By Julie Gregory, Chief Health Liaison for Apollo Health

You’re not alone … and it may not be your fault. So many of the things we attempt to give up (sweets, alcohol, carb-bingeing, etc.) release “feel-good” chemicals in our brains that provide a jolt of pleasure that we actually start to crave. By resolving to just STOP without having a plan in place to re-create similar neurochemically induced feelings can easily lead to failure. Read on for tips to keep your brain happy, motivated, and balanced throughout the day better enabling you to stick to your goals.    

The key to success is to swap out bad habits for healthy new choices that provide those same powerful feel-good chemicals. When you take a bite of cake as an example, powerful neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, etc., are released, flooding your brain with a sense of well-being that may exert control over your behavior without you even being aware. In some people this constant craving for more can lead to a dependency that can ultimately harm your health. As we age, an accumulation of poor choices can lead to inflammation, liver damage, insulin resistance, and more, ultimately affecting our cognitive performance.

By consciously becoming aware of the way that these destructive behaviors can affect your brain’s reward center, you can choose to replace these unhealthy habits with new ones that promote health and neuroprotection. Over time, you can rewire your brain to crave healthier behaviors. This will enable you to achieve your goals more easily and radically improve your health with your new win/win strategy.  

When mindfully working to upregulate our feel-good neurotransmitters, balance is key. Many of us start the day out strong — easily making healthy choices in the morning but then later becoming weak to temptation as the day drags on. We need to be careful not to frontload our production of happy hormones, inadvertently promoting an afternoon crash. Not to mention that the accumulated stress and fatigue of the day make us more susceptible to poor choices in the late afternoon and evening. To overcome this, I’m going to divide my list of healthy swaps into energizing, neutral, and relaxing options, as each can offer the feel-good chemicals we crave, but they need to be timed strategically to create a sense of balance throughout the day.

Energizing (AM) Tips

Sunlight   Expose your eyes to sunlight shortly upon awakening. This will help to naturally set your circadian rhythm (promoting better sleep) while flooding your brain with serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. A great way to increase sunlight exposure is to take a daily nature walk every morning. 

Photobiomodulation/ Gamma   This is a more directed way of focusing light on your brain that has been shown to lift mood, improve cognition, and enhance brain connectivity while also increasing serotonin and dopamine. The VieLight Neuro Gamma device provides two settings: alpha and gamma. The latter (gamma) brain waves are energizing and associated with improved focus, learning, and memory.

Coffee   If you enjoy starting the day with a cup of joe, you’re making your brain very happy. Research suggests that caffeine has a host of neuroprotective benefits including an increase in dopamine. It’s also a stimulant, so stop at noon and limit yourself to a maximum of 4 cups as more can increase homocysteine. Be sure to stick with black coffee (if you’re fasting) with approved non-caloric sweeteners like pure stevia and monk fruit if needed.

Green Tea   If you’re a tea drinker, never fear; you can still benefit. You may want to consider switching to green tea, however, for the epigallocatechin-3-gallate (ECGC), which research has found improves brain function and increases serotonin and dopamine. Even though it contains half the caffeine of coffee, it still provides a nice energizing boost. Be sure to enjoy your tea earlier in the day so as not to interfere with sleep.

Exercise   We already know that exercise exerts powerful neuroprotective benefits, but it also boosts your mood by flooding your brain with endorphins. New research suggests that regular exercise can also help to increase dopamine and serotonin. This benefit has been found to result from both aerobic and strength training when performed consistently.  

Cold shower  Research shows that even a simple strategy, such as ending your shower with a cold blast (62° F), offers a plethora of health benefits, including powerfully upregulating your feel-good chemicals. Start with a 5-second exposure and slowly work up to 60 seconds (per day) over time.

AM supplements   Each of these energizing supplements aids in neuroprotection while also upregulating your happy hormones. They include vitamin D, lion’s mane, and the same B vitamins that play a role in optimizing homocysteine — B12, folate, and B6. Curcumin also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), which some describe as “fertilizer for the brain.” If you take it before exercise, you can boost its effect. Work with your practitioner to see if these supplements are right for you and to identify optimal dosages.  

Low Dose Naltrexone   This option may be helpful for those with autoimmune conditions, suppressed immunity, and even for ApoE4 carriers to help calm their overly activated innate immune system. It works by naturally downregulating opioid receptors at night while you’re sleeping so that you awaken to a flood of endorphins. (To get this energizing effect, the medication is typically taken at night.) Discuss with your functional physician if you think this strategy may be right for you. 

Neutral Tips

Diet   No surprise, our very own neuroprotective KetoFLEX 12/3 is beautifully designed to also upregulate feel-good chemicals by emphasizing specific foods, including seafood, eggs, leafy greens, fermented veggies, legumes, spices, nuts, wild berries, dark chocolate, and by encouraging reduced consumption of saturated fats. Diet is one of our most powerful mood-lifting strategies, underscoring the adage that “food is medicine.” If cooking a whole foods diet feels overwhelming, you can order KetoFLEX 12/3 Meal Kits from Nutrition for Longevity for home delivery.

Music    Music can not only stimulate your brain, it’s also been shown to increase levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins while exerting overall health benefits, including improved blood flow with decreased heart rate and blood pressure. Combining music with other strategies, like exercise or dance, can also boost the effects of both.   

Omega-3s   Pure, high-quality fish or algal oil (especially DHA) has been shown to be neuroprotective and can also increase our brain’s feel-good chemicals. This can be taken at any time of the day. Work with your practitioner to find the safest dosage to help you reach an omega-3 index of 10% or higher for ApoE4 carriers. Adding wild-caught, low-mercury seafood to your diet is another way of safely increasing levels while not overly thinning the blood.

Probiotics   Our feel-good neurotransmitters are not only created in the brain, but also in the gut, offering an opportunity to support cognition by enhancing our gut microbiome. While it’s easy to pop a probiotic supplement (which can transiently be helpful), eating probiotic foods may provide the opportunity to exert a more robust, longer-lasting effect. Get in the habit of including fermented veggies, pickles, miso, low-sugar kombucha, non-dairy or A2 yogurts, and kefirs every day to radically improve both gut and brain health.

Mind-Body Exercise   Yoga, tai chi, qigong, and other mind-body practices are gentle enough to be done at any time of day. These soothing forms of exercise, with built-in stress management, can also upregulate feel-good chemicals, exerting a sense of accomplishment and peacefulness. Apollo Health members can virtually join our yoga classes focused on neuroprotection led by our very own principal research scientist, Dr. Ram Rao.

Spending time in nature   There’s a surprising amount of science that shows many health benefits from spending time outdoors, including a boost in our feel-good chemicals. While in nature, focus on your senses, better enabling you to be fully present. This can be a very grounding experience, providing a respite from our productivity-focused environment.

Meditation   This science-backed stress management strategy can be enjoyed any time of day, providing an opportunity to not only find calm but also upregulate dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Research suggests that experienced meditators may get the most benefit, suggesting that the benefit is enhanced with regular practice.

Sauna   Sauna bathing not only helps to produce happy hormones, but it also offers a host of other health benefits including protection against cardiovascular disease and dementia. A Finnish study found a dramatic 65% risk reduction for Alzheimer’s in those who used it 4 to 7 times per week. The most favorable sauna duration is 5 to 14 minutes per session at a temperature between 80 and 99 °C. To avoid dehydration, it is important to drink plenty of water before and after sauna use. After the sauna, be sure to shower with non-toxic Castille soap to wash toxins away. 

Relaxing (PM) Tips

Cuddling   No surprise, cuddling with your partner, grandchildren, or even pets can provide substantial health benefits, including a boost in happy hormones. Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which plays a role in serotonin and dopamine production is upregulated when you snuggle with those you love.  

Massage    This is another powerful strategy to improve health and upregulate your feel-good chemicals, providing an almost instant sense of well-being. Additionally, massage has been shown to improve circulation, stimulate your lymphatic system, and reduce stress and anxiety. While a professional massage can be a wonderful treat, this is also a strategy that you can practice with your partner. 

PEMF Mat    Be aware that this healthy swap may be amongst the more addictive. This healing matt uses PEMF (Pulsed Electro Magnetic Field) to safely simulate the electromagnetic waves given off by the earth for a powerful health-boosting effect. It’s an amazing tool to enhance sleep quality, reduce inflammation, and improve circulation and lymph flow while also increasing endorphins and serotonin.

Photobiomodulation/ Alpha    While it may seem counterintuitive to shine directed light on your brain later in the day, by using the alpha setting on the VieLight Neuro Gamma device, you may be able to promote relaxation and sleep while concurrently increasing serotonin and dopamine.

PM Supplements   There are many supplements that can help regulate our feel-good neurotransmitters as well as promote relaxation and better sleep. Discuss with your physician to see if these are appropriate for you and to determine an optimal dose. 

Magnesium    Many people are deficient in magnesium without being aware. A deficiency can negatively affect dopamine and serotonin levels. Magnesium Threonate may be particularly helpful for cognition but has a small amount of elemental magnesium. Work to get RBC blood levels to 5.2–6.5 mg/dL. 

Tryptophan    A small dose of tryptophan may be helpful, especially when taken in the middle of the night to help you fall back asleep. Early research suggests that tryptophan may also help with cognition, but only in those who are deficient. (Because it is converted to serotonin in the brain, it is not appropriate if taking an SSRI or SNRI.)

L-theanine    L-theanine, which is also found in tea, is used as a relaxing supplement. Research suggests that it increases brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels.

GABA   This promotes the GABA neurotransmitter, which is well known for relaxation. Interestingly, it’s also been used as an aid for addiction.

Glycine   In addition to boosting serotonin, glycine helps improve mood and sleep quality and enhance memory. It’s also been shown to help protect the liver against damage from alcohol.

Sleep    All of these strategies have been curated to promote quality restorative sleep, which by itself powerfully upregulates our feel-good chemicals. In addition to all of the ideas above, do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Practice good sleep hygiene by preparing for sleep by refraining from stimulating activities, avoiding blue light, and keeping your bedroom cool and completely dark to naturally increase melatonin production to help you fall and stay asleep. Some find using sleep-inducing apps such as Calm, pzizz, and Nothing Much Happens to be helpful.      

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