Human Optimization

Evolution has two ultimate goals: survival and reproduction. We’ve covered the basic survival hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol, responsible for dealing with stress and initiating the “fight or flight” response. We’ve covered most of the hormones that serve as chemical messengers to tell your organs what to do. And we discussed the all-important thyroid and how to test its functions. In the final installment of our endocrine series, we’ll be delving into the reproductive aspect of hormones, how they regulate body functions and the latest technology for comprehensive hormone testing.


Most people are familiar with the three basic sex hormones- testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. What’s less well-known is that these hormones do so much more than regulate sexual functions. They’re a vital part of keeping the body working properly, just like the rest of the hormones involved in the endocrine system.

Nothing in the body exists in a vacuum. Hormones are part of a complex system consisting of chemical signals, cellular receptors, glands, and organs. Researchers are still in the process of discovering the ins and outs of the endocrine system, and therefore it can be difficult for medical practitioners to diagnose and treat hormonal imbalances.

Thankfully, today there is a wide base of knowledge regarding hormones and testing you can do to get an idea of how yours are behaving. Men and women have very different requirements for their sex hormones and understanding the difference can be helpful to take proactive steps to better endocrine health.

Testosterone

Testosterone is the sex hormone most people relate to manliness- muscles, beards, deep voices, and testicles. And though it does have an effect on all these things, the truth is women have testosterone too (though in less abundance).

Testosterone is produced in the testes in men and the ovaries in women. All testosterone production is stimulated by the master pituitary gland and has a variety of functions including bone development, muscle growth, and body hair. It is testosterone that tells a boy’s body to become a man’s and keeps them feeling energetic and vital throughout life.

Like all hormones, the body requires a balance to operate efficiently. As men age, they experience a decline in testosterone that can happen gradually or quickly depending on a number of factors. Decreased testosterone in men can cause weight gain, decreased sexual desire, type 2 diabetes, thyroid imbalances, bone loss, muscle loss, and even cancer. That’s why it’s important to take note of testosterone levels as you age and make sure you’re living a lifestyle that promotes healthy production.

When a man is stressed (either from lifestyle factors, eating too few calories, or constant extreme cardio exercise), he produces the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is known to decrease the amount of free testosterone in the body, meaning there is less that can be absorbed into cells to make things happen.

Measuring testosterone levels has been an ongoing challenge in medicine. Currently, blood serum is used to test hormone levels and is often used to diagnose endocrine disorders. It is known that in men, testosterone secretion follows a circadian rhythm, being highest in the morning and decreasing during the day. Therefore, it’s best to take samples for testing in the morning hours for the most accurate results.

Men, on average, have 7-8 times more testosterone than women. This makes testing for imbalances in women more challenging. There have also been varying measurements observed between laboratories, giving researchers a reason to begin looking for better methods of testing.

Estrogen

Estrogen is the “female hormone” but is also found in men. It’s produced mainly in the ovaries, but also in the adrenal glands and fat tissue.

Estrogen is not a single hormone, but a collective name we give to all three forms of it- estrone, estradiol, and estriol. Together they help tissues grow (namely, the breasts, ovaries, and prostate) and help regulate serotonin in the brain.

Estrone (E1) is a weak estrogen. It is mostly produced by women that are post-menopausal. The effects of low estrone or high estrone levels are not currently well known but it is commonly associated with breast and prostate cancer. Because it’s produced in adipose (fat) tissue, women who are obese will produce more estrone and be put at risk for these cancers.

Estradiol (E2) is the primary estrogen produced in women during their child-bearing years. Its main duty is to mature the reproductive system and maintain it. It is the strongest of the estrogens and protects bone density, growth hormone levels, and mood in both men and women (though women have higher levels).

Having too much estradiol has been associated with acne, loss of sex drive, constipation, and depression. Extremely high levels can put women at risk for uterine and breast cancer. As a woman ages, her estradiol levels drop, resulting in the cessation of the menstrual cycle and the symptoms of menopause- hot flashes, mood swings, and vaginal dryness.

Estriol (E3) is the weakest form of estrogen and is responsible for protecting breast tissue and vaginal health. By occupying the receptors for estrone, it blocks its cancerous effects and maintains a healthy reproductive system.

Progesterone

Progesterone is a precursor for testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. In women, it works with estrogen to regulate the menstrual cycle and prepare the body for pregnancy. Most contraceptives are a mix of estrogen and progestin, a chemical created to bind to progesterone receptors and stimulate the same effects. (Progesterone is not well-absorbed orally.)

Because progesterone becomes cortisol (the stress hormone), people who are constantly stressed will often have low levels of progesterone. In men, this means less progesterone gets to become testosterone, which can lead to problems like depression, muscle loss, weight gain, decreased sexual desire, and bone loss.

Women with low progesterone levels may struggle to conceive because the body needs the hormone to create an environment for a fertilized egg to grow. These women may also have a higher risk of miscarriage.

The Dutch Test

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take testing to the next level. While most physicians rely on blood serum testing for hormone levels, we prefer the Dutch test. Using five dried samples of urine over a 24 hour period, the Dutch test provides the most comprehensive assessment of sex and adrenal hormones and their metabolites. It also includes the daily, free cortisol pattern, organic acids, melatonin (6-OHMS), and 8-OHdG.

Hormone levels vary throughout the day. Additionally, there is a lack of extensive metabolite testing when using serum (especially for cortisol and estrogens). Our goal is to get the most accurate depiction of your health so we can guide you to the hacks and habits that will increase your healthspan. Some people metabolize and produce hormones in the balanced amounts, some don’t.

This is why we treat each patient as an individual, using the latest testing technology as it changes to meet the growing demand for personalized, integrative medicine.

To schedule a consultation with the Institute for Human Optimization, click here.

There’s a tiny gland in your neck, right below the Adam’s apple, that is responsible for almost all of your bodily functions. It’s called your thyroid and because you literally can’t live without it, it’s vital to keep it functioning properly. In Part I of our endocrine series we discussed the basic structures and functions of the endocrine system. In Part II we dove into how the HPA axis works with cortisol to manage stress. In this part, we’ll talk about the all-important thyroid and how the Institute for Human Optimization assess patient thyroids with the latest testing to guarantee accurate results.


Your thyroid works a bit like your air conditioner. The pituitary gland is the thermostat, it senses when your body is low on hormones and sends a signal to the thyroid using TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).

When the thyroid picks up the TSH, it pumps out the exact amount of hormone needed to make sure everything runs smoothly. Your thyroid is responsible for a variety of functions including menstrual cycles, metabolism, heart function, brain functions, digestion, and mood.

Its main responsibility is converting iodine from food into thyroid hormones, known as thyroxine (T3) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that can absorb iodine. T4 is responsible for your metabolism, mood, and body temperature, among other things. T3 is made in the thyroid gland but can also be made in other tissues within the body by converting T4 into T3.

If you have a properly working thyroid, it’ll dispense about 80% of the T4 hormone and 20% of the T3. About half of the T4 will be converted into T3 throughout the day. Whatever isn’t used gets flushed out in a process called reverse T3.

Basically, reverse T3 (rT3) is an inactive ‘thyroid hormone’, but one that can sometimes cause health issues when everything else is seemingly functioning as it should be. Because T3 and rT3 compete for spots on cellular receptor sites. If there’s too much rT3, regular T3 can’t bind to the receptors, weakening its effects. This can result in symptoms of hypothyroidism, even if T3 levels are within range.

In early humans, stress from starvation or danger would trigger the reduction of rT3, slowing the metabolism and conserving energy. This is why today when we go on sudden crash diets or suddenly take up intense cardio workouts, our bodies respond the same way they always have- shutting down functions like sexual reproduction and digestion. If you’re running from danger or starving, your body sees no reason to have kids and can inhibit sex hormones such as testosterone.

Some common reasons for thyroid disorders include:

  • Starvation or radically reducing calories for an extended period of time
  • Poor blood sugar management
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Chronic stress (cortisol, the stress hormone, is vital for converting T4 into rT3)
  • Chronic illness

Thyroid Disorders

It’s estimated that about 12% of the United States population will experience some kind of thyroid disorder in their lifetime. It’s helpful to know the differences between the most common thyroid disorders and their symptoms so you can get treatment as soon as possible.

  • Hypothyroidism
    This is caused by an underactive thyroid and can cause fatigue, weight gain, weakness, depression, sensitivity to cold, slow heart rate, and in extreme cases, coma. Diagnosis for hypothyroidism generally follows a test resulting in high TSH l and low T4 levels. Treatment generally includes supplementation of thyroid hormone and doctors must be careful to get the dosage right and not cause the opposite reaction.
  • Hyperthyroidism
    Hyperthyroidism is the opposite- the thyroid is overactive and producing too much hormone. This is more common in women than men and can cause anxiety, racing heart, thin skin, irritability, brittle hair and nails, and weight loss. People who suffer from hyperthyroidism generally test low for TSH and high for T4. Doctors will prescribe drugs that inhibit the thyroid or in extreme cases, surgically remove a portion of it.
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
    In this form of hypothyroidism, the immune system attacks the thyroid and begins to destroy it. Symptoms include heavy or irregular menstruation, pale puffy face, fatigue, intolerance to cold, thinning hair, or enlargement of the thyroid. There is no cure for Hashimoto’s and it can only be distinguished from hypothyroidism by testing the blood for TPO antibodies. A recent study suggested that cutting out gluten could provide clinical benefits to women with Hashimoto’s disease.
  • Grave’s Disease
    This is another autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid. However, Grave’s disease causes the thyroid to overproduce the hormone responsible for regulating metabolism, resulting in increased heart rate, anxiety, bulging eyes, and possibly hand tremors. People with Grave’s disease will have low levels of TSH and high levels of T4, similar to hyperthyroidism. Similar to Hashimoto’s, there is no current strategy to stop the immune system from attacking the thyroid so managing symptoms using beta-blockers, iodine, and possibly surgery are the common forms of treatment.
  • Goiter
    Goiter is a noncancerous enlargement of the thyroid gland. Generally, this is caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. In the US people consume plenty of iodine in the form of table salt, so a goiter is usually a symptom of hyperthyroidism. Due to the thyroid’s placement in the throat, enlargement can cause difficulty breathing or swallowing, hoarseness, and tightness in the neck. Goiters can be left alone if they’re not severe but often require surgery to remove.

Testing the Thyroid

Doctors today have an abundance of testing technology to properly diagnose thyroid disorders. While they used to rely solely on testing TSH, they’re now able to test all thyroid hormone levels and get a more accurate depiction of function.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we provide a complete hormone panel for our patients. We test for TSH, T3, T4, and reverse T3 levels to take a deep dive into how your thyroid is functioning. So many organs and structures rely on the thyroid to work properly, so it’s of the utmost importance that we treat any signs of hyper or hypothyroidism immediately.

A recent study found that taking biotin supplements can actually throw off testing, making it seem like Grave’s or Hashimoto’s when the thyroid is actually functioning properly. It’s important to let your doctor know if you’re taking biotin before testing and possibly stop the supplements temporarily to get accurate results.

If you suspect you might have thyroid issues, contact your physician for testing or schedule a discovery call with the Institute for Human Optimization here.

Stress is a strange phenomenon, a signal that indicates to your body something is threatening your life and you need to do something about it immediately. As cave-dwelling Homo sapiens, stress looked like animals trying to eat you or not finding enough water to survive. Today, our stressors are not always life-threatening, but our bodies don’t know the difference. In Part I of our hormone optimization series, we discussed the major structures of the endocrine system and which hormones are responsible for what body functions. This week, we’ll zero in on the complex feedback loop that strives to keep you safe, the role of cortisol, and what you can do to reduce the negative effects of prolonged stress on your health.


Jack just opened a restaurant. Though he’s worked in restaurants for most of his adult life, this is the first time he’s owned his own business and taken on all the stress that comes with it. There are employees to manage, orders to make, bills to pay, and a slew of customers to win over.

As Jack walks around the restaurant, he thinks about all the things that could go wrong. The cook could quit. The food could be spoiled upon arrival. The waitresses could be stealing money. The customers could be unsatisfied with their experience.

Jack’s brain processes these imaginary events as reality. It doesn’t completely distinguish between perceived danger and actual danger. As a result of millions of years of human evolution, Jack’s body prepares itself for stress the only way it knows how- activating the HPA axis.

Role of the HPA Axis

The HPA axis is a feedback loop that regulates your reactions to stress. Specifically, it links the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenals- all vital parts of the neuroendocrine system.

The loop begins when something stressful happens- one of the waitresses at Jack’s restaurant gets ill in the middle of the busiest shift of the week. As soon as Jack hears the news, his sympathetic nervous system is activated. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are released, the hormones responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response we once used to run from saber-toothed tigers.

With these hormones released, Jack’s HPA axis is in full swing. His hypothalamus (a small part of the brain concerned mainly with keeping the body in a state of homeostasis) secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into his bloodstream. In the brain, CRH increases feelings of anxiety and temporarily improves Jack’s memory and selective attention. He’ll need his brain in an attentive state to deal with whatever stressor he’s facing.

CRH is a message to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which travels to the adrenal cortex like a letter traveling to your mailbox, binding to adrenal receptors, and causing the final section of the loop- the secretion of cortisol, the “stress hormone”.

Role of Cortisol

As the night goes on, and more inevitably stressful events occur, Jack’s bloodstream becomes inundated with cortisol as his adrenal cortex pumps out the hormone a little at a time. Cortisol’s main job is to release glucose into the bloodstream to be used as instant fuel for either fighting or running from his problems. Each pump results in about fifteen minutes of sustained cortisol release.

Cortisol also helps shut down secondary functions like sexual desire and urinary urges. You wouldn’t want to have to pee while running for your life or fighting an enemy and Jack is able to cover the waitress’s entire shift without having to use the restroom.

Unfortunately, Jack’s stress does not end after the difficult shift. He carries the weight of the night home with him and wakes up to another day of difficult obstacles. Each event re-actives the HPA axis and starts the whole process over again, inevitably leading to elevated cortisol levels for long periods of time.

Many studies show this kind of chronic stress is not beneficial for longevity and overall well-being:

“It appears that being exposed to stress can cause pathophysiologic changes in the brain, and these changes can be manifested as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders (Li et al., 2008). In fact, studies have shown that chronic stress can cause complications such as increased IL-6 and plasma cortisol but decreased amounts of cAMP-responsive element-binding protein and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is very similar to what is observed in people with depression and mood disorders that exhibit a wide range of cognitive problems.”

Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal16, 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480

If Jack is constantly bombarded with cortisol, his immune system is constantly suppressed. This leaves him vulnerable to disease and inflammation that can be detrimental to the body over time.

Cortisol also activates the autonomic nervous system, indirectly affecting the cardiovascular system. Jack’s heart rate increases, his muscles tense and contract, and blood flow is diverted from his organs to parts of his body that will help him fight or run. Again, this is all fine for a short period of time, but the organs need blood flow to operate correctly.

In addition, his hippocampus is extremely sensitive to stress and also responsible for the conversion of short to long-term memory. Animal studies show that a chronic state of stress can cause a reduction in the accuracy of spatial memory and negatively affect learning. Temporarily, Jack is sharper and better able to handle his environment. But over time, this kind of attention is not sustainable, and his brain physically begins to change to compensate for the abundance of cortisol.

How to Manage the HPA Axis and Cortisol

If you can understand how your body works, you can learn to work with it instead of against it.

If Jack wants to avoid the problems caused by an overactive HPA axis, he must start with what triggers the feedback loop in the first place- stress.

It isn’t an option for Jack to sell the business he worked so hard to acquire. Even if he did, he’d still have to deal with the stressors of modern life- finding new work, paying bills, handling family life, driving at speeds of 60mph on a daily basis, and anything else that comes up.

Eliminating stress is not possible and in short bursts, it’s not even harmful. It is the chronic, constant stress that slowly erodes our body functions and mental well-being.

Jack understands it is not the elimination of stressful situations, but how he deals with them that matters. He begins to implement the following lifestyle hacks to counteract the effects of cortisol and minimize the stress he feels from work and life:

  • Practice good sleep habits.
    Studies show a clear connection between sleep and cortisol levels. Not getting enough quality sleep affects you in all aspects of your health and being groggy during the day can cause more stressful situations to occur. Aim for 7-8 hours with little disruptions. Going to bed at the same time each night helps regulate the chronobiome and cortisol levels.
  • Exercise.
    A recent study had young participants perform moderate aerobic exercise three times a week and tested their cortisol levels via saliva. Interestingly, the study found that exercise increased cortisol levels initially following the workout to deal with the stress, but over a course of four weeks, their overall cortisol levels decreased. Many people report being exercise being beneficial for their mental state, helping them make more clear decisions and better able to regulate their emotions.
  • Practice meditation or mindfulness.
    Unfortunately, there haven’t been many large scale studies on the effects of mindfulness (focusing on being in the moment and doing things intentionally instead of letting your mind race on autopilot) on the HPA axis.

    Recently researchers did use a mediation retreat to test subjects’ cortisol levels before and after meditation as well as before and after the retreat as a whole. They did find that cortisol levels were decreased, but without another control group, the results are not unquestionable. However, it makes sense that quieting the mind and focusing on the moment would create less stress, and as a result, lower cortisol levels.

    Jack strives to focus on one task at a time and notice when his mind begins to worry about things he can’t control or things that happened in the past. Our bodies don’t understand the difference between a perceived threat and a real one and secrete cortisol either way.
  • Have fun.
    Jack’s business is important to him, but he understands that a balance must be struck if he’s to live a long and healthy life. He begins to make time for things he enjoys and doesn’t stress him out. He goes fishing on the weekends and hangs out with his family. If he finds himself feeling stressed at work, he makes a conscious attempt to put on music that makes him happy or make a joke about the situation to lessen the tension.

    If your mind perceiving stressful situations is what stimulates the HPA axis, then by changing the way you feel about the situation can help dramatically. Viewing obstacles as challenges, shifting your thoughts to ones of gratitude, and laughing all help to naturally lower cortisol levels. So make stressful things into fun things.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we recommend our patients receive a hormone panel to get an idea of how their body is handling daily stressors. We take an integrative approach and aim to give people practical lifestyle hacks that can lower their cortisol and reduce the likelihood of diseases that occur as a result of chronic stress.

For more in-depth information on how to hack your health, check out Dr. Anil Bajnath’s book, “The Longevity Equation” or schedule an appointment with the Institute here.

There’s a postal service inside of you. A team of messengers carrying instructions through the blood to all your systems, organs, and structures. These messengers are your hormones, secreted by the many glands that make up your endocrine system. Your body is extremely sensitive to hormones, and even a slight imbalance can impact your health. That’s why this month we’re doing a four-part series on the endocrine system, it’s functions, and what you can do to help balance your hormones and live a happier, healthier life.


Hormones act as signaling molecules and are responsible for a variety of functions in the body including growth, maintaining body temperature, mood, cognitive abilities, sexual functions, metabolism, and so many more.

If the endocrine system is a postal service, the anterior pituitary gland is the postmaster. When a hormone comes in from the hypothalamus, it will either trigger the release of the hormone or block it. If the hormone signal gets through, it will then go on to act on endocrine structures, making important things happen in the body.

There are two main categories of signaling: paracrine and endocrine. Paracrine means the signal acts on nearby cells and endocrine uses the circulatory system for transport.

In medical school, students are taught the mnemonic device FLAT PEG to memorize the anterior pituitary hormones. They are:

  • FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone)- responsible for controlling women’s menstrual cycles and stimulating the growth of eggs in the ovaries. In men, FSH helps control the production of sperm.
  • LH (luteinizing hormone)- works with FSH to regulate the menstrual cycle and reproductive systems. In men, it stimulates the production of testosterone in the testes.
  • ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone)- aids the adrenal glands to respond appropriately to stress.
  • TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone)- regulates the thyroid gland which is essential to growth and metabolism.
  • Prolactin- responsible for breast growth and the production of milk.
  • Endorphins- act on the opiate receptors in the brain, reducing pain and boosting pleasure.
  • GH (growth hormones)- regulates growth in children and adolescents. Also helps regulate body composition, fluids, muscle and bones, metabolism, and possibly heart function.

Hormone Binding and Regulation

All of the cells in your body are exposed to the hormones floating in your bloodstream. But not all of them are able to react. Specific cells have receptors for specific hormones to act on. These are called “target cells”. When the hormone binds to a target cell’s receptor, it causes a response inside the cell. If the endocrine system is a postal service, the receptor is the mailbox. It will only receive messages meant for that particular cell.

Nuclear receptor sites are proteins within cells that are responsible for sensing thyroid and steroid hormones. Unlike regular cell receptors, nuclear receptors are able to bind directly to DNA and affect gene expression. You can have genes for certain diseases that lie dormant until acted upon by certain factors- hormones are one of these factors.

Hormone binding sites can be upregulated or downregulated depending on what the body needs. Upregulation increases a cell’s sensitivity to a specific hormone while downregulation does the opposite, decreasing the amount of available receptors.

Upregulation and downregulation can happen naturally, or as a response to drugs. For example, during pregnancy, there is an upregulation of receptors that cause the cells in the uterus to become more sensitive to the hormone oxytocin. In the case of drugs, constant exposure to certain substances during adolescence can induce the down or upregulation of genes, manifesting addiction and other mental illnesses that may not have surfaced before due to the effects on the brain’s reward systems.

Hormonal Imbalances

The endocrine system is fragile- even a slight imbalance can have a negative effect on your overall health. Imbalances can be linked to genetic polymorphisms in your DNA, circadian rhythm dysregulation (getting poor sleep), and environmental substances that are foreign to your body.

Some common signs of a possible hormone imbalance include:

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Constant fatigue
  • Changes in bowel movements (either decrease or increase in frequency)
  • Dry skin
  • Sensitive to temperatures
  • Frequent thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Thinning or brittle hair
  • Decreased libido
  • Pain and stiffness in the joints

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we order a variety of hormone testing for our patients as part of the intake process. Our goal is to get the most accurate representation of a person’s health possible and then move in the direction of increased healthspan and longevity.

Endocrine system health is an underlying variable for a variety of health problems. We strive to use the least invasive procedures first with a focus on prevention, keeping hormone levels properly regulated with proactive lifestyle habits.

We live in our brains. They shape the way we see the world, the way our personalities express themselves, the way our hearts beat, and organs function. The brain tells us when we’re hungry, when we’re sad, when it’s time to stress or relax. Famous brains throughout history have been responsible for the way we view the universe, the way we view life on this planet, and countless other inventions in medicine, art, and science. In our Brain Health series, we’ve discussed the structures of the brain, the chemical signals that make it work, and how you can take steps to reduce your chances of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases as you age. In our final installment, we discuss neuronal plasticity (how your brain reorganizes itself based on what it sees, knows, and learns) and how you can stay mentally sharp throughout your life.


The human brain is constantly evolving, not just through time, but through our own lifetimes. The brain you’re born with is not the brain you end up with.

Scientists used to believe that the brain was only malleable up to a certain age. It was thought that adults had a certain number of brain cells and they weren’t very good at re-organizing themselves.

But in the early 1900s, this idea was challenged by the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal. He found that neurons were capable of changing their structures even into adulthood. His claims led to decades of research and the realization that brain organization is not set in stone. It can be “re-wired”, so to speak, depending on what a person experiences throughout their life, what they concentrate on, and how they nourish their body.

This is due to neuron plasticity– the ability of the brain to re-organize and adapt to outside stimulation. When you learn a new skill, adopt a new habit, or are exposed to a life-changing event, the physical structure of your brain changes. The neurons change. Neurotransmitter behavior changes. Your brain literally changes the way it operates based on what you expect of it.

There is a fascinating study on London taxi drivers (before the use of GPS), which showed they had heightened activity in the hippocampus region of the brain compared to non-taxi drivers. The hippocampus is involved with spatial location, therefore, by these experienced taxi drivers constantly having to recall landmarks and spatial clues, they literally built up this part of their brain.

With this knowledge of neuron plasticity, it becomes clear that we have more control over our brain functions that we ever imagined. Habits are simply the ingrained behaviors we’ve cultivated and they can be changed with intention and focus.

Types of Neuronal Plasticity

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is Newton’s third law of motion, but it also rings true in regards to neuroplasticity. Your brain organizes itself in two ways:

  • Positive, or adaptive, meaning it configures to new experiences. This process is on overdrive when you’re a child, as your brain is learning everything from scratch, even how to interpret light and sound. Neurons are firing, synchronizing with other neurons, and forming connections. Positive neuroplasticity happens when you learn a new language or create a new exercise habit. It’s what enables people to recover from strokes, brain injuries, and even depression and anxiety disorders. It’s what makes your brain resilient.
  • Negative, or maladaptive, neuronal plasticity is the opposite. The same systems that re-organize your brain to crave exercise can also create negative thought patterns and habits that wreak havoc on your life. Constantly thinking negatively about yourself creates a neuron pathway for this behavior. The more you engage in negative self-talk, the deeper that pathway runs, the neurons that “fire together, wire together” and it becomes a habit. Negative plasticity can also happen when a person retires, stops learning new skills, and settles into complacency. Because the brain is not using the same neuronal pathways, it begins to shut them down in a process known as “synaptic pruning”. It does this to be efficient and create new pathways that you’ll actually use.

Your brain doesn’t necessarily understand which habits are positive for your life and which are not. Its job is to learn from its environment and create neuron pathways to match it. The habits you choose to cultivate, whether they be hitting the gym regularly or biting your nails, literally change the way your neurons interact with each other.

Your brain accomplishes this mainly through neurotransmitters such as dopamine. When you do something you want to do, dopamine is released, making you feel good. Each time you repeat the action, dopamine gets released earlier, until just thinking about doing it causes a surge. This is what we call “motivation” and is an essential process for remapping the brain. Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Long-Term Synaptic Potentiation

Long-term potentiation (LTP) is the constant strengthening of synapses based on consistent patterns of activity. It goes beyond negative and positive neuroplasticity, creating long-lasting experience-dependent changes in the efficacy of synaptic transmission. This could be the key to remaining mentally “sharp” as you age.

Interestingly, a breakthrough study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 demonstrated that the simple act of thinking could cause long-term potentiation changes in the brain. 

“Learning-induced potentiation of synaptic strength is also accompanied by an increase in the threshold for further synaptic enhancements.”

Lüscher, C., & Malenka, R. C. (2012). NMDA receptor-dependent long-term potentiation and long-term depression (LTP/LTD). Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology4(6), a005710. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a005710

It’s a complicated process that researchers are still trying to figure out. But essentially, the more you concentrate on doing things that are good for you, the deeper those habits are entrenched in your brain. This is why as we age, it becomes harder to change things about our lifestyles and personalities. However, neuronal plasticity is not reserved for the young. Anyone can take this knowledge and use it to hack the brain.

Your brain is always processing information, even if you’re not aware.

Can You Really “Re-wire” Your Brain?

There’s a myriad of brain supplements, apps, and how-to guides claiming to help you “re-wire” your brain- but your brain doesn’t actually have “wires”. It’s a vast array of structures, chemical reactions, and impulses that do not act independently from one another. It’s a living, evolving organ that will literally re-organize itself to meet your demands.

So what do you demand of it? Do you make your brain read and take in new information? Do you allow your brain to quiet and be in the moment? Do you load your brain with to-do lists? Do you concentrate on the things that are wrong in your life or the things you enjoy?

If you find yourself burdened with mood disorders, poor cognitive performance, or even just want to sustain mental clarity into old age, there are proactive steps you can take to align your brain with your goals.

  1. Supplement. Just like any other part of your body, your brain must have the correct fuel to work properly. At the Institute for Human Optimization, we recommend supplements with scientific data to back them up. Taking a reliable multi-vitamin to cover the basics is always a good idea. There are also supplements you can use for brain health specifically.

    One of these substances is Alpha-GPC, a natural choline compound found in the brain. It’s also a precursor for acetylcholine, a vital neurotransmitter, and has been studied for its potential for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

    Choline is a nutrient that improves focus and boosts cognitive performance. It can be obtained from a diet high in whole vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, but statistically, westerners do not get enough choline from their food and should supplement if possible.
  2. Meditate. You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to reap the benefits of meditation. While many people link this mental exercise with spirituality, there are countless studies measuring the physical benefits of sitting still and trying not to think. One study shows meditators had more blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making and cognitive abilities. Another study found that meditation increased serotonin production, making it a possible treatment for depression and anxiety which are often a symptom of imbalanced serotonin levels. There are so many free meditation apps and videos out there, but all you really need is 20 minutes a day, a quiet room, and your breath.

  3. Keep learning. “A brain at rest tends to stay at rest”. That’s Newton again, but still relevant. Your brain needs stimuli to make neurons fire. Doing the same tasks everyday fire up the same neurons in the same patterns, leading to synaptic pruning of all the pathways you’re not using. This is why people who move to a new country often become “rusty” in their native language if they’re not speaking it often. The brain says, “I need these new neural pathways to speak this language, but these others haven’t been used in a while- let’s re-wire.”

    The good news is that by knowing this, you can consciously choose which pathways you want to keep and which ones you allow your brain to prune. You can make it a goal to learn new skills throughout your life, keeping your brain resilient and life exciting.
  4. Think positive. Your neurons fire according to your thoughts. If you think you’re in danger, adrenaline is released to help you fight or run. If you think you’re in love, dopamine and serotonin are released to make you feel happy and content. The more you think about something, the deeper you dig the pathway that repeats those thoughts.

    Therefore, it’s beneficial to use our thoughts to help our brains. Focusing on positive things, things you’re grateful for, and taking time to talk nicely to yourself help your brain wire itself to keep doing the same. Neurons that fire together, wire together. So next time you’re feeling anxious or stressed, try naming three things you’re happy about. Make those “positive feeling” neurons fire. The more you practice this, the easier it’ll get.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we believe longevity shouldn’t be measured just by the length of life, but by the quality. Keeping your mental faculties working correctly and avoiding neurodegenerative disease is one of our key points when working with patients. Every person has their own unique relationship with their brain and our goal is to make it a positive, long-lasting one.

To discuss how we can help optimize your brain health, you can schedule a discovery call or check out the rest of our brain health series on the blog.

Your brain is complicated; even scientists don’t understand how it all works. There are physical structures, electric impulses, chemical reactions, and cellular communication systems that go far beyond any computer ever dreamed of. At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take brain health seriously and aim to educate our patients about how the brain works and how to keep it operating well into old age. In part two of our Brain Health series, we discussed neurotransmitters and how they affect your mood, focus, and overall health. This week, we’re covering what happens to the brain as we age and proactive steps you can take to decrease your risk for neural-degenerative diseases.


When you think about aging well, what does it look like? Are you able to run? Touch your toes? Move around unassisted? Do you want radiant skin? Clear eyes? A nice smile?

Lifespan and healthspan are two different discussions. You can lengthen your life span and live to be a hundred, but what’s the benefit if the last twenty years are spent in a cognitive haze?

Transneuronal degeneration is when neurons lose a degree of intracellular proteins and can no longer maintain their normal transmembrane potential. This is the pathological process that creates the cognitive decline we see in Alzheimer’s and dementia. The loss of intracellular machinery leads to neurons that are quick to be excited, and also quickly fatigued.

As we age our brains begin to shrink, especially in the frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that handles reasoning, personality, decision making, and social behavior. Memory decline is another symptom we associate with aging and may be caused by the brain attempting to compensate for other areas experiencing weakened functions.

It’s important to know that while chronological aging is as irreversible as time itself, it is possible to reverse biological age and reduce the possibility of suffering from dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Promoters of Neuronal Degeneration  

Age itself is never the reason for a disease, rather, it is the snowball effect of all the variables in a person’s life that attributes to the length of their healthspan. Like any machine, the brain and body will break down from constant wear and tear without maintenance.

In the case of neuronal degeneration and the many diseases it leads to, there are a variety of factors that can accelerate the process:

  • Lack of Neuronal Stimulation– A lazy brain tends to stay a lazy brain.
  • Inflammatory ResponsesEating a diet full of inflammatory foods puts your body in a constant state of inflammation, which can lead to neuron degeneration and death.
  • Microglia ActivationMicroglial cells are your immune system’s trash collectors. They’re responsible for clearing out cellular debris and mediating immune responses in the central nervous system. If your body is in a constant state of chronic neuro-inflammation (the underlying cause of most neurodegenerative diseases), too many microglia are activated at once, leading to more inflammation and neuron death.
  • Blood Sugar Dysregulation – It’s well-documented that people with Type-2 diabetes have a higher chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases due to insulin being neuro-protective.
  • Methylation ImbalancesMethylation is the atomic process that essentially turns on and off your biological systems. It helps your metabolism, DNA production, neurotransmitter production, liver health, detoxification, and so much more. When this process becomes imbalanced, serious health problems can arise.
  • Deficiency of Nutrients– Eating a balanced diet is the best way to ward off cognitive illnesses. Many studies show “a diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids supports cognitive processes in humans and upregulates genes that are important for maintaining synaptic function and plasticity in rodents. In turn, diets that are high in saturated fat are becoming notorious for reducing molecular substrates that support cognitive processing and increase the risk of neurological dysfunction in both humans and animals.”

Signs of an Aging Brain

Most researchers agree your brain starts to show its first signs of degeneration around age thirty with beginning signs of cognitive decline after fifty.

The earliest signs of an aging brain are:

  • Fatigue when performing cognitive activities such as driving, reading, and learning.
  • Depression, a sign of unhealthy neuron activity or imbalanced neurotransmitters.
  • Poor digestive function as around 90% of the brain’s output is responsible for keeping the digestive system functioning properly.

Moderate signs of an aging brain are:

  • An inability to focus or concentrate.
  • Difficulty learning new tasks.
  • Chronic constipation as a result of intestinal overgrowth and digestive enzyme insufficiency.
  • Increased blood pressure, increased resting heart rate, and poor blood flow resulting from overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.

Significant brain aging may cause:

  • The inability to work professionally due to cognitive difficulties.
  • An inability to appreciate life.
  • An inability to perceive your own neurological loss.
  • Tremors
  • Increased difficulty in finding directions.

And severe brain aging, correlated with neurological disease, may cause:

  • Uncontrolled bowel movements
  • Bowel obstruction and inability to digest food.
  • Inability to smell, taste, or develop social relationships.
  • Total dependence on family and medical staff for daily functions.

6 Steps for Preventing Neurodegeneration

Despite what you might think, aging and neurodegeneration doesn’t have to go hand in hand.

Blue zones are locations on the planet where people are living longer than everyone else and recently, a team of researchers set out to discover what they were doing right.

“In the blue zones region of Ikaria, Greece, dementia among people over 85 is rare — over 75 percent less common than it is in the United States. (About half of Americans over 85 years old show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.)”

Blue Zones. “Diet and Dementia: What Foods Increase or Decrease Alzheimer’s Risk?”

These blue zones show that with a variety of lifestyle changes (what Blue Zones’ founder calls the Power 9) aging doesn’t have to mean losing your mental faculties. With the knowledge of how your brain works and some simple tips, you can take proactive steps towards improving your own neural health and keeping a functioning mind through the years.

  1. Normalize blood sugar imbalances and promote optimal mitochondrial function. This means avoiding foods and beverages that will spike your blood sugar levels and throw off your insulin production. Stay away from sweets, sodas, and processed foods. Stick with natural, whole foods like lean meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
  2. Improve Phase I and II detoxification. This is all about helping your liver do its job of removing toxins from your body. The best way to aid this process is by reducing the toxins you’re putting in so your liver isn’t overloaded. Eating organic foods, avoiding environmental toxins (like smoke), and supplementing with key nutrients all help improve Phase I and II detoxes.
  3. Optimize essential fatty acid metabolism. You’ll find most preventative medicine focused heavily on diet and exercise, and this is tip is no different. Studies show “maximal rates of fat oxidation have been shown to be reached at intensities between 59% and 64% of maximum oxygen consumption in trained individuals and between 47% and 52% of maximum oxygen consumption in a large sample of the general population.” This means steady, consistent exercise to get your heart rate up can greatly reduce the symptoms of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  4. Optimize glutathione production. Glutathione is an antioxidant produced in cells. Having a reduced amount can affect many health markers and even increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Eating plants with natural sulfur such as broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, and legumes can boost glutathione production. Getting quality sleep also helps optimize glutathione production.
  5. Optimize gastrointestinal pathogens. There is always something growing in your stomach. Some of its helpful. some of it may be harmful. The best way to keep your gastro-flora healthy is by eating whole foods, including fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha, or supplementing with a quality probiotic formula. For the full scoop on gut bacteria, check out our “Keeping a Healthy Microbiome” article.
  6. Optimize methylation. Methylation is the atomic process that turns on and off your biological systems. It helps your metabolism, DNA production, neurotransmitter production, liver health, detoxification, and many other mechanisms. You can optimize methylation in your own body by adding key nutrients such as folate, choline, and B vitamins into your diet.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we believe brain aging doesn’t have to be a part of chronological aging. It all begins with you and your lifestyle choices. We strive to give our patients personalized preventative care to keep their minds sharp as they age. To discuss how we can help you on your journey to a longer healthspan, schedule a discovery call today.

Your brain is a complicated biological machine capable of running all of your body’s functions, mental abilities, and sensory perceptions simultaneously. In reality, many facets of your personality and life choices come from the chemical substances coursing through your brain called neurotransmitters. By understanding which chemicals cause which reactions, you can learn to hack your brain to enhance your mood, improve creativity, enhance focus, and even decrease your chances of having neurodegenerative diseases as you age. In this second part of our Brain Health Series (read part one here), we cover the functions of the major neurotransmitters and what you can do to help regulate them for your own well-being.


You are a walking eco-system. Your life is governed by the actions of all the organisms, structures, and mechanisms you’re made of. If your gut bacteria thrive on sugar, you’ll crave sugar. If your genetics determine you have red hair, you’ll go through life with red hair.

One of the most important mechanisms happening in your body is the delicate balance of neurotransmitters coursing through your brain. These are chemical substances that react to impulses from the nerve cells. Electrical signals are not able to jump the gap between neurons, they must be first be turned into chemical signals. Neurotransmitters are these signals, traveling to muscles, tissues, and nerves to make the right things happen at the right time.

There are two types of neurotransmitters: excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters excite the neuron. They let it know that it’s time to fire. Inhibitory are the exact opposite, they tell the neuron to relax, nothing is going on.

Understanding these mechanisms can be a powerful tool for hacking your health, especially in regards to your mood, drive, and mental capacities. Each type of neurotransmitter is responsible for a specific function in your body and by learning about them, you set yourself up to better understand your own brain and its cycles.

Serotonin

Serotonin is one of the more well-known neurotransmitters. It’s produced in the central nervous system and is responsible for anger regulation, body temperature, mood, sleep, pain modulation, and appetite.

Many people cite low serotonin levels as the main cause of depression, though this has not been clinically proven. The reason this theory for why people suffer from depression has become so popular is because of the benefits many people find from taking SSRIs.

SSRI stands for serotonin repute inhibitor, but we know them by the names pharmacological companies use, Xanax, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. These drugs work by inhibiting serotonin uptake back into the neuron, increasing serotonin levels, and changing the way you react to emotional-laden information.

“Unlike mood, emotions are relatively short-lived, automatic responses to internal or external stimuli, and in depressed patients, emotional responses are reliably negatively biased (12). Thus, from this viewpoint, increasing serotonin activity in depressed people does not influence subjective mood directly but, rather, as a secondary consequence of positive shifts in automatic emotional responses.”

Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression?. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA)14(2), 158–160. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20229

Serotonin is often called the “feel-good” chemical, but it does a lot more than that. Most of it is produced in your gut, helping with digestion. If you’ve ever eaten something foul, your body produced extra serotonin to speed up the digestive process and get that food through faster than usual.

Serotonin works with another neurotransmitter, dopamine, to balance your sexual urges. Too much serotonin and not enough dopamine can result in hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), meaning extremely low sex drive. This is why the use of SSRIs can cause sexual dysfunction.

You may have low serotonin levels if you experience:

  • Increased anger or aggressiveness
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Tinnitus
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Increased anger or aggressiveness
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Tinnitus
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Anxiety disorders

Contrarily, you may have high levels of serotonin if you experience:

  • Shyness
  • Inferiority complex
  • Nervousness
  • Vulnerability to criticism
  • Intense fear of being disliked
  • Desire for social contact but fear about it

There are two main reasons why someone might have low serotonin: they may not be making it, or their brain isn’t using it properly. Some studies suggest that increasing vitamin D can boost serotonin levels as well as eating plenty of tryptophan-rich foods. Tryptophan is an amino acid that assists in the creation of serotonin and is found in chicken, eggs, fish, turkey, shrimp, mushrooms, spinach, raw tofu, liver, salmon, beef, lamb, soybeans, scallops and pumpkin seeds.

Seratonin can also be boosted naturally by spending at least 15 minutes in the sun, exercising, and treating yourself to a massage now and then.

Dopamine

Dopamine is serotonin’s buddy and helps regulates your daily mood. It’s also responsible for attention, learning, motivation and reward, cognition, and making sure you’re coordinated enough to get through life.

Dopamine is the “pleasure” chemical, and its main job is to make sure you feel good when you do something good for you to make sure you do it again. Some researchers even think that higher levels of dopamine gave our ancestors a social edge over other apes, propelling us quickly through the evolutionary process to where we are today.

Dopamine would have let our ancestors know they were doing something right. For example, berries contain natural sugars that boost dopamine levels. Finding a berry bush as an early human was quite a stroke of luck as berries are more calorie and nutrient-dense than other wild foods. That dopamine spike kept them coming back for more.

In modern times, dopamine is typically more feast than famine. We have engineered our environments to give us hits of that dopamine “high” as often as possible. Sugar is a major highjacker of dopamine that acts like a drug to the brain, even causing addiction. This is why it’s important to limit sugar intake and nourish good gut bacteria. Even your phone, with all its buttons, lights and sounds, releases dopamine in the brain.

You may have low levels of dopamine if you frequently experience:

  • Depression
  • Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure
  • Social anxiety
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Heavy menstrual cycles
  • Male secondary hypogonadism
  • Learning disorders
  • ADD
  • Chemical addictions

High levels of dopamine can cause psychosis, schizophrenia, hyper-social activity, and increased libido. Everything in your body depends on homeostasis; system balance. 

If you feel you may have low dopamine, you can try introducing wild game meat, beef, fish, oats, and dark chocolate to your diet. These contain tyrosine, an important amino acid that helps with the production of dopamine in the body.

GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter of the nervous system. This means it’s an inhibitory neurotransmitter, responsible for calming excited neurons. When GABA is released, you feel relaxed and have less anxiety. It also has anti-convulsive effects, though its role in treatment for epilepsy remains unclear.

You may have a GABA imbalance if you frequently experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Seizure disorders
  • Panic disorders

People who have an imbalance of GABA sometimes require medication to manage their symptoms. Pharmacological drugs have been developed to act as agonists for the GABA receptor site and are classified into two main types: benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepines are essentially tranquilizers. They include popular drugs such as Klonopin and Valium, which are known to carry risks of dependence, withdrawal, and negative cognitive side effects. Both benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines typically give users anti-anxiety and relaxing effects that temporarily “take the edge off”.

GABA is found in varieties of green, black, and oolong tea, as well as in fermented foods including yogurt, tempeh, and kimchi. Other foods that contain GABA or boost its production include whole grains (oat, barley, wheat), soy, lentils, and other beans; nuts including walnuts, almonds, and peanuts; fish including shrimp and halibut; citrus, cheese, spinach, broccoli, and rice.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is the “memory chemical” and is one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the body. It’s an excitatory neurotransmitter and is responsible for alertness, attention, learning, and short and long-term memory.  It also aids in skeletal muscle contraction to help you perform all your daily activities, from sweeping the floor to lifting weights.

Because it controls memory, people with acetylcholine imbalances often suffer from:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Memory lapses
  • Calculation difficulties
  • Impaired creativity
  • Decreased arousal
  • Impaired judgement
  • Diminished comprehension

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the most common neurodegenerative disease experienced by the aging population. Though researchers are not completely sure what the main causes are, people who suffer from memory-loss disorders generally have lower levels of acetylcholine.

This is why it’s helpful to eat foods that impact this vital neurotransmitter, such as fatty pork, liver, fried eggs, beef, tofu, nuts, cream, milk, and fatty cheeses. These foods contain high amounts of choline, the amino acid responsible for boosting acetylcholine production in the body.

People who suffer from acetylcholine imbalances are sometimes given medications called anticholinergics. These work by blocking acetylcholine from binding to its receptors and inhibiting parasympathetic nerve functions. They are often prescribed to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, urinary incontinence, and COPD.

Glutamate

Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body, present in nearly every excitatory brain function. Its job is to get neurons excited and ready to work. It’s also a metabolic precursor to GABA. Glutamate plays a vital role in synaptic plasticity—the strengthening or weakening of the signals between neurons over time. This is how your memories are formed, not by the creation of new neurons, but by strengthening the connections between them.

You may have an excess of glutamate in the brain if you experience:

  • Restlessness
  • Inability to focus
  • Hyperalgesia (amplified pain)
  • Anxiety

You may have heard of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a chemical compound often put in commercially prepared food to make it taste better. MSG acts on glutamate receptors and because the neurotransmitter is required in almost all metabolic activities, this wreaks havoc on the entire body.

“Insulin resistance and reduced glucose tolerance in rodents due to MSG consumption raise concerns about the development of obesity in MSG consuming humans. The same study revealed that MSG intake causes a disrupted energy balance by increasing the palatability of food and disturbing the leptin-mediated hypothalamus signaling cascade, potentially leading to obesity.”

Niaz, K., Zaplatic, E., & Spoor, J. (2018). Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health?. EXCLI journal17, 273–278. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2018-1092

If you’re looking to improve brain and metabolic health, glutamine is a good place to start. Dietary sources include beef, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, beets, celery, kale, Brussel sprouts, papaya, wheat, and fermented foods like miso and kimchi.

Endorphins

Endorphins are discussed in fitness circles as the chemicals responsible for that “runner’s high” people experience after vigorous physical activity. Their main job is to minimize pain and discomfort and understanding how they work led to the development of opioid drugs like codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone.

Using positron emission tomography (PET) scans, researchers were able to view athlete’s brains both before and after exercise. They found an increase in the release of endorphins after exercise. This led to a wealth of research on how exercise affects our mood, ability to focus, and even clinical depression.

“30 community-dwelling moderately depressed men and women were randomly assigned to an exercise intervention group, a social support group, or a wait-list control group.17 The exercise intervention consisted of walking 20 to 40 minutes 3 times per week for 6 weeks. The authors reported that the exercise program alleviated overall symptoms of depression and was more effective than the other 2 groups in reducing somatic symptoms of depression.”

Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry6(3), 104–111. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v06n0301

You may have low endorphin levels if you experience:

  • Depression
  • Chronic headaches
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Low energy
  • Chronic pain thought the body

If you’re looking to improve your mood, decrease pain, and maintain brain health, exercise is a great way to boost endorphins. You can also meditate or practice yoga, eat some dark chocolate, or do an activity that makes you laugh. Feeling good is usually an indicator that you’re doing the right things.


At the Institute for Human Optimization, we utilize a unique approach to brain health optimization by taking into account your unique genomic blueprint. We are accurately able to identify patterns of genes involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and metabolism along with risk factors for premature cognitive decline. We then correlate this data with personalized brain health assessments to determine any underlying brain-based imbalances and give you relevant lifestyle recommendations.

Everything begins in the brain. Hormone production, sensory perceptions, vision, hearing, touch, organ regulation- it is truly the control center of the body. That’s why for the next four weeks, we’ll be focusing exclusively on brain functions, structures, and how you can remain mentally sharp well into old age. This week, we’ll discuss the structures and functions of the brain so you can have a better idea of what’s going on inside your own head.


There is something special about the human brain, and we’re still unsure exactly what it is. It’s not the largest or the most complex. It doesn’t have more neurons than our primate relatives. Yet somehow, we are the only creatures on earth able to manipulate our environments, create smartphones, and walk on the moon.

A 2015 study suggested that the chimpanzees inherit their cortical organization through genetics, meaning a baby chimp’s brain is organized almost identically to that of its parents. There isn’t much room for modification.

Humans, on the other hand, have a more relaxed genetic control of their cortical organization. This means we organize our brains after we’re born, shaping our behavior and intellect by the environment and culture we exist in. Perhaps this is how we were able to jump so quickly from the stone age to the tech age, each generation building on the knowledge of the ones that came before instead of relying on pre-programmed instinct alone.

Regardless of why the human brain is unique, it remains a fascinating organ that researchers still don’t completely understand. It is a symbiotic mixture of tissues, chemical signals, and electrical impulses that have provided the inspiration for the development of the modern computer- the poor-mans brain.

How do these physical brain structures translate the human experience?

Neurons

Neurons are brain cells- the building blocks of your entire nervous system. They are the Wifi for your body, responsible for all communications. Anytime your body does something, neurons made it happen. Without neurons, there would be no communication between your body and your brain. You’d basically be a cabbage.

Neurons in the outer layer of your brain handle sensory information. When you see, hear, or touch something, the information is “saved” here. New experiences create new neurons and when you have the same experience again, the same neurons are activated- this is called memory.

Your memories are vital, they help you can perceive the world without even trying. You already know what rain on your skin feels like because the experience is “recorded” in your cells. There are around 86 billion neurons in your body, and not all of them are located in your brain. They cluster in your stomach and also your heart, bringing some validity to the ideas of “going with your gut” or “following your heart” when it comes to making decisions in life.

Neurons make things happen through action potential. For example, a mosquito lands on your arm. The stimulus is picked up by the tiny hairs on your skin which alerts the neuron. The neuron sends an electrical signal immediately. Like telephone wires, the signal is sent through the neurons to the muscle cells, causing a few of your arm muscles to contract and slap the mosquito within seconds.

These nerve action potentials are instantaneous and the cells are able to relate the intensity of the stimulus to the appropriate action. A mosquito gently landing creates a different response than if someone were to poke you with their finger. It’s amazing how tuned in our neurons are to the world around us and how quickly they act to help us respond to our environments without conscious thought.

As we age, our neurons become less efficient at determining what stimulus deserves what response. They begin reaching action potential faster from trivial stimuli, creating increased sensitivity to lights, smells, and temperatures.

That’s why it’s important for us to take care of our physical brains now, to prevent break down later.

Synapses

A synapse is a structure between neurons that allows them to pass information along. There are two ways synapses work- electrically and chemically.

Electric synapses work by passing electric currents through special channels called gap junctions between cells. It’s a complicated mechanism in which the first neuron changes the voltage in the next, creating a signal that can travel rapidly from cell to cell. This is how your brain communicates the need for certain hormones to be released at certain times.

Chemical synapses operate through the use of neurotransmitters (we’ll go over these in-depth later in the series). Neurotransmitters are biochemicals that bind to receptors in the cells and initiate an electrical response. This happens more slowly than with electric synapses and can have different effects depending on what chemical is released. For example, glutamic acid is a neurotransmitter that creates excitability.

Neurons and synapses work together to create an unimaginably complex communication system that allows you to go about your life.

Other Brain Structures

The brain is separated into two parts, called hemispheres. The left side of the brain is responsible for objectivity, spoken language, reasoning, logic, numbers, scientific thinking, and other analytical functions. The right hemisphere contains the structures used for art appreciation, intuition, creativity, face recognition, emotions, and imagination. The brain still operates as a single organ through a bundle of fibers in the middle known as the corpus callosum.

Your brain is also separated into lobes. Different structures are responsible for different functions. In a nutshell, the frontal lobe controls your behavior, memory, movement, and intelligence. The parietal lobe is located on the top of the head and aids you with language, reading, and interpreting sensations. The occipital lobe is in the back of the skull and allows you to see and comprehend spatial orientation so you don’t bump into walls or hit your head on low ceilings.

The cerebellum lays near the brain stem, which connects to your spinal cord, and coordinates your balance and involuntary functions such as swallowing, breathing, and heart rate. And the temporal lobe is located approximately where your ears are, responsible for speech, vision, hearing, and long-term memory.

All of these structures form your perception of the world around you and your health in general. As the control system for your entire body, it is important to keep the brain functioning well by making sure we’re getting proper nutrients.

Dr. David Perlmutter discusses the importance of avoiding gluten and other inflammatory foods to promote brain health and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimers. He recommends eating fresh, whole foods such as vegetables, lean unprocessed meats, fruits, and nuts as the staples in your diet. He also recommends coffee to fight off oxidative stress and supplementing with DHA (commonly found in fish oil) for improved brain health.


At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take brain health seriously and work with our patients to improve brain function before problems arise. Prevention is the key to our practice and we take all of your diet, lifestyle, and genetic history into consideration when recommending health care. Our client intake process includes a full brain consultation. To discuss how we can help you optimize your health, schedule a discovery call here.

Inside all of us is a complicated system of structures that we don’t consciously control. Our nervous systems are our programming, using signals in the form of nerves, hormones, and a cocktail of biochemicals we have only just begun to explore. At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take a multi-faceted approach to healthcare that includes utilizing the parasympathetic nervous system as a means to improve the healthspan and mitigate potential future disease. In this week’s blog post, we cover the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system, how it relates to your health, how heart rate variability might be the key to monitoring your stress, and how what you can do to balance negative and positive stress in your life.


Paula is going on a first date. It’s been a few months, so she’s rightfully nervous. She arrives at the restaurant early and sits down, facing the door so she knows exactly when her date walks in.

Paula’s heart is beating at 100 beats per minute. Her palms are sweaty. Her eyes are dilated. This is because Paula’s body doesn’t understand the difference between being nervous for a date and being nervous because something might pop out of the jungle and kill you unexpectedly. Her sympathetic nervous system is activated- fight or flight. Her mind is signaling that it’s stressed and her body does what it does best, adjusts to deal with perceived danger.

PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM

Most modern humans don’t experience the same stressors as our ancient ancestors did. We don’t have saber-toothed tigers biting at our heels or starvation looming over our heads. But we do have the same systems for dealing with those problems, and our bodies still rely on them to keep us healthy and safe.

In the old days, you escaped the tiger, the danger was averted, and the stress is gone. Today we carry the stress of work, the news, social media, and all the millions of things we have to do on our shoulders most of the day. This keeps us in a constant state of “fight or flight” and can cause health problems if not addressed.

On her date, Paula’s sympathetic nervous system is activated. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline spike to prepare her to deal with whatever’s coming. If she was perpetually stressed this way, and her cortisol levels remained high, Paula would be statistically more likely to experience cardiovascular disorders such as strokes or heart attacks.

This chronic wear and tear on the body due to chronic stress is known as allostatic load. Striking a balance between positive and negative stressors through lifestyle and behavioral changes is called allostasis. Studies show that while chronic stress is detrimental to many body systems, short-term stress (like when exercising vigorously, fasting, or sitting in a sauna) has been shown to boost the immune system and create resilience.

The parasympathetic nervous system is activated in times of resting and digesting. It involves nerves, glands, organs, and muscles that work together to control the parts of your biology you don’t have time to regulate manually. Just think about how impossible it would be to mentally control your digestion, heart rate, hormone production, tears, saliva, sexual arousal, urination, and defecation all consciously.

Thankfully, Paula doesn’t have to. She goes to the bathroom before her date arrives and everything happens just as it should without her having to put in any effort at all.

Heart Rate Variability

Doctors, biohackers, and researchers have been studying new ways to see what’s really happening in their patient’s bodies. One interesting field of study is the correlation between heart rate variability (HRV) and health.

HRV is, simply put, the amount of time between heartbeats. Reduced HRV is associated with the development of numerous conditions, for example, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, obesity, and psychiatric disorders. The company HeartMath currently offers technology that monitors your HRV so that you can see the difference in when you’re stressing about things and when you’re meditating or spending time doing something you enjoy. Our mental states influence our body states.

If we were to look at Paula’s HRV at the beginning of the night, we would notice a chaotic rhythm as her heart rate spikes and drops in reaction to her perceived stressors.

But as the night goes on, the date begins to go well. Paula starts to feel comfortable, enjoying the conversation and meal they share. If we were to measure her HRV at this point, we would see a more even, stable pattern as the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to slow the heart rate and begin digesting the dinner she just devoured.

Ways to Assist Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take your mental health into consideration when dissing any healthcare treatments or lifestyle adjustments. We understand the implications of parasympathetic nervous system health and your ability to regulate your thoughts, and find allostasis in this modern world.

Exercise is an activity that causes short-term stress that has an overall benefit on the body. It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system for a short time and then allows you to slide more easily into a parasympathetic state afterward. This is the mechanism responsible for what some call a “runners high”. Endorphins are released after you accomplish something physically difficult that make you feel good and able to rest.

When we are constantly bombarded by projects and situations that stress us out but are never truly resolved, our “fight or flight” systems never shut down, our “rest and digest” systems never come online, and we suffer health consequences in the long run.

It was even shown that listening to music during exercise increased parasympathetic activity afterward and could be an effective tool for improving recovery time and cardiac stress.

We encourage our patients to take the time to relax and unwind, meditate, stretch, and exercise in a way that contributes to their allostatic load in a positive way. Stress is a part of life, but its health effects can be mitigated by understanding and hacking the parasympathetic nervous system.

The mind state affects the body state.


If you’re ready to get a comprehensive overlook of your health and discuss how we can help you reach your goals, schedule a free discovery call here.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we take an integrative approach to healthcare. One of the most important subjects we cover with our patients is diet and how it affects the millions of microscopic organisms that exist in our digestive systems. Having a healthy microbiome is crucial for extending your healthspan and preventing the diseases associated with aging. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the major health issues that can arise from an unhealthy gut, what causes it, and the facts behind elimination diets.


You’re never alone. Inside your gut are millions of tiny, nearly invisible life forms that rely on you for nourishment. This isn’t to say they aren’t paying you back. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to digest your food and receive vital nutrients without them. We evolved in a synchronistic relationship with these little organisms and though our food has changed drastically over the last hundred thousand years, they haven’t.

Your microbiome doesn’t just handle digestion either. In fact, researchers have linked gut bacteria to a wide range of body functions such as immunity, hormone balance, and even mood. There are over 100 million neurons located in the gut, which is why it is often called ” the second brain” and perhaps why people often say “go with your gut” when talking about making tough decisions.

Due to the popularity of processed and sugary foods, our microbiomes today look much different than past humans. The organisms in your body change depending on what you’re feeding them. The bacteria we need to maintain a healthy gut are called probiotics and they require plant-based fibers from whole foods like onions, apples, bananas, and garlic to multiply. When we eat a diet full of processed foods and sugar, we get a different kind of bacteria that causes havoc on our body systems.

Disease Starts in the Gut

It’s amazing how much is going on in our guts. There is a whole eco-system of organisms in there multiplying and making things happen.

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is a group of researchers who aim to categorize all the microbes of the human body and determine their functions. This is a monumental project encompassing decades of work collecting samples from “healthy” people and doing case studies to see how microbes play into the grand scheme of human health.

One of the more interesting findings is the microbes’ effects on the immune system. Immune dysfunction is a component of many chronic diseases such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and even autism spectrum disorders. All of these problems are associated with poor gut health and depletion of certain bacteria.

Bad gut bacteria are also to blame for the wide variety of digestive issues plaguing humans today. Crohn’s disease, for instance, may be caused by a lack of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii in the gut. IBD, ulcerative colitis, and constant bloating or diarrhea can also be tied to decreased variability of gut microbes.

You may have also heard the term “gut-brain axis” relating the microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system. A number of behavioral disorders have been linked to poor gut health. Mice that were fed high-fat diets that depleted the amount of Lactobacillus (an important bacteria) in their guts produced offspring with higher levels of SFCAs and ammonia metabolites, which are considered neurotoxic, having negative effects on cognitive ability. In humans, the neurological effects of an unhealthy microbiome look like depression, anxiety, and perhaps even autism. What happens in your gut affects your brain and therefore, your mind.

Other symptoms of poor gut health include:

  • allergies
  • food sensitivities (over time your body becomes sensitive to foods you eat often)
  • sugar cravings (the more you eat, the more the bacteria thrives, the more it makes you crave)
  • gas/bloating
  • diarrhea
  • mood changes
  • depression/anxiety (there are over 100 million neurons in your gut and they communicate directly with your brain)
  • acne
  • eczema
  • weight gain (sugar cravings make this worse)
  • fatigue
  • autoimmune disorders
  • hormone imbalances
  • nutrient deficiencies (the microbes are supposed to help pull nutrients from the food you eat but if are unhealthy, have a hard time doing so)

It may seem overwhelming to take responsibility for millions of microscopic organisms you’ll never see. But your health begins in your gut and the only way to keep a good variety of microbes is by mindfully controlling what you put into it.

Elimination Diet

If you’re having any of the symptoms or disorders discussed above, many functional medicine practitioners recommend an Elimination Diet as part of treatment.

Basically, an elimination diet cuts out all the junk that may be causing poor gut health and resets your system. Not all humans have the same microbiota just as not everyone has the same reactions to foods. Some people have adverse reactions to eggs and some people can eat three a day without a problem. The idea behind an elimination diet is to eliminate ALL possible food irritants and then re-introduce them one by one to give you an accurate determination of how you should be eating. It also aims to help good bacteria flourish, helping with cravings, brain fog, and general energy levels.

Start with eliminating sugar, gluten (bread, cereal, etc), dairy, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Desirable gut bacteria love fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi so try and incorporate those into your diet. You can also invest in a good probiotic supplement, making sure it includes lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.

If you’re interested in trying an elimination diet, eat only the foods below for three weeks. Afterward, if you’d like, you can start adding back other foods to see how your body reacts. In this manner, it becomes clear what’s causing unwanted side effects and what to avoid in the future.

Always consult with your physician before trying an elimination diet.

At the Institute for Human Optimization, we offer our patients an in-depth look into their microbiome and what’s happening in their gut. We understand the vast amount of data that shows how important gut health is for overall health and longevity. We’ll show you how to manage your diet in a way that promotes desirable bacteria growth while letting you eat a wide variety of enjoyable foods.

We try to limit the use of antibiotics whenever possible with our patients so as not to disrupt the microbiome. Though very effective at killing bacteria, antibiotics also kill desirable organisms that we work hard to cultivate using diet and supplementation.

If you’re interested in your own personal microbiome and how we can work together to optimize your gut health, schedule a call with us.