Bio-Hacking your brain; understanding your brain chemistry

Hormones play crucial roles in our brains chemistry, and the complex relationship that is unfolding in your very mind right now can lend itself to some truly amazing outcomes.

You have probably already heard about testosterone and associate it with a monster-truck-driving-machine-gun-wielding-maniac, or about Adrenaline and how sky-diving thrill seekers are chasing it, or maybe even about how dopamine is your brains reward mechanism which can often lead us into troubling addictions.

There are a few more important ones inside us, and understanding them can be the key to boosting your productivity, achieving more, feeling less stressed and more at peace with yourself. Understanding how your brain works will help you achieve happiness and fulfilment, and ultimately this will help you in your goal to Financial Independence.

I’ll also start this with a disclaimer that I am not a doctor or an endocrinologist – I just find this super fascinating and after reading a few papers and watching a heap of biology videos I thought it was really cool in explaining some of our behaviours. If you ARE an endocrinologist and anything here is blatantly wrong, let me know so I can correct it!

Bio-hacking your brain

Bio-hacking is a term given to using something in your body for your advantage. Having a rudimentary understanding of how hormones and endorphins like Dopamine and Serotonin work can help you to bio-hack your brain, and use them to your advantage.

For example, Dopamine is often called the pleasure hormone. It is the brains reward mechanism and is often associated with addiction; studies have shown smokers who lift and suck on a straw or pencil can trigger a dopamine release in their brain and help nullify a craving for nicotine!

Testosterone

Testosterone is widely known as the male sex hormone, but it is actually present in both males and in females (just to a smaller extent in females). Testosterone increases libido in men, and is the major contributing factor for sexual motivation. Whilst testosterone doesn’t technically influence ones ability to procreate, it significantly affects ones motivation to want to. Testosterone increases the fertility of men, as it assists the development of mature sperm in the testes.

Its presence in the male body follows a natural rhythm that corresponds to recent sexual activity; data from recent Chinese studies suggest that after seven days of abstinence, male testosterone levels naturally spike by up to a third, driving male sexual motivation to break the abstinence.

Single males tend to find themselves with relatively higher testosterone levels when compared to similar aged males engaged in monogamous or committed relationships. Interestingly, men in polyamourous relationships (open relationships with more than one regular sexual partner) score the highest out of all three, and on average have the highest levels of testosterone of all men. In this regard, testosterone is shown to decrease when a man enters a committed relationship.

Higher testosterone is linked with increased lean muscle mass, higher bone density, body hair and increased red blood cell production. It also plays a key role in your mood and quality of life, as well as verbal memory and cognitive ability such as spatial abilities and mathematical reasoning. High testosterone levels influence behavioural traits such as competitiveness, however, too much can lead to overly aggressive or dominant behaviour and even lead to male pattern baldness. Testosterone levels in males naturally decrease with age.

The bio-hack:

  • The best known way to increase testosterone levels in men is to drink plenty of water (2+ litres a day), followed by ensuring your diet is rich in amino and fatty acids, and the mineral zinc.
  • Higher testosterone leads to better athletic and mental performance
  • Staying single or having multiple sexual partners will keep your testosterone levels high (for men), but beware you will be missing out on other hormones such as oxycotin which helps to form committed relationships and feeling of contentment.

Estrogen

Estrogen is the female sex hormone, although it is also present in males to a lesser extent (estradiol). It contributes to cognitive health, bone health, a healthy heart as well as regulating the female sexual system (including function of the ovaries, uterus and breasts)

When a female goes through her menstrual cycle, her estrogen level fluctuates significantly. This can lead to changes in behaviour such as moodswings and physical discomfort, reported by over 75% of women. Brain scans show the influence of changing estrogen levels on the medial orbitofrontal cortex relating to emotional processing – a significant increase in activity is shown even if a women’s external emotional responses do not change significantly.

It has been shown that women can display significant differences from their regular sexual attraction during the cycle. For example, studies show that leading up to a woman’s ovulation, her estrogen level rises and she adopts a preference for the scent of males with high levels of symmetry, an indicator of greater genetic stability and fitness. Associated with this, the women became more interested in men with masculine faces, and even reported greater sexual attraction to men other than their spouse.

Estrogen imbalances can lead to weight gain in females, irregular menstruation, hot flashes, mood changes, suppressed libido, depression and sleeping issues. High levels in males can lead to infertility, erectile dysfunction and man boobs. Birth control pills usually contain types of estrogen, which work in a variety of ways to prevent pregnancy. There are a number of potential (small) risks associated with these medications.

Bio-Hack:

  • Phytoestrogens, plant based substances that resemble estrogen, are not thought to be able to effect estrogen levels in the body. Phytoestrogens are found in cruciferous plants, soy products, seeds and grains, berries, fruit, nuts beer and wine. Don’t stress about eating these!
  • Females biologically have increased sexual drive during ovulation.

Endorphins

Endorphins main role are to block fear and pain which usually allows you to push harder through elevated pain thresholds, but also to experience euphoric states. They also have a similar effect on the body to Morphine!

Dr Pierce from Bridgewater College, as well as Dr Goldfarb of the University of North Carolina were both able to show that heavy weightlifting and maximum exertion cardiovascular activities like sprinting were able to stimulate the brains Pituity gland to release Endorphins, the so called ‘Runners High’. But it had to be very high intensity activity to do so, and the effect diminished as the workout length increased.

They also found that consistent high intensity workout routines diminished this effect as the body adapted to its stress. They noted that high intensity varied workouts with music that participants enjoyed promoted the greatest rush of endorphins; “Keep it fresh, and you will get that high“. Perhaps there is something to that CrossFit movement after all?

Endorphin release has also been shown to occur during Sex, Orgasm, listening to music and even when eating Chocolate! Studies have shown that endorphins are also released during laughter!

The Bio-hack:

  • Workout with high intensity for short periods, such as heavy weight training with the 5×5 Strong Lift program to trigger endorphins.
  • Include maximum exertion sprinting activity into your cardiovascular training routine, such as Farklek interval sprints, to experience the ‘Runners High’.
  • Don’t forget your sense of Humor! A good laugh helps to release Endorphins and feelings of happiness, so crack a joke!
  • Enjoy you and your partners sex life! Regular sex will flood your brain with endorphins.

Adrenaline

Adrenaline is sometimes called the survival hormone. Its production in the Adrenal gland is caused by a signal from your Pituitary gland response to our ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ mechanism from your Hypothalamus.

When a stressor triggers you, your Amygdala (fear centre) and Hypothalamus (hormone centre) order your Pituitary gland and Adrenal gland into overdrive to floods your body with Adrenaline (and Cortisol). Your senses heighten and your pupils dilate, you breathe deeper and your heart pounds as your muscles become pumped with oxygenated blood ready to burn your energy store.

Your Frontal Lobe, the logic centre of your brain, gets turned right down as your Amygdala and Hypothalamus take over – sometimes called a brain hijack – its prehistoric brain time, baby! Your logic and reason go out the window and you tend to make snap decisions and react by instinct. Do you remember the last time you were really pissed off, or really scared or excited, or maybe all three at once? Does this sound familiar?

We’ve all heard of the Adrenaline junkies, the ones that love the Rush. This is a real thing and Men naturally crave adrenaline when their testosterone is high, which can lead to risk taking behaviour. Especially in adolescent and young adult males.

Bio-Hack:

  • Adrenaline gives you superhuman pain resistance and increased strength and stamina, a natural effect to help boost your ‘Flight or Fight’ mechanism.
  • An Adrenaline rush before bed will not help you sleep, so try to avoid anything too stimulating within an hour of two of bed time. Wind down with a book and cup of tea.
  • Adrenaline is addictive, and a normal part of our bodily function. If you are seeking adrenaline with extremely risky behaviour try to rationalise the consequences of your actions to stay safe.
  • Too much adrenaline can make you feel restless, irritable, nervous, have trouble sleeping. It leads to chronic build up of Cortisol (the stress hormone) so make sure to give your body and brain time away from adrenaline rush behaviours so it can recover.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the stress hormone. Its production in the Adrenal gland is caused by a signal from your Pituitary gland response to our ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ mechanism from your Hypothalamus. Cortisol is very similar to Adrenaline and serves a similar purpose, but where Adrenaline gives an instant shot, Cortisol has a delayed effect which takes a little more time (minutes rather than seconds), and has more of a cumulative effect that builds up over time.

Its not necessarily a bad thing! Dr Christofides a certified endocrinologist said that cortisol is one of the most important hormones in regulating the human body. Cortisol helps to control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, blood pressure and quality of sleep. She even said it impacts your sex life! Usually your cortisol levels follow your circadian rythm, and as such your performance varies throughout the day (and peaks with your peak body temperature around the time for your evening meal).

Too much cortisol is a bad thing though. It causes that feeling of stress, anger, anxiety and fear and it is quite literally damaging to our organs. Cortisol works to shut down unnecessary bodily function, diverting all available resources into what matters in the near term – survival!

But all this increased short term bodily power and function comes at a cost. The body shuts of non essential functions in order to power your survival mechanisms. Sure, things like hair growth and fingernail growth might not rank as big issues for some, but it also tends to shut down other important things like your digestion. That’s why people often need to go to the bathroom more when they are stressed (especially when combined with caffeine like before a big presentation at work!).

Chronic high cortisol levels causes anxiety, trouble sleeping, headaches, loose bowels and exhaustion. Another thing that the body doesn’t ‘need right now’ is its immune system. It stops production of antibodies and white blood cells, and diverts this effort into your ‘survival’. Ever felt like after you’ve been flat out at work for a prolonged period you just feel run down, and when you finally get some down time you get sick? You might have chronically high Cortisol levels. Your work is quite literally killing you.

Dr Pierce and Dr Goldfarb found that not only did strenuous activity stimulate the production of Endorphins, but that these Endorphins countered the effects of Cortisol. Its not so straightforward however, as the exercise itself actually triggered Cortisol production too. This is especially important for endurance athletes (training session more than two hours) who effectively get the additional Cortisol without any countering Endorphins. Their advice: Keep the workouts intense, short and sweet!

The Bio-hack:

  • Exercise intensely and rigorously in the morning for a short period, provided your not under any other external sources of high stress like a breakup or sickness. If this is the case, your body doesn’t need the additional cortisol spike regardless of any potential endorphins – so take it easy.
  • At night remove potential sources of Cortisol: Don’t check your email or phone before bed, avoid scary or potentially dangerous shit, and don’t get into arguments with your partner.
  • Try to undertake your most important activities with your bodies natural circadian rhythm, when your natural Cortisol level peaks (hint: this is NOT occurring when your trying to land a plane at 3am).
  • It is normal for Cortisol to peak prior to a ‘stressful’ event such as a presentation or an assessment. Use the this to your advantage, and re-frame it as Arousal to help you, rather than Stress to hurt you!
  • Mediation, reading, walking outdoors and receiving at least 20 minutes of sunlight a day has been shown to reduce Cortisol levels and promote calmness.

Dopamine

Dopamine is the brains ‘Reward’ mechanism, produced by the Hypothalamus to motivate us. Dopamine helps to motivate us to achieve our goals, desires and needs, giving us an addictive pleasure hit when ever we do so. It is released when we do things that feel good to us – this could be playing a video game, spending time or being intimate with our partners, or even gambling or abusing drugs!

The effect of dopamine on motivation is so powerful, that a lack of it is even associated with depression, procrastination and self-doubt. Studies have shown that low dopamine levels in animals lead to laziness, and an acceptance of the easy, low value reward. Animals with normal levels of dopamine were more than happy to exert higher amounts of effort to achieve a higher-value reward.

These studies have been validated in humans, with research done by psychiatrists on depressed patients. Low dopamine levels have been associated with feelings of fatigue, chronic lack of motivation and feelings of depression.

“Often, depressed people say they don’t want to go out with their friends. It’s not that they don’t experience pleasure – if their friends were around, many depressed people could have fun. Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself,”

John Salamone, Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut

Dopamine has been shown to increase in the brain when a relationship starts. As you begin dating and spending time with your potential partner, it is associated with a reward – that loving feeling.

The Bio-hack:

  • When goal setting, break your larger goals down into many smaller constituent ‘chunks’. Your brains natural dopamine release upon achieving each of these smaller tasks will motivate you in a positive spiral to achieve the larger overall goal.
  • Celebrate your wins. When you achieve a goal, make time to actually celebrate with something you enjoy, like your favourite meal or activity. This will reinforce your brains natural dopamine release and cement your drive for future goals.
  • Even if you don’t feel like doing something or being productive, try and force yourself to do so. Stop procrastinating and just take small steps to experience the positive Dopamine spiral. You will build momentum and get back on track.

Serotonin

Serotonin is thought of as the Happy hormone. It is a neurotransmitter that helps to controls satisfaction, happiness and optimism in the brain, but is actually mostly found in our digestive tract (intestines!) and even in our blood platelets!

Research shows that increases serotonin levels relate to a more positive mood and mindset, and has a similar effect to endorphins.When you feel significant, powerful or important your brain produces Serotonin. A lack of Serotonin is thought to be one of the contributing causes of loneliness and depression, and many anti-depressants actually work to boost serotonin levels.

Serotonin is produced in the brain and gut using the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in high levels in protein rich foods like nuts or meat. Although, its not that simple and eating a high protein meal actually floods your system with a wide variety of amino acids meaning only a small amount of tryptophan can enter. It is postulated that a carbohydrate rich meal with its associated insulin release can cause most amino acids in the blood to be absorbed – except for tryptophan – which can then freely flow in increased concentrations to the brain for serotonin production.

Many researchers suggest that microbial gut health plays a huge part in serotonin synthesis, seeing that an estimated 90% of your bodies serotonin production occurs in your gut by your enterochromaffin (EC) cells. the California Institute of Technology found Low serotonin levels had been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome. Trials with mice that had been fed antibiotics to wipe their gut microbes found that their EC cells produced up to 60% less serotonin than regular mice with healthy gut microbiome

“More and more studies are showing that mice or other model organisms with changes in their gut microbes exhibit altered behaviours”

Elaine Hsiao, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering

The Bio-Hack:

  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet to make sure you get all of the essential minerals and nutrients, carbohydrates, fats and proteins / amino acids your body needs to produce this hormone.
  • Keep a healthy gut microbiome by eating plenty of beneficial bacteria containing foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fermented vegetables (i.e. sourkraut) and drinks like kombucha. Eat plenty of leafy greens and a good amount of fibre to feed your healthy gut bacteria colony. Avoid processed and refined foods like sugar, high fructose corn syrup and junk food which promote the bad gut bacteria.
  • Stay socially active, and make time to hang out with your friends, family and loved ones. This will help to boost your natural serotonin levels.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin has been called the ‘Cuddle’ hormone or the ‘trust’ hormone, and is increased by hugging and touching. It is associated with love, bonding and trust. It has been known to increase in new mothers especially during childbirth and breastfeeding, helping to build the bond between mother and child.

When a Female finds a partner she is interested in, her Oxytocin levels rise, and have even been have been recorded in some cases to go up by 51%! They rise throughout courtship and a relationship, and sky rocket during sex especially during her orgasm, which usually help her build a strong bond and attachment to her partner.

However in Males, testosterone can block the effect of oxytocin. This is especially true for single, younger males with higher levels of testosterone, which can undermine the formation of trust in relationships. The lower testosterone levels of older men, and those in committed relationships has less of an effect, letting their oxytocin hormone form stronger bonds.

Dr Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont University showed that receiving a gift has been shown to increase Oxycontin in recipients, helping to promote a sense of motivation towards achieving a common purpose. He also suggests using words of affirmation (dropping the “L bomb”), sharing a meal and giving someone your undivided attention and responding to or mirroring their body language as some of the best ways to naturally increase Oxytocin levels.

The Bio-Hack:

  • Oxytocin can help reinforce your relationships through physical touch. Take the time to be close to, hug and cuddle your partner often! Dr Paul Zak recommends a minimum of eight hugs each day!
  • Be present and genuine in your interactions, giving the person you are communicating with your undivided attention (put the phone down!)
  • Pet a dog! Having pets and companion animals has been shown to drastically raise Oxytocin levels. The animals usually love the attention, too! This will even improve your interaction with other people.
  • Be aware that because of your closeness to those already established in your cultural groups, a lack of oxytocin production associated with foreign people or ‘outsiders’ can lead you to be subconsciously be more exclusive and distrustful towards other ethnicities.
  • High levels of testosterone can inhibit Oxytocin, making young men biologically less likely to want to commit to their female partners (which could unfortunately lead to a ‘one-sided’ relationship).

Vasopressin

Vasopressin is primarily used in the body to regulate permeability in your kidneys, in essence to control how concentrated your wee is! However, it is also thought to also have a neurological effect on the brain which influences pair bonding in males, similar to the hormone oxytocin.

In this regard, vasopressin is thought to help to form attachments, but is especially important in males during arousal and bonding because the vasopressin doesn’t get blocked by the testosterone like oxytocin does.

Just like how the oxytocin levels in women rise during courtship and dating, a man’s vasopressin levels also increase during courtship and dating. This is particularly so during physical touching and intimacy. However, unlike oxytocin in women, during/after actual sex the vassopressin levels in men tend to plummet! Ironically, high levels of vasopressin in females has been shown to lead to decreased sexual motivation and increased aggression.

The Bio-Hack:

  • Vasopressin helps men build strong bonds with their partners, but not if the relationship becomes sexual too fast. Consider cooling your jets and waiting a few more dates! (Just like your grandparents told you to…)

Further viewing

For a bit of awesome viewing, check out this TEDx Talk from Biologist Dawn Masalar. She explains using some of the latest neuroscience how our Brains fall in love and the complex chemical reactions that are going on involving some of the compounds we talked about above. The video was filmed in July 2016 so it is a *bit* dated but I think its spot on!

CaptainFI

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