The fitness industry screams a message at you filled with how-to exercises, articles, demonstrations and videos.
The undertone beneath the message is that by doing these things you will get something in return- lose fat, build muscle, improve performance – all that jazz.
To be fair, this stuff is important. Everyone needs to know how to move properly in the gym. And by the looks of what is happening it most gyms today, it’s clear that exercise instruction is desperately needed.
However, exercise instruction is only one piece of the puzzle. And in my opinion it’s a smaller piece of the equation than you might think.
What gets vastly overlooked to improving overall health is the quality of your mental performance.
According to Dr. Mike Dow, there is an epidemic that has launched a silent assault on thousands of people – maybe it’s even taken a foothold in your life.
It’s called brain fog.
In a sentence, brain fog is the result of an under-performing brain due the modern-day lifestyles we’ve adopted.
The collateral damage of brain fog is nothing short of alarming:
- Only 17% of Americans report to operate with optimal mental performance.
- Nearly 15% of Americans suffer from insomnia.
- More than 35 million are living with dementia.
- One in ten adults take some type of medication for depression.
- Almost 80% of Americans are deficient in natural serotonin production (causing anxiety and sleeplessness).
- Natural dopamine production is dropping is causing people to rely on stimulants for drive and motivation (30 million people drink at least five cups of coffee per day).
The Culprits Of Brain Fog
It’s no secret that people want to do better – Americans spend about $40 Billion per year on fat loss products and services.
But what is fascinating is the amount of confusion, frustration and downright failure when it comes to succeeding.
Severely restricted diets, training programs that drive people into the ground and stimulant packed supplements – the conventional approach to fat loss – may be all a big fat lie.
Also, when people want to lose fat, they not only want to look better, but they want to feel better.
This reveals that the desire to do better isn’t the problem. And people are spending money on products and services to assist in fat loss, so it isn’t a matter of money either.
The good news is that people want to do better and they’re willing to invest resources into their own cause. The bad news is that their efforts and money are probably getting channeled poorly – making things even worse.
The real culprit is the integrity of your brain performance which relies heavily on the balance of your neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine (these give you motivation, drive and vigor) and GABA and serotonin (these calm you down, keep you peaceful and assist in falling asleep).
Interestingly, your gut produces a lot of these neurotransmitters. Unfortunately, modern day behavior causes disruption in the production of a healthy neurotransmitter environment, and thus, causes an imbalance in brain chemistry which then results in brain fog.
Carbs, Fats and Protein
The contemporary American diet has caused obesity rates and type 2 diabetes to skyrocket. In fact, in the U.S., type 2 diabetes has tripled in the last 40 years.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates over long period of time causes insulin resistance. Essentially, your muscles cells no longer have the capacity to store the nutrients that are getting shuttled into them, and at that point it gets stored in fat cells. This cycle continues, and you get fatter, and fatter.
This probably isn’t breaking news to you. However the meaning of this situation is what might catch your attention.
Most of everybody – including health and fitness professionals – trumpet the message that eating to many refined carbs and sugars is bad for your health and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Apparently this message carries little weight given the statistics.
Instead, what if we focused on the association of insulin resistance and decreased brain function?
One study found that subjects were at a 75 percent increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s within 15 years and 1.75 times more likely to develop dementia. In other words, you can literally eat your way to losing your mind. That should scare you.
When your diet is based around low quality carbohydrates filled with sugar, you also starve your brain from the pre-cursor tryptophan which is needed to produce serotonin – the neurotransmitter that allows you to see life as a glass half-full and not half-empty. This leads you down a path of irritability, anxiety and poor sleep.
Protein and fats
There’s an emotionally charged battle alive and well on the internet between meat eaters and plant based eaters (vegans and vegetarians) over whether or not people should eat meat.
While this article isn’t polarized to either method, I do think both groups are missing a fixed principle when it comes to protein.
The key player in brain fog in regards to protein is that the average American gets 10 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids from their current protein sources. This fact alone causes a cascade of inflammation, depression and more clouded thinking.
The modern diet, regardless of you’re a meat eater or plant based, is often filled with highly processed animal protein or soy bean oil (both of which are packed with omega-6 fatty acids).
When your fatty acid ratio is off, it not only impacts your body composition, but your mental cognition takes a hit too. There are three kinds of omega-3’s, but two of them are more important.
DHA is your brains high octane fuel and helps you think better. EPA is your brains “feel better” omega-3. People with adequate levels of daily DHA are 47% less likely to develop dementia and people low levels of EPA are more likely to be depressed.
Severe low calorie diets or diets high in refined carbs cause a deficiency in natural dopamine production due to low protein intake. When you don’t eat enough high quality protein your brain doesn’t get the raw material tyrosine, an amino acid, to make dopamine. Levels of the amino acid tyrosine are known to be low in people with less than optimal dopamine production.
Your zest for life will slowly fade if your dopamine levels are low. You’ll have trouble focusing on complex tasks and your drive to accomplish important things will wither.
Nearly 73% of Americans don’t get enough sleep.
The damage this causes has a broad reach: Fat gain around the stomach, higher risk for car accidents, unethical work behavior, depression, and low testosterone.
But the impact that sleep deprivation has on your mood and memory may be the trigger that drives home the importance of sleep.
When you don’t get enough sleep your stress hormone cortisol stays chronically elevated. When this happens, dopamine levels dip. This reaction leaves you unhappy, hardly motivated and frankly you just end up downright lazy.
Sleep also nurtures neurogenosis – the strengthening of neural connections so that you can embed short-term memories into long-term memories. Meaning, if you don’t sleep enough, you hinder your ability to remember what you learn.
You’ve heard this before and I don’t want to beat the same drum for to long, but, you need to exercise.
But the reason you need to exercise is what may surprise you.
Today, in the midst of the information revolution, the average American spends about 12 hours a day consuming media – TV, internet, YouTube, phone, and tablets. Even though being connected is a vital part of our society today, spending this much time slouching in front of a screen or plopped over scrolling a tablet has a huge potential danger.
In fact, one study found that for every two hours spent watching TV, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes rose 20%. This not only means weight gain and mood swings, but remember how we talked about eating your way to losing your mind?
Also, since the majority of the media consumption is done when we are sitting, it’s important to point out that this leads to all kinds of potential problems -back pain, slow metabolism, poor circulation, and colon cancer.
One third of people under 30 in America report to be unaffiliated with any spiritual belief.
This isn’t an attempt to dive into apologetics. Rather, it’s a look at how spiritual practice impacts mental performance.
The pre-frontal cortex is what separates humans from all other life. It’s associated with connection to other people and long-term planning. Dr. Mike Dow demonstrates in his book that the act of spiritual practice actually thickens the pre-frontal cortex.
When this part of our brains is activated it’s associated with peace, love and compassion. When it’s under-activated it’s associated with depression, anxiety and addiction.
A spiritual journey is very personal – a path that is unique to you. You’ll have to do some work in forging your belief. For all of us, regardless of which path we choose, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks says it well:
Be true to your faith and a blessing to others – regardless of their faith.
It’s safe to say that focusing on the integrity of your brain performance is key. When your brain chemistry is off, your brain simply doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. It doesn’t matter how much willpower or grit you have, if things aren’t firing on all cylinders upstairs, it’ll feel like you’re trying to break iron with your bare hands.
While brain fog crawls across the country indiscriminately, there is a particular group of people I feel are most impacted – millennials.
How Brain Fog Impacts The Largest Workforce In The Market Today: Millennials
More than one-in-three American workers today are Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34). This group surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce. Why does this matter and how does brain fog play into this? The following is my attempt to connect the two.
What Work Means Today
We’re in the middle of a revolution. The people who are stuck in the industrial model and mindset are starting to lose at worst or are staying stagnant at best. The people who are progressing into the information model and mindset are starting to win at best or learning how to adapt at worst.
The millennials are the transition group. We didn’t grow up in the industrial revolution. But we did get raised in the education revolution.
We’ve been trained to be vanilla.
We’ve followed the rules – colored inside the lines.
We asked to go the bathroom.
If we didn’t do well on a standardized test, it meant we weren’t capable.
Education burned into our brain that achievement is more important than mastery.
Collaboration on projects or tests was forbidden.
Then when we we’re finished with school, all it meant was that were good at school.
It barely provided us with the tools or resources on how to work well. Moreover, the traditional route of going to college and then securing a safe job is disappearing. On top of that, millennials have to deal with internships to that lead to “nowhere”, a low number of entry level jobs, and the fact that baby-boomers aren’t retiring. Plus, thousands of millennials are battling against themselves submitting resumes graffitied with the same buzz words that make hiring managers roll their eyes.
One side of the coin, the landscape of conventional work is fiercely competitive for millennials. A lot of people with the same skill set are applying for the same job.
On the other side, millennials are on the cusp on the information age and it’s changed the way we view work.
We’re starting to realize that repetitive work that can be done for the minimum amount of compensation doesn’t require a high amount of skill.
Filing papers, taking messages, and moving boxes – it’s a job, but it’s painfully boring and uninspiring.
It’s safe for sure. You’ve got a manual and a clear objective of what you need to do. But that also means someone else can probably do it for cheaper.
To be fair, we’ll always need people to do these jobs who are content with doing them. It’s equally important to note that the mindset of an individual plays a role on work too.
For example, a hospital janitor who views his work as a critical component to the care of its patients and as a great contribution to the social good is going to perform and view his job differently than someone with the same job but views themselves as just a floor sweeper.
Millennials want more than a regular pay check. We want our work to mean something.
Emotional Labor Is Taking Over
The American dream of graduating college and getting a job to do for the next 40 years as a cog in the machine doesn’t sound all that appealing. Not to mention, it hardly exists anymore.
But not to confuse this disposition with laziness, millennials want to work hard for something that ignites their soul.
Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and Austrian Psychiatrist said this:
Human beings are not hardwired for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. They want meaning. In spite of what we say, we don’t want happiness. It’s simply not enough to satisfy our deepest longings. We are looking for something more, something transcendent – a reason to be happy.
Frankl also observed that a key factor in surviving the Nazi concentration camp was that people needed a reason to live for tomorrow – something that pulled them to press on and live another day.
I think this paints a picture of the landscape today.
Millennials are beginning realize that conventional work is not only increasing in scarcity, but that most work is simply a job that doesn’t transcend their purpose. Therefore, we are thrashing around, looking for something more.
In order to do this, we’re tapping into connection. The internet has given us our own magazine, radio show and TV channel. Within minutes we have a platform to broadcast our message.
The kid who spends all day synthesizing beats in his room can become a DJ spinning to 100,000 people in Miami.
The writer who pounds the keys on science fiction day in and day out can build a tribe who loves her work.
The real estate broker can now record a course on how to increase listing appointments with his methods and sell it to other realtors.
The graphic designer can launch her freelance business from home with her laptop while she raises her kid.
The three friends can start a consulting business with an internet connection, and a SquareSpace site that costs $18 a month, regardless of where each of them live.
The copywriter can run his business from Playa Guiones in Costa Rica.
The sketcher can share his doodles with the world and sell his comics digitally.
The meaning and the means of how we work today has shifted.
Emotional labor is more valuable than physical labor.
When it comes to physical labor, a job well done isn’t extraordinary, it’s expected. If someone gets asked to move a box from point A to point B, and they complete the task, it’s a job well done, it’s not above and beyond any measure. It’s a replaceable task – anyone can do that.
But the marketplace doesn’t over-value this type of work any longer.
The economy has shifted and is now placing a higher value on things that require emotional labor: The act of connecting ideas, creating art, and delivering story with impact.
This isn’t limited to painters, writers and photographers either.
This shift can be seen as the through-line in many mediums of work. Daniel Pink says this:
When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.
Physical labor and knowledge used to be the golden ticket. Now, the competitive advantage is ones ability to connect, tell stories and create art. Daniel Pink goes on to say:
We must perform work that overseas knowledge workers can’t do as cheaper, that computers can’t do faster, and that satisfies the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual demands of a prosperous time.
Emotional labor requires hard work. It’s not physically demanding.
But you have to engage in deep thinking. You’ve got to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. You’ve got to notice things. You’ve got to weave together concepts that nobody else would. You have to learn how to communicate your style.
It demands that you show up everyday and put yourself on the chopping block. You have to extend your message to a lot of people who will say no.
Emotional labor is what gives millennials a chance to do their work – an opportunity to do something that matters.
But just as an athlete practices to master his craft, the millennial who recognizes emotional labor as a competitive advantage must also practice relentlessly. He must have the blue collar-lunch pale mentality about work.
With physical labor you can pound through a repetitive task.
However, with emotional labor, you heavily rely on a healthy brain to practice well and consistently.
Here is the connective tissue between brain fog and emotional labor:
Since emotional labor relies on cognitive function – connecting ideas, creating art, and delivering value with impact – operating with a brain that’s not firing on all cylinders makes it darn near impossible to do your best work.
Without focus, memory and joy resulting from a healthy brain, the millennial wanting to leverage emotional labor into their work will be massively frustrated.
The Long and Short Term Impacts Of Brain Fog For Millennials.
Well for starters, if you don’t take care of yourself now, in a few decades your cognitive decline will be much steeper than it needs to be. Depression and anxiety are also probable. Because these cases are increasing by the year, it’s becoming accepted as normal. It’s not normal. Don’t conform to this notion.
The immediate impact is more subtle, but arguably just as important. If you brush off your brain health, chances are you’re increasing your health related expenses. Medical visits, co-pays, prescription meds and other health expenses can add up quickly if you don’t pay attention.
And, your probably contributing to the national expense that our country burdens. Healthcare costs related to obesity (which is strongly related to brain health) costs our country about $118 billion dollars.
We know that millennials are looking for a different type of career in comparison to their parents generation. The Atlantic published an article that stated:
When asked what their primary concern was during their first job, about 64 percent of older Americans talked about making as much money as possible or learning new skills. When asked the same question, younger Americans were much more likely to say that their top priority was doing something that they found enjoyable or making a difference in society….
This tells us that millennials recognize that emotional labor is required to do something they enjoy or something that makes a difference in society.
However, if we wrestle with depression, anxiety, low motivation, insomnia, and sedentary lifestyles due to an imbalance of brain chemistry, emotional labor is almost impossible.
Without proper lifestyle habits that support a healthy brain, millennials may never publish their best work. They may never propose that innovative idea that makes a huge impact. They may never open that artisan coffee shop. They may never write and produce that song. They may never start that blog that penetrates souls.
That’s tragic for them. But it also leaves a stain on our human experience as well.
I want to read thought provoking blog posts.
I want to enjoy a book that takes a perspective I would have never dreamed of.
I want to experience incredible pizza from the hole in the wall in Portland, Oregon.
I want to watch a documentary on how creative people do their work.
I want to enjoy that overpriced but luxurious cup of coffee.
I want to watch a 90 second YouTube video that captures me with a story.
I want to wear accessories that support a good cause.
I want to eat from food trucks that serve all organic meals and dish up killer green smoothies.
I want to listen to music that tugs on my spirit.
I want to see small businesses thrive.
I want to witness people on fire and pregnant with enthusiasm about their craft.
If millennials don’t take their brain health seriously, they’ll miss out on doing their best work, and we’ll miss out on enjoying it.
The Secret Weapon To Thriving As A Creative, Freelancer or Entrepreneur
Doing great work in today’s economy demands that you are mentally sharp. Without a game plan to operate at peak performance mentally, you’re leaving a lot of potential on the table.
This pertains to more people than we think. In fact, by 2020, it’s expected that half of the work force will be comprised of freelancers. HALF.
So even if you aren’t trying to take down Apple with your start-up idea, there’s a strong possibility you will be required to invest in some emotional labor to do great work as a freelancer.
Here are some practical strategies on you can supercharge your mental performance and do better work.
When it comes do diet, nobody likes to be told what they can’t have or what they should remove. Instead, a far more effective approach is to use the adding-in principle. Rather than removing or restricting, add two simple habits into your daily eating routine.
- Have a green smoothie and supplement an omega 3 fatty acid as your first meal. A template that is easy to use follows as such:
- 2 scoops of protein powder
- 3-4 cups of greens (spinach and kale work best)
- 1-2 cups of a high-fiber slow digesting carbohydrate (berries of any kind work well)
- 1 tablespoon of healthy fat (almond butter, cashew butter, or ground flaxseed are popular)
- A few ice cubs and 8-12 oz of water. Blend and drink.
- Take two soft-gels of fish oil or Algae based Omega-3’s.
- Have a huge salad at lunch with some high quality protein. Add some flavor to it so you don’t feel like a rabbit. Dried fruit, nuts, seeds, chopped tomato, mushrooms, diced peepers, organic cheese, carrots, brussels sprouts, cabbage. Wild caught salmon, free range chicken, pasture raised bison are some options for protein. If you’re plant based, adding in some legumes like black beans is great. Beyond Meat provides non-gmo, soy free protein options as well. Get creative and find which add-ons you like. For dressing the best option is to mix extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper all together and pour it over your salad. Adding in some high fiber carbohydrates like quinoa or roasted sweet potato are great options that can help you feel sated too.
By doing these two things alone, you immediately boost brain performance.
You’ll control your blood glucose levels and prevent the crashes in energy.
By eating high quality protein you’ll provide the raw materials for your brain to convert tryptophan into serotonin helping you stay peaceful and get restful sleep. And, you’ll have adequate amounts of tyrosine so dopamine production is on par assisting in your motivation and drive to succeed.
*Note: If you’re a plant based eater, be sure to include pumpkin seeds and bananas into your diet for tryptphan which supports serotonin production. Almonds, chlorella and spirulina are key players for sourcing enough tyrosine in your daily diet which assists in dopamine production.
The first step to better sleep is adopting the green smoothie breakfast and the huge salad lunch habit. Once you routinely feed your brain high quality foods, your mood and energy will start to balance themselves, assisting in better sleep. You’ll notice less caffeine will be needed during the day to stay alert and less depressants (alcohol, sleeping pills) will be needed at night to fall asleep.
But you can level up even further and take your sleep game up a few notches with these simple habits:
- Dock all tablets, phones and laptops in a separate room. Radiation from electronic devices increases the amount of time it takes for you to reach deep sleep (the most important kind).
- Keep your room as dark as possible. Blackout shades are the first option. Wearing a sleeping mask is the second, and less expensive route.
- Our bodies natural temperature raise in the afternoon and into the evening. Falling asleep is the hardest part some people. It may be due to the fact that you’re to warm. According to Dr. Dow, keeping your room around 66-68 degrees is optimal. A simple fix is to take a hot shower before bed. It’ll relax your muscles and cause your body to drop temperature when you get out.
You might be reading with one eye at this point trying to avoid what you think is coming next. But don’t worry. I’m not going to advise that you sign up for a boot camp that drives you into the ground every morning at 5 A.M.
To improve mental performance, it’s a lot simpler (and less expensive) than you think. In fact, on study revealed that walking just one mile per day cut the risk of future memory impairment, and dementia by 50%. Subjects also showed an increase in volume in all the important areas of the brain including the hippocampus (associated with learning), and the pre-frontal cortex (the most advanced part of the brain).
A simple but effective strategy is to do the 10-10-10 method.
- First thing in the morning, walk for 10 minutes while you listen to your favorite podcast or genre of music.
- During your lunch break take a 10 minute walk while you listen to an audiobook.
- When you get home from work, have dinner and then cap the night off with a 10 minute stroll.
In turns out you don’t have to have a 500 pound deadlift or shredded six pack abs to reap the benefits of exercise. But, by all means if you enjoy more intense means of exercise, satisfy that hunger.
Spiritual practice transcends a blog post. However, simple meditation practice has proven to be a great stepping stone for spiritual discovery.
Mindfulness, with no association with religion, is simply noticing your thoughts. In today’s over-connected society, it’s painfully easy to chase the traffic that zooms by in our minds.
Mindfulness mediation can be thought of like this:
Imagine sitting on the side of a busy road. The cars passing by represent the thoughts and feelings racing through your mind. Your aim is to just sit there and watch.
But our natural tendency is to run out and stop a few cars or even chases after some of them. All this does is make you feel more anxious and restless.
Eventually our lives just become one big zig zag of chasing thoughts one after another. We begin to feel that every thought or feeling that enters our mind must be dealt with.
Mindfulness meditation trains the brain to accept every thought that comes into your mind, but arms you with the poise to let the thought go, or pass by. It relinquishes that low-grade malaise that is usually the result of a life lived way to fast.
It’s not about stopping thoughts or eliminating feelings. It’s about managing your thoughts in a way that allows your brain to breathe.
A simple habit is to practice for five minutes a day. Sit in a chair with your eyes closed breathing normally, and just imagine yourself sitting on the side of the road watching the cars (your thoughts) pass by. With practice, you’ll soon discover that not everything is an emergency and your ability to discern what’s important and what’s not will increase as well.
We’re heading into a time where emotional labor – the ability to connect ideas, create art, and deliver stories with impact – will soon be the leading factor in producing great work.
In order to do that, mental performance needs to be on point. Luckily, lifestyle behavior is the solution.
If you’re a creative, a freelancer or an entrepreneur, leveling up your brain chemistry and eliminating brain fog is an opportunity for a huge competitive advantage.
Even if you’re already performing at a high level, what if you could improve by one percent?
In some fields that means a lot. In track and field the difference between gold and silver is often fractions of seconds.
With creative work that takes emotional labor, my assumption is that the margins are similar. To gain that edge, boosting mental performance is the answer.
You’ve got a plan to work with. Now, go work the plan.
Thanks to Dr. Mike Dow, Seth Godin, Julia Ross, M.A., and Daniel Pink for promoting this piece: