True Optimal Mental Performance – Stop Discriminating Against Neurotransmitters

By on April 18, 2015

What does optimal mental performance feel like? If you’re a biohacker in pursuit of the optimal cognitive function, then it’s important that you understand precisely what it is that you’re actually aiming for.

In this article I’ll discuss what I believe is the matter with the most common approaches to nootropics and cognitive enhancement and propose an alternative approach. It’s time to stop discriminating against neurotransmitters and to look instead at optimal energy and nutrition combined with a powerful mental discipline.

Biohackers on a Wild Goose Chase?

Unfortunately, I feel that the vast majority of biohackers and nootropic aficionados are actually chasing the rainbow, or their tail or something else that just can’t be caught. Ask someone what they hope to achieve with smart drugs and they’ll often reference Limitless, even though they’ve been assured a thousand times that that’s really not possible.

More alarming still are those who want some kind of ‘buzz’ or ‘kick’ from their stacks. The feeling here is that if you can’t ‘feel’ it working, then you aren’t actually getting any benefit from the supplements you’re taking. Modafinil works because you feel wired right? Noopept is great because you experience your senses more vividly, yes?

Nootropics gone bad

I would argue the opposite. In fact, I would go as far as to say feeling any kind of ‘buzz’ is actually a sign that your brain is functionally sub-optimally.

Caffeine is the classic example of a substance that gives you a ‘kick’ or a ‘buzz’ and makes you feel wired. But is that wired feeling ‘optimal’ or is it actually just a sign of an imbalance? Is it not just an indication that you have too much dopamine and norepinephrine and not enough adenosine and GABA?

Sure, dopamine and norepinephrine make you more focused and more alert. That’s great. But they also hamper creative thinking by preventing you from decompressing and exploring alternate solutions to problems. Increased focus = decreased creativity.

If you’re playing scrabble and you’re trying desperately to come up with a 9-letter word that will land you on that triple word score, then caffeine will actually impede your performance because you’ll be too focused on just a few obvious outcomes and too eager to make your move.

Likewise, if you’re in a stressful social situation, then caffeine (and by extension all other stimulants) will make you perform worse because you’ll be too wired and focused and anxious to let conversation flow naturally and confidently.

And when you come to relax, you won’t be able to ‘switch off’ and you’ll thus burn yourself out – meaning you don’t recover and you need even more stimulants the next day to function. This creates a vicious cycle.

Social Nootropics?

The nootropic community are aware of this problem with using things like modafinil and caffeine. They realize that it’s a solution not suited to every scenario which is why they will also occasionally turn to things like phenibut – a modified version of GABA which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces brain activity and which helps produce feelings of calm and relaxation.

Some users will refer to phenibut as a ‘social nootropic’ while others might use it alongside other stacks to help take the edge off. It can also aid creativity too to an extent.

The same goes for l-theanine, which is enjoyed in green tea because it helps to make the caffeine a little more ‘gentle’. I wrote a big post on social nootropics recently and I found them to be lacking [spoiler].

So now what you basically have is a pot of pills to get you wired and focused and another pot of pills to help you relax and interact with people.

Does that sound entirely healthy to you? Or like ‘optimal brain function’? Wouldn’t optimal brain function be a scenario where you could do all those things all the time? And without the headaches or insomnia?

Other Problems With Discriminating Against Neurotransmitters

There are other problems with raising individual neurotransmitters too – such as the fact that the brain tends to respond with tolerance and dependence. In other words, if you constantly increase dopamine, then your dopamine receptors start to diminish. Your brain craves equilibrium and so this should be taken as somewhat of a clue that suddenly increasing one neurotransmitter isn’t a particularly good idea.

Then there’s the fact that no neurotransmitter works in a vacuum. That is to say that you can’t raise one neurotransmitter without affecting others even if you want to. If you increase glutamine or dopamine, your brain will think you’re scared or super alert and it will respond by flooding you with adrenaline and generally making you even more wired. We don’t even know all the neurotransmitters that exist yet and the precise actions of many of them are unknown to us. We don’t even know the mechanisms of action for many of the nootropics we use. How does Piracetam work? We have ideas but aren’t entirely sure. But hey, I’m sure it can’t do that much damage right?

The Alternative

I realized a while back when experimenting with various different nootropics that I tended to either feel wired and focused or spacey. Either that or I’d be experiencing a trough and have no energy (probably due to lack of proper sleep). This is optimum mental performance?

It seems to me that a lot of people use nootropics almost to try and escape themselves. They use them hoping they’ll suddenly wake up to a world of new ideas and possibilities and become far more witty and engaging in social situations. These people essentially want to transcend their humanity and/or stop being them. This is essentially Freud’s Thanatos impulse in action (the drive to destroy or lose yourself). Instead, I feel that the aim should simply be to become you but on your very best day.

My belief is that optimal mental performance is simply the way you feel on an amazing day. That means you’re unstressed, it means the sun is out, it means you’ve been active lately, you’ve had plenty of sleep and you’ve been eating and drinking really healthily. You feel wide awake and full of energy, you feel optimistic and the whole world is a little brighter. It’s clean energy, not ‘wired but tired’ energy. On top of that, you have the mental discipline and the training to be able to focus 100% on what you’re doing, and you’re able to engage with any task at hand. That’s optimal mental performance. And no amount of caffeine, modafinil, theanine or racetams will do that for you…

So what does do that for you?

Ultimate Brain Performance Done Right

Cognitive Metabolic Enhancers

For one, I think that the cognitive metabolic enhancers are one group of nootropics I can get behind. Those are your CoQ10s which improve mitochondrial function in your brain and your creatines which give you more available ATP. Those are your vitamin Ds which help sleep and improve hormone balance and those are your omega 3 fatty acids which improve cellular transmission by improving cell membrane permeability. Beat juice and garlic could be useful too as they cause vasodilation (aiding the delivery of oxygen and blood to the brain) while I have also toyed around with lutein and found that to be somewhat interesting.

How is this different from using modafinil or caffeine? Because you’re not increasing any given neurotransmitter – you’re not changing the ‘state’ of your brain. Instead you’re simply improving the energy supplied to the brain and giving it more power to use all neurotransmitters. All these substances are normal and they simply ‘boost’ your brain giving you more ability to focus, to remember and to relax when you need to.

I’ve been calling this stack ‘The Competitive Edge’ (in my head) and for a while I enjoyed using it. Recently though, I decided I didn’t want to be reliant on supplements to be on the top of my game and so I started trying to get these same things from my diet instead. I’ve been eating a lot organ meat for instance and beef. Beef alone is full of protein, saturated fat, zinc, CoQ10, creatine, l-carnitine and more and liver gives you a shit-ton of iron. Generally getting these substances from your food is more fun, more affordable and more bioavailable. And everything is balanced.

That said I do still take an all-in-one protein shake which is also filled with tons of good stuff.

brain-upgrade

Nutrition

Nutrition generally is pretty much the key to feeling amazing. While there are lots of complicated diets out there, I think the most important thing to aim for with your diet is an intake of lots of varied micronutrients.

Getting the right quantity and balance of vitamins and minerals is crucial for optimal cognitive performance. Studies show that zinc for instance is crucial for brain plasticity (1) and it also improves testosterone production (which increases energy and drive) . Magnesium combats depression, improves the function of the NMDA receptors, aids with cellular energy, treats ADHD and combats inflammation. It also helps migraines and aids REM sleep. I could go on with each and every vitamin and mineral and we’re discovering more benefits for all of them all the time (2).

Meanwhile, your brain and neurotransmitters are actually made of amino acids and fats. Want more dopamine for focus? That’s a catecholamine amino acid, meaning that it comes from amino acids. Want more serotonin? Then you’ll be wanting tryptophan. Theanine? That’s an amino acid and all.

Eat eggs, because apart from being packed with all the amino acids and zinc, they’re also high in saturated fat and choline. Choline by the way is a precursor to acetylcholine and it’s through acetylcholine that Piracetam has its effects.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve been having a salad at lunch time, eating more fish and organ meats for dinner, packing in eggs and drinking natural smoothies… and I’ve never felt more amazing. Are the smoothies packed with sugar? Sure (though vegetable smoothies aren’t so bad). But the benefits drastically outweigh the negatives. I feel like a kid again and I just feel generally great.

If you’re now thinking how convenient it is that natural food should contain all these micronutrients in balances that boost our mental performance – you’ve got it backwards. Our brains evolved to thrive on the food they had available. Your brain is literally designed to operate its best when it is getting a mix of proteins, fruits and vegetables. And our ancestors that were more successful in getting these things were the ones that thrived and lived to reproduce. The best way to ‘hack’ the brain now, is just to get those most nutrient dense foods and feel your brain come to life.

Lifestyle

On top of getting an excellent nutrient-dense diet, what else can you do to perform optimally? Here are the three biggest game changers:

  • Get more sleep
  • Exercise more
  • Get sunlight and fresh air

That last one is super potent. Think about how you feel when it’s a beautiful day with the sun out and everything looking amazing and green. It genuinely energizes you more than any pre-workout and it’s a clean and healthy high. There has even been speculation that Silicone Valley is where it is because the weather in California is so conducive to productivity.

You can’t improve the weather where you live but what you can do is to make sure you’re outside when the weather is good. I also really enjoy using my Lumie Starter 30 – which is a ‘daylight lamp’ that creates a simulated sunrise first thing in the morning to wake me up.

Exercising more meanwhile will give you an immediate energy boost, as well as providing your brain with a steadier flow of oxygen and blood in the long term while contributing to increased neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells). Exercise also increases your mitochondrial count – especially

And sleeping is also super potent. If you want to feel a good 10-20% better tomorrow then just make sure you have a great night’s sleep. It’s really that simple and a great night’s sleep will give you a much bigger boost than any nootropic will on its own. This is particularly pertinent seeing as many of these supplements actually make it harder to sleep. Did you know that what many people mistake for ‘morning grogginess’ is actually just caffeine withdrawal?

Discipline

With all this, will come more energy and focus and you will have more of the raw materials to create every neurotransmitter. Thus your balance will still be fine but in principle every emotion and brain state can be felt with greater intensity and without wearing you out.

Next comes the ability to actually use all that energy and processing power – and that’s where meditation comes in for many. For me, one of the most powerful tools is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ which is all about listening to the contents of your thoughts and then replacing them with different thinking patterns (cognitive restructuring). This is largely used for treating anxiety disorders like phobias but I’ve spoken in the past about how you can use a similar strategy for increasing focus or even activating flow states.

To give you the short version – flow states happen when your brain thinks something really important is happening and then responds by producing dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide etc. But it’s not being on a snowboard or having an amazing conversation that is really making that happen – it’s you believing that what is happening is very important.

So if you can train yourself to treat everything you do as the most important job worthy of your attention, then you will be able to harness those neurotransmitters (you have all the precursors and energy from your diet) and you’ll be able to be in ‘flow’ at pretty much all times.

Likewise, mental discipline is what gives you the ability to ‘switch off’ when you’re trying not to work – which is actually just as important for recharging your batteries, re-energizing and being able to give it your all next time.

Conclusion

At the moment I’ve been feeling more positive, alert, creative, focused and switched on than I have for ages – and definitely moreso than I ever did on Modafinil. Why? I’ve been waking up early and doing a cardio + resistance workout to start my day at 7.30am, I’ve been drinking natural smoothies (it’s worth the sugar for all those micronutrients), eating more high quality meat, having salad at lunch and getting more fresh air and sunlight.

In conclusion then, it’s crucial to know what it is you’re looking for on your quest for optimal brain power. And my hunch is that many biohackers have been looking in the wrong place. The objective is not to think ‘different’ but instead to be ‘you but better’. Increase your brain power by getting more energy and nutrition and more sleep – and then practice using your brain and honing that potential.

Still want your thinking to be ‘different’? Try my articles on developing synaesthesia and becoming ambidextrous.

Next up, I’ll be shining a spotlight on brain plasticity…

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Leon says:

    Have you got any recipes for organ meats I could use?

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