Daniel Amen explains why understanding and optimizing your brain is essential in your quest for a better body.
I live in Newport Beach, California. We have often been called the plastic society, because we have more plastic walking around our streets and beaches than almost anywhere else in the world. One of my friends says that God will never flood Newport Beach because all of the women will float. Most people throughout the world, not just in Newport Beach, care more about their faces, boobs, bellies, butts, and abs than they do their brains. But it is your brain that is the key to having the face, breasts, belly, butt, abs, and overall health you have always wanted; and it is brain dysfunction, in large part, that ruins our bodies and causes premature aging.
It is your brain that decides to get you out of bed in the morning to exercise, to give you a stronger, leaner body, or it is your brain that causes you to hit the snooze button to procrastinate your workout. It is your brain that pushes you away from the table telling you that you have had enough, or it is your brain that gives you permission to have the second bowl of rocky road ice cream, making you look and feel like a blob. It is your brain that manages the stress in your life and relaxes you so that you look vibrant, or it is your brain that when left unchecked, sends stress signals to the rest of your body that wrinkles your skin. And it is your brain that turns away cigarettes, too much caffeine, and alcohol, helping you look and feel healthy, or it is your brain that gives you permission to smoke, to have that third cup of coffee, or to drink that third glass of wine, thus making every system in your body look and feel older.
Your brain is the command and control center of your body. If you want a better body, the first place to ALWAYS start is by having a better brain.
My interest in the brain-body connection started more than 30 years ago. As a college student, my thinking was influenced by the work of O. Carl Simonton, the oncologist who taught people to use visualization to boost their immune system to fight cancer. In medical school, I became trained in the use of medical hypnosis and began to see the powerful effect it can have on healing the body. I personally saw that it was helpful for treating headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, pain, weight loss, insomnia, a Parkinsonian tremor, and heart arrhythmias. I then became trained in a treatment technique called biofeedback and found that when I taught my patients to use their brains to warm their hands or breathe with their bellies, their whole body went into a relaxed state, which was helpful in decreasing stress, lowering blood pressure, and combating headaches.
The Missing Link
It wasn’t until 1991 that I truly started to understand the brain-body connection. That was the year I started the brain-imaging work we do now at the Amen Clinics. We do a study called brain SPECT imaging that looks at blood flow and activity patterns. SPECT stands for single photon emission computed tomography. Unlike MRI and CAT scans, which show the anatomy of the brain, SPECT scans look at how the brain functions.
Looking at the brain has made an enormous difference in both my professional and personal life. At the time I ordered my first scan I had been a psychiatrist for nearly a decade, and I realized that I didn’t have all the information I needed to provide the very best treatment for my patients. When I scanned my first patient I was excited to discover that the SPECT scans gave me critical information about brain function that I could not ascertain just by talking to the patient. The scans helped me and my colleagues be better healers.
Since 1991, the Amen Clinics have performed more than 54,000 brain scans, more than any organization in the world. Analyzing scans in the context of individual patient histories has helped us better diagnose and treat our patients for a wide variety of problems, such as ADD, depression, anxiety, anger, learning problems, memory problems, brain injuries, and addictions. In addition, I have discovered that when I improved my patients’ brain functions, I also helped to improve their bodies and overall life.
I saw dramatic evidence of this a few years ago when I created a home study course for treating anxiety and depression. To test the course, we enlisted the help of 90 people to take part in the pilot program. The results were astounding. As I expected, most of the individuals experienced significant improvement in their levels of anxiety and depression. But that’s not all. A number of the people told us that by following the 12-week program, they also lost 20-to-30 pounds. This surprising result showed us that when people help their brains, they help their bodies, and they were finally able to lose the weight they had been trying to shed for years.
Our brain imaging work opened a new window into why people do what they do. It provided the missing link and allowed people to see what was going on in their brains, so they could do things to improve their brain and their bodies.
Take a close look at yourself in the mirror. If your skin seems dry, you reach for the moisturizer. Spot a pimple and you dab it with a bit of acne medication. Notice a few split ends and you call the hairdresser for a haircut. If you live in Newport Beach, and you detect a few wrinkles, you call a doctor and make an appointment for Botox. Basically, whenever you see a problem with your body, you try to fix it yourself or get professional help to take care of it. But most people never even think about the health of their brain, because they cannot see it. Many of us are walking around with a brain that could use some serious help, but we don’t know it, so we don’t do anything to fix it. This is at the heart, or should I say brain, of the problem. Let’s look at an example of a healthy brain and a troubled brain.
In a healthy brain, there is full, even, symmetrical activity, with the most intensity in the back of the brain, in an area called the cerebellum. In troubled brains, you will see areas that are working too hard or areas that aren’t working hard enough. For example, Anna’s 82-year-old brain was very healthy and looked like a brain of someone 30 years younger. Her brain scan showed full, even, symmetrical activity. Anna was not on any medications and was a loving wife of 58 years, mother, and grandmother. She was sharp, energetic, had a lot of intellectual curiosity, and was active in her community and church.
By contrast, Becca, age 44, came to see me for impulsiveness and obesity. She supported 200 pounds on her five-foot frame and had tried many times without success to lose weight. When we scanned her, she had very low activity in the prefrontal cortex, located in the front part of her brain, likely from a car accident in childhood. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and impulse control. When treated to enhance activity in her prefrontal cortex, her impulsiveness significantly diminished and she was able to stay on a brain and body healthy program that helped her lose 80 pounds over the next two years.
Our brain imaging work taught me that impulsiveness is not just a lack of willpower or a bad attitude, a belief shared by 95 percent of the population. We could actually see that many people had low activity in the front part of their brain, whether it was from a brain injury, toxic exposure, or an inherited problem like attention deficit disorder or ADD. And when we fixed the problem, we found that these people were better able to stay on the diet and health plans they needed for a better body.
Additionally, after looking at the brain, I no longer thought that compulsiveness was just from rigid people who were overcontrolling. I could see that the front part of their brain worked too hard. When we calmed down this part of the brain with supplements or medications, people were less likely to overeat or be under chronic stress.
Looking at the brain changed everything I did and taught me that in order to change your body, you MUST first change your brain. Understanding and optimizing your brain is often the missing link to being successful in your quest for a better body.
Your Brain Can Change Your Body
The connection between your brain and body is truly amazing. Here are three examples.
1. My first wife, Robbin, and I tried for several years to have our third child. Robbin had a child from a previous marriage, Antony, whom I adopted, and we had already had a child together, Breanne. But this time it just wasn’t happening. She even sent me to the urologist with the little plastic cup to get checked out. Not my idea of fun.
Then one day, I was at home with Breanne, now 4, and Antony, 9, while Robbin was away at school. It was about 6:00 p.m. when Breanne heard the sound of something crying. We looked all around the house but couldn’t find anything. Then I noticed that the lonely cries were coming from the attic. I got the ladder and a flashlight and crawled into the attic where I found a kitten just a few hours old, abandoned by her mother, with her eyes still sticky shut, crying weakly.
When I brought the kitten down, the children were so excited. I called the local vet, who told me the baby was not likely to live and I should just drown her in a bucket of water. With two young children looking up at me with excited faces, I told the vet that he needed to give me another plan or I was going to be in big trouble. Reluctantly, he told me how to stimulate her to go to the bathroom with a warm, wet cotton swab (that was a new one for me), gave me the name of a baby kitten formula I could get at the pet store, and told me to keep her warm under a lamp – but there was no hope.
When Robbin got home, all of her maternal instincts went into overdrive. She cared for the kitten, dreamed about her, and got up frequently at night to check on her. Ipo, the kitten, thrived, and within three weeks Robbin was pregnant! Her maternal instincts changed the receptivity of her body.
2. Larry and I worked together at my father’s grocery store chain when we were teenagers. I have seen him again periodically through the years at various business and family functions. On the last occasion, my father’s 80th birthday celebration, Larry now looked 20 years older than his age of 54. His hair was stark white; his skin was wrinkled and had an ashen tone. His daughter had died of cancer 10 years earlier and his wife had died of the same cancer the year before. The mountain of stress he had been under took a noticeably negative toll on his body.
3. On a recent trip for my public television show, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, I went back to the station in Atlanta where I had been a number of times before. The fundraising director, Alicia Steele, picked me up at the hotel for an on-air appearance. This time Alicia looked different. She looked younger and more vibrant. When I asked her what she was doing, she said that since she had met me she was eating right, taking fish oil, drinking less alcohol, and was better at handling the stresses in her life. She had taken the extended version of my brain system questionnaire, found on our website, and discovered that her prefrontal cortex was likely low in activity, so she started taking the supplement SAMe with great effect. In fact, she told me that she had also dropped 15 pounds. She was also getting her husband to exercise. That week at her station there had been a death in the family of her producer, which had really upset the schedule. Usually, she told me, an event like that would have made her cry. Now, she knew she could adapt to the changes and get rid of any automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that tried to steal her happiness. As she changed her brain, her body, her life, and even her family were much improved.
The story of our kitten highlights that when a woman acts maternal, chemical changes in the brain send signals to the body making it more likely for her to conceive. Larry’s story illustrates that when someone is under a mountain of stress, it will likely have a very negative impact on his body. And, Alicia’s story teaches us that when you combat stress and get on a brain healthy program specific to your own brain, you will look and feel younger. Think about this concept for a moment. You can change your brain and subsequently change your body. You can harness the power of your brain to create the body you want!
One Prescription Does Not Work For Everyone
Alicia’s story highlights a very important point. One prescription does not fit everyone. This is why most weight loss programs don’t work. All of us need individualized or personalized prescriptions based on our own brain types and needs. Since Alicia likely had low activity in her prefrontal cortex, in the front part of her brain, she needed more stimulating interventions, such as the supplement SAMe. For people who have too much activity in the front part of the brain, they tend to do better with interventions that are calming and boost the neurotransmitter serotonin, such as the supplement 5HTP. Using SAMe with people who have high prefrontal cortex activity usually makes them more anxious. Knowing how your own specific brain works is critical to getting the help that will work for you.
Welcome to the Brain-Body Connection
In the past few decades, scientists and medical professionals have been exploring and researching what they’ve termed the “mind-body connection.” A mounting body of scientific evidence supports the concept that your mind has a very powerful influence on your appearance, your mood, your stress levels, and your overall health. In fact, a whole new branch of alternative medicine has emerged that focuses on the interactions of the mind and body.
One question people often ask me is whether the mind is separate from the brain. The answer, after looking at more than 54,000 brain scans over the past 20 years, is NO. The mind and the brain are completely dependent upon each other. Just think about Alzheimer’s disease, which is clearly a brain illness. Do people with Alzheimer’s disease lose their minds? Yes, they do as the disease progresses. When you lose brain tissue, you lose your memory and your ability to think rationally.
Or, let’s consider brain trauma. Becca’s scan showed damage to her prefrontal cortex. Damage the brain and you damage the mind and most everything else in your life, including your body. When I improved Becca’s brain, her mind and body were so much better.
Take Advantage of the Brain-Body Connection
I’m assuming there are things you’d like to change about your body. Maybe you’d like to tighten your tummy, have younger-looking skin, boost your energy level, stop getting so many colds, reduce the number of headaches you get, or lower your blood pressure without having to take medicine. Like most people, you probably know what you have to do in order to achieve your goals, but you simply don’t do it. Why not? Because you aren’t taking care of your brain. If you want to lose the love handles, you need to improve the function of your frontal lobes. If you want to say goodbye to all those headaches, you have to calm your brain. And if you want to turn back the clock on your skin’s appearance, you have to start by rejuvenating your brain.
I offer 15 solutions to help you boost your brain so you can get and keep the body you have always wanted. They all begin by learning to love your brain and understanding how it affects your body. I think you deserve to have a brain and body you love. Don’t you?
Adapted from Change Your Brain, Change Your Body by Daniel Amen, Copyright © 2010 by Harmony Books.
© 2012 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies