The Three Tiers For Upgrading The Brain
- Enhance your focus, and overcome stress.
- Why you can still fail with the perfect training and diet plan
- Habits. Diet. Nootropics.
Bringing Resilience To The Routine
Do you necessarily need to be smart to stage a fitness transformation? Probably not. But we’re going to get into this anyway.
Welcome to the murky domain of neuroplasticity. Moulding the mind. Across this guide, I’ll explain how daily doses of brain training can produce radical effects. This is a topic I haven’t really invaded before, barring a few articles on meditation, and a look at the amazing effect that ketones have on the brain.
I’ve never lacked interest in this domain, I just haven’t had the confidence to throw around any profound statements on mind matters. But having dosed myself up with a metric ton of research and self-experiment, I feel I can finally present my thesis for brain training. And this is as good a time as any.
There’s been a lot of stress and uncertainty evoked by COVID over the past months. If a positive is to be taken from this mess, besides the obvious one about fixing obesity, it would be by highlighting the need for resilience.
This isn’t about getting smarter. That’s a happy side-effect.
What Is Resilience?
In its modern element, the brain gets bombarded with distractions, threats, and that causes it to misfire. Easily stressed, consistently demotivated. Fixing the dysfunction is pivotal for any meaningful long-term changes for your physique goals.
So the goal here is to switch the mentality from this reactive state, over to the front foot. Developing a brain that can handle stress, and adapt through those situations. Stress isn’t inherently bad, and it shouldn’t always be avoided. Sometimes, you can make the choice to wade through the discomfort.
The next time that stress-bearing event comes knocking, the mind will be in a better place to meet it. That’s the essence of resilience, and the blueprint for the apex brain.
This guide is part of the apex lifestyle series, a collection of strategies that will take the body to its peak. I’ve already published a couple of those, and you can check them out here. Whenever you like, there’s no particular order.
How Do You Train The Brain?
There’s no much use in looking the part if you don’t feel it. The mind has to come along for the ride. Unfortunately, fixing the mindset is much easier said than done. We’re just a bunch of wires tangled together. Extremely complicated ones.
Understanding the brain is a process that can cost decades for people dedicated enough to take up the challenge. But we’re not aiming to master neuro-wizardry. All that’s needed is a comprehension of two central functions of the brain.
You don’t have to start analysing all the different compartments nestled in the cranium. Instead, we can hone in on the output of all those wires. The brain has two specific actions that need to be harnessed. Focus. Relaxation. The ability to hone in on a task, and the ability to sit back and take it all in.
These are pretty much the gas pedal and brake on the neurological highway. If you want to get the best out of either, you have to balance them out. Too much focus? You burn out after a few decades, quitting your career to join a retreat. Always looking for the brake? You’re going to struggle to get anywhere. Drawing from both will inevitably lead to greater progress in whatever you set the mind to.
How to go about improving them? The template to adapt is pretty consistent across any aspect of biology. So you’d just treat them like your biceps.
Reps – Practicing focus. Direct your attention on one thing. Portrait mode.
Recovery – Practicing relaxation. The pupils dilate, sending vision into landscape mode. Not that any of this is strictly vision-based.
Nutrition – Nailing the diet to keep the neurotransmitters balanced and inflammation out of the system.
I’ve been fascinated by neurobiology, because it’s given back more than any other endeavor. Even bodybuilding. Fortunately, I haven’t had to choose between anything. The angles of a fitness lifestyle are inextricably linked. The brain thrives on exercise, the diet, and the whole aspect of continuous progression.
But for that same reason, without a balanced brain, the perfect training and diet blueprint could be hamstrung before you get a chance to leave the blocks. Part of that is because neurology and biology can exert significant effects on each other.
Stress is a great example of that fact. A noisy coworker gets interpreted by the brain as a source of annoyance, and then your cortisol levels get hijacked. It may be impossible to avoid the person, so now you get a cortisol spike on every lunch break. Without a way of expelling all that built-up stress, now you have inflammation constantly flowing around the bloodstream. Sleep gets crippled, fat loss slows, motivation fizzles out. Thoughts become physiology.
So often we have to walk around with a control hub that’s sensitive to stress and terrible at task completion. The modern lifestyle’s bombardment of the senses is likely the biggest culprit in all of this. And while it may feel hard to work out a plan amongst all that noise, there are clear steps to developing a better brain.
How Brain Training Helps The Fitness Transformation
- Better discipline for the daily routine
- Effortless daily habits
- More motivation for short and long-term goals
- More positive interpretation of events
- Stress resilience
- A stable mood without dramatic peaks and troughs
- Improving the mind-muscle connection
- Lowering systemic inflammation
- Better sleep
Building a decent physique takes tremendous levels of consistent motivation. You do the hard work, wade through the discomfort, and that gets repeated every single day. And when a mess of a day inevitably comes knocking, you need to be able to dust it off and hop straight back on the trail.
Adding muscle, losing fat, it’s a long haul. And the only sure way of getting to the destination is by relishing the fact that you’re in the grind.
The ultimate goal here isn’t to level up your IQ, and I’m not going to recommend any apps that test out your memory bank. This is simply about getting better at using dual modes of focus and relaxation. Being able to switch back and forth between the two will enable you to thrive across that day-to-day process.
So while I will offer up action-items that train the brain better than anything on the app store could, the gist of this mental upgrade can be summed up in something much shorter. Plan out the perfect average day. Use both repetition and adaptation to mold the mind to suit the ultimate goal.
The First Tier – Lighten The Willpower Load With Habits
Neurons that fire together, wire together. That’s the simplified tale of habit creation. Habits are the single most effective tool for developing discipline, adherence, and motivation. But to really understand the significance, it’s worth looking at the story of how a habit comes to life.
Let’s say you’re not a morning person, and you typically get up with just enough time to grab the bagel-banana combo before heading out to work. Then, for whatever reason, you decide to be the change you want to see in the world. So you wake up an hour early, stagger into the gym, and do whatever comes to mind for the next 30 minutes.
It feels great once the ordeal is over, but you still cringe at the notion of doing it all over again on Tuesday. You force yourself through the process, and start to rack up a headcount. A streak of days turns into weeks. The brain eventually starts to connect the dots, realising that all that discomfort repeatedly ends with an endorphin rush. The action becomes tied with the reward. The alarm clock buzzing in your ear at 6am, that’s the cue. The endorphins punctuating the session, make the reward. A loop has been formed.
The brain is continuously bombarded with new bits of information, and processing memory is in limited supply, so it short-circuits those actions into a habit loop. Whatever you’re doing, it must be working if it’s punctuated by feel-good hormones. And as a result of that wizardy, such an action becomes part of the subconscious. You no longer have to make that decision.
You don’t necessarily need to be ecstatic at the end of that activity. Simply feeling different to how you felt at the start of the session can be enough to create the habit loop. If it’s an activity that you can progress, and get better at, then even better. It’s those forward steps that really shape the apex mindset.
Why are healthy people so good at being healthy? Why don’t they eventually fall off the wheel like the rest of us? It’s not genetics. The uber-successful people aren’t always blessed with luck and the right parents. Many of them have simply perfected the art of regular habits.
A perfect average day is made so by the chain of healthy habits that carry you through from dawn to dusk, and beyond. These habits are at their best when repeated at a similar time, location, and are met with a little reward after completion. Once those habits are wired in and set, the day-to-day grind becomes far easier. You no longer need to summon all your willpower to wake up while the day’s still dark.
This is true for any angle of fitness. Training, diet, sleep, stress management, the game is won by the construction of daily habits that move you forward, one significant step at a time.
You’re not just picking random habits that seem to match up with those four angles. Each of these habits should hone in on building resilience. Taking on stress, or stepping back from the noise. Some activities, like resistance training, can be potent across both sides of the apex mindset. Just as long as you can step away from the phone and concentrate on lifting.
Swapping Bad Habits For Better Ones
If you can replace an unhealthy or useless habit at the same time, then you’re going to net double the profit. And this also happens to be the best way of extinguishing bad habits.The most successful habit-changing group in the world, the AA, has been using this principle since its formation. Known as The Golden Rule Of Habit Change, this involves taking the bad habit, keeping the same cue and reward, and swapping in the healthy replacement.
Compared to just going cold turkey and leaving nothing on the table, habit swapping is extremely effective at getting you two for the price of one. The setup is already there, you just have to trick the brain into choosing a better route.
So when you’re looking around for new habits, ask yourself the following questions when thinking up a new activity.
- Is it uncomfortable?
- Does it feel relaxing?
If it’s a yes to either, then you’re onto something. Now, ask yourself whether you can progress this activity. Another affirmative, and you’re clear to start punching it into the calendar.
Takeaway – Create at least one habit for each of the angles of the fitness lifestyle. They need to be tied in to at least one of the brain modes. And ideally something you can get better at.
Training – Weight session at 7:30am (Focus & Relax)
Diet – Meal prep at 8pm (Relax)
Sleep – Set the bedtime for 10pm (Relax)
Stress Management – Meditate at 6am (Relax) Cold Shower at 6:15am (Focus)
These habits should be repeated each day, ideally at the same time, and at the same location. The process of ingraining a new habit can take up to 66 days, so it might take some grinding to get there.
Beware of the complacency trap. The start may be a challenge, but when everything seems to be going perfectly, that’s when people tend to trip up.
When the inevitable happens, and you miss a session, then it’s crucial that you hope back on the habit train at the next opportunity.
The Second Tier – The Apex Diet
Where the gut goes, the mind follows. Welcome to the frustratingly murky world of the digestive system. It’s a huge play in affecting mood and cognition, and as such it’s on Tier 2 of the Apex Brain.
The back-and-forth dynamic between the diet and mind is undeniable. The gut gets labelled as the second brain for good reason. There are millions of neurons lined across the gastro-intestinal tract, and there’s even some evidence suggesting that this system evolved before the CNS. In any case, it isn’t just linked to the neural network, it’s a control hub.
Then there’s the small matter of a 100 trillion-odd gut bacteria that live in the digestive system. Breaking down food is only one of their many functions, and these little creatures also produce neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine (focus) GABA (relax) and dopamine (reward). It’s for this reason that bad bacteria have been strongly linked as a cause of depression, by inhibiting production of dopamine. While poetry and philosophy is the domain of the brain, the gut makes you feel. For better, and often for worse. Especially when you’re loaded with the wrong kinds.
There’s no consensus on what diet is the best for promoting good bacteria and culling the bad ones, although the two classic bits of advice are more nutrient diversity, and prebiotics. There’s also some evidence suggesting that gut diversity can be the cause of the problem. So it can be confusing trying to figure out which pitchfork to grab. Probiotics are also often recommended, but they happen to be a great way to throw money away, because the science of the microbiome is in its infancy. There’s not much hope in using a random strain, and there’s always a chance of causing an overgrowth, such as SIBO.
Prebiotics are essentially fiber, so you’d think that a high vegetable diet would be the best for gut health. But then there’s the issue of the stomach lining. It’s a delicately thin wall of cells that separate incoming food from the rest of the body. Essentially that’s all that stops potential toxins from invading your physiology.
Fiber is such a toxin, and is accompanied by other toxins, all with their own novel way of damaging your biology. Often by scratching and tearing at the cell wall. Inevitably something manages to break through. You won’t necessarily get a new allergy as a result, but these compounds will go on to foster untold inflammation, and some can even reach past the blood brain barrier.
All this chaos can radically stunt your mood and cognition. There will be plenty of other consequences, such as impaired nutrient absorption, and skin issues. But this is an article to hone in on the brain state. And ditching plants could be the single biggest thing you could do to improve the gut-to-brain axis.
Inflammation is an emergency state that’s activated as a response to foreign invaders and stressful situations. It’s abrasive, morbid in the long run, and directly suppresses cognition and mood in the short-term. And the diet is the best way of controlling it.
At least to begin with, a blanket ban would be necessary. Carnivore is effectively the ultimate elimination diet. You remove all the potentially inflammatory foods, which happen to be plants, then bring them back in. A few at a time. Or none at all. That much would be up to you.
The Calming Effect Of Ketones
And there’s more to carnivore beyond the avoidance of toxins. Despite being higher in protein than your average keto diet, there’ll still be plenty of ketones running back and forth in the bloodstream. This is a significant boost for brain health. The presence of ketones implies you’re not being taken through the usual inflammatory sugar rollercoaster.
So the mental boost of this diet is partly due to what’s shoved to the sidelines. The ketones themselves are potent signalling molecules that reduce stress by balancing the GABA to glutamate ratio. The brake to the gas pedal. The net sum of ketones is less anxiety, and energy that doesn’t ebb and flow across the day. These wonderful molecules exert a huge stabilising influence on the brain.
But carnivore isn’t all about quelling stress. As I’ve said before, pacifying stress isn’t enough by itself, and can end up making the situation worse by justifying those fears. There has to be mechanisms that also help you to swing onto the front foot when necessary. The whole idea here in this guide is to be able to switch between the brake and gas pedal, and do it effectively. Red meat in particular is loaded with tyrosine, a key precursor to neurotransmitters that accentuate alertness.
Nutritionally Complete And Bioavailable Food Sources
Then it’s time to talk shop on actual nutrition, rather than side effects. An all-animal diet ticks all your requirements. Ruminants are walking all-in one nutritional powerhouses. But that’s not the end of it. Meat also happens to be the most bioavailable of all dietary sources. You may have already been beaten over the head with the saying: ‘you are what you eat’. The truth is more along the lines of: ‘you are what the body can digest and absorb’. That’s where bioavailability provides the crucial link. Getting 100 grams of protein on a carnivore, and a vegan palette, make for completely different conversions.
Takeaway – A carnivorous diet can be a monumental upgrade across brain health and mindset. It’s free of toxins that can trigger stress, stacked with bioavailable nutrition, and allows ketones to exert their stress-relieving and mood-stabilising influence.
Carnivore is far from your only option, as a meat-dominated keto diet can provide plenty of the same perks. The best strategy would be to start with a clean all-animal diet, then add the extras back in, and see how you respond.
The Third Tier – Nootropics – Supplements To Prime The Brain
As the pyramid goes, the final layer doesn’t carry the same importance as the ones below it. Nootropics aren’t strictly necessary for mastering the apex mindset. These supplements will typically do their work by driving up certain neurotransmitters to achieve the desired mood.
But while many of them do a serviceable job, they can also turn out to be detrimental if you get reliant on them. Repeatedly activating a pathway can cause resistance to build-up, hence why cocaine burns the brain out and eventually leaves you depleted and depressed. That’s an extreme example, but that’s how the world of nootropics works. These supplements should be restricted, and you should let the habits and the diet do the brunt of the work.
With all this being said, there’s certainly a place for nootropics in the daily regime. Especially when you consider that we’re all doing it anyway. Caffeine is such a supplement. It’s a focus-enhancer. And we get the same picture here. Take too much coffee, too often, and you get the opposite effect to jumping against walls.
Nootropics can be divided as either focus or relaxation enhancers. I’ll start with the latter, because we won’t have to spend too much time there.
Relaxation Enhancers – Best Used As Sleep Aids
These supplements generally lower the heart rate, raise GABA levels, and put you in a detached perspective. While ideally not being sedative. Personally, I don’t think there’s much need for this on a carnivore diet. The ketones are already exerting a significant effect on GABA, and you could easily dial up the fat to protein ratio if you wanted more.
Besides that, activities like meditation, stretching, and reading are potent relaxation enhancers. So unless you’ve got a particularly bad case of anxiety, there’s no real need to push the brakes any harder.
But if you’re after something to chill the brain out enough so you can sleep on time, there are plenty of options.
L-Theanine – Highly effective, and quite possibly the pick of the bunch. Theanine is often combined with caffeine, as it suppresses the panicky side effects. This supplement raises GABA, while also increasing dopamine and serotonin. All this makes it a decent feel-good nootropic that can take the edge off.
Magnesium Malate – Having a decent magnesium supplement should be an essential as it is, since it’s the leading deficiency in the western world. But in the context of getting you to relax harder, magnesium will improve sleep onset time and quality. Letting you cash in on most important hours of the day.
You might also be confused by the sheer range of different magnesium supplements. Citrate is the budget option, but it can imbalance the Krebs energy cycle, since it’s also known as the citric acid cycle. Citrate is also a bit of a laxative, so it might be best to avoid it. Malate on the other hand, enhances the Krebs cycle, and promotes feelings of wellbeing.
Valerian Root – Increases the activity of GABA receptors. This creates a sedative and anxiolytic effect.
Ashwaganda – Works through the same mechanism as Valerian Root.
Taurine – An amino acid that synergises with GABA receptors.
Focus Enhancers – Workout Stimulants
Due to the slightly sedative effect of ketones, there might be some use for focus-driving nootropics. Especially if you’re finding yourself struggling to get going during a workout. But they have to be cycled in and out during the week, and the temptation might be to overuse them as productive and mood-enhancers. As I’ve already mentioned, the danger here is that the receptors will downregulate with chronic use, ending up with resistance and even a reverse in effects.
Caffeine – The world’s favourite drug does most of its work by blocking the effects of adenosine, which normally causes tiredness. So with adenosine temporarily out of the picture, the stage is set for you to forget all about the sleepless nights and shift work. To keep the effects fresh, have an entire day off, and stick to drinking only in the mornings. You can see my guide here for a weekly plan for coffee use.
In fact, there is some evidence showing that drinking coffee chronically, then cutting it out briefly every now and then, can result in boosting your mood above baseline. All the more reason to have a day off the brew.
Alpha GPC – This is a precursor to Acetyl-Choline, which is a neurotransmitter than enhances cognitive and memory functions. You can think of it as a spotlight appearing in a busy room. Alpha GPC can help the process of tuning in to whatever you’re focusing on, making it ideal for productivity work.
Lion’s Mane – Improves cognitive function by increasing BDNF, a primary hormone for learning and memory.
Modafinil – Essentially caffeine on steroids. This was produced to promote wakefulness, and as a result of it doing a great job at that, modafinil produces a heightened state of concentration and cognition. It’s even been implicated as something that could be used to break stimulant addiction.
But there’s a caveat, it’s a prescription drug, unlike all the other ones I’ve mentioned. So you don’t want to try it without first doing the research.
Takeaway – Once again, the best practice with supplements is to limit the dose and take days off regularly. In no context should you let them replace the diet. If that’s the case, then the diet itself needs changing.
GABA, acetyl-choline, serotonin, dopamine. All these neurotransmitters I’ve mentioned should be constantly churned out from the foods you’re eating on a daily basis. It’s for this reason I think a high sugar diet just doesn’t fit the bill when you’re seeking out ways to better the brain. The extra inflammation, coupled with the shortcomings in nutrition, means it’s disastrously net negative.
To get the best out of nootropics, avoiding resistance and maintaining their effects, follow these rules.
- Keep one day in the week completely free of supplements.
- Take relaxation enhancers only in the evening.
- Don’t use stimulants past midday.
Upgrading The Brain
In the apex brain blueprint, habits and the diet are the prime movers. Supplements are the thin but delicious layer of chocolate icing over the top of a rich cake. And regardless of how brilliantly laid out the plan is, it’s going to count for nothing if you don’t return to the starting block each morning. Just like building the ultimate sleeve splitting biceps, intensity and technique get completely trumped by frequency.
Learn to love the process, and do your best to not get bogged down by it. If a habit just isn’t jiving with you, don’t feel like you have to stubbornly stick by it. Cold showers aren’t for everyone, neither is the carnivore diet. Be open minded, but be brave enough to cut ties when progress stutters to halt, or apathy sets in.
This is very much the code of conduct for all of the apex guides I’ve laid out, including the ones I haven’t written yet. I haven’t set up my training by copying any individual, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to clone mine. Instead, just take the ideas that feel right for you, and start scheming your fitness transformation from there.