Lesson 1: How to identify brain weaknesses

In 2014 I had a successful business and I wanted to sell it to an interested buyer. I would have truly loved to make a quick sale, but…

…the buyer had to research and clarify the assets and liabilities of the business.

He needed to understand the strengths and weaknesses.

Before embarking too far on a journey to improve your concentration, memory, and general cognitive abilities, it is a good idea to take an inventory of your own strengths and weaknesses.

That is exactly what I’ve done in this lesson. While some of this might seem basic, treat it as a refresher course before we get into the seriously interesting material over the rest of the week.

Here is how we broke it down:

  1. Basics – Understanding Your Brain
    1. Unique Brain Chemistry
    2. Daily Practices
    3. Goals
  2. Advanced – Tips, Tools & Technology
    1. Neurotransmitters – Strengths and Deficiencies
    2. Diet and Micronutrients
    3. Nootropics

Basics – Understanding Your Brain

1.1. Unique Brain Chemistry

My friend Zach runs a successful publishing and media company, which went from 2 to 30 employees in around one year.

In discussing how he could cope with the rapidly growing company, I told him about a nootropic I was taking that worked for me and he stared at me blankly: “dude, I wasted $50 on that and didn’t feel a thing.”

That particular smart drug did nothing for him, but it was one of the most amazing concentration tools I’ve ever used!

Each of our bodies and genetics are unique and the foundation for improving your mental performance is understanding how your unique brain chemistry is affected.

1.2. Daily Practices

Imagine you’re preparing for a basketball game against your biggest rivals. Despite practicing for hours, you still wake up early in the morning, stumble out of bed, and go shoot hoops. By getting practice with hundreds of extra free throw shots, you know you’re increasing your odds of winning.

In contrast, your opponents think they’ve got the game won. They’re already celebrating and enjoying sleeping in, leisure time, and television. They practice when they need to, but they aren’t going above and beyond.

Who do you think will win the game in this scenario?

Most likely: the person who practiced the most.

There is a saying, “first we make our habits, then our habits make us.

In short, if you aren’t maintaining healthy practices, then you are fighting an uphill battle to try and improve your concentration, memory retention, and improve cognitive performance.

Here are some practices that impact your unique brain weaknesses:

  • Gluten – there are plenty of studies that show gluten can cause inflammation in the brain. Plenty of doctors, such as Kelly Brogan and David Perlmutter, have discussed this in-depth, but maybe gluten does not affect your brain. Lesson 2 will teach you how to find out.
  • Dairy – there is plenty of evidence dairy consumption can lead to anxiety, depression, and other poor mental states. There is no telling whether that is true for your unique brain chemistry, but it is worth figuring out.
  • Vitamins / Minerals – are you getting enough basic vitamins and minerals? If you are deficient in certain things because of your diet, then you might have weaknesses related to this rather than genetics.
  • Exercise – this is the lowest hanging fruit. Exercise helps balance hormones, but lacking this practice can cause deficiencies in many brain chemicals.
  • Sleep – sleep deprivation has drastic impacts on memory and concentration. Just see any basic test on cognitive abilities without adequate sleep.
  • Stress-reduction – responsibilities of modern humans creates all types of stress. There are plenty of studies on how meditation and mindfulness literally changes your brain (see: Sara Lazar at Harvard University).

But here’s the thing… I’m not telling you to do or not do any of the above.

These are daily practices that inform your mental strengths and weaknesses. Why is this important?

Let’s say you’re looking for improved memory formation and short-term memory. Your first decision is to look for nootropics, such as CDP choline or alpha GPC, which can help you to improve memory formation…

…but if you just added eggs to your diet, you would probably be fine!

It might seem basic to some people, but understanding and taking daily practices into account makes a big difference when you determine how to level up your brain.

1.3. Goals

In the survey I did a few months ago, I got thousands of responses in a wide variety of categories. Here are just a few: 

“Sometimes I’m just fuzzy headed, which is a problem… I can feel my brain is not operating on all cylinders…” Clearing or fixing brain fog seems to be the main concern for this person.

“I often feel mentally lethargic and I have problems keeping myself engaged…” It seems this person’s goal would be to improve concentration and focus in order to stay more engaged on the task at hand.

“I want to concentrate on writing software for long hours and be able to retain information I’m reading…” This one is more complex. They would like to concentrate better, improve mental endurance, and memory retention. Ambitious goals!

As you can see, everyone has different goals when it comes to brain health and sometimes your weaknesses don’t matter at all.

I’ll repeat that: sometimes your weaknesses don’t matter or need correcting.

Why? Simple – your weakness might not matter compared to your goals.

If you are a professional interested in achieving more success, does your slow 1 mile jogging time make any difference? No, it is a weakness that doesn’t matter when compared next to your goals.

The same holds true for cognitive enhancement. Just because you find weaknesses with your unique brain chemistry or daily practices does not mean you need to change them. Just know of them and how they relate to your mental performance goals.

Advanced – Tips, Tools & Technology

2.1. Neurotransmitters – Strengths and Deficiencies

When I was growing up, I had a lot of friends who were taking prescription drugs in order to treat their ADD or ADHD. One of them was named Brendan and he was my best friend…

…until he started taking the drugs and turned into a completely different person.

You see, substances (and just about everything else we do) have a significant impact on our brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

When Brendan took those prescriptions, his neurotransmitters got out of balance, he lacked social skills, and wanted to do nothing more than what he was working on. That was great in some regards, but it cost me a friend for a few years.

The chemical that changed the most (and most likely caused his different personality) was “dopamine”. This is one of 4 major neurotransmitters that are responsible for almost all aspects of concentration, memory formation, creativity, and cognitive performance.

  • Dopamine – this brain chemical has an important role in motor function / skills, concentration, as well as happiness and mood.
  • Serotonin – this neurotransmitter is responsible for well-being and happiness and impacts regulation of sleep.
  • GABA – this brain chemical is responsible for regulating depressive and sedative actions of brain tissue. It plays an important role in relaxation.
  • Acetylcholine – this neurotransmitter is responsible for memory formation.

All of these neurotransmitters are complex and neither scientists nor doctors know what actions each performs, but there is one great way to determine your dominant and deficient neurotransmitters.

Doctor Eric Braverman developed the “Braverman Nature Assessment”, which is a series of true / false questions that can help you determine which neurotransmitter is dominant in your brain and which one is deficient.

It will take 20 minutes or so to complete and it is a relatively simple way to have some guidance.

That being said, keep in mind that this test links attributes and symptoms to the neurotransmitter they are most often associated with. This is not a true indicator of your dominant / deficient brain chemicals.

When I took this test, it seemed relatively accurate given what I know about myself. With a few of the suggestions, I found some incredibly effective nootropics that I still use today. Still, it is a basic tool for learning about generalizations. It is most certainly NOT a diagnostic tool that warrants risky self-experimentation.

Aside from the Braverman Nature Assessment, you have a few other more expensive and time consuming options:

  • Blood neurotransmitter test – Can be useful for some hormones, but not these main four neurotransmitters.
  • Saliva neurotransmitter test – Not a worthwhile method to test neurotransmitters. Not worth the money or time.
  • Urine neurotransmitter test – This can provide a more scientific understanding of your neurotransmitters compared to the Braverman assessment, but it is a stretch. Not worth the money or time.

It completely depends on your budget and willingness to research your own brain chemistry, but for ease and simplicity, I would recommend you stick to the Eric Braverman 15 – 20 minute assessment.

2.2. Diet and Micronutrients

A few years ago I started eating a primarily whole-foods diet that consisted of plants and animals alone. Over time, I started to realize even eating whole foods in the modern day might not give me adequate nutrition…

…boy was I right!

When the full analysis was done, I had only managed to get a small amount of my daily goals.

I started speaking to doctors and foods scientists about why that was happening. How was I so deficient?

The fact is, there are two main reasons:

  1. Our modern diet doesn’t include the same variety as our ancestors. Think about it, for a second. When you eat some chicken, you eat the same part of the animal every time! Our ancestors ate the lungs, kidneys, hearts, and just about everything else which is full of other nutrients.
  2. Modern science shows contrast between “minimum recommended vs. optimal”. Just because you have the minimum recommended dose according to the RDA does not mean it is optimal for your brain to function at the best level.

As we mentioned above, lifestyle factors have a big impact on our brain and determining where our weaknesses might be.

When it comes to filling in the gaps, there are modern drugs and supplements to help.

2.3. Nootropics

A couple of years ago, I had a roommate named Steve who wanted to improve his concentration so that he could be promoted. It was a worthy goal, but he went about it the completely wrong way. He took ginkgo biloba!

Now, if you’re not familiar, this mistake is important because ginkgo biloba is a nootropic that improves memory and has absolutely zero impact on concentration or focus.

Unfortunately, he did not have the research or information at his disposal to know what could help and not…BUT

Luckily you do: here is a full list of mental health goals (in alphabetical order) and the scientifically proven nootropics that can help you achieve that goal.

Note: This isn’t a recommendation, but a clear breakdown based on NCBI research and studies.

  • Alertness – another term for wakefulness, focused, and attentive.
  • Anxiety – cognitive state of worry or concern that impairs wellbeing
    • Kava (decrease anxiety) (8 studies)
    • Theanine (decrease anxiety) (4 studies)
    • Fish oil (decrease anxiety) (2 studies)
    • Lavender (decrease anxiety) (5 studies)
    • Ashwagandha (decrease anxiety) (2 studies)
  • Attention – ability to keep focus on chosen targets
    • Bacopa monnieri (increase attention) (3 studies)
    • Rhodiola rosea (increase attention) (1 study)
    • Pycnogenol (increase attention) (1 study)
    • Phosphatidylserine (increase attention) (1 study)
    • CDP Choline (increase attention) (1 study)
    • Modafinil (increase attention) (2 studies)
  • Cerebral Blood Flow – amount of blood (thus oxygen) delivered to the brain
    • Resveratrol (increases blood flow) (1 study)
    • Fish oil (increases blood flow) (1 study)
    • Ginkgo biloba (increases blood flow) (1 study)
    • Green tea catechins (decreases blood flow) (1 study)
  • Cognition – blanket statement referring to abilities of the mind to pass tests
    • Panax ginseng (increases cognition) (4 studies)
    • Rhodiola rosea (increases cognition) (4 studies)
    • L-Tyrosine (increases cognition) (3 studies)
    • Phosphatidylserine (increases cognition) (3 studies)
    • D-Serine (increases cognition) (3 studies)
    • Modafinil (increases cognition) (4 studies)
    • Ginkgo biloba (increases cognition) (7 studies)
  • Cognitive Decline – natural reduction in cognition and memory related to age
    • Piracetam (reduces decline) (6 studies)
    • Ginkgo biloba (reduces decline) (11 studies)
    • Phosphatidylserine (reduces decline) (5 studies)
    • Oxiracetam (reduces decline) (5 studies)
    • Eleutherococcus senticosus (reduces decline) (1 study)
    • Fish oil – high dose (reduces decline) (1 study)
  • Fatigue – chronic lack of motivation and energy
    • Rhodiola rosea (reduces fatigue) (7 studies)
    • L-Carnitine (reduces fatigue) (6 studies)
    • CoQ10 (reduces fatigue) (3 studies)
    • Beta Alanine (reduces fatigue) (9 studies)
    • Modafinil (reduces fatigue) (6 studies)
  • Memory – ability to remember things being done, learned, or useful for long-term
    • Ginkgo biloba (increases memory) (11 studies)
    • Bacopa monnieri (increases memory) (8 studies)
    • Melissa officinalis (increases memory) (5 studies)
    • Nicotine (increases memory) (1 study)
  • Quality of Life / Mood – refers to general enjoyability of life
    • CoQ10 (increases QOL) (3 studies)
    • Berberine (increases QOL) (1 study)
    • Oxiracetam (increases QOL) (1 study)
  • Relaxation – self-reported peace of mind and calmness
    • Theanine (increases relaxation) (3 studies)
    • Lavender (increases relaxation) (3 studies)
    • Melissa officinalis (increases relaxation) (1 study)
  • Stress – excessive stimulation of the body’s resources
    • Melissa officinalis (decreases stress) (1 study)
    • Rhodiola rosea (decreases stress) (2 studies)
    • L-Tyrosine (decreases stress) (2 studies)
    • Rose essential oil (decreases stress) (1 study)
  • Working Memory – ability to transiently keep information in the brain
    • L-Tyrosine (improved memory) (4 studies)
    • Modafinil (improved memory) (5 studies)
    • Phosphatidylserine (improved memory) (1 study)
    • Ginkgo biloba (improved memory) (2 studies)

Conclusion

Congrats! We’ve covered a wide range of topics and many of them may have been “basic” for you, but that is a great place to start with Lesson 1.

In this lesson, you should have learned how important your unique brain chemistry is for understanding weaknesses (you are special, just like mommy said! 🙂 Then, with that info you can better understand how habits and nootropics fit into your goals.

But wait a minute…Once you have an idea of what you would like to take, how are you going to figure out whether it helps?

That’s what we will tackle in Lesson 2, which is a comprehensive look at how to see whether your brain changes are helping you reach your goals or not!

With love,

Mansal