks, fast-digesting snacks, or processed carbohydrates. These will provide a short boost, but will leave you feeling muddled. Even worse, they are more likely to be stored as fat and degrade the body over time.
  • Feel bad about occasionally indulging in unhealthy treats. This is about feeling good and minimizing stress, not about living by rigid rules that feel stifling.
  • Keep relying on the same puzzles or games to improve mental function. Instead, seek variety!

Nootropic Basics Table of Contents

Part 1: What are Nootropics

Part 2: Alternatives to Nootropics

Part 3: Choosing the Right Kind of Nootropic

Part 4: Side Effects and Therapeutic Effects

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