The scientific principles that underpin the Daily Habits are explained in an easy to understand way in The Brain Rocks book available in January 2021.
In the meantime, for the science geeks, I've outlined some of the science below to help explain the value these habits can deliver in helping you to maintain good health.
Example 1. Dopamine - your ass kicking chemical friend
Dopamine's job is to encourage us to put effort into actions. Originally this reward system was built into us for survival, encouraging us to take action and actively seek food, water and sex. These days we still need dopamine to keep us motivated, but for slightly different reasons. This pleasure chemical is largely involved in your general mood and decision to continue with effort. So, learning how to regularly trigger its release, even in small amounts, is of great value. It's important to note that dopamine isn't just released when we succeed at something or receive the reward of our efforts, we can also trigger it by attaching it to the effort journey itself.
The small self-rewards (self-praise) listed in the Daily Habits are intended to trigger a small drip of dopamine during the day. This pleasure chemical helps keep motivation, mood and effort high and helps us continue and repeat the actions. So, if you want to have a good day and stick with healthy routines make sure you keep remembering to use self-rewards (through self talk, praise and satisfaction not chocolate or alcohol) to give yourself a regular little hit of dopamine. Simply taking a few seconds to acknowledge your great effort can be enough, as long as you believe it. Therefore, rather than just throwing your duvet back in place on the bed each morning, or making an ok cup of coffee, take a few more minutes to do a really great job of it. Then stand back for a second and acknowledge and enjoy the result of that effort.
Music is another great way of quickly triggering dopamine. A burst of one of your favourite feel-good songs is a route to triggering dopamine release in the brain. Even if you just sing it in your head. Serotonin, our other feel-good chemical, is also released during these processes. Having the ability to regulate these motivating mood chemicals when you want to is a key part of getting into the driving seat of your brain and staying there.
Example 2. Nitric oxide and blood pH - breathing properly
It sounds stupid I know, but many people are not breathing properly. The purpose of breathing in and out is to maintain the balance of essential gases in our blood (oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide). However, many people today are in the habit of breathing through their mouth instead of their nose. They're not aware they're doing it and they're not aware that it's wrong.
Here's the critical thing to remember: our nasal passages and sinuses are designed to filter, warm and humidify the air to optimal levels for the lungs. This is also where air collects nitric oxide it on its way to the lungs, where it's transferred into our blood stream. Nitric oxide is an essential piece of our health jigsaw and responsible for many critical jobs, including maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Many people are also breathing using their chest muscles rather than using their diaphragm. It's important to remember that our breathing is linked to our stress system (the autonomic nervous system comprising of sympathetic mode - aka fight or flight - and our parasympathetic mode - aka rest and digest). When we consciously engage slow, deep breathing (inhaling through the nose to collect nitric oxide and using the diaphragm to fully inflate the lungs) we are able to switch the autonomic nervous system from sympathetic (alert mode!) to parasympathetic (relax) mode. This moderates the chronic release of the stress chemical, cortisol, enabling your body to simply get on with the ongoing task of maintaining your brain and body tissue. Words cannot express how powerful this ability is. It's an over-ride switch that we can instantly engage when we feel stressed. However, most people aren't aware of these facts.
Singing a song in your head is an easy, fast way of regulating your breathing, inhaling and exhaling in time with the beat. I use slow, relaxed songs such as Natalie Merchant's "San Andreas Fault" when I need to quickly reset stress and switch back into parasympathetic mode with slow deep breathing. Try it here. Another technique that can quickly help reduce stress is a simple sigh. Known as a physiological sigh, this is something our body does automatically when we need to offload more carbon dioxide. However, we can also do it on purpose to achieve the same effect when we need to. Just breathe in twice through your nose so your lungs are maximally inflated, then slowly exhale through your mouth or nose. In other words do a deep first breath and immediately suck in a little more (both through your nose). Then release it through your nose or mouth. This technique is a simple way to quickly offload CO2, ensure blood pH is at its optimal level (i.e. slightly alkaline) and engage the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system to lower stress.
Example 3. Acetylcholine - learn how to focus quickly and stay there
Our brains were not designed to do the type of work we have created. The invention of written symbols and language is relatively modern in terms of our brain's evolutionary timeline. As children we have to rewire circuits in our brain to combine the ability of separate visual and verbal networks so they can decode written symbols into meaningful experience. In modern society this decoding of written symbols is now what makes up the majority of our daily activity and an office worker's day. However, inability to focus is one of the greatest modern problems we've created for ourselves. Open plan offices are proven to be terrible for getting work done due to the stream of interruptions and distractions we encounter constantly.
Workload is now the leading cause of work related stress (and largely due to the fact that people cannot focus to get work done). Learning to switch your brain to focus mode and keep it there is a skill that can be trained. Acetylcholine is an essential chemical for focus and learning. It's a super powerful spotlight. It works in partnership with norepinephrine and dopamine during thinking tasks. There are specific regions of the brain that need to be activated and silenced to achieve this. However, we don't need to be in focus mode constantly, our brain also needs to spend most of its time in mind wandering mode (known as the Default Network Mode).
The ability to switch when required from default network mode to focused task mode is essential to good health. Some of the daily habits (such as the panoramic gaze, optic flow effects, breathing tools, music) help the brain drift off task and into a more relaxed mode to help us reset our stress levels. Similarly actions like writing a to-do list, and using our Focus Runway, help quickly flick the brain back into focused task mode so you can spend a defined chunk of time getting quality work done.
Learning to switch between your attentional control systems like this helps you improve your efficiency and productivity and helps you stay relaxed and on top of your list of responsibilities. The Focus Runway also uses sound to help block out the distractions you may be surrounded with. Try it here. Focus your eyes intently at the spinning brain for a few seconds before pressing play to help get your brain electro-chemistry primed and ready for focused work, and use noise cancelling headphones for the best results.
Example 4. Plasticity - your brain needs to be presented with new challenges regularly
Your brain is constantly changing, this is known as plasticity and it's important. Public facing health promotion over past decades has been focused on body health (nutrition and exercise). This is essential information of course. However, it's also essential to realise that your brain tissue also slowly declines throughout adulthood. A third of people currently living with dementia could have avoided this onset by looking after brain health in previous decades, through lifestyle and learning.
This decline can be moderated by frequently putting our brain under pressure to learn new complex pieces of information or actions. Be aware that our typical everyday activities don't put the brain under sufficient pressure and don't prevent decline. This is because it's already figured out how to do all those things. It can simply operate at cruise control using low energy when carrying out these thinking or doing tasks. Learning NEW and COMPLEX things is how to put your brain under pressure so it has to create new connections.
Learning a musical instrument or a language of new unfamiliar words, terms and rules is known to be one of the best ways of boosting positive brain plasticity, forming new wiring in the brain and improving brain function and efficiency. So, put yourself regularly in a situation where you are really struggling to grasp the concepts or movements. If you're scratching your head and feeling the frustration of the early learning journey then you're on the right track for maintaining brain cells.
By the way this decline in brain tissue is accelerated if you're overweight, frequently sitting down for very long periods and not getting sufficient sleep. So it's vital to have a healthy lifestyle as well as adding novel learning activities into your routine. If your workplace is interested in joining our learning programme for brain health visit www.musicdietclub.com for more info. We use music as the vehicle for teaching brain health principles and delivering fun and effective learning opportunities to boost brain health and drive positive plasticity.
Example 5. Mitochondria - control inflammation and boost metabolic efficiency
The brain and bio hacks in the Daily Habits I've embedded into my routine for the experiment are designed to influence specific evolutionary processes that are hardwired in our brain and nervous system to keep us alive. Our skeletal musculature is an essential element in that regard because as humans we must MOVE to seek food and water. Unlike plants we cannot make our own food internally.
When muscles are stimulated (e.g. by an external resistance) organelles inside the cells called mitochondria start producing energy. They also send chemical and electrical signals to the brain and other organs and tissue throughout the body. The brain and body's response to this stimulus is to activate processes that make the muscle tissue stronger so it can better withstand that external stimulus if it's presented again in future. Additional mitochondria are generated.
Other proteins (e.g. myokines) are also released from the muscle tissue and have significant effects not just on the muscle tissue itself (e.g. repairing, building and strengthening) but they also travel to other organs via the bloodstream and exert an anti-inflammatory effect. This results in a positive response in multiple regions including the gut, pancreas, brain, cardiovascular system. These effects are now known to be linked to several chronic diseases and cancers. So, frequently activating and overloading your muscle tissue to prevent its decline and boost its regeneration is absolutely essential to stay healthy.
What amazed me most during my personal experiment was that despite the fact that I decreased exercise, the effects of that exercise improved. This is because I've ditched all the outdated approaches to exercise - which as a Sport & Exercise Scientist I myself was taught and was teaching others for decades. Be aware that these outdated practices are still being taught in most gyms and health clubs today. I'm using the updated science, and especially the research findings regarding the metabolic chemical cascades, to embed the most efficient exercise into my habits (time efficient and response efficient).
Using super slow strength work, and/or super high intensity movement, to rapidly fatigue major muscle groups and quickly achieve glycogen depletion. This triggers an alert because our brain assumes we would only be facing this sort of intensity if we were in some sort of danger. It stimulates the evolutionary survival process and boosts mitochondrial biogenesis (thus enhancing metabolic efficiency) and myokine expression. It can be easily done at home in minutes.
Example 6. Vision - your brain doesn't know what your screen is
The vision hacks are particularly fast acting and simple to activate whenever you need to. I've now use them frequently throughout my day. Our autonomic nervous system influences our vision. At a very basic level our evolutionary visual processes have a built in survival system.
We are able to achieve panoramic vision, seeing everything in our environment out as wide as our periphery. But in an instant we have the ability to quickly snap back into focus mode with eye vergence centring in on the object of attention. This is triggered by the fight or flight sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. Our ancestors needed this in order to quickly be able to identify and react to a moving object in case it was a predator heading towards us.
In our modern world we spend very little time in panoramic gaze mode. Most of our day is spent holding our focus on our smartphone/computer/television screens. This is very unnatural and means we are in focus mode far longer than we are designed to be. This persistent sympathetic response is not good for us.
Learning how to switch off focus mode and activate panoramic gaze mode is extremely good for our autonomic nervous system function. Similarly, any self-propelled motion outdoors such as walking, cycling, running can help activate this panoramic visual mode. Whereas, sitting on a stationary exercise screen staring at a screen does not. If you have to exercise indoors, close your eyes and use the time to practice other techniques such as visualisation or breathing. Listen to music to get in the zone and help yourself drift.
Please note this research is ongoing and therefore some of the information above may be revised before the book is published.