“The neurochemistry of the brain is astonishingly busy, the circuitry of a machine more wonderful than any devised by humans. But there is no evidence that its functioning is due to anything more than the 10(14) neural connections that build an elegant architecture of consciousness.”
- Carl Sagan
If we could better understand the functions and interactions of our neurochemical states, we could vastly elevate our psycho-physiological capabilities, banking on the idea that a cohesive and complimentary network of neurotransmissions is conducive towards holistic betterment.
In other words, if we can achieve the right balancing act with respect to our neurological states, we’d ideally benefit to an unparalleled degree.
Some things are obvious — better sleep can help to regulate noradrenaline and noradrenaline regulation can help achieve better sleep. Simple.
But other things aren’t as clear cut and ironically undercut the multitude of other efforts we may be undertaking to try and optimize our psycho-physiological profiles.
Whether we’re leveraging the reward-system feedback loops of dopamine or flattening the cascading waves of adrenaline, knowing the operative dynamics of different neurotransmitters can vastly enhance our daily psychological, emotional, physical and functional states of performative output.
By default, we seem to co-exist with these neurotransmitters or hormones by way of being reactive to their deployment throughout the physical structures of our brains — but what if we could be proactive?
Part I: Norepinephrine [aka noradrenaline]
Neuroscience has only recently begun deciphering the specific benefits of norepinephrine as a catalyst for numerous critical cognitive functions — alertness, focus, memory — and the way in which it regulates blood pressure + flow throughout our system.
Things become more interesting when we consider the physical effectuations brought about the body’s natural release of noradrenaline — blood flow and oxygen are increased to the musculature to afford greater strength and speed; glycogen in the liver is converted to glucose to deliver more energy to the whole physiological system; the lungs open more to allow for better breathing and oxygenation into the blood and muscle systems; the pupils dilate (allowing more light to improve vision) and the heart starts pumping faster/harder.
In effect, the body goes into a state of optimal performance, depending on the task at hand.
A trivially obvious conclusion could be that it’s the perfect neurotransmitter to intentionally pair [via its activation] with some kind of physically and cognitively demanding activity — sports, hunting, debating.
Whether we’re looking for a recalibrated balancing of our systems or an enhancement to our overall function, tuning our neurotransmitter interactions should, by logic, curate advanced capacities for performative output.
At the very least, it should allow us to avoid stunting our default dispositions.
Whether we want to use such calibrations to be more productive or more adaptive, more cohesive or more equanimous — why not simply make life easier for our physiological systems that carry us on a day to day level?
Why not create the most conducive environment possible with regards to pursuing increased performative output via easy, costless and self-derived methods rather than loading our systems with external products and ingredients?
Moreover, noradrenaline is responsible for much of our motivational outputs; if we read in between the lines, we can see that neurotransmitters like this one (or, say, dopamine with its reward cycles) are central to the intangible dimension that make or break our developmental efforts.
Neurotransmitters function like the coding behind the scenes of our performance, the fuel intakes of our drive, and noradrenaline is one hormone in particular that can instigate either optimal performance or obstructive anxiety —a double edged sword of neurochemical influence on our psyche and our physiology alike.
Below are a few vaguely suggestive ways to raise, lower, and regulate noradrenaline levels, with the purposes of doing so widely dependent on the subjective nature of ones intention.
Why to raise
Elevated norepinephrine levels can be beneficial in situations where enhanced cognitive function (alertness, focus, clarity) are required. The hormones aid in improving physical performance, boosting motivation, and increasing productivity during cognitively demanding tasks.
Specifically, norepinephrine acts on a variety of receptors to help optimize our signal-to-noise ratio, improving our ability to filter information. It also modulates the strength of neural connections in the prefrontal cortex (to improve memory function) and, by acting on our adrenergic receptors, it leads to increased neuronal excitability (facilitating more effective cognitive processing).
How to raise
Engaging in activities that excite the pre-frontal cortex (higher-order cognitive tasks that feature decision making or problem solving);
High intensity exercise or interval training;
Foods rich in tyrosine and other amino acid pre-cursers;
Discomfort-oriented activities like cold or heat exposure
Risk-taking or thrill-seeking endeavors
Operative example: Pairing an exercise regime with either fast-paced music or a risk/reward system that heightens one’s engagement
Why to lower
Lowering norepinephrine levels may be desirable in scenarios whereby excessive excitement, anxiety, or stress are present. By reducing norepinephrine release, we’re able to achieve more consistent states of relaxation or calmness.
Those prone to hyperactivity, anxiety, hypertension, an overactive sympathetic nervous system, heart palpitations or gastrointestinal issues would want to consider the ways by which their norepinephrine levels fluctuate. From managing blood pressure and sleep irregularity to the restoration of the automatic nervous system, lowering norepinephrine release can go a long way to stabilizing our physiological states of being.
How to lower
Limiting caffeine intake or considering herbal supplements that pacify the nervous system
Creative enterprises or activities that pre-occupy the temporal lobe of the brain or the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for introspective or self-reflective processes)
Social connectivity or tasks that engage and pre-occupy the amygdala
Operative example: Engaging in a reflective decompression process (either via introspection or social interaction) immediately after an engaging or over-stimulating activity.
Why to stabilize
In conjunction with the above-specified points, optimal norepinephrine levels can help maintain a balanced state and ensure the cohesive functioning of all physiological and cognitive processes.
Hyperactivity or anxiety, a lack of focus and an inability to concentrate, irregular sleep or excessive thoughts can all represent symptomology associated with inadequate norepinephrine levels.
While obviously not an end-all or catch-all solution, stabilizing noradrenaline release may be worth the effort to try and mitigate any of the above mentioned irregularities.
How to stabilize
Exercise; aerobic and strength training exercises numerous times a week; sprints or circuit training, routine and structured energy exertion.
Mitigating sleep disruptions while aiming for 7–9 hours per night with enough REM as a priority.
The typical yogic assembly of breathing exercises, meditations and other physiological equalization techniques.
Operative examples: Determining optimal times of day for caffeine intake and avoiding caffeine beyond those parameters; avoiding stimulating activities X amount of time before sleep; shifting activities from morning to evening or vice versa to align peak daily performance times (say, morning for cognitive tasks and evening for physical tasks); adopting regimented self-reflective activities on a regular schedule.
Ideal pairings of noradrenaline
With dopamine: Dopamine and norepinephrine are closely related neurotransmitters and are often released together. Dopamine is associated with reward, motivation, and pleasure. Pairing dopamine with norepinephrine can enhance feelings of motivation, focus, and goal-directed behavior.
With glutamate: Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in many cognitive functions. Pairing glutamate with norepinephrine can enhance cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and learning.