In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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The Cave

No, not Plato’s Cave. I haven’t felt sufficiently philosophical lately to tackle such deep topics!

Rather, this is another post in my series about what I do to improve brain function … or at least to keep it from getting any worse! Previously I discussed my experiments with nutritional supplements and exercise. This time I will talk about a subject even nearer and dearer to my heart: sleep.

(I know, I know. You thought I’d abandoned the series because I haven’t posted on this subject in weeks. Well, I still have things to share – at least two more posts after this one. I need to prioritize writing, that’s all!)

I have always taken sleep very, very seriously, even before I started focusing on mental performance. Originally I cherished the belief that if I could get perfect quality sleep, I would need less sleep. And if I slept less, I would finally have the time to master my ever-increasing to-do list.

I even briefly tried polyphasic sleep, but found it too hard to fit around a “normal” life of a day job, commuting, and family. (Maybe I’ll try again if my life stops being normal.) All in the name of getting more done!

Even though I no longer treat sleep as the solution to my to-do list, I am still passionate about sleep. I have learned over the years that my brain function is intimately tied to my sleep quality. Some “star achievers” brag about sleeping only a few hours every night, or starting every day at 4 a.m. – even on weekends! – but this is not me. Having experimented so long with my sleep (even using a FitBit for a while), I know I need seven hours each night, no exceptions. Eight is better. I call it my beauty sleep, because I am a monster when I  get less. Ask my family!  Just last week I was wide awake for 1.5 hours in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t sure my marriage would survive the next day. And not just quantity; quality matters too. A quick internet will turn up a gazillion hits on the link between sleep and brain function … slightly more than links for exercise and  brain function!

So what have I tried to improve my sleep?

First and foremost, I manage the levels of light in my bedroom. Intensely. I basically sleep in a cave. Starting with electronics. I almost bought little stickers to paste over the lights (Head Strong mentioned them) but thankfully they were out of stock at the time. This meant I could implement the free solution instead – just remove the electronics. That’s right. No night lights, no alarm clocks, no LEDs or other insidious little sources of light, except one power strip banished to underneath the bed where its feeble light is blocked from sleeping eyes. We recently installed a new skylight with a remote controlled shade, since we had to replace the roof anyway, and that has helped keep out ambient light from the night sky as well. My smartphone is always face-down on the bedside table. Always.

Speaking of the smartphone, I always put it in airplane mode before going to sleep. I don’t know to what extent the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emanated by smart phones impact sleep, but it’s easy enough to do, so why not? Especially since the phone so close to my head anyway… better to be safe than sorry. Because it now serves as my alarm clock, I cannot just banish it from the bedroom, as much as I might like to.

I also try keeping the bedroom relatively cool, and use a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating.

In addition engineering the environment for optimal sleep, what one eats and drinks also plays a role in sleep quality.  I appear to be particularly sensitive to stimulants. I never drink caffeine after lunch, and have recently cut back to just one cup of coffee a day – occasionally followed by a cup of black tea on mornings when I am really struggling. Whenever I am sick and congested, I will only take over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine in the morning. Recently I also learned that cordyceps tea also interferes with my sleep if I drink it at any point in the afternoon. (Which means if I ever need to pull an all-nighter, I know exactly how to do it!)

I am also careful about how late I eat, and how much alcohol I consume (at least on nights when I know I have to wake up early, or high pressure days when I know I have to be on my “A” game). Both late night snacks and alcohol can interfere with how deeply one sleeps.

In my last brain-function post, I referenced several nutritional supplements that I used for brain function: n-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and phosphatidylserine (aka PS) and high dose magnesium. These work together to both help me fall asleep, and stay asleep, and sleep more deeply. I will sometimes cycle off of the supplements – which is a polite way of saying that I forget to order a new bottle before I run out, and then take a break for a week or two before buying more. These three are the ones I keep coming back to, though, because they really seem to help.

Not every technique I’ve used has turned into a habit, unfortunately. The one change I’ve struggled with the most is managing my late-evening-blue-light exposure. Late night blue light interferes with the body’s internal clock, which can interrupt sleep cycles. I spend far too long each day staring at various glowing screens – like most Americans, honestly. It’s the computer, it’s the cell phone, it’s watching TV or movie with the family. I would love to reduce my blue-screen-time, I really would. I just… you know, don’t. I tried software which adds a yellow tint to a computer screen or phone screen, but never saw enough benefit to put up with the colors looking funny. I even own amber safety glasses that fit over my regular glasses to filter out blue light wherever I look. Yeah, don’t even ask me where they are now!

Additionally, there are two sleep improvement techniques I do not plan to try. One is sleeping on an earthing mat. I’m not willing to invest that kind of money for technology to replace something that should be natural. Granted, in the winter it is particularly hard to get enough earthing time – time spent in direct contact with the earth’s surface. But buying a product to replace that natural connection just seems so wrong.

The other change I won’t make: rising at the same time every day, even on the weekend. If you can do this naturally, it indicates that you are getting enough sleep. Some folks recommend you force yourself to follow this practice because consistent sleep habits help reinforce quality sleep. Personally, I take the opposite approach. If I don’t have to wake up, then I am going to sleep until my body says it’s ready to wake up!


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A Supplemental Mind

This is the second post in a series (of undetermined length) on techniques I have tried to improve my brain power. The first post focused on one of the easiest and cost effective approaches – physical activity and exercise. Today I’m going to talk about one of the more complicated options. Nutritional supplements. (Queue dramatic music.)

For the record, if I participated in an affiliate marketing program, this would be a profitable post for me because I’m talking about a LOT of products. But my goal is to share what I’ve personally tried, and what made a big enough difference to me to keep using. For this reason, I am NOT including hyperlinks to every single product listed in this message. If you are interested in learning more, you are very capable of looking them up on Amazon.com yourself!

(Also, if I ever permit on this site it will only be for causes or organizations I personally support as well.)

The supplement issue is especially challenging for me now, since in 2019 I am actively pursuing a lower-energy, less-industrialized, less-consumerist lifestyle.

And nutritional supplements are the poster children for industrial processed products.

But I, like so many other Americans, am seduced by the carefully crafted promises, the half truths, and my own desperate wish that fixing all my problems was as easy as popping a pill.

Especially mental problems!

Early in 2017 – before I started my ‘book diet’ – I acquired a copy of Dave Asprey’s Head Strong. I’d heard of lifehacking of course (who hasn’t) and even biohacking, but this was the first systematic treatise I’d read on the subject of deliberately hacking your brain chemistry.

Among all the other suggestions, there was (surprise, surprise) a section for nutritional supplements. After reading the whole book, I decided to give some of them a try… and if a few supplements were good, then MANY supplements must be even better. I carefully crafted a detailed schedule for which supplement, in what quantity, to take exactly when, to maximize my brain benefits.

Unfortunately, all those brain benefits failed to inspire me to put that schedule somewhere for posterity, so I could share the exact details with you almost two years later.

Here are the fragments I could reconstruct from memory and re-reading the relevant chapter of Head Strong.

  • Morning, with my Bullet Proof Coffee: COQ10 (p. 259), Magnesium citrate (p. 260 – 261), Krill Oil (p. 264 – 265), one packet of Jeunesse Reserve Antioxident Fruit Blend.
    BTW, I was already drinking my own personal variation of Bullet Proof Coffee years before this book came out.
  • During the day: I am pretty sure I took vitamin B12 and Folinic Acid in the afternoon (p.260), and I think I took them both twice a day although I cannot now recall why. Perhaps because the dosage I could find was only half of what the book called for. I also took Creatine throughout the day (p. 263) in pretty high doses for the “loading phase” described in the book. I didn’t stick with it long enough to actually get out of the loading phase! I know at some point during the day I also took “Sprout Extract” (p. 266 – 267) but I can’t remember when I took it because it is supposed to be taken on an empty stomach. At that stage of my life, I pretty much ate around the clock! …yes, I realize that wasn’t even two years ago. A lot can change in two years!
  • Evening: Calcium with Vitamin D3 (I don’t recall taking a separate, dedicated Vitamin D3 supplement, but Calcium with Vitamin D3 was already part of my routine) (p. 2261-262)
  • Bedtime: I experimented a few times with taking Magnesium at bed time to help with sleep
  • As needed: Activated Charcoal after eating any especially inflammatory foods (p. 262 – 263)

I also took BCAAs (p. 259) though I don’t recall what time of day. I do however remember distinctly feeling like a poser when I did it, because the supplement is intended for body builders!

I tried one bottle of the Brain Octane MCT in my morning Bullet Proof coffee, and it seemed to make a difference the first few cups. (I only drank one a day, I swear!) But I switched back to regular MCT oil because by the end of the bottle, the effects didn’t seem sufficiently dramatic to justify the expense. That was the only one of Asprey’s own brand of supplements I tried. The Ketoprime, Glutathione, and ActivePQQ looked interesting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to even more money, on top of everything else! At least most of the other supplements I could procure locally.

This whole experiment lasted only a few weeks. It was ridiculously expensive and the epitome of unsustainable in my world. My entire day revolved around ensuring I took various supplements on schedule! More tellingly, I personally did not notice much improvement in my mental performance … probably because I was so flustered and scatterbrained trying to stay on track with taking so many different supplements on a schedule! I still take a few, though – more on that below.

After reading The 4 Hour Body in early 2018, I added a few additional supplements to my daily brain health line up, mostly focused around sleep. I don’t have a copy of the book handy (this was *after* my book diet started), but going from my Amazon.com order history, I added N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) and Phosphatidylserine (aka PS) right before bed to help me fall and stay asleep. If I recall correctly, Tim Ferriss also mentioned magnesium in The 4 Hour Body, possibly also in context of sleep. My memory is faint because I was already taking magnesium at that point, so it was more of a reinforcement for an existing behavior, rather than a new one.

I have also experimented with the lion’s mane tea from Four Sigmatic. Unfortunately, the cost of the tea is high enough that I save the tea for “special occasions” (when my brain needs a hug, like the box says!) and I have read in online forums that lion’s mane is more effective when you take it regularly to keep levels consistent in your body. And drinking the tea daily is not in my budget right now!

Now in early 2019, these are the only brain specific supplements I still take:

  • COQ10: in the morning with my Bullet Proof coffee because allegedly the fat helps absorb the COQ10.
  • Magnesium: one in the morning and one at night. I can actually tell when I take them at night because my dreams are especially vivid and intense when I do.
  • PS: because I actually feel (or think i feel, anyway) a difference in my mental function when I am taking PS. The PS I take also has gingko, gotu kola, rosemary and dimethylethanolamine (DMAE) in it. I take this in the evening, again to help with sleep. I cycle off the PS for a week or so in between bottles.

I have also noticed I fall asleep faster and harder when I take NAC as well in the evenings. However there are plenty of other contributing factors for sleep quality (that’s another post of its own!), so I stopped taking NAC a few months ago. Although after researching NAC benefits while writing this post (namely reading articles like this one), I may reintroduce it!

Of course, the real question is how much do supplements really make a difference, versus just causing a placebo effect? After all, if you’re spending money on all these supplements, and all the smart lifehackers out there say they work, then they have to… right? But there have been numerous studies both about whether supplements are effective at all, and extensive debates over whether they even contain the ingredients labeled on the bottle. Additionally, I lost a lot of faith after listening to the audiobook version of Suggestible You by Erik Vance September of last year.  (If you take maintenance prescriptions or even over the counter medication on a frequent basis, you might want to skip this one. You’ll be happier not knowing.)

On the other hand, if the medicine or supplement works through the power of suggestion … it still works! So maybe that isn’t such a bad thing!

Off to the local vitamin store I go. Oh wait. Never mind. Off to research more natural ways to enhance brain function. Stay tuned!


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Your Brain on Exercise

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave raised the issue of cognitive function, and his comment inspired me to write a post on the tactics I have tried to keep my brain working at peak performance.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to say on the subject. As a result, I will write a series of posts. (Because I hate blog posts that drag on and on and on…)

First up: exercise.

Researchers are still exploring the exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves the brain’s health, along with questions like what kind, frequency and duration of exercise are most effective. A quick internet search will turn up a slew of hits, and many books (for example Dave Asprey’s Head Strong) also cover the topic. According to studies, physical activity boosts cognition, mood and even memory. These benefits could be from improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain; increased neurogenesis; enhanced mitochondrial function; more or different neurotransmitters to connect the neurons; other things we haven’t discovered yet (or I haven’t read about yet, which is more likely); or some combination of the above.

I am discussing exercise first because it has so many benefits beyond just mental capacity, such as increased stamina and heart health, the self-confidence boost that comes with sticking to a workout routine, and fitting into your favorite jeans you haven’t been able to wear in over a year. (Yes, really!) Plus, exercise can be cheap or even free. A brisk walk outdoors is free. (By the same token, exercise has the potential to suck up every spare dollar to have, so your mileage may vary! Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy a gently used elliptical machine?)

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified fitness professional (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once), and the workout routine described in this post is what works for ME. Please consult a medical professional before engaging in any new exercise, and consider speaking with a personal trainer for advice on the proper execution of these or any other exercises. No, YouTube videos do not count – which is why I have not included links below.

I first described my workout back in May, so miracle of miracles, I have stuck with it for over 6 months now! (I guess that is long enough to make it a habit.) I have tweaked my original routine slightly to ramp up the intensity without having to buy a heavier kettlebell (see previous note about how exercising can be expensive but doesn’t have to be!). My current kettlebell weighs in at 35 lbs, up from the 15 where I started way back when.

My workout, three days a week:

Hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per hip
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (this is anywhere from 15 to 17 jumps for me, depending on my energy level)
Donkey kicks – 20 reps per leg
Planks – high plank, side planks, and reverse plank, each for 45 seconds
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (by now I am panting)
Exercise Ball Bridge – 20 reps
Cat vomit – 10 reps of 20 seconds each, with a 10 second rest in between (I often do “Cat-Cow” stretches during the rest period)
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps (at this point my form gets sloppy so I really concentrate on proper technique)
Jump squats – 30 seconds (then I collapse)
Myotatic crunch (on my exercise ball) – 10 reps, with a four-count hold at the top of the crunch

Yes, this workout still kicks my abs. (Haha.)

Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete. So even at my busiest, I have no excuse to skip it.

Now for the real question: does it improve my brain function?

And the truth is, I have no clue. I don’t know how to self-administer tests for mental sharpness, and even if I did, I have no “before” metrics for comparison. Maybe I need more cardio to really see the difference, or maybe I should exercise longer for a noticeable improvement. (Or less often but with greater intensity, according to Mr. Asprey’s book.)

However, I do know that I love the dopamine hit from setting and meeting my fitness goals three days a week … and from being able to wear those jeans again!