Understanding the Mind-Body Connection to Better Optimize Mental Performance – And Take Conscious Control of Your Physiology?

By on September 16, 2016

Hey guys! Been away a while sorry moving house – but today I finally have internet back and am setting up a new office with a new computer. Expect a LOT more content going forward!


Imagine trying to solve a complex maths problem while I was standing on your hand.

Chances are, you would find it more difficult than normal.

This is an immediate and very simple demonstration of just how interconnected the mind and the body are. And of how your body needs to be at its optimum if your hope your body will perform in kind.

Because while I might not stand on your hand (and yet I might!), there could well be many other things that are having a similar effect on you right now.

That could be a key that’s digging into your leg through your pocket for example…

Or it might be mild indigestion, owing to something you ate that perhaps you shouldn’t have.

And then there are the many, much more impressive manners in which your physical state can end up impacting on your mental state. In fact, your mental state is very often little more than a reflection of your physiological state and completely out of your control…


How Your Hunger, Light and Temperature Affect Your Performance

Your ability to perform is to a large extent controlled by your ability to focus and this has largely to do with your emotions. And if you’re like most people, then your emotions will be something that you have remarkably little control over and that will instead be dictated by your body.

Take your appetite for example. When you are very hungry, what you will find is that your body starts to produced leptin – the hunger hormone. This also increases production of cortisol – the stress hormone – which in turn makes you feel jittery and anxious. In the wild, this would have been useful to encourage us to conserve energy and go out seeking food. But if you’re trying to work, or motivate yourself to train, then it’s not terribly helpful.

So you eat and then what happens? Your body detects the sudden spike in blood sugar and responds by releasing insulin. Insulin then encourages your body to use up this sugar and that in turn causes a spike in serotonin (actually caused by tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin found in most sugary foods). Hence why we feel all warm and fuzzy after we’ve just eaten! Eating puts us in a ‘rest and digest state’, whereas being hungry makes us more ‘fight or flight’.

This serotonin then gets converted to melatonin, which of course is the sleep hormone. That’s why everyone falls asleep on the couch after Sunday lunch. Once again, this isn’t terribly conducive to productivity and if you’re trying to perform your best, then eating a massive meal to fix your low blood sugar won’t work either.

And there are countless other things all affecting you too. Bright light for instance increases cortisol and combats melatonin. Cold weather meanwhile spikes your adrenaline and testosterone – making you more focussed and alert (cool article from Scientific America). This is why they often keep the temperature quite low in theatres and lecture halls – to prevent the audience from falling asleep!


Image credit: Aldelano

There are countless other things at play here too – like pro-inflammatory cytokines that are thought to contribute to depression and low motivation due to their effects on neurochemistry. These reduce neural activity, which is why we feel so lethargic when we’re ill (1). Fighting off an illness? Then you’re not going to be performing your very best! What you eat can also play a role in your cytokine production.

The main mechanism of tiredness throughout the day though is probably the build-up of other metabolites while you use your brain throughout the day. Adenosine for example is the by-product of brain cell energy metabolism and is released when ATP is used for energy (ATP is adenosine triphosphate, three adenosine molecules that are held together by high-energy bonds – adenosine is what’s leftover when those bonds are broken). Adenosine has a neuro-inhibitory action and thus reduces activity across the brain as it builds up. The more you use your brain and the longer you stay awake, the more adenosine starts to slow things down. It’s only by sleeping (or drinking caffeine) that you wake back up! This process is the sleep homeostatic process and there are likely several other contributing factors here – such as your circadian rhythms (natural rhythms of wakefulness and tiredness) and depletion of neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Exercise impacts on endorphins. Testosterone and estrogen are affected by diet, sleep and hormonal cycles (as women well know!) and all of this can also impact on your drive, mood and memory – even your compassion. Tiredness impacts on moral judgement and fitness alters your RHR (resting heartrate) which in turn can reduce cortisol and increase testosterone.


So if you’re struggling to be productive, feeling low or can’t build the motivation to train, have a think about what’s going on in your body and how this might have led to the unmotivated state you now find yourself in. Did you let your blood sugar get too low? Conversely, might you have eaten too much? Could you be getting ill? Did you fail to flush your adenosine and replenish neurotransmitter stores? Is something digging into your leg? Is it too hot or too cold? Is it your time of the month?

Your physiology is what dictates how your body feels. This impacts on your emotions. And your emotions give rise (at least partly) to your thoughts. Finally, thoughts determine behaviour.

So if you’re struggling to get the behaviour you want from yourself, try going to the root of the problem and looking at what could have affected your physiology to have this negative effect.

Embodied Cognition, Stress and Heartrate Variability

Even stress that starts in the mind actually has a complex interaction with the body too.

If you read my piece on embodied cognition, then you will have heard of the theory that we use our bodies to understand what we read, hear and think. In other words, we parse English by visualizing the meaning of the words and how it would affect our bodies. If someone tells you about how they walked through a jungle, the areas in your brain light up as though you were walking through the jungle.

And this could very likely explain how someone just telling you a scary story – or how you just speculating about negative outcomes – could result in a release of stress hormones.

And this then affects your brain via your body. That stress stimulus causes a flood of neurotransmitters and hormones which impact on your heartrate and on your heartrate variability. That is to say that your heartrate increases and suddenly becomes erratic. This sends a physiological sign to your brain that all is not well in your body.

Guess what happens next? Your prefrontal cortex shuts down! Now is not the time for higher level thinking, your body is getting clear signals that you are in danger (2). In the best case scenario this can put you in a ‘flow state’, in the worst case scenario it leaves you frozen like a rabbit in headlights, causes you to stutter and prevents you from thinking ahead or reasoning properly. It can also lead to ‘tunnel vision’ – where you are only able to focus on one thing, normally that being the ‘stressor’ (which can also be auditory or semantic in nature).

In the wild this would have been useful when faced with a grizzly bear. Today, when in an interview with a potential future employer, becoming a dribbling moron is categorically not useful! Fighting nor flighting will get you out of this situation (well they will but you won’t get the job…).

None of this is to say that heartrate variability is a bad thing. In fact, you want some variability and if your heartrate is completely regular then it can be a sign of adrenal fatigue or of depression.

Again, what you eat, how you sleep, how you train and even loud noises in your environment can all also impact on this heartrate variability. Practicing steady breathing meanwhile can help you to regulate both your heartrate and your HRV (though be weary of some very bold claims about the magic powers of heartrate variability and ‘coherence’ that aren’t entirely proven).  Heartrate variability is also popular as a measure of recovery after a workout and appears to correlate with grip (3) – interestingly your heartrate on its own does not. One more reason you might not be performing optimally then is that you aren’t recovered from your last workout – it doesn’t just affect your body but your brain as well!

Is Your Gut Your Second Brain?

Ever heard that you should trust your ‘gut feeling’? Once again, it seems that language conventions may illuminate some hidden truths about the nature of our bodies.

The gut is now commonly referred to as the ‘second brain’ and there are a number of reasons for this. One reason relates to what we discussed earlier – how feelings of hunger (signals come from both the brain and the blood) can impact on our serotonin levels via a series of neurons known as the ‘enteric nervous system’. This set of nerves also enables us to handle digestion and other processes without having to give it conscious thought – a little like having a GPU (Gut Processing Unit) separate from our main ‘CPU’. But it actually goes beyond this too and gets pretty darn weird…

That’s because the bacteria in our gut are also responsible for producing and breaking down various neurochemicals, meaning that the balance of ‘gut flora’ can actually have a big impact on your mood and on your energy levels. Did you know that over 90% of your serotonin is found in your gut? Or that the gut uses over 30 different neurotransmitters? This explains why SSRIs used to treat depression can often cause GI problems – and potentially why there is a seeming correlation between IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Beneficial bacteria in the gut has also been linked to an increase in GABA receptors in the brain, GABA being an inhibitory neurotransmitter linked with deep sleep. And of course deeper sleep will mean better restoration and reduced adenosine…

This has given rise to a whole new filed of neurogastroenterology and I’ve barely scratching the surface here (it’s a topic I’ll be revisiting in future for sure) but it’s certainly fascinating and another example of why your brain isn’t an entirely separate entity that could potentially operate on its own. Without your body, your personality would be completely different – or non-existent.

Using This Information

So ultimately what I’m saying, is that your mental state and thus your cognitive performance is largely out of your hands. You’re a victim of your physiology – of your appetite, the weather and how much sleep you got the night before…

But now you know at least and that means you can start to do something about it. So what is there to do?

Let’s look at some of the things you can take back control and stack the deck in your favour…

Monitor Your Energy Levels, Tiredness and Mood

Like I said, the first step is simply acknowledging the role your physiology has in your cognitive performance. If you’re struggling to focus or to come up with your best work, why might that be? Could it be that you’re just tired? Did you get enough sleep? Or are you too hot or cold? Maybe your blood sugar is all wrong…

From here, you can start assessing each possibility and fixing it to give yourself the best chance of performing optimally.

Take Measures to Alter Your State

For the most part, the body comes in two flavors: aroused and relaxed. You’re either in ‘fight or flight’ or ‘rest and digest’. Either catabolic or anabolic. Of course this is more like a spectrum than a binary set of options (you can be a ‘little physiologically aroused’ for sure) but for the most part, you’ll lean more toward one than the other. I’d also like to point out that there are variances within states of arousal or relaxation too.

Often then, the solution to being in the right mental state at the right time can mean just giving yourself a cold shower, changing the music you’re listening to, or doing some exercise. This is something we innately know to do when driving – when we feel our attention wane, we’re told to open the window, stop for coffee or put on rock music. Even just yelling can cause an increase in norepinephrine.

Listening to rock music or watching an action film to get pumped is called ‘priming’ and is a way you can set yourself to the right ‘mode’ before a given activity. I challenge you to listen to Survivor and not want to workout!

Create the Perfect Work Environment

I disctinctly remember a few moments where I perfectly enjoyed working in a particular environment. I love working in the British Library for instance and had an awesome evening working in a bar in Croatia with a friend and some beers. Add the right music and you’ll find it’s much easier to conscentrate and even to enjoy your work.


Find a Routine

This is probably the most effective option of all: find a routine.

My productivity has been all over the place lately due to moving house. As a result, I’m eating all sorts of things, training at weird times and working without WiFi. As a result, my productivity has bottomed out.

Just before my move though, I had a perfect routine that allowed me to maximize my work output and train hard. It involved a Morrisson’s lunch, a morning strength training session, an afternoon walk and an 11pm bedtime. This was the result of lots of tweaking and reviewing but I found it worked for me.

Try doing the same – make a note of what is working for you and when you’re performing your best. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t and formulate a routine that you can use to maximize your effectiveness. This will allow you to take a more logical approach to fixing all the contributing factors and it’s also key to note that the body prefers routine because it is regulated by cycles (such as our circadian rhythm). Once you’re in a routine, your body will know when to be in which state and you’ll know at what times of day you perform best.

How to Take Conscious Control of Your Physiology

But this mind-body connection works both ways…

Instead of trying to

One simple way you can alter your heartrate variability, heartrate and even your core body temperature is through controlled breathing. This is one way that we can actually take conscious command of our physiology and this is a topic I’m fascinated with at the moment.

Any form of controlled breathing will help you to lower your heartrate but what’s super awesome is ‘vase breathing’ – a method practiced by some Tibetan monks (from a form of meditation called g-tummo) that allows them to control their core body temperature. This is effective to the point where they can actually dry wet towels using the method alone and even run through freezing environments. Essentially, it involves breathing in and then exhaling only 85%. At the same time, you’re supposed to visualize your spine being on fire…

Another study showed that it is possible to develop a kind of ‘mind muscle connection’ for the heart. In the study, all that participants were required to do was check their heartrate every three hours. Then, with no further training, they were able to control their heartrate simply by thinking about it. Read more here. This is a therapeutic technique called ‘biofeedback’, which allows us to train and enhance our mindfulness.

And of course meditation will always allow you to change your heartrate and your brainwaves and even to enter into a more anabolic state.

Essentially it boils down to mindfulness but I feel there is room for more discovery and improvement here. Imagine if we could will our brains into certain brainwaves, or to produce certain neurotransmitters.

Whether it involves visualisation, CBT (read my post on using CBT to access flow states), breathing techniques or just a stronger mind-body connection, I believe there’s a lot of untapped potential here…


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.

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