10 Stupid Simple Ways to Improve Your Brain [Updated]

Last updated: June 30, 2017

1. Optimize sleep quality

The link between sleep quality and cognitive performance is well-established. Here are some quick-and-dirty tips:

  • To improve sleep quality, cover every source of light in your bedroom with black tape (e.g., blinking electronics). Even low-intensity light at night can disrupt circadian rhythm.
  • Use the free flux app to gradually soften and red-shift your computer screen lighting in the evening. The high-frequency, blue light emitted by computer monitors is particularly disruptive to good sleep hygiene.
  • Set your thermostat in the 60’s. Cooler temperatures at night promote sleep by facilitating the body’s drop in core temperature, which reaches its nadir around 4 am.
  • Avoid overly stimulating activities at night, and avoid stimulants after 2 pm. - Quietly reading a physical book for 30 minutes before bed is an excellent way to initiate the transition to sleep.
  • Use benign, sleep-promoting supplements like magnesium threonate, extended release melatonin, glycine and chamomile tea to enhance sleep consolidation.
  • Exercising at least three hours before bed will also decrease sleep latency (i.e., the amount of time it takes to fall asleep).

Here's a complete list of sleep tips.

2. Indulge in Occasional Nicotine Use

Jennifer Rusted, a professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University in Britain, famously quipped the following:

To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely.

Nicotine binds to the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain and enhances cholinergic signaling, a neurotransmitter system that plays an important role in learning and memory. Boosting acetylcholine is the same pharmacological strategy behind the use of Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChI) in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Nicotine also enhances dopaminergic signaling in the mesolimbic pathway and may mitigate the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Despite the on paper benefits, please be mindful of the potential risks of nicotine.

3. Free Online Education


Continued education online is an excellent way to stimulate your brain. I’m taking a course in javascript at CodeAcademy which is particularly engaging because you start actually writing basic code from the outset, with lots of guidance. Other excellent learning opportunities are the brain and cognitive sciences course over at MIT Open Courseware, in addition to courses offered by Udemy and edX. Duolingo is also a great free tool for learning a new language, developed by the individuals behind Captcha, the so-called “reverse Turing test.”

4. Play Games

Why do adults spend less time playing than children? A number of interesting ideas have been proposed. Some think play is primarily about learning and socialization. Whatever the reason, there's no reason you can't capture the benefits of playful activities as an adult.

Playing games is win/win: at worst they are an opportunity to enjoy yourself and socialize, at best they may enhance your cognitive ability in specific arenas.

(See: Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait)

  • I like the fast-paced pattern recognition game Set, where a random set of 16 cards are displayed and you are tasked with identifying patterns in color, number, shape, and shading/texture.
  • Boggle is a game which I also subjectively felt improved my verbal fluency, working memory and vocabulary.  I was once so obsessed with boggle I attempted to memorize every three letter word in the dictionary.
  • Finally, there is some tentative evidence that video games can improve cognitive function such as visual attention, cognitive control, visual short-term memory, and general processing speed.

5. Load Up On Flavonoids

Of all the foods discussed in the context of brain health, I think blueberries and raw cocoa powder (not milk chocolate) have the most evidence supporting a nootropic effect.

Miguel Alonso-Alonso offers the following commentary on a cocoa study:

In this issue of the Journal, Mastroiacovo et al. provide new evidence that daily consumption of cocoa flavonols can improve cognitive function in healthy, cognitively intact elderly individuals. …The study also offers insights on potential mechanisms linking flavonols with cognition. As the authors noted, the largest contribution to cognitive improvements came from changes in insulin sensitivity, account for 17% of the effects in the current study and 40% in the previous study in subjects with MCI. Link.

The evidence that dietary enrichment with blueberries boosts BDNF, enhances cognition in healthy subjects and patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) alike. Blueberries also apparently rescue cognitive impairment in a wide range of experimental paradigms. I personally like to stock up on frozen blueberries and I’ve also had success using blueberry extract powder.

6. Kick Back


Many of us who are interested in cognitive enhancement are high-strung folks who obsess about improvement. Stress relief has a pro-cognitive effect by decreasing circulating glucocorticoids like cortisol which protects hippocampal neurons and boosts moral. Here are ten activities that I have found to be reliably therapeutic:

  • enjoy a long bath
  • groom
  • listen to relaxing music
  • sit around a camp fire
  • take a sabbatical from work
  • binge watch a nature show like Blue Planet
  • play a musical instrument, 8. sexual activity, - take your time while making a healthy meal
  • go for a walk and immerse yourself in nature.

Notlambda has contributed the following excellent suggestions:

Draw and paint, slowly prepare and drink green tea (consider adding l-theanine at the end of the day to wind down before reading a book), deep breathing exercises, meditation, and buy a desk plant, or better yet one of these.

7. Take Up Weight Training

Though aerobic activity is often mentioned in discussions about cognitive health, weight training is also a promising strategy for combating cognitive decline.

One study conducted](http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3514552/) a 6-month randomized clinical trial, finding that resistance training robustly promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity.  Regular exercise also induces human growth hormone and increases endogenous testosterone biosynthesis, which may improves cognitive function. Likewise, excess alcohol consumptions is associated with low testosterone, giving you one more reason to abstain from binge-drinking, though if you must binge-drink, load up on vitamin B1 (thiamine) beforehand which prevents the induction of the Wernicke-korsakoff Encephalopathy also known as alcohol-induced brain damage. Intravenous vitamin B1 is among the first things administered to alcohols in the hospital precisely for this reason.

Interestingly, running in cold or hot temperatures appears to confer more cognitive benefits than running at room temperature.

8. Rule Out Medical Conditions

toxoplasmosisThere are a host of medical conditions that can contribute to brain fog, a sense of malaise, and even existential disillusionment. For example, consider the following list of organic causes of fatigue published by the college of family physicians (not including psychiatric illness like depression):

  • infectious disease
  • anemia
  • diabetes
  • hypothyroidism
  • sleep disorders including sleep apnea,
  • medication side-effects
  • adrenal insufficiency
  • malignancies
  • mononucleosis
  • connective tissue disease
  • Addison's disease
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • fibromyalgia
  • chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

I recommend reading the wikipedia page on the differential diagnosis of depression which identifies some interesting biological causes of depression like infection with the protozoan brain parasite toxoplasmosis. In some cases suicide and severe depression is attributed to infection with toxoplasmosis.

9. Take A Stimulant Holiday

I am a heavy coffee drinker, a nicotine user, and an occasional prescription stimulant user. Taking a week long holiday from stimulants is a great way to “reset” your body and address any tolerance issues you may have developed. As a 2-3 cup of coffee a day drinker, discontinuing coffee was by far the most difficult of the aforementioned substances. Coffee markedly affects cerebral blood flow by inducing cerebral vasoconstriction and hence it takes time for your brain to adjust and regain neurotransmitter homeostasis. After a sabbatical from stimulants, you will be sensitized and lower doses will be more effective. N-methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor (NMDAR) antagonists like memantine and magnesium have also been reported to ameliorate stimulant tolerance.

10. Optimize your diet


Hypertension contributes to cognitive dysfunction and therefore it is recommended to use light salt and supplement with potassium (unless you have kidney disease) to reduce blood pressure. Improve insulin sensitivity by eating low glycemic index foods, avoid seafood that are at the top of the food chain like swordfish due to methylmercury bioaccumulation, make sure your getting enough vitamin D which has neurotrophic and neuroprotective roles in the central nervous system, avoid low-fiber juice which is really just fruit-flavored sugar water, add raw cocoa and blueberry powder  to high-fiber smoothies, and eat indian curries which may enhance both the bioavailability and absorption of curcumin in comparison to the curcumin found in supplements. To learn more about diet and brain health, check out my article “Best Brain Foods: Discovering the 100 Richest Dietary Sources of Antioxidants Using a Polyphenol Database.”

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Xavier Kent

I'm interested in nutrition, nootropics, and javascript. I'm a firm believer in getting really good at one thing.


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