Dr. Tara Swart - Chief Science Officer

The neuroscience behind how to reach your Heights

Why I’m joining

I’m excited to be speaking to you for the first time as the Chief Science Officer at Heights, announcing our first product: the smarter multivitamin. As a neuroscientist, medical doctor and performance coach to global leaders, I’m passionate about nutrition and the brain. Particularly, that good nutrition supports neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and change). 

At Heights, we look at the brain in context and understand that great nutrition works alongside hydration and a healthy lifestyle, to create the optimal conditions for your brain to thrive.  And although ideally, we’d all eat a perfectly balanced, nutrition-dense diet, life gets in the way! It’s easy to underplay the importance of nutrition, but when you start to look into it, it’s equally hard to overstate its potential. 

Allow me to elaborate. If I were to say there’s a side-effect free way to boost productivity by 50%; improve your mood to the extent that it matches the impact of an antidepressant for treatment of mild to moderate depression and create the optimal conditions for your brain to thrive, you’d want to know what that drug was called! You might join the stampede to the pharmacy to get some. In reality, it is not so easy!  

Scientific Evidence

There is compelling evidence that nutrition is the ultimate cognitive enhancer. A diet high in blueberries, for example, along with three to five cups of green tea per week, and plenty of plant-based wholefoods with foods rich in DHA omega 3 will give your brain the energy and raw materials it needs to support concentration, memory, lateral thinking, creativity and the process that underlies all of this: neuroplasticity.  The study of neuroplasticity has taught us that our brains adapt to knowledge and experience, forming new synaptic connections and embedding new cognitive pathways, all the time. In order to do this efficiently, the brain needs a few key things: sleep, regular aerobic exercise, and good hydration, as well as quality nutrition

To unpack this further, moderate to strenuous aerobic exercise boosts levels of BDNF – a protein that boosts neuroplasticity. Interestingly if you choose an activity you enjoy, you’ll get more of a brain benefit from it. Your brain knows whether you’re really into Yoga like our co-founder Dan, or would secretly prefer to be at SoulCycle like me. It rewards you for doing what you love - there’s a thought! Similarly, when it comes to nutrition there are countless studies on the impact of a healthy diet on brain function. 

Brain Supplements, the science

Since research on nutrition and brain function has exploded, a frankly dizzying range of nootropics (brain-specific substances marketed as cognitive enhancers) has hit health store shelves, promising all manner of benefits. Many of my clients have snapped them up, then complained to me they have been disappointed when they’ve felt zip all benefit.

This is frustrating, but unsurprising, mostly because ‘nootropics’ promising to ‘optimise’ brain function are often based around one or two over-hyped ingredients. The manufacturers don’t take account of the fact that most people don’t have their basic nutrition covered. It’s a reality that the majority of us don’t eat enough vegetables and oily fish. In my experience as a leading executive coach, I’m amazed by the number of highly successful business people I work with who neglect their diet and take their brain performance for granted. If this sounds like you, taking a ‘cognitive enhancer’ is a bit like taking Viagra. It might help for a one-off performance but it won’t save your marriage! So many of these supplements sell a false promise that won’t deliver for the vast majority of us.  Like anything in life, you need to get the basics right first.

When you’re busy focused on the important stuff (running a business, living a life, binge-watching Killing Eve), it’s tempting to think you can get by on coffee, comfort food and your sense of invincibility. But your brain has other needs. It has certain basic requirements for you to fulfil in order to function, physically. These aren’t optional extras, they’re the basics, and so many of us neglect to think twice about them. 

What your brain is made of

It’s a commonly quoted ‘problem’ that the brain is 75% water, and that it is also 60% fat. Confusing! This means that if you took a brain, and drained it (bear with me), 60% of the remaining dry matter would be made up of fat. So even at the most basic level, it’s essential to stay well hydrated and ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to repair itself. Cells repair and regenerate constantly, and brain cells are no exception. 

When the brain doesn’t have the raw materials it needs to do this efficiently, there is an increase in oxidative stress, which is the main factor in cognitive decline. There are three key nutrients our brains need to get the job done: replacement fats, particularly a specific type of omega 3 fatty acid called ‘DHA’. We also need B complex vitamins which are essential for the nervous system, as they help prevent fatigue induced by a stressful life.  Then there are antioxidants which fight oxidative damage by combatting ‘free radicals’ (not the fun revolutionaries they sound like) - electrons in the brain that attack healthy tissue. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, but it can be tricky to eat enough of them every day to get the maximum benefit. We know that eating two cups a day  has a greater benefit than eating one, but how many of us manage this?

With these three ingredients, quality is vital. There are plenty of sub-standard supplements out there. Many of the big supplement companies regard the stockists as their customers rather than the end users. The result is Omega 3 stuffed with EPA, the cheaper and easier to source type, antioxidant supplements that have poor bioavailability (which can’t be absorbed and used by the body and brain), and supplements packed with synthetic ‘caking agents’ such as chalk. Yuk! There are B vitamin supplements that contain only one, but not all of this vital group of nutrients, which the body and brain need to convert food into energy. B12 is a classic example, as vegans in particular are told they must supplement with it. 

In the past when I have advised clients to take a good quality vitamin C, B-vitamin complex, omega 3 and antioxidant supplement separately, it ends up being a bit of a faff, and it’s easy to run out or just forget. 

Why it’s time for Heights

The need for a high-quality, comprehensive and brain-friendly multivitamin is clear, and something I’d been thinking about for years. And before anyone even mentions nootropics, getting your base-brain nutrition sorted has to be a priority. When Heights asked me to come onboard as CSO, I had a lot of questions, and it was important to me that I check their ingredients were high quality and formulated in a way to be as bioavailable as possible. I was excited by the delivery mechanism of a duocap - a pill inside a pill which helps with absorption, and impressed with the sustainably sourced ingredients. 

It was also important that the supplement would work for vegetarians and vegans, as I’ve noticed a steady increase in clients who have cut out meat and fish, and I personally balk at the thought of swallowing a gelatin capsule. I wanted to check the quantities of the key nutrients were right and make sure that there was a carefully calibrated balance of complementary nutrients (as studies show for example, that B vitamins and DHA omega 3 pack a powerful punch when it comes to reducing Alzheimer’s incidence).  

You might think that, like pension plans, this is something you can afford to park for another 30 years, but increasing evidence shows that cognitive decline begins in our 30s and 40s, and that the signs of Alzheimer’s are often visible 25 years before symptoms appear. The role diet can play in protecting you from cognitive decline is huge. The research by Professor David Smith at Oxford looking at the impact nutrition on dementia shows results so dramatic, only an ostrich would ignore it. In other words, the time to invest in your future brain is now. Heights sum this up by saying ‘Future you will thank you’ - and I agree!

Final Words

I’m on board to help you put your brain first so you can retain everything you love about feeling vibrant and ‘you’ right now, whilst working on your bigger picture goals moving forward. We’d like to be with you every step of the way so we will be introducing smarter ways of interacting: through exclusive content for customers; and technology to help you stay accountable, motivated and part of our community. Let’s reach new heights together…

Dr. Tara Swart, Chief Science Officer