12 Prescriptions for Creating A Brain Healthy Life
By Daniel G. Amen, MD
The brain is the organ of learning, loving, and behaving for every member of a family, school, church or business. When the brains in a family or organization work right, the family or organization tends to be positive and effective. When the brain of one or more family or organization members is troubled, the family or organization experiences increased stress and strain.
Your brain is the most complex, mind-blowing organ in the universe. It is only about 3 pounds, or about 2 percent of your body’s weight. Yet, it uses 20 to 30% of the calories you consume, 20% of the oxygen you breathe and 25% of the blood flow in your body. Unbelievably, given that it is the bedrock of your personality, some think even your soul, the brain is 85% water! It is estimated that the brain has 100 billion nerve cells and more connections in it than there are stars in the universe, which is about the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. There are also trillions of supportive cells in the brain called glia. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by up to 40,000 individual connections (called synapses) between cells. Multiplying 100 billion neurons times 40,000 synapses is equivalent to the brain having more connections in it than there are stars in the universe.
A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, all “talking” to one another. Information in your brain travels at about 268 miles per hour, unless of course you are drunk, then things really slow down. If you don’t take care of your brain, you lose on average 85,000 brain cells a day. That is what causes aging. With appropriate forethought, however, you can reverse that trend and dramatically slow the aging process and increase your mental agility.
Knowing how to care for your brain and the brains in your family or organization is the first and most important step to success, in any thing you do. When the brain works right, you (or your family and organization) work right. When the brain is troubled you (or your family or organization) have trouble in your life.
Given the brain central role in success, I offer 12 prescriptions to optimize it for a better life in all you do.
1. Love Your Brain
Over the years I have personally had 10 SPECT scans to check on the health of my own brain. Looking back, my earliest scan, when I was 37, showed a toxic, bumpy appearance that was definitely not consistent with great brain function.
All of my life I have been someone who rarely drank alcohol, never smoked and never used an illegal drug. Then why did my brain look so bad? Before I understood about brain health, I had many bad brain habits. I ate lots of fast food, lived on diet sodas, would often get by on 4-5 hours of sleep at night, I worked like a nut and didn’t exercise much.
My last scan, at age 52, looks healthier and much younger than my first scan, even though brains typically become less active with age. Why? Seeing other people’s scans, I developed “brain envy” and wanted mine to be better. As I learned about brain health, I put into practice what I preached to my patients. Loving your brain is the first step toward creating a brain healthy life.
2. Increase the Brain’s Reserve
Have you ever wondered why certain stresses or injuries affect some people and not others? I have. I have wondered why some people get depressed after losing a parent while others, although sad, keep on going; why some people, after having a minor head injury, seem to be really affected, while others don’t; or why some people can roll with being fired or getting divorced and others nearly lose their minds.
Several years ago, after looking at tens of thousands of scans, I started to think about a concept I call “brain reserve.” Brain reserve is the cushion of healthy brain tissue we have to deal with the unexpected stresses that come our way. The more reserve we have, the more resilient we are in times of trouble. The less reserve, the more vulnerable we are.
Here is an example:
Mary and Katie are identical twins. They share the same genes, the same parents and the same upbringing. Yet their lives have been very different. Mary is a successful journalist, in a long term happy marriage with three great children, while Katie barely finished high school. She suffered with depression and a bad temper and went from job to job and relationship to relationship. Their lives have been nothing alike. When I scanned them, Mary had a very healthy brain (the one on the left), while Katie had clear evidence of a brain injury, affecting her prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes (the scan on the right). At first, when I talked with the twins together Katie didn’t remember a head injury. Then Mary spoke up saying, “Don’t you remember the time when we were 10 years old and you fell off the top bunk bed onto your head. You got knocked out and we had to rush you to the hospital?” The injury likely caused Katie to have less brain reserve, which may be why she was always more vulnerable to stress than her sister.
When we are conceived, let’s say, we all start with the same amount of brain reserve. Many things can decrease it and many things can increase it. For example, if your mother smoked, drank much alcohol or was under constant stress when she was pregnant with you, likely she decreased your brain’s reserve, even before you were born. If she exercised, ate a healthy diet, and took prenatal vitamins, likely she increased your reserve.
If you fell off a bunk bed onto your head at age of ten, were exposed to chronic stress from alcoholic parents or drank much alcohol or used drugs as a teenager you decreased your brain’s reserve. On the other hand, if you protected your head, were raised by reasonably loving, consistent parents, ate a healthy diet and avoided drugs and alcohol you increased your reserve.
The exciting news is that it is never too late to work on increasing your brain’s reserve.
Anything you do that harms how your brain decreases its reserve. For example, we know that:
Chronic stress kills cells in the memory centers of the brain
Brain injuries obviously can cause trouble ““ your brain is soft and your skull is hard, you need to protect it.
Too much alcohol or drug abuse damages the brain
Negative thinking, as we will see, disrupts healthy brain function.
A lousy diet is harmful, if you have a fast food diet you will only have a fast food brain
Any type of an environmental toxin hurts the brain, so stop cleaning the shower with toxic materials without great ventilation
And, anything that decreases blood flow to the brain, such as a lack of sleep, untreated sleep apnea, smoking or too much caffeine steals from your reserve.
Likewise, living a brain healthy life will increase your brain’s reserve and your ability to deal with the inevitable stresses that come your way. The rest of these prescriptions will be geared toward increasing your brain’s reserve.
3. Protect Your Brain
You brain is soft and your skull is hard. Brain injuries can ruin your life”¦so wear your seat belt, drive in safe vehicles, don’t hit soccer balls with your head, and stay off the roof. One of the most common brain injuries in men over 40 is falling off the roof.
4. Stop Poisoning Your Brain
Do not put toxic substances in your body. If you poison your brain you poison your mind, so not much alcohol, no illegal drugs, including marijuana, stop smoking, limit your caffeine intake, and stop using cleaning products without good ventilation.
Here is an email that I received after my last public television special:
“Dear Dr. Amen, I used methamphetamines daily for 12 years & tobacco for 25 years. I saw your program and knew I didn’t want that brain so I threw out all of the dope and cigarettes. I thought the withdrawal would be hell, but with the omega-3 supplements and the foods suggested in your program, it wasn’t that bad”¦You helped me turn my life around!!! Thank you!!!
At the Amen Clinics we produce a drug education poster that now hangs in over 50,000 schools around the world. It shows a healthy brain surrounded by drug and alcohol affected brains. It asks the question, “Which brain do you want?” That is a question you should always ask yourself.
5. Protect Your Memory
It is critical to take early memory problems seriously and not just dismiss them as normal aging. According to a study from UCLA 95% of people with Alzheimer’s disease are not diagnosed until they are in the moderate to severe stages of the disorder, when not much can be done.
Bob, one of my best friends, had a SPECT scan to check on the health of his brain. His mother had Alzheimer’s disease and he wanted to do everything possible to avoid it. At age 64 his scan was already starting to show the typical Alzheimer’s pattern of low activity in the parietal lobes at the top back part of the brain, which help us with direction sense, and low activity in the temporal lobes, underneath our temples and behind our eyes, which are more directly involved with memory. On memory tests Bob was already starting to show a problem, but since we caught it early, we were able to make substantial improvements for him. The earlier we know about a problem the more we can do for it. Early detection is crucial.
I think people should be screened yearly after the age of 50 for memory problems, using simple paper and pencil tests, one is given on our website, and then use more sophisticated tests if potential problems show up.
When I turned 50 my doctor wanted me to have a colonoscopy. I asked him why he didn’t want to look at my brain. “Isn’t the other end of my body just as important?” We often don’t think about the brain until it is too late.
One of the MOST important things you can do to keep your memory strong is exercise because cognitive abilities are best in people who are physically active. There are also a number of supplements that have good supporting research for memory including fish oil, gingko biloba, sage and a Chinese moss extract called huperazine.
Anthony Davis is a hall of fame running back from the University of Southern California. AD earned the nickname the “Notre Dame killer” because in 1972 he scored 6 touchdowns against the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame Students hated AD so much that they taped his picture on the walkways of the campus so that they could walk all over him. AD retired from the NFL at the age of 28 due to injuries. Years later he came to see me to try to prevent some of the cognitive problems he saw in other retired football players.
AD’s scan showed clear evidence of brain damage. I told AD that at age 54 his brain looked like he was 85 years old. Like many of my patients, AD developed brain envy. After seeing his scans he wanted a better brain. Six months later on fish oil, gingko, and huperazine his brain looked much better and he said he felt more energetic and was better able to focus and remember.
6. Good Sleep Is Essential to the Health of Your Brain
Unfortunately, 60 million Americans have trouble sleeping, which affects their moods, memory and ability to concentrate. It is estimated that sleep deprived people cause more accidents than drunk drivers. Because of our sleep problems doctors are prescribing sleep medications that can affect your moods and memory at alarming rates.
In my practice I first help you eliminate anything that might interfere with sleep, such as caffeine, alcohol or reading Stephen King before bedtime. I also try natural supplements first, such as melatonin, valerian, kava kava or 5-HTP. I went through a period of grief a number of years ago and kava kava was the only thing that helped me sleep without feeling hung over.
I also use hypnosis to help my patients. When I was an intern at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center many of my patients wanted sleeping pills. As you can imagine, it is hard to sleep in a busy, noisy hospital. Before I gave them the pills, however, I asked if I could hypnotize them first. Almost everyone agreed and it was often very helpful. Several of my first professional papers came from using hypnosis for sleep.
One of my patients, a decorated World War II hero, had terrible Parkinson’s disease and in a hypnotic trance for sleep his tremor went away. When I told the attending neurologist about it the next morning he thought I was crazy. So I repeated the exercise in front of him and it became my first professional paper.
When I hypnotized an Army chaplain for sleep who was in the hospital for a heart arrhythmia his heart rhythm normalized. When I told the attending cardiologist about it the next morning he raised his eyebrows at me, so I repeated the exercise in front of him and it became my second professional paper.
Hypnosis and self hypnosis are very powerful tools to help us gain mastery over our own minds and bodies and can be helpful for sleep, as well as for anxiety and pain.
7. Learn Brain Healthy Ways to Deal with Pain
Pain is one of the most frightening symptoms that we can have. Chronic pain affects everything in a negative way, such as sleep, mood, memory and concentration. Our scans have taught me that the use of chronic pain medications, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin, may be harmful to brain function. Long term use of these medications makes the brain look like people who drink too much.
I am NOT suggesting that you throw out your pain medications. I am a baby when it comes to pain and I know some people would rather die than live with pain. But because of what I have seen on scans I developed an interest in alternative treatments for pain. Fish oil, acupuncture, music therapy and hypnosis all have scientific evidence that they may be helpful.
From a psychiatrist’s standpoint, I have also learned that pain and depression tend to go hand in hand. And that for some people using the natural supplement SAMe or the antidepressant medicine Cymbalta can help both problems.
Again, there are many natural ways to help the brain. Of course, you should talk to your doctor. If he or she does not know much about natural supplements, as many of us were never taught about them in school, sometimes a naturopath can be helpful.
One other thought on pain, try getting rid of all of the artificial sweeteners in your diet. When I was 37 I had arthritis. I had trouble getting up off the floor after playing with my children. As part of developing a brain healthy life, I got rid of the diet sodas. Within a month, my pain went away. I don’t think artificial sweeteners do that to everyone, but if you hurt it might be something to consider.
8. You Need a Brain Healthy Diet
What does that mean? Lean protein, such as turkey or chicken; low glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates, which means carbohydrates high in fiber that do not raise your blood sugar, such as whole grains and green leafy vegetables; and healthy fats that contain omega three fatty acids, found in foods such as tuna, salmon, avocados and walnuts. Since the brain is 85% water, anything that dehydrates you is bad for the brain, such as alcohol, caffeine, excess salt or not drinking enough fluids. Also, drink plenty of water to keep yourself well hydrated.
Along the same lines, teach your children to eat right. Exposure equals preference, what you feed your children is eventually what they will want. Chloe, our 5 year old, believes that blueberries are God’s candy and that raw red bell peppers are to die for. Why? She knows about her brain and wants to do everything she can to make it better. She frequently asks me if this is good for my brain or bad for it. You should ask yourself the same question.
9. Physical Exercise
It is literally the fountain of youth because it boosts blood flow to the brain, plus it increases chemicals that are important for learning and memory and stimulating the growth of new brain cells. Thirty minutes 3 or 4 times a week is all you need. If you don’t know what to do, walk fast, like you’re late.
10. Mental Exercise
OK, once you exercise and boost blood flow to your brain, you then need mental exercise. In one study of lab rats, exercise was found to generate new cells in the learning and memory centers of the brain. These new cells lasted for about four weeks. If they were not stimulated by new learning they died off. If you stimulate new brain cells by using them, by learning something new, they connect to other cells and become part of the fabric of your brain. This is why people who only work out at the gym are not nearly as smart as people who work out and then go to the library.
Learning new dance steps is a great mental exercise, because it involves learning, coordination, music AND physical exercise. All of those things are great for your brain. Crossword puzzles, learning a musical instrument or exploring a new country or a new language with enthusiasm can also help.
Exercise plus life long learning, plus a healthy diet and limiting alcohol and tobacco will help keep your brain young and strong. In fact, researchers from the University of Cambridge found that people who did not do these things died early. People who drank heavily, smoked, didn’t exercise and had poor diets at the age of 60 had the same risk of dying as someone with a healthy lifestyle who was 74. You can add up to 14 years to your life by doing simple things to take care of your brain and your body.
11. Notice What You Love about Your Life, a Lot More Than What You Don’t.
I once did a study with psychologist Noelle Nelson on the power of appreciation. I scanned her twice: once when she was focused on what she loved about her life, and then again while she focused on what she hated about her life. The scans were radically different. The loving scan looked healthy, while the hateful scan showed decreased activity in several important areas of her brain, involving emotions and memory.
Other studies too have found that focusing on negative thoughts changes the brain in a negative way. Creativity, learning, and imagination all go DOWN with negative emotion; while focusing on positive, happy, hopeful thoughts helps both the brain and you work better.
Here is a simple exercise: write down 5 things you are grateful for EVERYDAY and then meditate on these things throughout the day. This exercise has been shown in scientific studies to increase your overall level of happiness in just three weeks.
12. Notice What You Love about Other People, a Lot More Than What You Don’t.
I collect penguins. I now have over 2,000 penguins. I have penguin anything that you can imagine, from penguin pens, cups, dolls, puppets, hats, ties, shirts, sewing kits, a penguin vacuum, and even a penguin weathervane. Many people ask me how this obsession started.
When my son was 7 years old I took him to a place called Sea Life Park in Hawaii. It is a sea animal park. At the end of the day I took Antony to see the Fat Freddy show.
Freddy was an amazing short, fat penguin. On cue, he dove from a high diving board, bowled with his nose, counted with his flippers and jumped through a hoop of fire. Toward the end of the show the trainer asked Freddy to go get something. Freddy went and got it and brought it right back. Damn, I though to myself, “I ask this kid to get me something and he wants to have a discussion with me for 20 minutes and then he doesn’t want to do it. I knew my son was smarter than the penguin.”
So, after the show I went up to the trainer and asked her how she got Freddy to do all of those really cool things. The trainer looked at my son and then she looked at me and said “Unlike parents, whenever Freddy does anything like what I want him to do, I notice him. I give him a hug and I give him a fish.” Even though my son didn’t like raw fish the light turned on in my head that whenever he did things that I liked, I paid no attention to him at all because I was a busy guy. But when he didn’t do what I wanted him to do, I gave him a ton of attention because I didn’t want to raise bad children. I was inadvertently teaching him to be a little monster in order to get my attention. So I collect penguins as a way to remind myself to notice the good things about the people in my life a lot more than the bad things. Penguins might also help you.
There are many ways to optimize your brain and your mind. You CAN create a brain healthy life by learning how to love and care for your brain, and by focusing on what you love about your life a lot more than what you don’t. PASS IT ON. One of the most important things I have learned in my life is that best way to help ourselves is to help others. Take what you have learned here to develop your brain healthy life and teach it to others. By creating brain healthy families, businesses and communities ALL of us benefit.