Healthy Food

Breakfast in “the ZONE”: Nutrition for the Brain Chemicals of Flow. | by Angela Shurina | Nov, 2021

“Angela, so what do I have for breakfast to turn on my genius brain for the day?”

A weekend brunch. Out with friends. We are chatting about who’s been up to what — interesting project, work in progress or about to begin, our aha moments, cool tools we’ve discovered recently, relationships, and life in Playa Del Carmen, new hot and upcoming spot for digital nomads and people who value freedom, Sun and meaningful connections over hustle and bustle of big cities, over-boosted egos, and never-ending to-do lists and network events.

We are about to order and a friend asks me, “Angela, so what do I have for breakfast here to turn on my genius brain for the day?”

https://www.instagram.com/1000yearyoung/

Most of my friends are on some mission in life.

We care deeply about our work, and we are not afraid to change ourselves to deliver outstanding quality, that cuts through the noise and makes a difference, makes a dent in the world. We are optimizers, not for the hack of optimization, but because we want to create something extraordinary, and to create extraordinary we got to become extraordinary. When we get to work we want to be ON!!! In the zone, in the flow, giving birth to our best ideas, making meaningful progress towards our exciting visions.

Can you eat for this? Is there something I can put on my plate to reach the zone faster?

You bet there is!

The zone, flow state it’s a certain state of our internal chemistry, our biochemistry. We don’t know everything yet about this state where “magic” happens, but we know quite a lot.

“Steven Kotler [author, speaker, flow researcher] explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity and learning. “The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.”

~ BigThink.com

https://www.flowresearchcollective.com/

What does food have to do with that? What does your breakfast have to do with neurochemistry, the chemicals the brain produces in the state of flow?

We are made of food chemicals. Food is a bunch of chemicals and we are made of them, every process in our body depends on chemicals we get from food. Brain chemistry is no exception. To create any chemical state the brain needs building blocks found in the foods we eat. Flow, the zone they are no different from any other state, they equally depend on the available nutrients and processes affecting the use of those nutrients, food chemicals.

Let’s break the zone down to chemicals.

DOPAMINE

Some might think of dopamine as a pleasure neurochemical, but it’s actually a desire chemical. It’s the chemical of motivation, of drive, of craving, of more, it’s what makes US want to take actions to achieve, to go after things. It’s an absolute must for deep and meaningful, challenging work! Without it you wouldn’t even go to a store to pick up a doughnut, if your life depended on it, believe it or not!

To make dopamine the brain needs a very specific amino acid, l-tyrosine, one of the building blocks of proteins. This amino acid is present most abundantly in lean beef, pork, chicken breast, in salmon and firm tofu. Dairy is the second best option, and all the plant-based protein sources, except for tofu, are distant cousins, when it comes to l-tyrosine and dopamine production.

Flow Zone Breakfast Essential 1:

3–4 oz or 100–120g of beef, pork, chicken breast, salmon or firm tofu.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE:

I’d choose salmon every time! It also contains “brainy” omega 3 fats (not the ones in chia, flax or walnuts).

NOREPINEPHINE (Adrenaline in the brain)

Do you know why coffee works so well to improve productivity for so many people? Besides keeping us alert and preventing sleepiness, coffee boosts adrenaline production and release in the brain. That adrenaline keeps us alert, awake and focused, helping our body to release fuels for the work at hand. Norepinephrine turns us into “hunters”, go-getters and goal-achievers. It adds a bit of “spice”, a bit of stress in the neurochemical cocktail of flow, to make sure we know this task is important and we need to dedicate our attention and resources to getting it done.

With norepinephrine, like with most neurochemicals, too much can be a buzz killer. Too much and we are anxious and stressed, not able to focus on anything, just hyped and jittery, too wired to settle down and do the actual work. Yes! to coffee and caffeine! Yes! But hold the Starbucks’ Venti! That drink delivers too much caffeine, too fast (about 400mg) — that’s over the top for most people. Great for anxiety, not focus.

Instead, go for a single espresso shot, containing 50–80mg of caffeine.

Flow Zone Breakfast Essential 2:

An espresso shot.

Personal Preference:

Why do I prefer coffee to energy drinks? Perfect dose of caffeine delivered with a punch of antioxidants, that protect neurons from damaging effects of all the free radicals generated by rich electrical activity, happening in the brain non-stop.

Side Note: Norepinephrine is synthesized from dopamine, and it’s important to make sure we have everything to make that dopamine. I mentioned dopamine first for that reason.

ANANDAMIDE

A very interesting brain chemical we don’t hear about often, that seems to show up in the flow zone consistently. It’s also called a “bliss molecule” for the role it plays in producing happiness states.

The flow zone is an interesting state, a creative mix of stress, bliss, motivation and satisfaction, seemingly contradictory actors in the play of peak performance.

We want to be a bit on edge, stressed and driven to get the work done but also kind of satisfied and happy with the work, the effort we produce.

“Anandamide is a neurotransmitter derived from arachidonic acid, a long-chain essential fatty acid.

It gets its tongue-twisting name from ananda, the Sanskrit word for “happiness, pleasure, joy, and delight.”

“Anandamide plays a role in memory, appetite, sleep, and pain relief.

The endocannabinoid system — endocannabinoid compounds and their receptors — acts as a regulator to keep the brain and body in a state of balance, called homeostasis.

Some scientists believe that a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency may be a root cause of many conditions, including depression, migraines, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and Parkinson’s.

Suboptimal levels of anandamide can drain you of happiness, increase fear and anxiety, and rob you of the ability to cope with stress.”

~ BeBrainFit.com

And you wouldn’t believe your luck what the best source for anandamide is! Chocolate! That doesn’t just contain anandamide but also has compounds that slow down the breakdown of this “bliss molecule”, making it last much longer!

As you might have guessed, I’m talking about the dark kind of chocolate. The darker the better. No less than 85% to reap all the benefits.

Additionally, chocolate, just like coffee, has an extra benefit of abundant antioxidant content, that helps to protect the brain from the potential damage of all the free radicals generated during brain activity. Chocolate has also been shown to improve blood circulation in the brain, that delivers additional oxygen and nutrients to all the brain cells, making them perform at a genius level! Chocolate, Food of the Gods, as Maya and Aztecs tribes used to call it, one of the most advanced ancient civilizations — the name might actually have a very good science-backed reason to exist.

Flow Zone Breakfast Essential 3:

1 oz, 30g of 85–100% dark chocolate, or a big heaping spoon of raw cacao powder in your sugar-free mocha.

Personal Preference:

https://www.instagram.com/1000yearyoung/

I choose nothing less than the best — all-natural 100% chocolate, nothing added, nothing removed. Raw is even better. 30g a day, like a prescription to unlock my brain’s genius. I don’t recommend eating it very close to bed time, less than 3–4 hours, because it is a stimulant and can affect your sleep. Cutting it off by 3pm is probably a good idea and that’s what I do. Unless you want to have a night, when you can’t stop thinking, like I did a few times, after consuming a very rich dark hot chocolate drink before bed.

SEROTONIN

Another well-and-satisfied neurochemical, that keeps us feeling safe, keeps anxiety levels managed, so we could keep delivering challenging work outside of our comfort zone.

Just like dopamine, serotonin is highly dependent on specific protein sources, rich in another amino acid, l-tryptophan.

And the optimizer in you will be happy to hear, that you can pretty much eat the same protein foods for serotonin as you would eat for dopamine. The richest sources of l-tryptophan are lean chicken and turkey, lean beef and pork, salmon and firm tofu.

It gets a bit trickier with serotonin though. To optimally produce and absorb serotonin, to increase the levels of it in the brain, we need to eat l-tryptophan foods with B6 vitamin, and enjoy a serving of fiber-rich carbohydrates alongside our protein-rich foods. Good news — B6 is present abundantly in salmon, beef, pork, chicken and tofu. No additional foods required. As for the carbohydrates? Eat some long-lasting fiber-rich carbohydrate source to maintain balanced blood glucose levels, that has a lot do with long-lasting peak brain performance and staying in the zone, not just getting there.

Flow Zone Breakfast Essential 4:

Eat 3–4 oz or 100–120g of sweet potato, oats, beans or lentils.

Personal Preference:

Chickpeas.

Not only they are much richer in fiber compared to other sources, like potatoes or oats, they also contain B6 vitamin, that will help you to make more serotonin. Some hummus for breakfast anyone?

ENDORPHINES

This is a non-food one. There are many ways you can stimulate production of these natural “pain killers” and pleasure molecules in the brain. My favorite ones: eating, regular meditation and exercise. For exercise I especially love to incorporate something I call fitness breaks. Every 30 minutes of deep work I do a few burpees, pushups, squats and sit-ups, at home, or in the bathroom of a coworking space. This short bursts of movement have an additional benefit of increasing blood flow to the brain with all the nutrients and oxygen to keep the whole show running optimally. Plus, it’s a great way to take micro-breaks, another essential component of prolonged bouts of deep and mentally-demanding work.

“Angela, so what do I have for breakfast here to turn on my genius brain for the day?”

Some salmon, beans, coffee and dark chocolate?

Eggs, oats, spinach, coffee and dark chocolate?

Tofu scramble with some sweet potato, coffee and chocolate?

Omelet, sweet potatoes, spinach

Side Note:

Eggs, that I didn’t mention before, contain l-tyrosine (dopamine) and l-tryptophan (serotonin), just not as much as other sources mentioned. AND eggs have additional benefits (yolks) of delivering the most acetyl-choline, another important neurochemical of focus, memory and attention, AND arachidonic acid a pre-cursor of anandamide, “bliss molecule”.

Please try some variation of this breakfast, get creative and make your own combinations, share them with me and readers here or tag me on Instagram, and let me know how your flow zone performance improves!

Feel free to reach out via Instagram (the best channel to learn more), email, or any other social media channels, when you need more simple, practical advice on flow zone nutrition and foods for other desired mental states! Till next time — keep flowing!




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