Why Smart Drugs Don't Make You Smarter Neuroscience-based workspace and lifestyle design to help your brain do better.
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I'm sitting at my home office in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, my winter residence. I'm typing out another article, being fascinated by the fact that just a few months ago nobody really spoke about nutrients to increase focus. Or lifestyle and workspace hacks to improve productivity. Or foods to improve mood and mental states through gut health. There were a few articles here and there about brightly lit workspaces being great for productivity and our well-being. But nothing substantial was published on how our eating, our lifestyle choices and our work environment can completely change the way we are and the way we work. As well as the results we get individually, as entrepreneurs and as companies.
Sadly, even now, it's still considered to be an okay option to work in dungeons — spaces that have almost no natural light. We partially still think our brain, and our productivity, are separate from our environment. That we can do just fine with a suboptimal diet that spikes our blood sugar, making our focus, productivity and fatigue take a non-stop daily rollercoaster ride. We still think it's not a big deal to sit for hours without movement to stay busy and productive. Even though the science clearly shows our brain just doesn't do well with poor blood circulation induced by non-stop sitting.
We are doing just fine, we think to ourselves.
And indeed we are. But it's nowhere near what we could produce, create and deliver, given optimal conditions that aren't that difficult to create on a personal and company-wide level, whether remote, hybrid or in-person.
Back to smart drugs.
Trying to chase away brain fog, being overwhelmed and having anxiety with racing thoughts at night. Pursuing focus, creativity and motivation, we entrepreneurs and dedicated professionals quite often look into supplements. Smart drugs or nootropics, designed to help us do better and achieve more. For most of us, these substances don't do much, unfortunately. No promised performance edge to consistently deliver a great quality of work. Or being able to finally focus with our full mental capacities on that one thing that matters the most.
Just like lack of regular, good quality sleep will make our mental performance compromised — no matter how many cups of caffeine we consume — smart drugs can only work on top of great brain chemistry. In addition, being conditioned by good lifestyle and eating habits. Habits that positively affect our blood sugar levels, brain blood circulation and brain inflammation levels. When we habitually make choices that make our blood sugar spike and dip, that reduce our brain blood flow and create more inflammation in our brain — no smart drug will make a big difference. Once addressed, you might find, to your own amazement, that all of a sudden all the pills, smart drugs and supplements start working like magic.
Here's what you can do personally, and for your whole team, to create good conditions for smart drugs to work. (Even without them your brain might surprise you.)
Blood sugar regulation
There's no question about it — a well-performing, healthy brain needs balanced blood sugar levels for optimal neuron function, neurotransmitters release, energy metabolism and continuous productivity.
If you often find yourself reaching out for a caffeinated boost and/or a sugary snack fix throughout the day, or are otherwise unable to function because of poor focus or mental/physical fatigue, look into addressing your blood sugar levels. Consuming processed carbohydrates — sweetened drinks, fruit juices, baked goods, breakfast cereals, toasts; and not consuming enough fiber-rich unprocessed whole food carbs like beans, lentils, oats, quinoa, yams, whole fruit, veggies, along with protein and healthy fats like eggs, fish, chicken, yogurt, nuts and seeds — is a recipe for a blood sugar adventure ride.
Instead, make your meals whole-food based and balanced — combine protein, fat and carbohydrates in one meal. If you have to snack — snack on fiber and protein-rich foods and whole food fats. Perhaps some sardines or edamame, carrot and bell pepper sticks. Or some hummus and flax crackers, eggs and cherry tomatoes — not some fitness protein bars that are basically candy with added protein powder.
As a team leader interested in maximizing productivity on a company-wide level: how about providing a few meal-delivery options your team can choose from? A blood-sugar-friendly fun snack island? Or cinnamon-infused coffee, tea and water options to help with optimal blood sugar levels?
Brain blood flow and productivity
Why is blood flow so essential for brain performance? How do you think all the nutrients, energy sources and oxygen get delivered to our brain? Via blood vessels! The worst thing you can do for your brain blood flow? Sit for hours barely moving. What's the easiest way to counteract the negative brain effects of sitting and poor blood flow to the brain? Incorporate easy movement breaks every 30 minutes.
I made it a habit to stand up, do a few stretches and a few squats every 30 minutes or so. And each time my brain feels refreshed with ideas, solutions and words on my keyboard, rushing back in with that invigorated blood flow with oxygen and other nutrients.
Some of you might feel awkward doing all of these movements in an office or a co-working space. Bring this to your team leadership and together organize your workspaces in a way that encourages these practices. Put out some reminders around the office with suggested movements and recruit active team members to lead by example. Make it convenient for people to stand up and move around, stretching and squatting.
A side note — this also helps with blood sugar management!
This is a tricky one. So many things can affect general inflammation in the body and brain. From poor sleep and stress management to foods that spike blood sugar or trigger the immune system. As well as processed food ingredients, sitting still for hours or not enough antioxidant rich foods in our daily diet.
I have a few nutrition suggestions you can easily implement that will definitely help!
- Eating a lot of antioxidant-rich foods — berries, green and colorful vegetables, whole fruit, dark chocolate (85% and more of cacao solids), adding powerful anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric to meals and drinks.
- Not eating processed foods with many unknown ingredients, or fried foods and common allergens like gluten or dairy that might be an issue for a lot of people.
- Taking a high-quality fish oil supplement designed to address brain performance (high DHA content) is a great anti-inflammatory brain booster.
- Eating probiotic-rich foods like kimchi and yogurt, snacking on walnuts with lots of anti-inflammatory omega-3s or Brazil nuts with high selenium content and adding olives everywhere — all have been shown to positively affect inflammation status.
If you are a team leader: all of these tips can be conveniently incorporated in workspace design (a workspace that's designed for high productivity teams who care about results they deliver and missions they work on).
I often find myself in conversations with entrepreneurs and team leaders where I explain why these things matter. Almost every day I read a piece of neuroscience research on brain productivity, eating and lifestyle choices and how tightly they are connected. And yet I rarely see any of it applied in teams and company cultures. Like these are not the same brains talked about in science, or like humans in the studies are different from the ones that come to work. Many leaders claim they care about their mission, their teams' wellness and how productive and successful employees are individually. Yet very few look into creating the environment providing easy options to help teams to focus and to improve brain function to deliver their best work. Why is that I often wonder? Teams deliver results, the foundation of success of any company. If a leader doesn't invest into the brain productivity of their teams, they are making it many times harder for the company to move forward and stay ahead. The future of work is optimized and consistent high performance that starts with our well-functioning individual brains.
And what about smart drugs?
My favorite brain supplement is Alpha-Gpc. It's like acetylcholine in the brain, a neurotransmitter essential for focused attention, learning and memory among other important things. I take 300 mg 30 minutes before a mentally-demanding work bout. It works for me and my clients. But, I'd never expect it to deliver miraculous transformation without taking care of my blood sugar, brain blood flow and anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle first.
We all can do more and better, and it starts with a brain that works well. Start with the foundational lifestyle and nutrition practices. Do them consistently. Try Alpha-Gpc. And never settle for the broken brain — you can change it.