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THE BRAIN-BODY SOLUTION
Ten Basic Principles to Change Your Brain and Your Body
Develop brain envy.
Loving your brain is the first step toward getting the body you want.
Over the years, I have personally had ten brain SPECT scans to check on the health of my own brain. Looking back, my earliest scan, taken when I was thirty-seven, showed a toxic, bumpy appearance that was definitely not consistent with great brain function. Initially, I didn’t understand why. All my life, I have been someone who rarely drank alcohol, never smoked, and never used an illegal drug. So why did my brain look so bad? Before I understood about brain health, I had many bad brain habits. I practically lived on fast food and diet sodas, worked like a nut, rarely got more than four or five hours of sleep at night, and didn’t exercise much. My weight was fifteen pounds above where I wanted it, and I struggled with arthritis and had trouble getting off the floor when I played with my children. At thirty-seven, I just thought I was getting older.
My most recent brain scan at age fifty-two 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’m teaching you and what I’ve been preaching to my patients for years. In doing so, I got more than just a better-looking brain. I also feel more energetic, look healthier, have lost weight, and have better body tone, no arthritis, and smoother-looking skin.
In this chapter, you will find ten basic principles that explain why it is essential to love and nurture your brain in order to have your best body possible. These are the same principles that underlie our work at the Amen Clinics, where we have helped thousands of people learn to love their brains in order to improve their bodies.
TEN PRINCIPLES TO CHANGE YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR BODY
1. Your brain is involved in everything you do.
2. When your brain works right, your body looks and feels better. When your brain is troubled, you have trouble with how you look and feel.
3. The brain is the most complex organ in the universe. Respect it.
4. Your brain is very soft and housed in a really hard skull. Protect it.
5. The brain has only so much reserve. The more reserve you have, the healthier you are. The less reserve, the more vulnerable you are.
6. Specific parts of your brain are involved in certain behaviors. Trouble in specific parts of your brain tends to cause certain behavior problems. Understanding your brain can help you optimize it.
7. Many things hurt the brain and make it harder for you to get the body you’ve always wanted. Many things help the brain and make it easier to get and keep a body you love.
8. Brain imaging gives great insight into healing the brain so you can have a better body.
9. One prescription does not work for everyone—we are all unique, and you need to understand how your own personal brain functions.
10. Yes, you can change your brain and body!
Your brain is involved in everything you do.
Your brain controls everything you do, feel, and think. When you look in the mirror, you can thank your brain for what you see. Ultimately, it is your brain that determines whether your belly bulges over your belt buckle or your waistline is trim and toned. Your brain plays the central role in whether your skin looks fresh and dewy or is etched with wrinkles. Whether you wake up feeling energetic or groggy depends on your brain. When you head to the kitchen to make breakfast, it is your brain that determines whether you go for the leftover pizza or the low-fat yogurt and fruit. Your brain controls whether you hit the gym or sit at the computer to check your Facebook page. If you feel the need to light up a cigarette or drink a couple cups of java, that’s also your brain’s doing.
The moment-by-moment functioning of your brain is responsible for the way you think, feel, eat, exercise, and even for the way you make love. The impact of the brain on your body goes even deeper than that. It is at the core of your very health and well-being. Whether you live a long healthy life, suffer from a debilitating condition, or have your days cut short by a terrible disease, your brain is at the center of it all. In fact, researchers from the University of Cambridge, England, found that when people made bad decisions with their brains, they took fourteen years off their life spans. People who drank heavily, smoked, didn’t exercise, and had poor diets at the age of sixty had the same risk of dying as someone with a healthy lifestyle who was seventy-four. The decisions your brain makes can steal or add many years to your life!
When your brain works right, your body looks and feels better.
When your brain is troubled, you have trouble with how you look and feel.
A healthy brain makes it so much easier for you to have your best body possible. When your brain is working at optimal levels, you are more likely to stick to a diet, follow an exercise routine, and adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors. That adds up to a slimmer, trimmer body, a more youthful appearance, brighter skin, better immunity, fewer headaches, less back pain, and improved health.
On the other hand, a troubled brain often leads to trouble with your body. That’s right, extra pounds, wrinkles, chronic pain, and health conditions can be linked to the way your brain functions. Making poor food choices, blowing off the gym, and engaging in unhealthy behaviors are more common when your brain isn’t working at its best.
Jack, a fifty-two-year-old divorced engineer, is five feet ten inches tall and weighs close to 260 pounds. He tries to diet, but just can’t stick to it. Every morning, Jack wakes up with the intention of eating healthfully that day, but he never gets around to planning his day’s meals or stocking the refrigerator. When lunchtime rolls around, he’s starving and stops at the first fast-food restaurant he can find, where he orders a cheeseburger and fries. After coming home from work, he gazes into an empty refrigerator and then calls the local pizza delivery place for dinner.
With three young children, a demanding job, and a strained marriage, Megan appears older than her forty-three years. She’d love to recapture a more youthful look, but hasn’t been able to do it with the creams and lotions from the cosmetics counter. She rarely gets more than a few hours of sleep at night and whenever she’s depressed, stressed, mad, or sad, she seeks refuge in a cigarette and a glass of wine—or two or three or four glasses of wine, or maybe even the whole bottle. Smoking and drinking calms down her nerves and makes her feel better—temporarily.
Sarah is twenty-eight years old and would love to have a better body. Although she isn’t technically overweight, she wants to tone and tighten the 135 pounds she carries on her five-foot-six-inch frame. She knows that exercise could help her achieve her goals, but she just can’t seem to muster up enough energy or motivation to hit the gym. Sarah also struggles with feelings of anxiety and nervousness and is constantly thinking of what can go wrong in her life.
For years, Jack, Megan, and Sarah have been chalking up their problems to a simple lack of willpower or laziness, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Their inability to get the body they want lies within their brains. Jack’s lack of planning and poor follow-through are common signs of low activity in an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of the brain that is involved with planning, goal setting, forethought, impulse control, and follow-through. When this area isn’t functioning at the proper level, it makes it very hard to be successful.
Smoking or drinking to calm emotions, which is keeping Megan from getting the youthful look she wants, may signal excessive activity in the deep limbic system of the brain. This part of the brain is involved in setting your emotional tone. When it is less active, there is generally a positive, hopeful state of mind. When it is heated up or overactive, negativity and feelings of depression or sadness can take over, making you look for solace in nicotine, alcohol, or drugs.
Sarah’s energy is drained by anxiety and worry, which may indicate a problem in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. Located toward the center of the brain, the basal ganglia are involved with integrating feelings, thoughts, and motivation. When there is high activity in this area, it can cause problems with anxiety and may drain people of their energy and get-up-and-go.
What Jack, Megan, and Sarah show us is that your brain heavily influences your behavior and your body. Your brain can either help you have a better body or make it more difficult for you to have a body you love.
The brain is the most complex organ in the universe. Respect it.
The brain is the most complicated, amazing, special organ in the universe. Your brain weighs only about three pounds, but it is more powerful than even the most sophisticated supercomputer. Even though it represents only about 2 percent of your body’s weight, your brain uses about 25 percent of the calories you consume, 25 percent of the total blood flow in your body, and 20 percent of the oxygen you breathe. The calories, blood flow, and oxygen feed the cells inside your brain.
It is estimated that the brain contains more than one hundred billion nerve cells, which is about the number of stars in the Milky Way. Each nerve cell is connected to other nerve cells by thousands of individual connections between cells. In fact, it is estimated that there are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the universe! If you take a single piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand, it contains a hundred thousand nerve cells and a billion connections—all “talking” to one another. Information in your brain travels at speeds of up to 268 miles per hour, faster than the race cars in the Indy 500, unless of course you are drunk—then things really slow down. When we do full-body scans, the brain is lit up like a little heater while the rest of the body appears ghostlike. Your brain is the organ of your personality, character, and intelligence and is heavily involved in making you who you are.
Your brain is very soft and housed in a really hard skull. Protect it.
If you are like most people, you probably think your brain is firm and rubbery. In reality, your brain is very soft. Composed of about 80 percent water, its consistency can be compared to soft butter, custard, or tofu—somewhere between raw egg whites and Jell-O. To protect your soft brain, it is housed in a really hard skull filled with fluid. Inside your skull are a number of bony edges and ridges. Some of these ridges are as sharp as knives and in the event of a head injury or trauma can damage your soft brain. Your brain was not meant for your head to be hitting soccer balls, playing tackle football, boxing, or participating in Ultimate Fighting Championships. Brain trauma is much more common than you think. Each year, two million new brain injuries are reported, and millions more go unreported. Brain injuries not only damage your brain, they can ruin your body.
If you think brain injury means only serious injuries like flying through the windshield of a car or falling off the roof onto your head, you are wrong. It doesn’t have to be a “serious” injury to have serious consequences for your body and your health. After viewing more than 55,000 brain scans, it has become very clear to me that what many people think of as mild trauma can have a significantly negative effect on people’s brains and can significantly change their lives and their ability to look and feel their best. Many times, these injuries go unnoticed, in part because mental health professionals never look at brain function.
Studies show that people who have suffered brain injuries, even mild ones, often experience emotional, behavioral, or cognitive problems. When you have trouble thinking or reasoning, you can’t make the best decisions for your body. Suffering a brain injury is also associated with a higher incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse—both of which lead to premature aging, possible weight problems, potentially devastating health conditions, and homelessness. Protect your brain.
The brain has only so much reserve.
The more reserve you have, the healthier you are.
The less reserve, the more vulnerable you are.
Think about your family, friends, and coworkers. When there’s a crisis, do some of them completely fall apart—racing for the candy bowl, reaching for a pack of cigarettes, or searching for solace in drugs and alcohol—while others manage to soldier on with their lives in a healthy way? Have you ever wondered why that is? I have. In my work, I have noticed that stressful events, such as the loss of a loved one, layoffs at work, or divorce can lead to depression, changes in weight, a lack of motivation to exercise, and bad daily habits in some people but not in others.
After looking at brain scans for nearly twenty years, I have come to believe that these differences have to do with a concept I call brain reserve. Brain reserve is the cushion of healthy brain function we have to deal with stressful events or injuries. The more reserve you have, the better you can cope with the unexpected. The less you have, the harder it is for you to handle tough times and injuries, and the more likely you are to gobble up a bag of Oreo cookies or swig alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Mary and Katie are identical twins. They share the same genes, the same parents, and the same upbringing. Yet their lives—and looks—are very different. Mary, who is very fit, is a successful journalist in a long-term happy marriage with three great children. Katie, who is overweight, barely finished high school, suffered with depression and a bad temper, and went from job to job and relationship to relationship. Their lives and looks are nothing alike.
From the Hardcover edition.