Dr Daniel Amen, who spoke about the importance of maintaining a healthy brain for everyone, not just those with psychiatric or mental health issues, explained the brain is involved in every aspect of our lives. From our thoughts and emotions to our actions and relationships, our brain is the organ that governs it all.
Speaking on the Diary of a CEO Podcast, Dr Amen said when our brain is functioning properly, we are able to function optimally in all areas of our lives.
He said: “How you think, how you feel, how you act, how you get along with other people. Your brain is the organ of intelligence, character and every single decision that you make.”
However, Dr Amen said when our brain is troubled, whether due to factors like mould, Covid, head trauma, lack of sleep, or chronic stress, it can lead to negative consequences such as sadness, poor health, financial struggles, and decreased success.
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Dr Amen went on to discuss the “eleven major risk factors that steal your mind”, using the pneumonic BRIGHT MINDS. Each letter represents a different risk factor that can have a detrimental effect on our brain health.
The first risk factor, represented by the letter B, is blood flow. He said: “Low blood flow is the number one brain imaging predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. How do you get low blood flow? Caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, having a sedentary lifestyle, and being overweight.”
Dr Amen also highlighted the negative impacts of caffeine on the brain. While a small amount of caffeine is generally considered fine, excessive consumption can have adverse effects. He explained: “It increases cortisol, you don’t want to increase cortisol, it puts fat around your belly. It shrinks your hippocampus.”
Additionally, caffeine constricts blood flow by 30 percent, providing a false sense of energy while blocking the chemical signals that indicate the need for sleep. This often results in a reliance on caffeine and a “bad cycle” of sleep deprivation.
Moving on to the other risk factors, Dr Amen explains retirement and aging, represented by the letter R, can prematurely age the brain.
He said: “You want to prematurely age your brain? Drop out of school. Do not engage in new learning…” Engaging in continuous learning and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle are crucial for maintaining brain health. Loneliness is also a “risk factor” for dementia, Dr Amen explained: “So be an a*s and you’re more likely to hurt your brain… If you’re not an a**hole you’re less likely to be lonely, and loneliness is terrible for brain function.”
He also said eating a lot of red meat can “prematurely age your brain” because “ferritin, which is stored in iron, tends to age the brain”.
The letter I in the pneumonic represents inflammation, which Dr Amen said is “a root cause of so many medical and mental health issues.” Neglecting dental hygiene and developing gum disease can contribute to inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, depression, and dementia.
Dr Amen said: “So if you want to love your brain, you have to love your mouth. It’s absolutely critical for you not to have gum disease, but if you have gingivitis, odds are you’re at increased risk for heart disease and depression and dementia. It’s fascinating.”
He also advised eating more fish, as “people who have grilled or baked fish once a week have more grey matter in their brain”.
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The G in BRIGHT MINDS stands for genetics. While genes play a role in our health, Dr Amen stresses it is our lifestyle choices that ultimately determine our brain’s fate.
He explained: “Like I have obesity and heart disease in my family, but I’m not overweight and I don’t have heart disease. Why? I’m on an obesity, heart disease prevention programme every day of my life. Because genes load the gun, it’s what happens to us and what we choose to do that pulls the trigger.”
Head trauma, represented by the letter H, is another risk factor. Engaging in high-impact sports like football, soccer, rugby, and boxing, as well as texting while walking, can increase the likelihood of brain injuries.
Toxins, denoted by the letter T, can also harm the brain. Dr Amen cautions against perceiving alcohol and marijuana as “innocuous” substances. He said: “Let’s not say it’s [marijuana] good for us. Because teenagers who use have an increased risk of anxiety, depression, suicide and psychosis. That’s not ok.”
Another risk for the brain and toxins is general anaesthesia. Dr Amen explained: You want to damage your brain? Undergo general anaesthesia for plastic surgery over and over again. General anaesthesia is bad for the brain.
“Never read the ingredients on your personal product labels because you know there’s an epidemic of low testosterone in young males. It’s because we’re poisoning them.”
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The letter M represents mental health. Dr Amen emphasised the importance of challenging negative thoughts and avoiding a pessimistic mindset, as negativity increases stress and decreases activity in the cerebellum.
The second I in BrightMinds is immunity and infections. Dr Amen said: “Low vitamin D, which occurs in about 60 per cent of the population, is associated virtually with every bad thing, including a smaller brain.
“So if you want to have a smaller brain, never go in the sun, never test your vitamin D level, and never take a supplement… People who take a vitamin D supplement have 40 per cent decreased risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.”
Neurohormone issues, denoted by the letter N, play a significant role in brain health according to Dr Amen. Hormone imbalances can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, and other illnesses. The brain’s functioning is closely intertwined with hormone production and regulation.
Finally, the letter D represents “diabesity,” a combination of diabetes and obesity. Both conditions can decrease brain size and function. Diabetes damages blood vessels and wreaks havoc throughout the body and brain, leading to conditions like Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, stroke, and hypertension. Research also suggests that being overweight or obese in midlife is associated with a higher risk of dementia later in life.
Dr Amen emphasised the importance of caring for our brain and avoiding factors that harm it. He said the first step to having a healthy brain is “you gotta care about it.”
He continued: “Step two, you have to avoid things that hurt it. You just sort of have to know the list. Step three is to engage in regular brain healthy habits, again you just have to know a list.”
He said: “People who have a fat-based diet, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, healthy fish, healthy oils, have 42 per cent less risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. People who have a simple carbohydrate-based diet – so most of the stuff in the gas station, bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, fruit juice, and sugar – the standard American diet, have a 400 per cent increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a study from the Mayo clinic.”
Dr Amen added he thinks of four circles when it comes to people. These are
- biology, the physical functioning of the brain and body
- psychology, how the mind is working and their thoughts
- social, what’s happening in people’s lives, how their relationships, job and money are
- spiritual, what someone’s deeper sense of meaning and purpose is.
He said: “I think assessing those four circles and working always to optimise them at the same time is critical for you being a whole, healthy person.”
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