In this episode, I am speaking with functional neurologist, Dr. Titus Chiu, about recovering from brain issues and going from normal brain function to better-than-normal (you could say “optimal”) brain function.
Table of Contents
In this podcast, Dr. Chiu and I discuss:
- The specific signs and symptoms of brain fatigue that indicate a specific brain issue (as opposed to regular fatigue).
- The most common causes of brain fatigue and exactly what goes wrong when your brain won’t function as it should.
- Why consult with a functional neurologist (and what they offer that a conventional neurologist doesn’t).
- What concussion teaches us about the workings of the brain and how we can start to heal such injuries.
- How the breakdown in the blood-brain barrier (aka “leaky brain”) is often responsible for the problematic chronic brain inflammation from which many suffer.
- The 3 pillars of brain health (physical, chemical and emotional) and how they can be destabilized by environmental and lifestyle issues
- What the theory and specific principles of neuroplasticity have to say about your capacity to change and improve.
- The best protocols – like breathing exercises, medicinal mushrooms, meditation and supplements – for enhancing neuroplasticity and taking your brain from ordinary to super-human.
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Ari: Hey, this is Ari. Welcome back to the show. In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Titus Chiu who is an amazing functional neurologist and brain health expert. He’s also a number one best-selling author and award-winning international speaker. He’s a brilliant man and he knows a ton about optimizing brain function. That includes not only healing from brain problems, whether it’s concussions, one of his areas of specialty, or other causes of brain fog and brain-related fatigue and brain trauma, but also how to go from normal brain function to supernormal to superhuman levels of brain function.
We talk about the whole range of how to do that in this podcast. There’s a ton of great stuff here. He’s a brilliant guy and I highly encourage you to listen all the way through and also check out his work, his website’s brainsave.com. Enjoy the episode. Dr. Chiu, welcome to the show.
Dr. Chiu: Thanks, Ari. It’s a pleasure. I’ve been meaning to connect with you for a while. This is great.
What is a functional neurologist?
Ari: Likewise. Yes. I am very excited to get into this with you. First of all, talk to me about what a functional neurologist actually is for people who have never heard that term. How does it differ from a standard conventional neurologist?
Dr. Chiu: Sure. Great question. A functional neurologist as compared to a conventional neurologist, really, there’s similarities but there’s also differences. The similarities, we use a very similar diagnostic process. In general neurologists, our goal is to figure out where in the nervous system the root cause of a person’s symptoms are. If a person is experiencing fatigue or brain fatigue, there can be a neurological root cause for that and it can be located in different regions of the nervous system. First and foremost, across the board, that’s what a neurologist does.
Now, the distinction between a functional neurologist versus a conventional neurologist, the one big distinction is the tools that we have at our disposal. I know so many medical or conventional neurologists who are so frustrated because they’re really good at that investigative process figuring out where in the nervous system or the brain the root cause is, but then the only tools they have at their disposal many times are drugs and/or surgery. Although sometimes those tools are necessary, especially for more emergency health situations, the majority of neurological disorders that we suffer from a modern society, they’re chronic and degenerative.
That’s a big distinction. For functional neurologists, we have a whole host of different tools. Specifically, in my training, in addition to neurology, I’ve also got a master’s in nutrition. I use nutrition tools, I use lab testing to examine what’s going on with a person’s root cause. From there, we can put together a diet or rarely targeted supplement protocols but on top of that, in my training as a functional neurologist, I do a lot of neuroplasticity treatments. Using the five senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, we can actually use those different senses to target those areas of the nervous system that are at the root cause for symptoms such as fatigue or brain fog, or problems with focus or just feeling stressed actually.
There’s actually areas of the nervous system that relate to all those symptoms. We can use the five senses after we target which areas and help to rewire that part of the nervous system and trigger a healing response. In a nutshell, that’s really the biggest distinction is the actual tools that we use to help a person heal. In addition to that though, even though we use a similar diagnostic process, how we interpret the results of that process is very different as well. As an example, I’m sure many of your audience is familiar with a more functional approach to health care. Looking at not so much the black and white.
Health isn’t just either you’re the epitome of health or you’re dead. There’s all the nuances in between. For example, with functional testing, we can actually explore those nuances. We’re not necessarily looking to just rule out disease. We want to see how well a person is functioning. Well, the same goes with the nervous system. I can do an examination and I can look at how a person’s eyes move and get tremendous insight into how well their brain’s functioning even, and that’s the thing, even if they don’t have any pathological disease process, I could see a slight breakdown in how their eyes move and that could be the root cause for why they have brain fatigue when they’re on their computer all day.
That’s the thing. In addition to the therapeutics, the distinction is also diagnostically even though we use a similar process. The way I interpret the results are very different. I look for the nuances, which many times, with people with more mystery brain symptoms, that’s the key to unlocking their healing process.
Dr. Chiu’s story
Ari: Very, very interesting. What’s your personal story of how you got into this? How did you develop an interest in functional neurology?
Dr. Chiu: Sure. Over 20 years ago, I was in a really bad car accident. I had broken three ribs, I dislocated my shoulder, and as a consequence of that, I ended up with chronic pain. The pain was just debilitating. I was able to do the things that I really enjoyed doing like being active in exercise. I just couldn’t do that anymore. It was just really, I felt so hopeless. I didn’t think there was anything I can do because everything I tried within conventional medicine, that’s all I knew didn’t work. I actually went back to school to figure it out.
Like I said, I went back to school, I got a master’s in nutrition, I did a postdoc in clinical neurology, I studied functional medicine, chiropractic acupuncture, anything I could get my hands on to figure out that chronic pain. I’m so glad I did because a lot of the things that I learned in school, I was able to resolve that chronic pain, and more importantly, I hadn’t realized that at the time but during that car accident I was in, I had also sustained a concussion. Now, it’s because the pain from the neck and shoulder and the ribs, that was the most important pressing thing for me to figure out.
I didn’t even realize when I began to develop these strange neurological symptoms. Before, I remember this one time, I was sitting in a restaurant and all of a sudden, the whole room moved like this. It was like counterclockwise. The whole room felt like, I don’t know, like someone took the actual room and moved it. I almost fell off my stool. I was eating tacos. That happened, I almost fell off my stool. I started developing these, what I learned later on, was called oscillopsia. It’s a type of vertigo. It’s a really weird type of vertigo. I didn’t really know what happened.
It came out of nowhere but then all these other symptoms I started to develop in addition to the vertigo, I started to develop anxiety and worry and I never really had those issues growing up, and even more darker psychological symptoms, just negative thoughts that just took over my life. It was really weird for me because like I said, I grew up in a really good family, I didn’t have any of these major health issues growing up and it was just so strange to me. Then when I did, I just sat down and looked back in my own history like I do for my patients. I’m like, oh my goodness, a lot of these weird neurological mental symptoms started after that initial car accident.
From there then, I just got to work with everything that I had at my disposal, my training, and the things that I had actually recommended to my patients, I began to experiment with myself again, and I went deep into the world of concussion exploring all the latest research there was and I applied it to my own brain. I was able to heal from that really scary dark time as well. Quite a story but yes, that’s the reason why I became a functional neurologist through my own personal experiences.
Dealing with these health issues, both the chronic pain as well as concussion and unfortunately, not finding answers within conventional medicine. I decided to go outside the box. Again, I’m so glad that I did because now, I can share that with the countless patients and people throughout the world who need this information.
Ari: Absolutely. I’m glad you did too. I’ve heard a number of stories from people in my audience that have worked with you that really benefited hugely from your work. I’m sure they’re pretty happy that you found your way into this field.
Dr. Chiu: I’m glad to hear that. That makes my heart sing because that’s why I do it.
What is brain fatigue?
Ari: You’ve mentioned this term brain fatigue a few times. Can you explain what that is and how it might differ from let’s say fatigue more broadly like low physical energy levels, and what are the signs or symptoms of that that someone could identify I have brain fatigue that might indicate a brain specific issue?
Dr. Chiu: Great question. Again, to create a distinction, fatigue overall is just the sense of tiredness and this physical sometimes heaviness that people can experience. I’m sure your audience [chuckles] knows all too well, but when we talk about brain fatigue, it’s more triggered by mental activities or brain activities. Actually, to be even more specific, when I talk about mental activities or brain functions, mental activities just falls into one category of brain functions. There’s so many others that we’ll talk about in a second that’s important to this conversation, this question, but yes, brain fatigue is when your brain just feels tired. Where you’re not able to think clearly.
It’s not quite the same as brain fog, but I see that very, very common, they come hand in hand. If somebody’s reading or they’re using their mind, their mental capacities, they just start to get really tired. I have a lot of patients who after their concussion, they killed it at their work or whatever job that they had. They were high achievers, [chuckles] they did really well and they took pride in their brain function. Then after, for example, like a concussion, they can do the same amount of work, but at 25% their capacity, sometimes 10% or 15%. They’d be able to think, and that area of their brain wasn’t injured, but the endurance, that brain endurance.
They might sit down and try to read or analyze some problems or something and then within 5-10 minutes, they would just get fatigued and crash. That’s an example of brain fatigue, but the interesting thing is, and that’s the thing, a lot of people think that when we talk about brain function, it’s all about mental functions and cognitive capacities. Well, guess what, your brain is in charge of virtually every single function that we have. It allows us to move through the world like to ambulate and to walk around. It allows us to have good balance, to have good core stability. It allows us to move our eyes around properly so we can scan an environment and perceive things visually.
It allows us to perceive sounds and when I’m speaking right now to be able to hear clearly and process what that means. The brain isn’t just involved in mental cognitive functions, it’s involved with movement functions, our emotional state, it’s also involved in stress response. There’s whole regions of the nervous system that control the stress response that we call the brainstem, and in particular, top part of the brainstem known as the mesencephalon that plays a huge role in setting the tone for our stress response. In addition to that, our brains also control digestive function.
My point is, when we say something like brain function or brain fatigue, one way it can look and most people then can relate with it is, yes, I’m reading or I’m trying to use some cognitive capabilities and I get really tired. That’s a very classical sign of brain fatigue, but it can also be after a certain trauma or concussion or after chronic periods of stress, whenever I’m in a car now I get nauseous or I get motion sick. That’s a form of brain fatigue as well it’s just a different area of the brain we call the vestibular system getting fatigued. Does that make sense?
The most common causes of brain fatigue
Ari: Yes. Absolutely. Actually, the last part of what you said segues into the next thing I wanted to ask which is, you’ve mentioned concussions a lot in relationship to the symptom of brain fatigue and I know this is a big area of specialty for you, but are there other potential causes of brain fatigue other than a concussion or some kind of physical trauma?
Dr. Chiu: Yes. Absolutely. Really at the end of the day, this is what I look at, this is what I researched, this was a big part of what helped me heal and allowed me to help countless patients and clients throughout the years is really exploring what is the root cause of all of this. What’s the root cause of brain fatigue? Concussion is a common trigger for it, but the reason for that is because concussion is a common trigger for brain inflammation, what we call neuro inflammation. As an example, and there’s so many different pathways to neuroinflammation as you know, concussion is just one of them.
There’s a physical trauma that you could have to your brain that can then trigger an inflammatory response in a person’s nervous system, but as you know, so can a gut infection, that can also trigger brain inflammation leading to brain fatigue or just overall fatigue. There’s these different triggers and stressors on the nervous system that when it leads to inflammation, that’s one of the biggest root causes I see for brain fatigue. In particular, when we talk about concussion, what I found is one of the major reasons, and by the way as you know and most of your audience probably knows, inflammation, even inflammation in the nervous system, it’s a natural part of the healing response.
We need inflammation to protect us from the critters and viruses and bacteria, even toxins or dietary food proteins that we’re exposed to. It’s part of the healing response, but the problem is when it gets stuck in that on position, when that inflammation becomes chronic. There’s a whole cascade that happens within the nervous system related to what we call microbial cells which are the immune cells of the brain. When they get stuck in that on position, instead of helping to clean up debris and heal the brain, they become inflammatory and they shift into these states that become really damaging to the nervous system.
The question is, and that’s that I’ve seen a lot with concussions in particular, but what ends up happening, one of the reasons why people get stuck in these inflammatory states of their nervous system and experiencing things like brain fatigue is because of what’s known as leaky brain. A breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Really briefly, the blood-brain barrier is this single cell layer that protects their brain from external forces that are trying to come in and wreak havoc. Things like bacteria, viruses, toxins, chemicals, but what I found is after concussion and what the research shows, leaky brain, you can actually have a tear of the blood-brain barrier.
That was actually a big part of my hitting rock bottom as well. I see that with a lot of my patients after a concussion, they have a tear of the blood-brain barrier, then that triggers this massive inflammatory response, but guess what, the inflammation continues to damage the blood-brain barrier and becomes this vicious cycle. For those of you out there who don’t know what the blood-brain barrier is, it’s similar to the gut barrier. We have all these different barriers throughout our bodies. We have the gut barrier, we have the lung barrier, we have the skin barrier and then we have the blood-brain barrier. It’s similar to that, but just like you can have leaky gut, you can also have leaky brain.
That’s what I discovered. A lot of my patients after a concussion, especially the ones that didn’t heal and recover is typically within a matter of weeks people heal after a concussion, but just like me, it took me years to heal and a big part of it was because of this leaky brain. That’s what I found almost 99% of the time across the board with my patients after a concussion, but again, the interesting thing is we talk about root causes, concussion isn’t the only thing that can trigger a leaky brain so can stress believe it or not, the toxic hormones in excessive amounts can actually damage the blood-brain barrier.
So can chemical toxins, that can also lead to things to breach of the blood-brain barrier. The list goes on and on, but my point is what I found across the board, number one, inflammation, big common root cause for brain fatigue and especially brain inflammation, AKA neural inflammation, and number two, one of the most common reasons why I see people get stuck in that inflammatory cycle is leaky brain.
How lifestyle contributes to brain fatigue
Ari: Excellent. If I was going to summarize everything you just said in a succinct way and I was going to see it through the way that I like to look at things, I like to look at things through a three-tier model of first layer as environment and lifestyle, then what are the cellular mechanisms of how those problems at the environment and lifestyle level are leading to problems in the body, and then what are the problems in the body? What are the physiological problems and the symptoms that are resulting from that or disease state that is resulting from that?
This would look something like environmental and lifestyle issues, whether it’s psychological stress, physical trauma like concussion or toxin exposures or poor nutrition. I would imagine probably sleep deprivation is lumped in there as well-
Dr. Chiu: Yes, definitely.
Ari: and circadian rhythm disruption, and some combination of those kinds of things then is being translated into increased neuroinflammation, increased and maybe a leaky blood brain barrier and increased microglial activation– microglial over activation.
Dr. Chiu: Yes, you do.
Ari: Would you say that’s accurate? Would you add anything to that picture?
Dr. Chiu: No, that’s awesome. Yes, exactly. There’s these external environment like triggers, the epigenetic triggers we have that we experience, and then leading to exactly what you’re saying, the microglia activation. If it’s severe enough, if the trauma severe enough or like the toxic exposure or stress sleep deprivation, then yes that barrier in the brain can become breached. Then from there it becomes this vicious cycle. Yes, you nailed it.
Ari: Perfect. I know in your work you talk a lot about neural networks. How do neural networks fit into this picture?
Dr. Chiu: Yes, so neural networks are super cool. What it is, and I love how you use that three-tier system to just navigate through the chaos sometimes of all this stuff, the information. For me, when I look at brain health, I also use a three-pillar approach, meaning when it comes to brain health, three pillars need to be intact. The first pillar is the physical brain. The second is the chemical brain and finally, the third is the emotional brain. What I mean by that is the actual brain cells that comprises the volume of our brain. You have these brain cells that communicate with one another in these vast communication networks we call neural networks.
What I was alluding to earlier, when I was talking about depending on where the area, the root causes in your brain you might experience mental fatigue, or you might experience motion sickness, that’s neural networks because these neural networks, and we have countless different types of neural networks, but what they do is they allow our experiences. You have neural networks to be able to sit and analyze information. That’s part of what we call a central executive network, part of the prefrontal cortex in other areas of the nervous system.
You have neural networks that allow us to, like I said earlier, to sit in a car and be able to drive around without feeling nauseous, that’s related to what we call the vestibular system, from the inner ear, all the way into this deeper part we call the parieto-insular vestibular cortex. My point is these communication pathways they allow for all of our experiences. We have the gut brain neural or the brain gut rather neural networks, the areas of their nervous system like the insular cortex, as well as the brain stem, so on and so forth and the vagus nerve, and communicating with the enteric nervous system, that’s a brain gut neural network, how the nervous system controls gut function or modulates it.
That’s what neural networks are and that’s why they’re so important. They really allow us to experience life and to function. Again, not only just in terms of mental cognitive processes, but physical processes, emotional processes, autonomic processes, everything, digestive, et cetera. That’s the physical pillar of brain health. It’s these neural networks. That’s what I find to be really the missing piece in a lot of approaches to brain health because a lot of people look at– when we talk about brain health and this is already cutting edge, by the way, it’s like talking about how the gut can impact brain health.
Things like the microbiome and all these different postbiotics substances that communicate with the brain, et cetera, they could influence brain health, but that’s the chemical pillar of brain health. That’s what I mean by the chemical pillars, the neurochemistry. Things like gut, things like mitochondria, things like hormones, toxins, blood sugar, et cetera, those could influence our brain health through the chemical route. I think a lot of people are even though this is really cutting edge, I think you and your audience you’re really privy to that it’s because it’s pretty, it’s exciting stuff.
Like I said, in addition, the brain is unique though, in the sense that not only does it require nutrients in oxygen and it needs to avoid toxins and excessive inflammation, it also needs stimulation and activation. How? Through those five senses that I talked about before, actually there’s more than five. There’s the sense of interception. There’s a sense of balance and vibration, so on and so forth, but the point is through our senses, we can actually target these neural networks, AKA the physical brain and rewire areas that have been injured. That’s the cool thing about the physical pillar brain.
It really looks at this underrecognized path to healing specifically the nervous system. Then finally in that three-pillar model is the emotional brain. Yes, that refers to our mindset, our beliefs, I mean, research shows that I saw this research article somewhat recently, they found that repetitive negative thinking increased the risk for Alzheimer’s. That was the research article. I was looking at this soft science of psychology, but then linking it with like man, you have these repetitive, negative thought patterns over time it could increase your chance for Alzheimer’s. Yes. The emotional pillar is really important because it looks at mindset and beliefs we have about ourselves and our ability to heal. Beliefs we have about others in the world around us.
Then through that, those beliefs, that’s how we then develop these wellness rituals and practices that can either support our health or not. Everything you were talking about earlier in your tier, that first tier, the environmental things that we actually have control over, but sometimes depending on our mindset, depending on how conscious we are, maybe we don’t. There you have it. Yes. That’s the three-pillar approach that I found to brain health and specifically the physical pillar refers to those neural networks that we described. It’s such a wild, wild west approach to brain health because the sky’s the limit there’s so much that can be explored there using our senses, using our mental thought processes. Isn’t that wild, Ari?
Dr. Chiu: Through your own thought processes you can trigger neuroplasticity, meaning you can actually sculpt the physical structure of your brain, and in doing so in ways that you can then improve your life, but then there’s obviously the dark side of neuroplasticity, which I call it where the flip side. You can also have those negative thought patterns that also then lead to the opposite of what we want in our lives.
Your brain – use it or lose it
Ari: There’s so much fascinating stuff that you just said there that I would love to dig into. One aspect of what you said that I think is maybe worth exploring and actually, maybe I’ll approach it from my angles and talk a bit about some of the things I often talk about. Then I would suspect you’ll relate this to your area of expertise. One thing that I think doesn’t get enough attention is how dynamic the body is in adapting to whatever it’s being exposed to. We have a tendency to think of our gut microbiome is there and it’s our microbiome, but it’s actually adapting rapidly in response to almost everything. It changes within hours in response to a specific meal that we eat, for example.
Or we travel to a different location, we go on vacation to Italy and now we’re consuming a bunch of pasta and bread or for example, and we don’t normally consume those foods, the microbiome shifts dramatically. Or you’re eating a bunch more, maybe treats ice cream and desserts and stuff like that while you’re on vacation, it shifts. Another example that I often talk about is lifting weights. You lift weights and you are now creating a stimulus that your body is now trying to adapt to by growing stronger. It lays down muscle tissue and increases the amount of muscle fibers in order to grow stronger to better survive and adapt to and handle that stimulus.
On the other side of that spectrum, if you break a bone and you put your arm or your leg in a cast, and now within a span of just two months, you get that cast off eight weeks later and you look down at your arm or your leg and it’s half the size of the other one, because all of those muscle fibers atrophy very, very rapidly in just weeks. I often talk about this in the context of mitochondria, the same thing is happening internally inside of our cells. It’s use it or lose it. If you are not actively challenging your mitochondria through hermetic stress of various types, they will atrophy just like your muscles atrophy when they’re in a cast, it’s absolutely use it or lose it.
On the other hand, if you engage in hermetic stressors, you can stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis. You can grow bigger, stronger mitochondria, and more of them. I would imagine that this same principle also applies in the brain, and if certain people are not actively stimulating and challenging certain neural networks, maybe they atrophy. Is that accurate to say and does anything come into your mind in relationship to this principle?
Dr. Chiu: Oh yes. I think we could talk for hours. I love all the things you just dropped, but we can start with the example that you use with the arm and the cast. The wild thing is research has shown is when you do that, the areas of your brain that control and perceive that arm, they also atrophy, so absolutely applies to the brain. The good news is again you have that use it or lose it principle, but then the flip side is also true. You can actually use the same things, like you can target regions of the nervous system that might be weakened from chronic stress or concussion or inflammation, and then in doing so trigger this beautiful process we call neuroplasticity.
The brain is plastic in the sense that it can shift and change to our environmental experiences. Going back to that first two, you talked about earlier, a big part of what I was saying, the brain’s unique and we can use the senses to do that. I love when you drop the hormesis, I was just thinking about it when you’re saying this, we can use the census as a hermetic trigger. For example, if we’re just sitting at our computers so much these days because of changes in society, the first thing you want to do is buy a little foam pad that you start standing on in front of your computer instead of just sitting on your butt, because when you stand on a foam pad that challenges all these motion detectors located all throughout your body, your muscles and joints. We call muscle spindle cells, GTO all these different motion sensors.
When you’re standing and you’re challenging your balance, those little hermetic stressors send signals to your cerebellum, which controls your core stability. It also controls digestive function, autonomic function. There’s research connecting the cerebellum with limbic function, meaning emotions and also cognition. I love the fact that those are the exact principles really my life’s work is based on all that you’re talking about, but specific to the brain, like number one, use it or lose it. Number two, you can do specific things to actually gain specific brain function, brain volume.
Then number three, the idea of hermetics like small doses of sensory based triggers, whether it’s color therapy or just walking in nature and being present to the leaves rustling, the sounds of the leaves rustling. The visual textures of the leaves and your feet crunching on the ground. When you’re really present to that, it triggers these neuroplastic changes in your nervous system. Now the cool thing is that’s all happening in the background, so even if you’re not being present to it, when you go walking, or you bathe yourself in these sensory experiences, it’s all happening. The cool thing is you can be intentional with it, with what you’re trying to accomplish in your life.
As an example, I talked about concussion and my journey healed from my concussion. When I had that concussion, specific regions in my nervous system were damaged. Number one, the vestibular system, which that’s why I had those weird, like I was describing earlier, those vertigo events where I almost fell out of my chair. Number two, my brain stem was stuck in a state of fight or flight after the concussion, and number three, this area we call the prefrontal cortex that deals with emotional regulation, those regions were injured.
When I finally realized that, yes, I did have an issue with these areas, then I took everything I knew how to shift that both from a chemical perspective through dye and supplements lifestyle, but then also through this neuroplasticity approach with the senses. I started doing eye exercises to target regions of my central executive network. You can do eye exercise to trigger neuroplasticity in your prefrontal cortex and improve your focus and concentration as an example. You can do, there’s different like balance training you can do to help your vestibular system. There’s technologies out there that I call electroceutical devices that can reset your brain stem and stress response by way of the vagus nerve.
All those things can be done intentionally and the beautiful thing though, that was me trying to heal my brain and then I took that principle to help my patients heal their brains. My point is beyond that what you’re speaking to, just like this idea of just, I could hear it, you didn’t really speak to it directly but I hear it, is this idea where you can take the same principles and not only help someone who’s struggling with a health issue, but also take someone who’s relatively healthy, take their brain to a whole new level. Neuroplasticity is the same principles and that’s what I discovered and so super exciting stuff, and everything you’re speaking to really resonates with me.
How to level up your brain
Ari: This is absolutely fascinating stuff. I am very curious, especially now that we’re in the realm of not just talking about let’s say people with concussions, how do we get back to normal, but how do we go from normal to super brain function. I have some of my own methods as a non-brain specialist. I’ve dabbled in the research a bit on this topic, and I have some of my own strategies that I use to enhance neuroplasticity in targeted ways. For example, using things like medicinal mushrooms, like let’s say not only Lion’s mane mushroom, but also psilocybin containing mushrooms, small amounts of those combined with breathing and meditative practices, and certain breathing practices and movement and exercise can also amplify neuroplasticity.
Then while I’m in that hyper neuroplastic state, usually I’ll do things like Buddhist, loving kindness meditation, and really take my brain into a state that I want to be better at, that I want to work more on and embody more of. That’s one example of how I do things, but I’m super curious to hear, obviously, as someone who knows much more about the brain than I do what are some of the strategies that you use to achieve that?
Dr. Chiu: Yes, no, that’s awesome. That’s super cool what you described too is like what I’ve seen work the best is when you’re trying to trigger neuroplasticity and really harness and unlock the power of the human mind, it’s not just a cognitive thing, you got to get physical. You got to improve. When I work with patients, but also when I help healthy people take their brains to the next level, we focus on that. It’s like, okay, how can we get more circulation and oxygenation to the brain? How can we prime those brain cells? When I was talking a second ago about like the neuroplasticity using the senses, so it’s like, you use a sense to trigger these– It’s like, I like to use the analogy personal training for the brain.
For example, if your right bicep is weak you want to do specific right bicep curls, but if there’s areas of your nervous system that aren’t working as well as they could be, and you can unlock that supercharge them, you want to be specific. Well, the thing is for neuroplasticity to happen for what I described earlier, like these eye exercises, or even in your example of loving kindness, meditation, which activates the vagus nerve and the limbic system, and more specific the right side of the brain, but anyways, for those things to really work, you have to prime the brain cells. That’s where the chemical brain really plays a big role and that’s what I thought was rad about your approach.
You’re like I do these breathing exercise movement, I do mushrooms, a lot of that stuff what it’s doing from a molecular or a chemical level is it’s triggering the production of BDNF as you know. Brain derived neurotrophic factor, so that’s how you can prime your brain because research shows if you don’t have high levels of BDNF, then no matter what, your actual brain training you’re doing, it’s not going to take hold as well. The good analogy again, is just like if someone has a goal of getting ripped physically, or they’re getting toned and getting really strong in certain muscle groups, they can do all the exercises.
They can lift weights, do functional training, but if their body’s inflamed and they’re super stressed and there’s cortisol streaming through their blood and so on and so forth, they’re not going to get much gain because there’s inflammation. Maybe there’s not adequate protein, amino acid sources, nutrients, et cetera. Same thing goes for the brain so yes, it’s like the first step is you need to prepare and prime your brain cells and different activities like boosting brain circulation. Physical things like breathing exercises, movement-based exercises. In addition, the use of medicinal mushrooms like you described research shows boom, BDNF skyrockets.
There’s these natural ways of doing that. Caloric restriction is another example of doing that, as well as the use of polyphenols, curcumin, DHA, docosahexaenoic acid from fish oils. Those things can help prime the nervous system. Then from there, that’s how I work my clients, I walk them through this process, let’s prime that, let’s get rid of any noise in the nervous system by cleaning up the chemistry boosting circulation, then we figure out which area of the nervous system. Well, first off is like, “What is your goal?” That’s always the question. If a person has a goal of becoming more compassionate, yes, there are these practices that are thousands of years old that show and now the research is catching up with it.
When you do loving, kindness, meditation, it activates these regions of your nervous system we call the limbic system, the vagus nerve, and shifting heart rate variability. The sky’s the limit. That’s what I was saying earlier. If we have an athlete out there who wants to be a better hockey player, or better basketball player or archery, there are neural networks that allow a person to target their eyes to the exact degree they need to be accurate. Does that make sense? I’ve actually I’ve worked with some Olympic athletes in the past. I remember this one guy he had a concussion. He was at the top of his game, like really, at the top of his game.
He had a concussion though. Every time he hit the hockey puck, the hockey puck would always– he was at the top of his game prior to this, the hockey puck would after the concussion, the hockey puck would always go a little bit off to the left. Then when we did an exam, guess what we saw that his eyes, he thought if we can actually look at how well his eyes were targeting, we found that when his eyes targeted towards, for example, as a simple test, I am looking at my thumbs. What I saw was his eyes normally, when I move the test was this. When I wiggle my thumb, you’re going to look your eyes, just like you did there. You moved your eyes to my phone, and I can see how fast you moved it, how accurate and it was pretty fast and accurate. Good job.
Ari: Super brain.
Dr. Chiu: Yes, good brain.
Ari: I didn’t know I was going to be getting neurological assessment during this interview.
Dr. Chiu: Very, good perfect. That was good. That’s what I want to see. When we did it for him, when I wiggled my thumb off to his right side, actually no was off his left side, his eyes, instead of jumping directly onto my thumb, like targeting on it, it took two three steps to get there. I knew right away, that was the reason why his hockey game was off. His brain and body was so well trained, his body was doing exactly what his brain was telling it to do, hit the hockey puck. The problem was the brain was perceiving the goal a bit like 5 degrees off to the left, you see what I’m saying?
Then we did a few simple exercises, and bam he got his game back. My point is you can take the same concepts if someone wants to be more creative, there’s neural networks really related to insight and creativity, more focused on the right hemisphere of the brain than the left in general. There’s neural networks related to compassion, like feel and empathy. There’s neural networks for being able to focus better and be a better student. That’s the wild thing, the sky’s the limit. Really depends on what a person’s goals are. When people come to me, if they don’t have a health issue, and they’re just like, “You know what, it’s like, I’m healthy but I want to get better at X, Y, or Z.”
Then what I do I’m, like, “Great.” When they tell me X, Y, or Z, it doesn’t just mean like, “Hey, I want to become a better motorcyclist, or I want to become a better athlete or better author.” I think about what are the neural networks that allow a person to do that. Then from there, we can actually do assessments to see how well those areas of their brain are working, and then give specific brain activation exercises to train those. Again, as an example from what you described, like the loving-kindness, meditation that might be something I give someone they’re just like, “I want to become more patient with my kids.”
I’m, “Okay, step one, let’s get rid of the inflammation. Let’s used more. I can see that when you touch your nose, it’s cold. Let’s improve your brain circulation as well. With some herbs, and some breathing exercises, let’s prime your brain cells. Then number two, when I look at your eyes, and you’re not able to focus and you’re jumping all over the place, let’s give you some eye exercises so you can get present. Then let’s give you some loving-kindness meditation so you can get more open again and in touch with your heart.” That’s just an example. Again, the sky’s the limit. It’s really totally personalized to what a person’s goals are.
That’s the beautiful thing of neuroplasticity, what I learned in that 20-year journey to heal my brain, those same concepts of neuroplasticity, taking a broken brain and fixing it can be applied to taking a pretty healthy brain to a whole new level of potential.
Ari: Awesome stuff. I would love to talk to you for several more hours and dig into all of this stuff. I would love to also just for my own selfish benefit, pick your brain and have you do an assessment on me and see what I could optimize. Given I have another podcast to get to in about seven minutes, I have one more question for you, which is for you personally, what are some of your top daily practices and maybe daily supplements that you prioritize for your own brain health?
Dr. Chiu: Great question. I actually switch it up a bit when it comes to supplements really, by the way, I don’t really recommend this at home. Unless you have really in-depth knowledge about the biochemistry, you’ve done lab tests before and more importantly, you’re pretty in tune with yourself. In general, my supplement stack, I’ll take a formulation of polyphenols. Things like curcumin, resveratrol, Pterostilbene, EGCG, for inflammation and also for those hermetic effects, longevity, as you know, brain longevity in my situation. In addition to that, I’ll take some fish oil so EPA DHA usually skewed towards a higher level of DHA.
Sometimes if I’m feeling a bit brain foggy or brain fatigue myself, then I’ll take what are known as SPRMs, the specialized pro-resolving mediators, which are you skip the middleman to help decrease brain inflammation if you were just to take fish oil. Sometimes I’ll do that. In addition to that, I’ll take adaptogenic herb blend, I’ll go on and off with that. I don’t like to take it too much. If I’m under states of I know, I’ll be under more stress or a lot more work. I’ll take that preemptively. What I do take a lot and I ask the mushroom before I take it is Lion’s mane. I’ll just check it–
Ari: Wait a minute, what randomized controlled study did you see that in?
Dr. Chiu: We’re doing it right now. We’re going to publish this then it will be legitimate.
Ari: I was being sarcastic.
Dr. Chiu: Science is good but there’s also the phenomenology. That’s evidence as well but that’s a different conversation.
Dr. Chiu: In addition to that, sometimes I’ll take probiotics. My diet is, I’m a foodie so I like to keep things really fresh and unprocessed, organic. We try to really invest in our food. I love seafood. I eat a lot of seafood. That in general, I do take a B complex sometimes because there’s some snips I have. I think that’s really it. I try to keep it minimal with the supplements. I really think that is the stack. Oh, yes, by the way, I do actually have a multi I take as well, that has a bunch of little polyphenols in there at lower levels and then that covers the bases. In terms of practices. I’ve been doing a lot of that, the hermetic stressors.
We have an infrared sauna. I’ll sit in the sauna, do some work in there. I’ll just sweat it out and breathe, do some chanting or something. Then I’ll go right into my shower and just do it freezing cold for as long as I can, so just to get that. Just really for me, I think because my brain is already so active, and this is I’m glad you asked this because I wanted to speak to this earlier just really briefly, the whole idea of these hermetic stressors, they’ll work as long as you don’t overdo it based on your bandwidth. I can’t emphasize that, all right.
Ari: Yes, [unintelligible 00:50:05] is critical.
Dr. Chiu: Yes, exactly. You have to know. I always tell my clients find your flow, meaning find your edge, lean into it. Sometimes go overboard, but make sure you have that downtime recuperation, because I find so many people, myself included, I’m guilty as charged. We just go through our modern life, just bam, going into this activity then that activity, even if they’re pleasurable, like vacations, then going right into a social event or whatever. Or going right into work again. It’s so important to have those downtimes, the recuperation so your brain can recuperate and build the plasticity so your body, your muscles can recuperate.
Otherwise, if you’re just stressing your body and your nervous system through these survival triggers, that’s not the point because then you’re just going to be a state of survival all the time. The point is growth and evolution. I just needed to make that point because it’s so important. For me, because I’m already so active mentally, a lot of what I do are things that don’t require brain function at all. It’s more like I said, I go on hikes and just become present to and just be the Zen experiences. Not even putting a lot of energy into anything, just sometimes spacing out and just being present to whatever, I find for me, that’s really, when a lot of the stuff starts to click.
Creating that stillness and the silence, then a lot of the answers come. That’s my rituals these days, a lot of hikes with our dogs in nature and spending time in nature, spending time with friends and family meditating. I don’t do as much of the brain training stuff as I did before when I was doing the healing, but I still do some eye exercises. Then we do use technologies. I have a low-level laser that we use to– as you know about photo bio modulation to keep those mitochondria happy and healthy.
Ari: Yes, awesome stuff Dr. Chiu, this has really been a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you. I know we have another call, just a personal call coming up where I connected with you, and I asked to get your input on an idea that I have. I’m excited to connect with you further. Thank you, by the way for offering your time to help me out with that.
Dr. Chiu: Absolutely.
Ari: Sorry, by the way, also, for this background noise I got an intense storm rolling in here in Costa Rica, it’s rainy season. Remarkably, they don’t engineer the roofs very well as far as blocking out noise. I have a bit of a problem whenever storms roll through. Tell people where they can find more about your work, learn more from you, connect with you, work with you one on one.
Dr. Chiu: Yes, sure. My website is brainsave.com. In addition, too I’m on Instagram, so Instagram/Dr. Titus Chiu, I’m on Facebook as well. If people are more interested, we spoke a little bit about leaky brain here. I do have a quiz leakybrainquiz.com. If you go to that website, you can take a quiz to see if you do have leaky brain. If you do that could be one of the major reasons why you’re experiencing brain fatigue, so leakybrainquiz.com if you want to take a deeper dive into that world.
Ari: Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom with my audience. I really appreciate it and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. I look forward to connecting with you again very soon.
Dr. Chiu: Absolutely. Thank you. Blessings, my brother.
What is a functional neurologist? (01:09)
Dr. Chiu’s story (05:32)
What is brain fatigue? (09:50)
The most common causes of brain fatigue (14:00)
How lifestyle contributes to brain fatigue (19:15)
Neural networks (21:08)
Your brain – use it or lose it (27:30)
How to level up your brain (35:45)