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Top 10 Biohacks For Mental Health & Cognitive Function

Many people are familiar with making lifestyle changes for self-improvement. In recent years, a concept called “biohacking” has emerged and taken the concept of personal development to a new level. It uses scientific quantification to track how someone is actually improving in a certain area of their life. Biohacking is often used to increase longevity, optimize mental performance, and improve overall health.

Top 10 Biohacks For Mental Health & Cognitive Function

Below is a list of the current top biohacks for mental health and overall performance. In other words, if you want to improve a certain mental health condition and/or your brain’s functioning, consider some of the options listed below.  Before implementing anything listed below, you may want to read the article “How To Use Biohacking to Improve Your Mental Health” for further information; it outlines many of the basics.

1. Dietary optimization

Most people don’t even realize that dietary intake can play an important role in influencing mental functioning and processes. Additionally the foods that you eat can serve to optimize mental health or create imbalances. Those who eat lots of sugars and carbs tend to have more mental health problems compared to individuals who eat lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meats, and vegetables.

Understand that in many cases, the type of diet, how often you eat, and the number of calories you eat may influence your mental health. It is up to you to determine the optimal diet for your specific situation.

Types: Realize that there are many different types of diets that can be explored. There are significantly more diets than the ones listed below. It is up to you to experiment and find the optimal foods for your brain functioning and mental health. (Read: Optimal Diet for Mental Health).

  • Eastern
  • Food pyramid
  • Mediterranean
  • Paleo
  • Percentage-based
  • Vegan
  • Vegetarian
  • Western

Caloric intake: Some people may find that a higher caloric intake improves their performance, while others may find a low or moderate intake to be satisfactory. You may want to experiment with the amount of calories you consume within various diets.

  • High
  • Moderate
  • Low

Feeding intervals: How often do you typically eat? Some people believe that intermittent fasting is better for mental health and longevity than eating several times a day. Others believe that a person should only eat when they feel hungry. Yet there are other individuals that think eating many small meals is better for health.

  • Twice a day
  • Several times a day
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Lots of small meals throughout the day

Quality: What quality of food are you eating? Do you shop at a standard grocery store and buy lots of artificially processed food? Do you shop at a natural or organic market that supplies higher quality food. In general, the higher quality of food you are buying, the better it likely is for your brain. In terms of meat, you may want to determine whether eating grass-fed vs. corn-fed makes a difference.

  • Artificial
  • Organic
  • Processed
  • Grass-fed vs. Corn-fed

Sensitivities: It can be difficult for some people to realize when they have sensitivities to food. If a person has a food sensitivity, it will likely affect both their physical and mental health. There are apps available on the iPhone such as “FoodSense” that gather data about your body after you eat to determine potential sensitivities. You may want to conduct experiments eating while avoiding various substances listed below.

  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Caffeine
  • Gluten
  • Preservatives
  • Sugars

2. Sleep optimization

There are many ways in which you can improve your sleep functioning. If you wanted to be really specific, you could hook electrodes up to your head and sensors up to your body. Then you could make adjustments throughout the day to determine how your sleep is affected. You may want to experiment with sleep duration, figure out what can be done to improve sleep quality, and consider making other tweaks that may have an impact on sleep quality.

Duration: Some people are thought to improve their functioning from getting less sleep, while others may benefit from increased sleep. It is up to you to experiment and find what works best for your overall functioning. Some people claim that too much sleep contributes to their depression, while others claim that too little sleep may increase anxiety. Others prefer a customized cycle based on how they feel.

  • Long
  • Moderate
  • Short
  • Customized
  • Natural-wake up

Quality: There are some iPhone apps that you can download that will track how much sleep you get as well as the sleep quality. You will be able to track how much sleep you get in various stages and then determine what can be done to increase your sleep quality. If you take any medication or use other drugs, you will be able to see how they affect your sleep cycle.

  • Sleep Cycle
  • Sleep Time

Tweaks: You may want to make specific tweaks to your sleep to improve the quality. For example, you may want to reduce the number of blankets you use, determine your ideal mattress and pillows, consider eating food vs. fasting before bed, change the lighting in your room, avoid electronics, and play around with room temperature. You may find that you sleep better at a cooler temperature with two blankets, and one pillow, etc. For each person the tweaks should be customized based on the individual.

  • Blankets: Number & type used
  • Comfort: Mattress adjustment, new pillows, etc.
  • Fasting before bed
  • Lighting: Experimentation with different colors
  • No electronics before bed
  • Partner vs. Sleeping alone
  • Temperature: Warm vs. cool

3. Physical activity / Exercise

If you haven’t experimented with various types of physical activity, you may not be fully aware of the psychological benefits of exercise. If you currently get no exercise, you may benefit from trying some sort of exercise like running, strength training, or a combination. Additionally, if you find that exercising is actually making your mental health worse, you may want to try taking a break and evaluating how you feel after a specific period.

Duration: Experiment with the duration for which you exercise. Some people may benefit from longer, low intensity training, while others may benefit from shorter, high intensity training. It is up to you to find the ideal combination and duration of your workout.

  • Long
  • Moderate
  • Short

Frequency: You may want to experiment with how frequently you hit the gym as well. Some people may be going overboard if they go a full seven days a week, while others may find that they actually feel better when they go every single day. The frequency totally depends on the person, intensity, and what makes the person feel the best.

  • Daily
  • 6 days a week
  • 5 days a week
  • 4 days a week
  • 3 days a week
  • 2 days a week
  • 1 day a week
  • None

Type of activity: There are many different types of activities that can be pursued for a good workout. Some individuals may find that a specific activity works bets, yet others may find that a combination of training makes them feel best. No activity is inherently “better” than the others, rather it depends on how an individual feels after the activity.

  • Biking
  • Crossfit
  • Hypertrophy training
  • Running
  • Strength training
  • Walking
  • Yoga

Intensity: You may want to experiment with the intensity of your training as well. Those who go for casual bike rides and/or walks may feel best with low intensity workouts. Others may need to do high intensity training in order to get any sort of mental benefit.

  • High
  • Moderate
  • Low

4. Neurofeedback

Many people are not familiar with neurofeedback, but it is a great practice with numerous benefits. The goal of neurofeedback is to help train an individual how to create specific brain waves. Unless a person meditates or engages in biofeedback, the individual isn’t typically able to control how their brain works.

Neurofeedback allows you to examine the brainwave activity throughout your entire head. An examination will show you whether your brain waves are functioning optimally. Some people may not be producing the optimal waves for a particular brain region. A person can engage in training that teaches them how to increase specific waves, while decreasing others.

This practice gives a person more control over the way their own brain works. The problem is that it’s relatively expensive and can take several sessions before a person gets the hang of it. Most people prefer to go to a professional to get an EEG reading and then determine what can be done to improve their mental performance. There are other programs like NeurOptimal personal trainer bundle that allows you to train yourself.

Neurofeedback can be highly beneficial for those suffering from depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other conditions like OCD. The goal is to essentially give you some training of how to control the electrical activity throughout your brain. It’s not necessarily an “easy” biohack due to the fact that it takes time to learn and consistency, but is considered highly beneficial to those who figure it out.

5. Hear-Rate-Variability (HRV)

Heart-rate variability is the variation in the time intervals between heart beats. Research has shown that individuals with low heart-rate variability tend to be more prone to stress and anxiety disorders. Those who have a higher heart-rate variability are less likely to develop trauma or severe forms of stress. Fortunately you can take full control over your heart-rate variability by consciously training it.

Training: While there are many “apps” that can teach you how to increase your HRV, there are only a couple that can be recommended. The best are those developed by Heartmath Institute. They have created a device called the emWave2 which serves as a biofeedback unit to tell you when your heart and brain are in a state of “coherence.” When you are in a high state of coherence, you are learning how to consciously increase your heart-rate variability.

  • emWave2: This is considered the best HRV trainer on the market. It is a handheld device that comes with a sensor that attaches to your ear in order to train your HRV. With consistent practice, you learn how to increase heart-brain coherency and ultimately your variability.
  • InnerBalance: This is an app that can be downloaded to train your HRV. You need to first purchase a sensor that hooks from your phone to your ear for over $100. While the upfront costs may seem expensive, it can significantly reduce your stress.

Difficulty: You may want to experiment with various levels of difficulty. Those who have mastered the lower difficulty levels may benefit from moderate or advanced training. As the difficulty increases, you achieve mastery over your HRV.

  • Low
  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Advanced

6. Supplements

Many people take supplements for conditions like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and for improved cognition. While many supplements are considered less powerful than prescription medications, many still are able to elicit a powerful effect on the brain. It is up to you to determine your goal of supplementation (e.g. what are you trying to improve) and then determine the dosage and/or combinations that work best. Realize that certain supplements may work well for one individual, yet may be detrimental to another.

Target: The first step when supplementing is to consider what you are targeting. Are you trying to increase your IQ and/or cognitive function? Are you trying to improve your focus because you have ADHD? Or are you trying to decrease your anxiety and depression? You will likely need to conduct some research as to what supplements will specifically help your condition.

  • Arousal
  • Cognition
  • Focus
  • Emotion

Supplements: There are many supplements that can be used to hack your brain. Some of these supplements will help you cope with depression, while others may promote relaxation. Those who want to increase their brain performance may benefit from nootropics and/or stimulatory substances. (Read: List of Nootropics).

  • Antidepressants
  • Anxiolytics
  • Nootropics
  • Stimulants

Dosage: It is important to recognize that a dosing affects everyone differently. Some people who are sensitive to other substances may feel significant effects from a low dose, while others may need a standard or above-average dose. Always make sure that the dosing is considered safe before utilizing it for a biohack.

  • Low
  • Standard
  • High

7. Meditation

Many people would benefit significantly from practicing meditation. Meditation is known to increase grey matter, improve mental health, and optimize brain functioning. Those who meditate properly can tap into altered states of consciousness and improve both physical and mental health as a result of their practice. Although learning how to properly meditate requires skill and conscious effort, this practice is capable of improving concentration, anxiety, depression, and intelligence.

Types: There are many different types of meditation available to practice. You could experiment with multiple types and find the one that yields the most benefit for your situation. If you want to improve your concentration, you may choose a “concentration” based meditation. Those that want to improve their mood, may want to try a “mindfulness” type meditation.

  • Concentration
  • Heart-focused
  • Kundalini
  • Mindfulness
  • Transcendental
  • Vispanna

Frequency: You may want to experiment with the frequency of your meditation practice. Some people may swear by a daily routine, while others may find that meditating several days a week is more than enough practice. Yet others who may have mastered the technique and/or who may not like meditation much may do it once a month.

  • Daily
  • Several days a week
  • Weekly
  • Monthly

Duration: There is no specific length that you should meditate. Some experts recommend 20 to 30 minutes daily, but others may suggest 5 to 10 minutes may offer more than enough benefit. Experiment with the duration to find what works best for you. Most studies say significant benefits can be obtained from just 10 minutes of meditation per day.

  • 0-10 minutes
  • 10-20 minutes
  • 20-30 minutes
  • 30+ minutes

8. Brainwave Entrainment

Brainwave entrainment involves using audio or visual stimuli to influence or “entrain” the electrical activity in your brain. Unlike neurofeedback which can target specific sites of the brain, brainwave entrainment is less targeted. With entrainment you are capable of increasing hemispheric synchronization (e.g. communication between right and left hemispheres). Additionally you are capable of stimulating each hemisphere differently, but entrainment does not allow for targeting of specific regions.

There are many entrainment programs which are believe to help improve meditation practice, decrease anxiety, improve focus, and help with mood-related disorders. The science behind entrainment is valid, yet whether this practice provides sufficient benefit is highly individualized and therefore debatable. With that said, many people swear by using entrainment to improve their mental functioning and health.

Program: There are many different programs available for entrainment. Some have been scientifically developed, while others have been created to merely alter consciousness. You may want to experiment with various brainwave entrainment products and determine which offers the most benefit for you.

  • Hemi-Sync: This is a type of brainwave entrainment program that is patented and known for using binaural beats.
  • Holosync: This is another program that was developed to improve meditation and New Age spirituality.
  • Mind machines: These are known to elicit visual and audio stimuli in order to alter a person’s brain waves.
  • Transparent Corp: This company sells a variety of products that are brainwave entrainment-based as well as neurofeedback-based. I would recommend looking at their products prior to the others.

Tones/visuals: There are several different types of tones that can be used for entrainment purposes. Binaural beats and monaural tones require usage of headphones, while isochronic tones tend to produce the best entrainment and headphones are not required. You may want to experiment with the various auditory tones and determine which produces the best response.

  • Audio-visual entrainment
  • Binaural beats
  • Monaural tones
  • Isochronic tones

Note: Prior to engaging in this particular biohack, be sure that you are informed of the potential dangers of brainwave entrainment. Although it is relatively safe for most people, it is unknown how the technology may affect developing brains. Therefore in most cases, neurofeedback is a preferred option.

9. Psychotherapy

Many people with mental health problems benefit significantly from regular therapy. However, many people haven’t experimented with various types of therapy, taken the time to find a high-quality therapist, and experimented with the frequency of therapy. Other individuals may not get any benefit whatsoever from any form of therapy. Psychotherapy is often very beneficial to pursue for those with a mental illness.

Frequency: Due to your specific goals, you may need more frequent therapy to help you foster change or cope with your condition. In other cases, you may need less frequent therapy as too much may be overwhelming. Others may want to adapt the frequency based on their current circumstances.

  • Bi-monthly
  • Monthly
  • Bi-weekly
  • Weekly
  • Twice a week
  • 3+ times per week

Therapist: It can be tough to find a therapist that you connect with, you feel comfortable around, and one with whom you establish good rapport. There are many poor therapists that will not give good advice. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified someone is, if they don’t cut it for your particular situation, don’t see them. Ultimately finding the “right” therapist is a subjective matter that will probably require some experimentation on your part. (Read: What to Look for in a Therapist).

  • Comfort
  • Experience
  • Rapport
  • Subjectivity

Type: The type of therapy that provides most benefit for you will depend on your condition and goals. Some people with anxiety may benefit mostly from exposure therapy, while others with anxiety may benefit more from cognitive-behavioral therapy. Ultimately it’s a personal choice as to what type of therapy you want to engage in as well as what you find works best. Understand that the types of therapy listed below is not a conclusive list; there are many other types.

  • Behavioral modification
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Psychoanalytic therapy

10. Mental Programming

There are many techniques that allow you to program your thoughts. Many people do not realize the degree to which their current environment reinforces their thinking. Utilizing affirmations, changing your beliefs, brainwashing yourself, practicing gratitude, and hanging with a different social circle can significantly influence your thoughts.

Although a significant portion of our thinking is influenced by genetics, there is a portion that we can control. By using some of the techniques listed below, you can hack your brain to think the way you want. These techniques listed below may not be effective for everyone, but most people will be able to figure out something that works with some experimentation.

  • Affirmations: While these will not benefit everyone, some people may help change their thinking with affirmations and/or incantations. These involve repeating specific (usually positive) thoughts from a first-person perspective with significant emotion behind them.
  • Beliefs: There is some evidence to suggest that beliefs can influence reality and biological functioning. The saying, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” applies here to beliefs. Someone who believes they can improve their situation will likely take action, while someone who doesn’t may stagnate because they believe nothing will work. Changing beliefs certainly isn’t easy, but can be done to change your reality.
  • Brainwashing: Just like you can brainwash yourself to feel bad, you can also brainwash yourself to feel better about things. Brainwashing can be used as a tool to change your thoughts and perspective for the better.
  • Confidence: For some individuals, confidence building exercises can improve mental health as well. Those with low levels of confidence may struggle with low self-esteem and more mental health issues. Taking the time to consciously build your confidence can be beneficial.
  • Gratitude: Many people benefit from practicing gratitude. Taking a few minutes each day to think about what you’re thankful for can go a long way towards improving your mental health. When you really feel “grateful” for something, it’s almost impossible to be depressed.  Many have experienced profound psychological changes as a result of incorporating gratitude into a daily routine.
  • Inspiration: You may want to add more inspiration to your life if you find that it improves your mental health and/or performance. For some individuals, inspiration can lift depression and provide some hope. Reading inspirational quotes, watching an inspirational movie, or a particular story may improve your mental health.
  • Thoughts: Although some thoughts are subconscious, others aren’t. In many situations you can learn to control your thoughts and implant the thoughts that you want in your head. If you find yourself thinking negatively, replace the negative thoughts with positive ones and it may improve your situation; vice versa also applies. Some people may actually benefit from various forms of negative thinking.
  • Motivation: You may want to experiment with different motivational triggers and figure out what you can do to get yourself more motivated. For example, if listening to a particular speech gets you motivated, you may want to listen to part of it each day for a performance boost.
  • Social circle: The people you hang out with most frequently in your social circle are those who tend to reflect you. If you hang out with drug users, chances are good that you probably also use drugs. On the other hand, if you hang out with very healthy people, chances are that you are also very healthy. Consciously alter your social circle to improve your mental health.
  • Spirituality: You may want to take up a spiritual practice and/or certain religion to see how you feel. If you benefit from the practice, you can continue. If you are currently practicing some sort of spirituality or religion and don’t like it, you may benefit from stopping the practice. Humans tend to be spiritual, therefore neglecting this aspect may make some individuals more depressed.
  • Visualization: Specifically visualizing the reality that you want to create often works well. Some have suggested that if you picture a visualization in your brain as “reality,” your reality will eventually shift to match your visualization. Although this isn’t very scientific, visualization does help you hone your focus on what you want, thereby making it more likely to come true.

Have you used any biohacks to improve mental health or performance?

It’s widely known that people have used various supplements, tools, and behavioral changes to improve their mental and physical health. While not everyone may get benefits from tweaking certain areas of their life, many people will. Some of these hacks may help you reduce your stress or increase focus, while others may improve your emotional health or ability to relax in high-pressure situations.

Understand that not everyone will have the same results from using the hacks listed above. Biohacking is highly individualized due to the fact that everyone has different genetics and physiological functioning. One person may find that neurofeedback and supplements completely eliminate symptoms of ADHD, while another may get no benefit. For this reason, it is important to explore the suggestions above for yourself to determine whether they really work.

If you have utilized any of the hacks listed above or any others that you found successful, feel free to share in the comments section below. Maybe you have something useful to share that wasn’t already mentioned.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • T. Ho Haryadi, MD, MBA April 30, 2015, 1:11 pm

    For # 9. Psychotherapy: I suggest adding ERICKSONIAN PSYCHOTHERAPY AND HYPNOSIS. It is by design a biohack directly into the subconscious, and effectively done by a genuinely trained Ericksonian therapist can be dramatically effective in the moment with lasting change. It may take some doing to find the effective therapist, perhaps directly trained by major “disciples” of Milton Erickson, MD, like Virginia Satir, Richard Bandler, Bill O’Hanlon, and Yvonne Dolan, to name a few. It is worth exploring the major mathematical models from General System Theory that developed from this universe of growing knowledge, and see its practical impact.

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