Episode 25 | Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. | Reverse Brain Aging

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Why you should listen

I’m so thrilled to share with you today’s show of On Health: The Art Of Living. This episode is all about breakthrough techniques that allow you to ignite your energy and focus, deal with anxiety and depression, and reverse the aging process between your ears…in your brain!

Today’s podcast guest, Dr. Daniel Amen is one of the most popular psychiatrists in the country. He’s the author of more than two dozen books, including 10 New York Times best-selling titles and is the founder and CEO of Amen Clinics, where he and his colleagues have created the largest database of brain scans related to behavior…roughly 120,000 brain scans.

Daniel has written, produced and hosted popular shows about the brain, including the PBS special Change Your Brain Change Your Body, that have aired over 70,000 times across North America.

I met Daniel a few years ago in Vancouver, Canada where we he was presenting at a conference. I’ve never seen anybody more passionate about inspiring people to care as much about their brains as they do about their bodies.

Did you know that the human brain weighs an average of 3 pounds and is the consistency of soft butter? In this 30-minute brain episode, you’ll discover…

  • Feeling scatterbrained? Find out how you can detach from all the distracting information and shift to a more focused pattern of thinking.
  • Feeling overwhelmed? Find out how you can keep your mind sharp when you have a lot going on.
  • Feeling the urge to emotionally eat? Find how how you can connect your brain and body naturally, and feel more alert and full of energy after a meal.

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I’m glad we get to talk about this fascinating topic! You have said that the human brain weighs an average of three pounds and has the consistency of soft butter. That really shocked me! But, other than that, I want to know what you’ve learned after scanning 120,000 brains.

What keeps me excited every single day is you’re not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better or worse and I can prove that – that’s what gets me up every day. How do I take a brain that was hurt from concussions or a brain that had an infection or a brain that had a lack of oxygen and make it better?  When I am able to help, I literally can transform someone’s life and that is just eternally exciting to me.

People often write me and ask how they can stay focused in such an overstimulating environment where there’s just so much going on. So, what’s happening in the brain when we put ourselves in these chaotic environments?  

So I have a new book coming out in a few weeks called,  The Brain Warrior’s Way, that I wrote with my wife. I argue we’re in a war for the health of our brains. Everywhere you go someone’s trying to shove bad food down your throat that will kill you early. News channels repeatedly pour negative messaging down our minds that cause us chronic stress. And, technology companies continually release addictive gadgets that steal our attention.

According to a study from Microsoft, the human attention span is now 8 seconds. A goldfish is 9 seconds! This literal life evolution going the wrong way. And Microsoft did that same study 15 years ago and said the human attention span back then was 12 seconds. So we’ve lost a third of our attention span in a very short period of time. And it’s because we’re constantly being bombarded. And so it’s really OK to turn off your e-mail and do one thing at a time because you’ll actually be more effective. As we get older, there are other things that steal our attention which is aging.

Brain activity gets less and less active over time unless you’re really serious about taking care of the health of your brain. If you don’t exercise it, provide it with the right environment, the right hormones, the right nutrients then it will get weaker.

In general, how bad is stress for the brain?

Constant exposure to stress hormones has been shown to shrink certain parts of the brain – especially in an area that is the brain’s major memory center, the hippocampus. Constantly being exposed to stress makes us more scattered and our memories no good. Now, there’s a interesting caveat. If your DHEA levels are healthy, then stress doesn’t bother our brain nearly as much. That idea connects to what we do at the Amen Clinics – we think that people need to understand some of these numbers in their body: testosterone, DHEA, thyroid, stuff like that. This is important because you can easily change these levels and that can have a dramatic difference in your brain health and the quality of your life.

Let’s talk about how exercise can help the brain. What is the best type of exercise for healthy brain function?

I recommend exercise that is focused on coordination like dance, table tennis, and tennis. Those are things that require you to have your eyes, hands, and feet all working together. Honestly, I think table tennis is the world’s best brain game. It’s got a lot of mental work happening and, if you play at a high level, it’s highly aerobic.

I am not a fan of extreme exercise because I believe that it causes too much stress on the brain. Some of the worst brains I’ve seen have been from triathletes. I prefer that people burst training and coordination exercises which will help people work their cerebellum.

I’ve loved aerobics through the years but I do notice that, when I push too hard for too many days in a row, that I do start to feel a bit flat. So I’ve experienced that overtraining feeling firsthand.

It’s just not good for us. We need moderate exercise, burst training, coordination work, and then just learning some new things – like a new sport. I’m a big fan of martial arts as long as you’re not getting hit in the head! The complex movements have actually been shown to be associated with more gray matter in the brain and that means more nerve cells and more processing units.

Let’s shift to food. I know from personal experience that there is a connection between our moods and what we eat, but can you explain how this all works?

If you have a simple carbohydrate-based diet – bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and sugar – it actually works as an antidepressant initially. This is because when you raise insulin levels it drives serotonin into your brain and it works really well in the short-term. The problem is when you raise insulin you also end up lowering your blood sugar and, an hour later, you’re going to feel spacey and tired. And, let’s not forget that a simple carbohydrate-based diet is associated with diabetes, obesity, inflammation, depression, and dementia. So, short-term benefit, but big long-term problem.

A brain healthy diet means protein and fat at every meal because it stabilizes your blood sugar and decreases cravings. Also, make sure to get lots of colorful fruits and vegetables with about three times the number of vegetables than fruit because fruit can be loaded with sugar as well. Basically, think of a plate as 70 percent plant-based foods, 30 percent high-quality protein, and mix in a lot of healthy fat like avocados, nuts, and healthy oils.

Let’s talk about love from the standpoint of the brain. Is there a place in the brain where love lives?

Well,  it depends on if it’s new love or a love that’s been there for a long time.

New love is like cocaine and actually works in the same part of the brain – an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. That’s like the little pleasure button in our brain. When you meet someone and you’re attracted to them, it’s like you receiving a hit of cocaine! But, over time that transfers to the limbic area of the brain. Once it hits that part, And it’s almost more like heroin where when you’re with them it just feels good to be with them. Breaking up with a new love is pretty easy. Breaking up with a long-term love is really painful and very difficult so they tend to live in different areas of the brain.

Are there any natural things you could to to start stimulating certain parts of the brain that are making you feel anxious or unloved? I know that exercise definitely helps, but is there anything else?

I think that journaling is critical. That will help you to kill those Automatic Negative Thoughts (or, what I call, ANTs). These are thoughts like, “I’m not needed. I’m not necessary. They don’t love me.” Defeating those thoughts is all about learning to tell yourself the truth. One of the odd things about the brain is if it has a thought, it tends to believe it even though it may be wrong.

For example, you might believe that your partner never listens to you because of one specific example, But, once you start to think that, then you start to notice it everywhere and then it sort of gives you permision to be rude to your partner because you’re mad at them. If you just took the time to write it down and think about it, you would move closer to the truth of the situation. So, journaling can be very healing. If you’re eating right, exercising, and feeding your brain the right nutrients, you still have to do the psychological work.

I’ve also done three studies on meditation and I am just a huge fan. It helps to calm your emotional brain and strengthen your thoughtful brain. My favorite meditation is something called “loving kindness meditation” because it’s all about forgiveness and sending positive energy to yourself and to those you are thankful for. It’s also about sending positive energy to those people that you’re having a hard time with. It’s very powerful and it has been shown to be associated with more gray matter in the brain and a stronger immune system.

For more information on Dr. Daniel Amen, visit http://danielamenmd.com/.

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