DNA of Peak Performance, Experimenting with Habits & Morning Sunlight
🤸♀️ Stretch 34
This edition is all about having an experimental mindset when it comes to your brain and body.
Once you realize how much there is to learn and how much control you have over your nervous system… there’s no going back!
It adds a whole new dimension to this incredible gift we’ve been given.
As Andrew Huberman so eloquently puts it:
“The human species was given this tremendous gift of neuroplasticity, the ability to change ourselves and be better in deliberate ways. My definition of greatness is anyone that’s making that effort, even in a tiny way, just to take this incredible machinery that we were given—our nervous system—and to leverage it toward being better, feeling better, and showing up better for other people.”
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK’S STRETCH
The DNA of Peak Performance. 3 key neurochemicals to understand and influence.
You could feel so much better. Start-quit-change-pause. Experiment with your habits.
One simple idea to take seriously. Get that morning sunlight.
🧠 THE DNA OF PEAK PERFORMANCE
Research suggests that the brain has approximately 100 billion neurons and 1 quadrillion (1 million billion) connections wiring these cells together.
(Yup, all going on up in that little head of yours!)
How in the world are these connections formed, and how do these brain cells communicate with each other?!
The answer is:
Neurochemicals, or neurotransmitters.
These are organic molecules produced in the brain that transmit signals from one neuron to another.
It’s like the language of the brain.
More than one hundred of these neurotransmitters have been identified in our nervous system, all with their unique features and use cases.
But from the standpoint of “peak performance,” there are 3 neurochemicals truly important to understand when it comes to work and performing at our best.
They’re involved in everything to do with focus, motivation, attention, and procrastination.
🥉You can remember this popular trio as 'The DNA of Peak Performance’ (as coined in a book called The Leading Brain):
Okay so you might be wondering:
These are chemicals sloshing around in my system. Seems to me like they’re doing their thing. What do they have to do with me?
Think of it this way:
Every feeling, thought, and action can be reduced to electricity and chemicals in your brain.
Every single one.
So once you have a basic understanding of how these biological systems function, you can learn to use them to our advantage.
Because here’s what’s really fascinating about all of this:
You can subjectively trigger the release of these chemicals, deliberately creating a state in your brain for optimal focus, learning and neuroplasticity.
Of course, understanding these mechanisms won’t magically turn you into a productivity machine. But you will have a better understanding of why you struggle to stay focused on your task, or why you’re feeling so unmotivated to tackle a new project.
And instead of being hard on yourself, you’ll realise you don’t have to be at the mercy of these moments.
You have agency, and you have tools at your disposal to do something about them.
Alright. Let’s take a quick look at Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Acetylcholine and what you can do to influence the baseline of each chemical in your system.
Cheap dopamine, dopamine hit, dopamine detox.
At this point, the word dopamine feels overused, which is a shame because it's crucial to understand it.
Dopamine is the molecule of motivation, pursuit, and desire.
The level of dopamine in your system is the primary determinant of how motivated, excited and willing to push through effort and pursue goals you are.
Releasing dopamine is one of the ways your brain has to make you feel good and encourage you to do more of whatever you’re doing.
We all have a natural baseline of dopamine, and it can spike or drop based on what we do and even what we think. Huge spikes will lead to drops below baseline. (The analogy of dopamine as a wave pool is helpful to understand this.)
Maintaining sufficient baseline dopamine levels is important to sustain day-to-day motivation. We don't want the baseline too low or too high.
When dopamine is low in our system, we won't put in the effort to obtain or reach a goal. When it’s too high, we’ll ride the high excitement and motivation, but soon enough, deplete our reservoir.
So with dopamine, there are two important considerations:
Ensuring healthy baseline levels of dopamine through daily practices
Being conscious of “dopamine stacking” where we engage in too many activities that release dopamine, leading to peaks and dips in our baseline
📈 How to influence dopamine levels
Morning walk. Viewing early morning sunlight for 10-30 minutes has been shown to increase dopamine levels.
Cold shower. Take a 1-3 minute cold shower, as cold as you can safely tolerate, as well; this is known to increase baseline dopamine for hours dramatically.
Exercise. Regular (2-3x/week) walking, jogging, or strength exercise has been shown to increase dopamine receptor availability in the reward system (i.e. increase your ability to feel joy, motivation)
Break up tasks into mini-tasks. Telling yourself you are moving toward your goals is a huge stimulator of dopamine release—and entirely under your cognitive control. Of course, it’s not about lying to yourself and saying you’ve hit a goal when you haven’t. But as you progress toward milestones, register it in your mind. This clear, immediate feedback loop stimulates dopamine release. So make your goals small enough on a daily basis so you can track whether or not you are moving in the right direction.
Manage your dopamine schedule. Be aware of dopamine peaks and layering in too many things that stimulate dopamine (called dopamine stacking). None of these are bad in isolation, but we get in trouble when stacked together—caffeine, social media, music, food, etc.
Also known as noradrenaline.
This neurochemical is chemically identical to adrenaline. The only difference is that epinephrine is released in the brain, while adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands in the body.
This is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel “ready for action”. It’s involved in the fight-or-flight response and makes you feel alert and vigilant.
Just like with dopamine, there is a tricky balance to find with norepinephrine.
Too little, and you feel bored and lethargic.
Too much, and you’re in a state of panic.
You need to find the sweet spot in order to feel alert and engaged, ready to learn and focus.
📈 How to influence norepinephrine levels
To make sure we can achieve a good level of alertness, first get the basics right:
Be well rested
Be fully hydrated
Caffeine (ideally 60-90 mins after waking up)
And then there are two interesting ones:
Having a clear WHY. Being clear on WHY you’re doing a certain task. Take a few seconds to be intentional about this. These drivers can be positive ("I want to learn this language so I can speak to my family-in-law.”), but fear-based motivators are just as effective (“I need to improve my copywriting skills to get in more clients and keep my business afloat.”). Epinephrine is a chemical so it doesn’t distinguish between positive or negative motivations.
Having the right level challenge. Norepinephrine is at an optimal level when you feel slightly over-challenged. The “this-is-tricky-but-I-think-I-can-handle-it” feeling. You won’t be able to feel engaged if the task is way too easy or way too difficult.
So, dopamine is all about motivation. Epinephrine is about attention and alertness.
The last ingredient in this neurochemical cocktail is acetylcholine.
Acetylcholine is about focus, acting as a spotlight of the neurons that are active during this state of heightened awareness.
Acetylcholine does a few cool things:
Causes your pupils to dilate in response to light and helps you focus.
Triggers a “sensory gating” process by dampening or blocking irrelevant or redundant noises to the background.
Enhances the coding of new information in your brain. By continually stimulating (“spotlighting”) specific individual neurons in your brain, this neurotransmitter encourages you to actively remember new things and connect them to things you already know.
📈 How to influence acetylcholine levels
Narrow your visual field. When you need to concentrate on something, narrow your visual field. By deliberately narrowing your vision, and blocking out all visual distraction, you’re sending a clear message to your brain about what matters and what needs its energy. To increase your level of focus on the task you're about to do, stare at a point on a wall, screen, or object for 30-60 seconds before starting. That effort you feel is “top-down” attentional engagement and reflects the activity of neural circuits triggering acetylcholine release in your brain.
Remove all distractions. Work single-mindedly on one specific, clearly defined goal without any interruptions or distractions.
Eat specific foods: Some ways to increase your levels of acetylcholine include eating foods rich in choline—which is needed to synthesise acetylcholine—like lean meats, fatty fish, milk, yogurt, kidney beans, green beans, peas, and broccoli.
🙋♀️ Would you like me to go into more detail in a future edition?
If so, would you be more interested in...
🕺 YOU COULD FEEL SO MUCH BETTER
You need to pay attention to how you feel, and to be curious about why you feel that way.
This piece by Nat Eliason drove this home for me: You Have No Idea How Much Better You Could Feel
It’s not just about “not being sick.”
You could probably feel more focused, motivated, energetic, excited… if you actively experimented with your daily habits and made small tweaks here and there.
As Nat says in the article:
“How many of us are walking through life at a fraction of our capacity because we’re being handicapped by lifestyle factors that we’re completely unaware of?”
A great example is my girlfriend.
For the longest time, she woke up feeling foggy and tired, even after 7-8 hours of sleep.
She’d drag herself to the Nespresso machine and down 2-3 coffees before noon.
She suspected the black deliciousness might have something to do with how she was feeling but didn’t want to admit it because that would mean… No more coffee. The horror. 😱
But she finally did it.
Quit cold turkey. (She’s a beast! 🥰)
And guess what.
She now feels great in the morning. No foggy head. Natural clarity and energy.
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you should quit coffee.
I am suggesting to be curious and to experiment.
Try a different routine or product. Quit or pause a habit you’re doing on autopilot, just to feel the difference.
In Nat’s words:
“We have to periodically mess with our status quo. To shake up the snow globe. If someone says some new way of living changed their life, just try it. See what happens. It doesn’t matter if the carnivore or vegan diets are healthy or not, do it for a week and see how you feel. Do thirty minutes of cardio every day for a couple of weeks. Get in the ice bath.
And it doesn’t have to just be physical stuff. Go to church every week for a year. Start meditating. Journal. Write down what you’re grateful for each morning. Scream whatever you want to manifest at yourself in the mirror each morning until your neighbors call the cops on you.”
GET YOUR MORNING SUNLIGHT. GET YOUR MORNING SUNLIGHT. [AND REPEAT]
As Charlie Munger says:
“Take a simple idea and take it seriously.”
Huberman’s simple idea:
GET 👏 YOUR 👏 MORNING 👏 SUNLIGHT!
If there’s just one thing you try out as a new habit, start with this.
Redundancy has its place.
Sunlight before screen light mashup:
— Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D. (@hubermanlab)
Jan 2, 2023
Natural light (as close to waking up as possible) triggers the neurons in the eyes that communicate to the brain: “hey, it’s daytime”.
This sets in motion a cascade of biological responses in your nervous system:
First, the release of dopamine and cortisol, providing a wake-up signal and promoting alertness and focus. Cortisol is commonly thought of as “the stress chemical” but having the right cortisol balance is essential for your health, and ideally you get that pulse as early in the morning as possible.
Then, 12-14 hours later, the release of melatonin, stimulating feelings of sleepiness, preparing you for a restful night.
On top of that, morning sunlight helps regulate your “circadian clock” — the body’s mechanism for anticipating when to wake up and when to go to sleep — and it manages other biological processes like hunger and body temperature.
It’s the simplest, easiest thing you can start doing to feel better and sleep better.
P.S.: At what point should I just re-name this newsletter to All Things Huberman? 😉