There are certain body parts you just don’t look at much. Or ever, in the case of your brain. But just because all that grey matter is out of sight, doesn’t mean it should be out of, er, mind. Dr. Amen is a medical doctor and psychiatrist with a unique perspective on brain health. A leading proponent for the use of brain imaging in clinical practice, Dr. Amen is changing our understanding about how what we eat, how we care for our health, and even how we think affects our health.
We’re fascinated by his research and clinical use of brain scan imagery to both identify and treat a wide array of conditions like ADD, PTSD, hormone imbalance and even brain injury. Much of what Dr. Amen is finding effective, as shown in the scans, are the tenets of natural medicine and healthful living that so many of us ascribe to.
We love Dr. Amen for bringing the results of this kind of research to the masses, especially through best-selling books like Use Your Brain to Change Your Age and The Amen Solution. If you’re ready to nerd out on just how meaningful positive thinking and healthy eating are to your health, these are both incredible reads. In this excerpt from his most recent book, a collaborative work called The Daniel Plan, Dr. Amen is pinpointing the signs of an aging or overloaded brain. Find out what they are and start learning about how your brain functions and how to keep it in vibrant health from one of our health heroes, Dr. Amen…
Your brain is the most amazing organ in the universe. Even though it is only 2% of your body’s weight, it uses 20-30% of the calories you consume, and 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in your body. It is the most expensive real estate in your body that requires the most resources. It has 100 billion nerve cells and more connections in it than there are stars in the universe. Your brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, is the organ of judgment, personality, character, and every single decision you make. When your brain works right, you work right, and when your brain is troubled you are much more likely to have trouble in your life. With a healthy brain, people are happier and physically healthier, because they make better decisions, they are wealthier (because they make better decisions – are you beginning to see a pattern?), and more successful in every area of life. When the brain is not healthy, for whatever reason, people are sadder, sicker, poorer, and less successful.
It is your brain that pushes you away from the table telling you that you have had enough, or gives you permission to have the third bowl of ice cream that makes you look and feel like a blob. If you want a better body, the first step is to strive to have a healthier brain. Ultimately, boosting brain health is about three specific strategies: 1) brain envy – you have to passionately care about your brain, 2) avoid anything that hurts it, and 3) regularly engage in habits that boost its health. Let’s unpack these three concepts.
Brain envy is a term I coined after looking at tens of thousands of brain SPECT scans on patients at the Amen Clinics. A brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. A healthy scan shows full, even symmetrical activity. From this research, it was very clear that healthy SPECT scans were associated with people who made smarter decisions and acted in a way to bring health and goodness into their lives. Yet few people ever really care about their brains. We let little kids hit soccer balls with their heads, do dangerous gymnastic routines, or play tackle football. Our society cheers at Ultimate Fighting matches, and for big NFL hits, now known to cause lasting brain damage.
So why don’t we care more about our brains? Because most people never see their brains. You can see the wrinkles in your face or the fat around your belly and do something when you don’t like how they look, but the brain is different. When you look at the brain through the lens of brain imaging studies like SPECT, all of a sudden everything changes. You can see if yours is healthy and continue on the same path or you can see when it is troubled and do something about it.
Since most people will not have the opportunity to look at their own brains, here are seven warning signs your brain may be in trouble. If you have any of these, it is time to develop brain envy and start taking much better care of your brain.
7 warning signs your brain may be in trouble
If your memory is worse than it was 10 years ago, you need to be concerned. It is a sign your brain is struggling.
Poor judgment/ impulsivity:
If you struggle with poor judgment or impulsive behavior your brain may be troubled.
Short attention span/ distractibility:
In order to obtain long-term success in anything you do, it is important to be able to stay focused on the task at hand. Having a short attention span or being easily distracted is often a sign of brain dysfunction, meaning it is time to start taking better care of it.
From time to time all of us feel sad, but when sad or depressed feelings persist, it is called clinical depression, and usually associated with lower activity in the brain. Boosting brain function often has a very positive effect on mood.
Overweight or obese:
New research shows that as a person’s weight goes up above the healthy range, the actual physical size of the brain decreases. In studies at the Amen Clinics, researchers have found that as your weight goes up, your ability to think and reason also go down, which means that over time if you don’t get your weight under control, it will become harder and harder for you to use your own good judgment to get healthy.
Another sign of brain dysfunction is low energy. When people feel physically tired it is often due to low brain function.
Chronic insomnia/sleep apnea:
Another sign that your brain may be in trouble is a lack of sleep or having sleep apnea. Research suggests that people who get less than seven hours of sleep at night have lower overall blood flow to the brain and poorer cognitive functioning. Sleep apnea (snoring loudly, stopping breathing at night, or feeling chronically tired during the day) increases a person’s risk for obesity, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have insomnia or sleep apnea, it is critical to get them under control.
If you have any of these symptoms now is the time to develop brain envy, to really become passionate about having a better brain.
After brain envy, the next step to boost brain health is to avoid anything that hurts the brain. Illegal drugs, too much alcohol, brain trauma, environmental toxins and infections are obvious. Over the last decade it has been discovered that a poor diet, especially one high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Hypertension, diabetes, high blood-sugar levels, chemotherapy, and obesity can all damage the brain and lead to smaller brain volume and poorer cognitive abilities. This means that over time, if you do not get your diet, weight, diabetes or hypertension under control, you are likely to make poorer and poorer decisions. Untreated depression, excessive stress, low hormone levels, such as thyroid or testosterone, and a lack of exercise also hurt the brain. Of note: Excessive exercise hurts the brain too.
The last step to boosting brain health is to engage in regular brain-healthy habits, including moderate physical exercise, new learning, an amazing nutrition plan and simple supplements, such as a multiple vitamin/mineral complex and omega-3 fatty acids. These things are outlined in my new book, The Daniel Plan. Being at a healthy weight, being physically healthy, and getting adequate sleep also enhances brain function, as does regular prayer and having stress management practices.
We think of the brain like a computer that has both hardware and software. Once you’ve done the work to optimize the physical functioning of the brain (its hardware), it is then important to optimize your mind (the software). Both the hardware and the software is key to a healthy brain and a healthy life.