Do you wake up in the morning rearing to start the day, get in some exercise before a healthy breakfast, then head to work at a job you enjoy?
Or is it more like you roll out of bed groaning, after having pressed the snooze several times, then rush off with either no breakfast, something not-so-healthy or rushed and skip the gym as you’ve overslept; dragging yourself to a job you don’t enjoy. Perhaps you start out with all the best intentions to stop eating sugar, start a new exercise routine or to stay on a healthy eating program, only to fall back into old habits after a period of time? You may reproach yourself as being ‘weak willed’ or not having enough ‘willpower’, but newer research into the brain is identifying other reasons behind this experience.
I’ve been a Naturopath and Medical Scientist for over 30 years supporting my clients with weight loss, stress, fertility, fatigue and general health and wellbeing. One thing I encounter time and time again is that people start out with great intentions and get great results initially, only to fall back into bad habits again. It might be slowing down on their exercise; starting to eat sugary foods again or resuming smoking or excessive alcohol without really consciously wanting or meaning to.
I have been following some interesting research from an amazing Australian neuroscientist, Professor Selena Bartlett. She teaches people how to overcome addiction, weight loss and bad habits using the concept of ‘Neuroplasticity’ and specific ‘hacks’ to rewire the brain for positive change. I was inspired after listening to her speak at a Naturopathic symposium and afterwards from listening to her “Thriving Mind” podcasts. If you wake up each morning refreshed and excited to face the day ahead, exercise regularly, have no troubles maintaining a healthy weight and manage stress effectively, then this information might not be as pertinent for you. However, it’s uncommon in this day and age and most of us could benefit from at least trying some of the ‘brain hacks’ I discuss.
I will begin with a brief explanation of the brain, why brain training is vital when changing habits or addressing stress and anxiety and 7 ‘hacks’ we can implement to support our journey towards optimal health and happiness.
The Brain Has 3 Relevant Parts
*See here if you want some more details about parts of the brain and how it works.
1. The Amygdala
Also called the ‘Lizard brain’ that is responsible for the flight, fright or freeze reaction when we encounter a snake, touch a hot surface or get into an argument with a nasty boss.
Watch this hilarious clip to see the amygdala in action in cats when they come across a cucumber.
Rationality goes out the window and we just react. This is the oldest part of our brain and is responsible for our survival when we needed to run away from sabre tooth tigers and avoid touching poisonous spiders. Nowadays we can’t run away so easily from our exasperating teenagers or traffic jams, but there are ways to ‘switch off’ and reduce our amygdalin responses.
2. The Hippocampus
The sensible, rational part of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional regulation and memory consolidation. This is the part of the brain we need to develop and maintain healthy habits.
3. The Brainstem
This maintains our basic functions, including regulation of heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating. This is considered out of our conscious control, but this is being questioned by recent finding with the Iceman (see hack #1)
Our Brain is like a muscle
Like your biceps, you need to exercise your brain to make it stronger. The brain wants to maintain old habits and it does take effort to change. When we decide to change a habit like ‘to eat more healthily’ or ‘avoid sugar’ and encounter stress of any kind, our rational brain goes out the window and the amygdala takes control. In short, it’s much harder or nigh on impossible to lose weight or break free of unhealthy habits if we are stressed and our brains aren’t in the right space.
These exercises mentioned below are like ‘doing weights’ for your brain. Our brains have massively untapped potential, so make the most of it!
Seven Simple Brain Hacks for Positive Change
- Start your day right: On waking – focus your attention on something positive – the sky, your garden, your gorgeous partner or baby. Daily appreciation for the numerous things we can easily take for granted – internet access, abundant food, running water, peace, our health etc. can change our mindset to be more aware of positive things we encounter daily
- Start your day with a positive habit/s like some deep breaths, a meditation session, or journalling. Avoid “Doom scrolling” – looking at your device for the latest COVID figures or other negative input. Exercise helps reduce stress, makes us feel better, improves heart health and weight management, and produces new brain cells. Deep Breathing can be done anywhere; in the car while driving, sitting at your desk or while waiting in a queue. Regular mindfulness or meditation actually increases the size of the hippocampus and shrinks the amygdala. ‘Insight Timer’ is a free ap that offers brilliant guided meditations.
- Cold or Ice Water Treatments
You could start simply by ending your shower with cold water, working up to having an entire cold shower; swimming in cold water; placing your hand into a bucket of ice water and keeping it there or sitting in an ice cave for the maximum time allowed (like the one at Peninsula Hot Springs in Rye, VIC). The extreme example of how doing this can impact the brain is the ‘Iceman’ who can actually regulate his heart rate, temperature and parts of the brain we thought were out of our control.
- Power Poses
Standing with your legs hip width apart, hand on your hips, elbow back, chest up and head slightly elevated.
- Art and Tracing
Art therapy and other techniques to help you learn how to tap into brainpower and retrain the brain to manage stress and break free of old habits.
- Sharing Gratitude – consider sharing 3 ‘wins’ for the day with your partner, family or friend over dinner. I know a lovely family with 5 kids that have a beautiful pre-dinner saying: “Thanks you for our friends in this world when many are lonely; thanks for faith in this world when many walk in fear and thanks for the food we share when many go hungry”. Afterwards every member shares a ‘win’ or something they were happy about or grateful for that day.
- Avoid Sugar
Avoid sugar as much as possible. Sugar activated the reptilian brain and acts on similar addiction pathways in the brain to nicotine in cigarettes and alcohol. It is also the main factor implicated in becoming overweight as sugar gets stored as fat if not burnt up as energy.
- YouTube clip: How deep breathing can help control the impulsive part of your brain; why sugar is bad; how diet can normalise thyroid function.
- Thriving Mind Podcast series with Professor Selena Bartlett explains her work and how brain training can help you make long term change.
- Sugar is more than calories: how it perpetuates hunger, increases weight, stress and anxiety and stimulates the reptilian part of the brain (the amygdala).
- The Missing Link in Weight Loss Herald Sun Article.
- Smashing Mindset by Prof. Selena Bartlett.
Written by Doreen Schwegler | Naturopath, Medical Scientist & Weight Loss Specialist
BApSc (RMIT) DipApSc (SSNT)
I work in Melbourne, Sydney and online via Zoom/phone consults. E: firstname.lastname@example.org