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Hey there, pod fam! 

In this episode of What’s the Juice, I had the honor of chatting with brain-genius Louisa Nicola, Founder & Director of Neuro Athletics: a data-driven neuroscience company that provides athletes with scientific strategies to achieve peak performance. 

Our conversation is jam-packed with juicy information about optimizing brain health (whether you’re an athlete or not) and the lifestyle interventions you can zero in on to hack your neurophysiology — from sleep to nutrition to anaerobic exercise. But before you dig in, let’s give you a little background.

Hailing from Australia, Louisa Nicola is a world championship triathlete who raced both nationally and internationally, competing in London, Beijing, and beyond. After retiring in 2012, she switched gears and went to Sydney Medical School where she graduated with a specific interest in neurophysiology. As an athlete herself, Louisa began to observe the behind-the-scenes nuances of professional sports teams — all of which boasted experts on fitness and nutrition, and none of which had an expert on brain function. Thus began her journey of working with some of the biggest names in the NBA, MLB, and NFL. 

Tune in as we delve into the nitty gritty science of how the brain works, and what you can do specifically from home to optimize neuroplasticity and cognition. And, as always, find a pared down guide of the podcast below so you can reference all the deets both now and into the future. 

KEY LIFESTYLE INTERVENTIONS:

SLEEP

The Science: 

  • There are four stages of sleep: light sleep (stage 1 and 2), deep sleep (stage 3), and REM (stage 4). 
  • During stage 3 and 4, critical hormones are secreted and your glymphatic system becomes activated, which is responsible for replenishing and cleansing your brain.
  • During this process, the glial cells shrink in your brain, creating gaps between brain tissue that allow for fluid to be pumped in, thus washing away toxins. 

Louisa’s Tips: 

  • Sleep is not a debt you can repay at the bank. Try to stick to the 80% rule, meaning you should strive for great sleep 80% of the time.
  • As a general rule, aim for 8 hours each night. Some elite athletes sleep closer to 10-12 hours. 
  • Get natural sunlight the moment you wake up, which is ideally around 7am, for at least five minutes. 
  • Avoid afternoon caffeine, which has a half life of ~5-6 hours.
  • Come sundown, dim the lights in your home to prepare your body for sleep. 
  • Sleep in a pitch-black room if you can (use an eye mask if needed).
  • Mess with your body temperature, since your body needs to be cooled down at least two degrees to sleep. Wear lighter clothing, expose your feet, etc. 

AEROBIC EXERCISE (CARDIO)

The Science: 

  • Aerobic exercise causes an increase in BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a growth factor for the brain. 
  • BDNF enhances the hippocampus (the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system), leading to new neuron growth and, in turn, improved learning and memory.

Louisa’s Tips: 

  • The best aerobic exercise for optimal brain health is what’s known as Zone 2 Training, which entails achieving about 65% of your maximum heart rate. This can be done by simply walking at an incline of ~8-10 around a speed of 3.8 mph (which is what Louisa personally does) for around 30 minutes. 

ANAEROBIC EXERCISE (STRENGTH TRAINING)

The Science: 

  • Anaerobic exercise releases myokines, which are muscle based proteins like irisin, lactate, and IL 6. When secreted, myokines can positively impact executive function — i.e. your ability to think better, perform better, and so on.
  • It also increases synaptogenesis, which is integral for the overall architecture of brain connectivity.

Louisa’s Tips:

  • For optimal strength training, focus on 70% of your 1-repetition max. This means you need to find the maximum weight you can handle for 1 rep, then use 70% of that weight for at least 6 sets, 4 reps each. It doesn’t have to be crazy — it just has to be challenging.
  • If you need a good starting point, learn how to squat well and focus on compound movements. Louisa also recommends Investing in a trainer over supplements.

STRESS

The Science:

  • Too much cortisol is bad, but not enough of it is also bad. We need cortisol in the right amounts at the right time, and the same goes for inflammation. 
  • Increased inflammation from chronic stress exposure can alter neurotransmitter metabolism and increase adverse behavioral health symptoms like anxiety and fatigue. 
  • High-fat diets can cause neural inflammation. Other causes are lack of sleep, alcohol intake, anger, etc. 

Louisa’s Tips:

  • Inhale twice, then exhale. This mimics crying/hyperventilation.
  • Infrared light can be helpful to reduce neural inflammation. 
  • Ice baths can be helpful to create new mitochondria (also known as mitochondrial biogenesis). 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids can also help lower inflammation in the body and feed your brain. Louisa recommends two grams of both EPA and DHA daily. 

Other Tips & Tricks to Optimize Brain Health: 

  1. Reactive training, such as throwing a tennis ball at the wall for at least 5 minutes each day.
  2. Taking vitamin D, EPA, and DHA daily.
  3. Happy hour — i.e. doing what makes you happy. 
  4. Perfect practice makes perfect — i.e. engaging in precise, monotonous activity to achieve your end goal. 
  5. After perfecting a skill, try to sleep (if you can) or kickstart your adrenaline.
  6. If you have or are predisposed to Alzheimer’s, the best thing you can do is EXERCISE.

If you loved this conversation, I want to hear your thoughts! Reach out on IG: @shoporganicolivia 🙂

Connect with Louisa:

Website: neuroathletics.com.au

IG: @louisanicola_

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