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Path to Health - Day 12: Hacking Your Brain's Chemistry

When I spoke on Day 3 about our brain's chemistry having an impact on our behavior, I also mentioned that I wouldn't be delving too much into how to manipulate this, as it can get risky. However, there are a few safe and healthy ways to nudge your brain's chemistry in the right direction that I want to talk about.

But just as a disclaimer, I'll briefly touch on the more, erm...adventurous ways to hack your brain's chemistry. I first got obsessed with this idea back in 2011, when I watched the amazing movie "Limitless" starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. The movie centers around a struggling, depressed writer (Cooper), who is given an experimental drug by his ex-brother-in-law, and this drug enhances his brain's capabilities to the point that he has a 4-digit IQ and seemingly boundless motivation and drive (at least until the drug wears off)--as he puts it in the movie, "Suddenly, I knew everything about everything...I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly how to do it."

Now, this level of brain enhancement is pure science fiction, but the idea behind the drug is what compelled me to further research into chemical enhancement. This idea is that, as our brains are physical, tangible objects made of matter, they are subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as all other matter. And as our brains dictate our personalities, and our personalities dictate our behavior, if we could find a way to chemically intervene with the source of our personalities, we could theoretically dictate our own behavior to be more in line with succeeding at our goals simply through chemistry alone.

This led me to the amazing world of nootropics: drugs that are engineered to enhance our brain's performance in a variety of areas, whether it's general cognition, memory recall, test performance, alertness, or anything else. You all have very likely had some minor experience with nootropics, whether you realize it or not; caffeine is the Number 1 most used nootropic worldwide, as it serves to make us more alert for a time. A lot of prescription medication can be considered nootropics: antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, Adderall, Ritalin, etc. The problem is that there are a lot of illicit drugs that circle through the nootropic underground movement as well: anything from marijuana to LSD and more.

And more and more private vendors are cropping up all over the internet to sell you the next new fad in the nootropic world. Some of these are bound to be snake oil salesmen, some legitimate. But even the legitimate drugs are ones that should be researched heavily and only tested with extreme caution. This is my ultimatum to you all. I still think that nootropics are highly intriguing, if for no other reason than academically (because I'm a nerd like that), but if you don't know what you're getting into, nootropics carry risks not just to your physical health, but potentially to your social standing, job standing, and your freedom from incarceration. So buyer beware.

NOW! Since I got that bit out of the way, I want to move on to safe ways to hack your brain chemistry. To do this, there are a few primary brain chemicals that you need to know:

Dopamine - I talked about dopamine briefly before when talking about habit design. It's basically the drug that drives you to do a certain task to keep you happy and healthy, giving you a small burst of pleasure once you achieve such a task...or at least that's its original intent. Dopamine is also the chemical typically responsible for addiction, whether that addiction is to a substance like alcohol or an action like gambling or online gaming. The most addictive online games are designed to keep pulling you in through giving you small tasks with in-game rewards (items, levels, etc.) to make you feel accomplished. Your brain gets the dopamine hit, and it keeps wanting to come back for more. If your brain can't be patient enough to work through a task to get its next fix, it will convince you to pay real money just to get it, and this is how "freemium" games like Candy Crush make so much money.

This is why habit design is so critical: because if you're not actively creating your own habits, someone else could be doing it for you, and it's highly unlikely that they are doing so with YOUR best interests in mind. And don't just design habits for habits' sake: set goals for yourself. Set large goals that you can break down into smaller goals, and before you achieve one goal, make sure another goal is set. This way, you don't have to worry about feeling bored and unproductive afterwards, and you are continually working to improve your life.

Serotonin - Serotonin is the chemical linked with self-confidence and self-esteem. It grows when you feel significant in the world. Lacking serotonin often leads to feelings of loneliness, depression, inadequacy, and inferiority. If you research depression medications, you'll notice many of them contain SSRIs: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I won't bore you with the science here, because the important thing to notice is the link between serotonin and depression or self-confidence/self-esteem.

One great way to raise serotonin is to make a habit of reflecting on your past accomplishments, since our brains cannot distinguish between what is currently happening in reality and what it is simply remembering. I compiled a list long ago of all the amazing things I've experienced and done in my life, and I keep this list updated whenever something new happens that's super-awesome. Whenever I feel down, reflecting on this list really helps elevate my mood.

Another great way to improve your serotonin is to spend about 20 minutes each day in natural sunlight, meaning you're getting both serotonin AND Vitamin D. I do this every morning by taking a half-hour walk after breakfast. I love morning walks, it gets in a bit of cardio, it boosts my serotonin, and it holds a host of other benefits from reducing anxiety to strengthening leg muscles to oxygenating the body to reducing the risk of heart attack by upwards of 50%.

Oxytocin - Oxytocin is known as the "love drug," as it helps us form emotional bonds with the people in our lives. It's released in large quantities upon orgasm, so regular sex with your partner is a healthy way to keep oxytocin up as well as keep your relationship healthy. However, there are ways to increase oxytocin with people you don't want to have sex with as well, such as giving someone a hug or a gift. Social health is a key to overall health and happiness, so keeping oxytocin flowing is important to factor into any health regime.

Endorphins - Endorphins are released when we feel under duress as a way to combat anxiety or depression. While exercise is the most commonly touted way to increase endorphins (and a great suggestion at that), there are a few other ways to hack your endorphin levels. Laughter is one way, such as watching stand-up comedians or reading funny emails (yes, those cats that want to has cheezburgers CAN make you healthier). Aromatherapy is another: specifically, the smell of vanilla and lavender are shown to increase endorphins, and I'm burning a vanilla-scented candle as I type this for this very effect. And lastly, eating either spicy foods or dark chocolate can also hack some extra endorphins into your brain.

Cortisol - Cortisol is one of the nasty drugs we want to reduce. It's released upon periods of high stress in your life. The idea behind cortisol is that your brain senses stress as a definition of an immediate threat you need to address, so cortisol comes in to basically shut down any aspects of your body that don't serve to fight an IMMEDIATE threat. It puts you on edge to respond as quickly as possible to a fight-or-flight scenario, because your brain believes that whatever is stressing you out might kill you. However, since your brain is preparing you for what's supposed to be a very quick and impermanent threat, cortisol shuts down your immune system, since your brain figures that you don't need to address long-term threats that your immune system protects against while you've got more immediate problems on your hands.

If you're feeling chronically stressed in some aspect of your life (work, home life, etc.), then you owe it to yourself to resolve this as soon as possible. If you have to quit your job, do so--your body will thank you for it later. And get plenty of sleep: 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night is nature's best way to get your cortisol levels in check.

So that's all I have for you today! Just to recap: set goals and habits, reflect on your accomplishments, spend some time outdoors each day, hug people, give gifts, have sex (or at least cuddle with your partner), laugh lots, take time to smell the flowers (preferably vanilla and lavender), eat dark chocolate and spicy foods once in a while, and get plenty of sleep. Do these things, and you'll be setting your brain up for a much happier, healthier you.