I have been writing and planning for much of this year, and it has called on me to have far greater focus and concentration than usual. Aside from the obvious things like getting plenty of sleep, and fresh air, and staying hydrated, I’ve trialed a few brain optimisation hacks. Here are a few of the brain foods I’ve found particularly helpful.
Okay, I’m not talking psilocybin (check out the new Netflix documentary – How to Change Your Mind – for some of that). But there are some remarkable brain boosting benefits to be had from culinary mushrooms. Most of the brain supplements out there are now packed full of mushrooms.
I was told a long time ago to eat things that look like the organ or system to boost well-being. For example, carrots (think sliced) for the eyes, sweet potatoes for the pancreas and so on. Walnuts and cauliflower most closely resemble the brain. But what we now know about mushrooms and the complex web of communication they provide trees, for example, it isn’t outrageous to suggest they may resemble the nervous system.
Three medicinal mushrooms stand out when it comes to brain health – Chaga, Reishi, and Lion’s Mane (there’s also Cordyceps for performance). Research has shown that these three mushrooms reduce neuro-inflammation, improve cognition, help with anxiety and depression, decrease plaque formation (that drives Alzheimers and Dementia), reduce oxidative stress, and mild cognitive impairment. Moreover they protect neurons from damage and support new neural growth and brain pathways.
I picked up an amazing latte blend of mushrooms in California, that I add to my smoothie bowl every day. Amazon stock a range of capsules and powders combining these three mushrooms, although I haven’t tried any to recommend. What I have tried, though, and am very happy to suggest is Four Sigmatic’s Think Coffee – a bit pricey at almost £20 a bag, but it works. The coffee tastes great, you have the added brain food from the mushrooms, and none of the caffeine crashing common to normal coffee.
L-Theanine and Caffeine
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the famous experiment where researchers plied spiders with various substances and then observed the effect it had on their ability to form webs. Some, like low dose LSD, boosted the process, the webs became more intricate and creative. Caffeine destroyed it. Think of a patchy web, half finished pieces, big holes left by lack of focus, and consistency.
I love coffee but if I’m honest, I can recognise myself in that half finished spiders web. Too much caffeine and any energy boosting property gives way to the jitters, lack of focus, and mild anxiety.
That’s where L-Theanine comes in. It’s a nootropic or smart drug, said to enhance cognition. Found in green tea (and mushrooms), L-Theanine is essentially a stress reducer that promotes GABA release. On it’s own it has the power to boost creativity and focus. When taken with coffee, it takes the edge off the caffeine jitters, meaning you get all the benefits of caffeine like focus and productivity, but with none of the crashing.
Whilst L-Theanine is considered pretty safe, it’s well worth trying it on its own before you start experimenting with coffee. In certain instances it can cause dizziness, so do take your time to figure out if it will work for you. When combining with coffee, you need to get the balance right. Too much L-Theanine and you’ll feel lethargic and lose all the benefits of caffeine. General wisdom says a ratio of 1:2 caffeine to L-Theanine (ie 100mg caffeine to 200mg L-Theanine), but why not start at 1:1 and work up.
L-Theanine is tasteless. You can find it on Amazon or from any health supplement shop.
Strictly speaking, medicinal mushrooms and L-Theanine also fall into the category. Adaptogens are natural substances that may have a positive impact on cognitive functioning, mood, and overall stress levels. They have been used for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic and ancient Chinese medicine.
Rhodiola Rosea is a popular Ayurvedic Adaptogenic herb, often recommended for studying. Research has shown that it can help to increase concentration and focus,reduce fatigue, and enhance cognitive performance. The Vikings were said to be big fans of this herb.
Holy Basil or Tulsi is another Ayurvedic nootropic, often used to enhance meditation with its cognitive benefits such as focus, and energy. Pukka make a really nice Tulsi tea or you can grow the herb fairly easily.
Schisandra berries, native to China, Korea, and Russia have been shown to protect against cognitive decline, boosting the learning and memory functions of the brain, as well as being a mild anti-depressant.
And finally, if all this supplementation makes you uneasy, how about using oils. I can attest to the superpowers of Rosemary oil which has been shown time and time again to boost information recall and memory function. Peppermint oil famously alleviates Alzheimer’s, as well as boosting memory and concentration. Lavender, lemon and sage oils also score high when it comes to improving attention and boosting brain health.
But, of course, one of the key things you can do to boost your brain is ensure it has a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients. Check out this month’s suggested practice to enhance both.