We spoke with Brain Health Coach and Biohacker, Kayla Barnes, to get her “superhuman” tips for greater brain health. We discuss everything from rewiring the brain, to the science of meditation and gratitude, as well as her favorite brain boosting supplements.
Kayla, can you tell us about what you do?
I am a certified Brain Health Coach trained under the renowned Brain Doctor, Dr. Daniel Amen, and Biohacker. Biohacking means changing our environment (internally and externally) to upgrade our health and longevity. I am also a partner in a health optimization clinic and work with clients to improve their brain health, cognition, and mindset.
When it comes to the nervous system, how can we get our bodies out of sympathetic mode (fight and flight) and into parasympathetic mode (rest and repair)?
This is an important topic. In our current society, our sympathetic nervous system is activated too often, and our parasympathetic system is not activated nearly enough. There are many ways to help activate the parasympathetic system.
Breathwork: Focus on taking deep breaths, and lengthening exhales. Aim for 6-8 second inhales and 7-12 second exhales. I recommend a breathwork practice several times a day. The more you practice, the easier it will become, and the more natural.
Meditation: This is an essential practice for better mental health (mindset), brain health (organ health), and parasympathetic activation. Studies in meditators vs. non-meditators show that those who meditate have more gray matter in the brain. Meditation can also increase the cortical thickness of the hippocampus (the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory) and decrease the size of the amygdala (the stress and fear center.) Meditation can quickly activate the parasympathetic system, and put you into a calm, focused, and relaxed state. I like guided apps like headspace if you're only beginning a meditation practice. I also use a FocusCalm headband daily that works as a neurofeedback device to measure your brain states while meditating.
Nature Bathing: Nature is an incredible healer, from helping to induce a state of relaxation to the benefits of grounding (making skin contact with the earth). If you can spend time in nature barefoot, that is ideal. The benefits of nature bathing are incredible on their own, but grounding takes the practice to new levels. Benefits of grounding can include increasing your HRV (a measurement of stress on the body), decreasing inflammation, improving sleep, improving your mood, and more.
Float Tanks or Sensory Deprivation Tanks: As long as you are not claustrophobic, float tanks can be an incredible way to activate your parasympathetic system. You float in magnesium-rich water in a tank, feeling weightless, and the tank is typically dark, which offers an incredible mind-body experience.
Having adequate levels of magnesium is also essential for our nervous system. The more stressed we are, the quicker we burn through our magnesium stores. I increase my dose when I am in more stressful seasons.
Low-Level Movement: Taking a walk in the sun or a slow-flow yoga class is a great way to activate the parasympathetic system.
What are your top tips for rewiring the brain so we can become greater than our current environment and create the future we want?
Rewiring the brain is also called Neuroplasticity. This is our brain's extraordinary ability to change the way our brain works minute by minute and day by day. In fact, our brains will look different today than they did yesterday, thanks to Neuroplasticity. When it comes to changing the way your brain functions, it is all about the inputs, what you listen to, what you are reading, what you are learning, and what you are THINKING! Are you thinking negative thoughts? If so, your neural networks for negative thinking will strengthen while your neural networks for positivity and happiness will weaken. If you want to rewire your brain for more positivity, take time for a gratitude and manifestation practice daily. Reflect on what you are grateful for each morning, evening, or both! Take time to envision your perfect future and manifest the life you want. Meditation is also an important part of Neuroplasticity because we work to quiet the negative and focus on achieving a more blissful and joyous state.
Don't wait for love to feel love. Don't wait for wealth to feel wealthy. Don't wait for success to feel successful. If you are waiting, you are not creating.
What are your top supplement recommendations for improving brain health?
The brain is primarily made of water and fat; and although the brain only weighs about 2-3% of our overall body weight, it consumes 20-30% of our daily calories. So, I first have to recommend a brain-healthy diet. You can learn more about the specifics on my Instagram page, @KaylaBarnes. We want to choose clean, whole foods and ditch packaged sugary foods. Food is more than just calories. It is information for our cells.
For specific supplements: I am a big fan of fish or cod oil. This is loaded with healthy omega-3's like DEA and EPA are great food for your brain. As with all supplements, I recommend doing your research to find a quality brand. Fish oils that sit out on store shelves for too long can oxidize. You can also get omega3-s from eating wild-caught salmon a few times a week.
Vitamin D+ K2, especially in the winter, since we have less sun exposure, optimizing your vitamin D levels is great for the body and the brain. In the summer or whenever possible, I recommend getting vitamin D from the sun. Also, a 5–10 minute walk in the sun each morning is beneficial for your circadian rhythm or your sleep-wake cycle, which helps you wake but will also help you sleep that evening.
Lastly, supplementation is bio-individual. I recommend working with a functional practitioner to determine your exact supplementation needs based on genetics, gut health, micronutrients, and more.
Can you talk to us about magnesium's role in mental health?
Magnesium is involved in hundreds of biological processes and is an essential mineral to optimal health. It is also involved in the regulation of the release of cortisol. As I mentioned above, the more stressed we are, the more we deplete our magnesium. It is also estimated that over 50% of people are deficient in magnesium. Studies have linked low magnesium levels to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and higher levels of stress.
Why do you recommend multiple forms of magnesium?
In order to ensure that we have optimal magnesium levels, I recommend a full spectrum magnesium. If you supplement with only one form, you will still be deficient in the other forms. Additionally, each form of magnesium offers unique benefits. Magnesium L-threonate, for example, can most easily cross the blood-brain barrier and benefit the brain, while magnesium glycinate is the best form for sleep.
Can you tell us about the benefits of meditation?
Meditation is the ultimate brain longevity practice. Meditation improves your focus and mood right away and offers long-term benefits such as increasing the gray matter in your brain, improving the cortical thickness of the hippocampus and decreasing the size of the amygdala or our fear and stress center in the brain.
Can you talk to us about the neuroscience of gratitude?
Gratitude is another incredible brain-boosting practice. It is backed by science that gratitude can improve your perspective on life and increase happiness. There is a link between positive thinking and activation of certain neurotransmitters – like dopamine and serotonin. Gratitude can be both an internal and external practice, both of which have significant benefits. I have a daily gratitude practice that consists of writing down and fully appreciating three to five things that I am grateful for each morning and evening. Deeply reflecting on what you are grateful for, in addition to jotting it down, is key. Science also backs that giving and receiving gratitude are powerful practices for a better mood.
What are your tips for brain anti-aging?
Do more of the things that benefit the brain and boost brain blood flow, such as: prioritizing sleep (our glymphatic system or waste clearance system of the brain is activated during sleep, memories are stored, and more), cold showers to strengthen the blood-brain barrier, eat a brain-healthy diet, exercise 3-4x per week, low-level movement each day, meditate, and practice breathwork. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also a potent brain booster. Studies have recently been published on its potential to restore memory in Alzheimer's patients and significantly slow the progression. I use HBOT once a week to boost brain blood flow and cognition.
Minimize or eliminate things that harm the brain and/or reduce blood flow, such as alcohol, contact sports, processed and sugary foods, and stress.
What are your top mood boosting tips?
Eat foods that benefit your brain and boost your mood. Take time to de-stress daily, work on cutting out toxic relationships and adding in more loving and motivating relationships, schedule time for things that bring you joy, assess your current mindset and surroundings on a weekly basis. Many times, we forget to take inventory of our lives, so we end up staying stuck in relationships, careers, or situations that no longer make us happy. It's never too late or too early to change everything, have the courage to change if you need to. Take a cold shower daily. Cold showers energize the brain and the body and can help boost your mood.
What habits can we adopt to improve our daily lives?
I call it my "superhuman habits," many of them we have discussed here, but here is my full list. Don't worry about doing all of them at once. It's just a playbook to keep handy.
Eat foods that love you back / a nutritious and brain-healthy diet.
Eliminate toxins in the home. Your home should be a low-toxin sanctuary (air purifiers, water filters, shower water filters, clean beauty, and low-toxin cleaning products).
Ground (or make skin contact with the earth)
Get sun into the eyes each morning to set circadian rhythm or use glasses like Re-Timer in the winter.
Work out several times a week.
Eat a brain-healthy diet and ditch processed foods
Cut out toxic relationships
Never stop learning (promotes neurogenesis)
Do something hard that makes you proud daily
Don't forget to be silly