“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Our guest today is legendary brain health expert, social media phenomenon, and 12-time New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Daniel Amen.
Dr. Amen’s mission is to end mental illness by creating a revolution in brain health. He’s a physician, adult and child psychiatrist, and founder of Amen Clinics with 11 locations across the US – including the one we’re sitting in right now.
Amen Clinics has the world’s largest database of brain scans for psychiatry totaling more than 200,000 scans on patients from 155 countries.
Dr. Amen has produced 16 national TV shows about the brain, and his online videos on brain and mental health have amassed 300 million views. He has worked with some of the world’s most recognized entertainers, including Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Bella Hadid, and Kendall Jenner, as well as Olympic gold medalists, billion-dollar CEOs, and leading sports organizations.
He’s also the founder of: BrainMD, the science-based nutraceutical company; Amen University, which has trained thousands of medical and mental health professionals; and the Change Your Brain Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to brain health research, education and patient support.
His new book Change Your Brain Every Day was released in March 2023.
In this episode, we talk with Dr. Amen about:
- The problem with the traditional model of mental health diagnosis and treatment;
- The most effective ways to improve brain health;
- What you can do to overcome addiction, anxiety, cognitive decline, and genetic risks; and
- Brain health secrets to help you achieve happiness, success, and purpose.
Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.
Let’s WIN THE DAY with the legend, Dr. Daniel Amen!
Dr. Amen, great to see you. Thanks so much for coming on the Win the Day show and having me here in your clinic today!
Dr. Daniel Amen:
Well, thank you for helping me spread the message of brain health, because people don't think about it. I'm grateful to have you here.
What's the problem with the traditional model of mental health diagnosis and treatment?
It’s a shit-show. Our outcomes in psychiatry are no better than they were in the 1950s, and we should be ashamed of that.
In fact, we still make diagnoses, and I'm not kidding when I say this, as they did in 1840, when Abraham Lincoln was depressed. Lincoln had serious problems with depression. He was actually suicidal twice in his life.
In the winter of 1840, so that's 183 years ago, his friends took his knives from him, because they were worried about him. They brought him to the local doctor, whose name was Anson Henry. How did Dr. Henry diagnose Lincoln with melancholia, or what we now call major depression? He talked to him, he looked at him, looked for symptom clusters and then diagnosed and treated him.
In fact, we still make diagnoses as they did in 1840, when Abraham Lincoln was depressed.
That is exactly what's happening in most psychiatric offices in 2023. Psychiatrists make diagnoses based on symptom clusters with no biological data, then they prescribe powerful medicines that change the brain to need them in order for you to feel normal. It's a complete shit-show.
About 32 years ago, I started looking at the brain and it changed everything I did as a psychiatrist. It changed how I diagnosed people, it changed how I treated people. I hate the term ‘mental illness’ because it shames people, it stigmatizes people and it's wrong. These are brain health issues that steal people's minds.
Context is everything. If you could see that someone has been damaged or doesn't have optimal brain health, it's going to give you context in terms of how you respond and actually interact with that person on a daily level rather than being so quick to judge or condemn that person.
I do a series on Instagram called Scan My Brain, where we take influential people, scan them, and then we put it out there. They're willing, obviously. Troy Glaus was the 2002 World Series MVP. He's 6'5", and he was drinking way too much, he was depressed, and had really dark thoughts.
I guess this is 15 months ago now. I scanned him and could see he was damaged. He had four concussions, he's drinking too much, his emotional brain was working way too hard. He's a mess, but he does what I ask him to do to get his brain healthy. He stops drinking, he eats better, he exercises more, he stops believing every stupid thing he thinks, he takes supplements.
You are not stuck with the brain you have.
Two months later, his brain's better. Well, how exciting is that? You are not stuck with the brain you have. Well, I just did his third scan today and it's better still. I know if we keep going on this path, his brain's going to just be normal and he's not going to end up with dementia. His family's better.
It doesn't start with, "You have a mental illness," it starts with, "Your brain is hurt. Let's get your brain better and then your life can be better."
You mentioned thoughts there. A lot of people associate their identity to the thoughts they're having. What can people do to separate the thoughts that they have with their current reality and the actions they take as a result of what they're thinking?
Thoughts come from all sorts of places. They come from our ancestors, some of them are actually written into our genetic code.
We know, for example, if three generations ago there was a traumatic event, you are at higher risk for anxiety disorders and depression. Thoughts come from the voices of your mother and father, from your siblings, from your friends, from your foes, from the music you listen to or the news you watch. They lie all the time.
You're reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Daniel Amen, including bonus content that doesn't appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀
Just because you have a thought has nothing to do with whether or not it's true, whether or not you should believe it. I call them ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. What you do is you don't attach to them. Instead, you just get curious about them.
It's like, "Oh, that's not a helpful thought." With my wife, I have the same goal every day to be kind, caring, loving, supportive, and passionate in our relationship. I love this woman, but I get the rudest thoughts that pop up in my head and I'm like, "No, no, don't say that!"
No husband would know what you're talking about there!
That will not help. Do not let that get out of your mouth!
You mentioned anxiety there. We know that people are getting unhappier and unhappier, and I know a lot of your work is about letting people enjoy lives a lot more and looking after their brain so they can have a much brighter future.
For anxiety specifically, what can people do to make sure that they're not so much of a victim to that feeling of overwhelming anxiety that can just creep up on them every single day?
Four simple things. First, never leave a situation because you're anxious, because then the anxiety will control you.
Second, breathe for two minutes, three times a day, six minutes. This will save you thousands of dollars in therapy if you do this. It's the 15-second breath for two minutes, so that's eight breaths, four seconds in, hold it for a second and a half, eight seconds out, so double the exhale is the inhale, hold it out for a second and a half, that's 15 seconds, repeat times eight. It just feels like you took a Valium without any side effects. Do that three times a day, your level of anxiety's going to go way down.
Third, whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous or out of control, write down what you're thinking and then just ask yourself if it's true. Learning to kill the ANTs, the Automatic Negative Thoughts, it's miraculous.
I was 28 years old and in my psychiatric residency at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. It's this huge military hospital and I loved it. The professor was teaching us about cognitive behavior therapy and he said, "You have to teach your patients not to believe every stupid thing they think." I'm like, "Well, I believe every stupid thing I think," which caused a lot of suffering because I used to be masterful at predicting, well, what's the worst possible thing that could happen and then I would make it worse still.
When you write the thoughts down and correct them, because I'm not a fan of positive thinking, I'm a fan of accurate thinking with a positive spin, it's just so helpful when you don't have to believe the nonsense your mind generates.
Never leave a situation because you're anxious, because then the anxiety will control you.
My new book is 366 short essays on the most important things I've ever said. It’s basically what would happen if you spent 10 minutes with me every day for a year, what would I teach you? One of the days is give your mind a name. It's based on a concept called gaining psychological distance from the noise in your head.
Stephen Hayes created it and I just love it so much. I interviewed him for my podcast and I'm like, "Well, what name would I give my mind?" It's so clear to me, it came to me instantly, I named my mind after the pet raccoon I had when I was 16. When I was 16, I had a pet raccoon, Hermie, and I loved her. She was beautiful and she was smart, and they make 200 different sounds, but she was a troublemaker, just like my mind. She TP'd my mother's bathroom – that was such a bad day for me! She ate all the fish out of my sister's aquarium one day, it was a bad day.
Is it important to give it a positive name?
It doesn't matter.
Just any name that separates your identity from the thoughts?
Right. What name would you give your mind?
I read a book The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, and a name just randomly popped into me. ‘Austin’ was the name that I gave it, I've no relationship with anyone called Austin! But I used to have a very hard time going to sleep because my brain is just like a beehive, it's just going nonstop.
Then I reached a point when I was able to create that character, where I could say to myself with my eyes closed, "Goodnight, Austin. I'm going to bed now," and I would actually watch him walk away while my eyes were closed. That led to an amazingly peaceful sleep. I still do that to this day, exactly what you just shared there.
I never had a raccoon though!
Well, and now, when my mind's giving me trouble, initially I would put Hermie, I'm like, "You're going in the cage," just to separate. Now I have more love for that part of me and I put her on her back and I tickle her. I play with her just like I played with my raccoon. My mind doesn't bother me because I control it rather than it controls me, but that takes practice. Mental health and brain health, it's a daily practice, just like spiritual health and physical health – it's daily practice. No one teaches you that.
If I think about my 25 years of education, so much of it wasn't helpful. Rather than pour things into my brain, I wish they taught me how to think.
We have a new kindergarten through grade one course, it's called Brain Thrive by Five. It's 30 short videos where we teach children to love and care for their brains. Then we have a high school course, because I think here in the United States they have to take English 12 times to get out of high school, but why aren't you taking brain and mental health 12 times? It is way more important.
Andrew Jackson, one of our presidents, said, "It is only the dull man that can spell things one way." He had lots of creative spelling.
The school curriculum doesn't really support long-term prosperity, does it?
No. One of my favorite songwriters, Paul Simon, has a song called Kodachrome that starts off with, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." If I think about my 25 years of education, so much of it wasn't helpful.
Rather than pour things into my brain, I wish they taught me how to think.
With all the people that you've seen, is it just as important to unlearn what they believe versus adopting these new habits?
I tell my patients, "I want you to write down 100 of your worst thoughts," and then I give them a process on how to correct them, how to direct them in ways that help.
Now, if you have a negative thought and it's actually true, I'm walking in downtown Detroit and it's dangerous, when you go, "Is that true?" the answer is yes, go home!
We all have an intuition about real danger don’t we!? And real fear and real danger can be a very good thing.
Well, one of the lies of happiness is “don't worry, be happy.”
I always wanted to be my older brother, who’s a “don't worry, be happy” person. He leaves work at 3:00pm, he's on the golf course. He's 150 pounds overweight. It just makes me crazy for him. I've always had some angst, some anxiety.
There's a study out of Stanford where they looked at 1,540 10-year-old children in 1921, and then they followed them for the next 90 years, looking at what goes with success, health and longevity. The only thing that those 10-year-olds showed that predicted success, health and longevity was conscientiousness. The “don't worry, be happy” kids died the earliest from accidents and preventable illnesses.
I think of anxiety on a scale of zero to a hundred, and I want to stay around 25-30. I want to have enough that helps me to do the right things. I'm going to be 69 this year, and I've seen thousands, tens of thousands, of older brains and it's bad news. As your skin falls off your face as you age, that same process happens in the brain, but it doesn't have to.
You're very vocal about your mission to create a revolution for brain health, which is so awesome, but you can't want change more than the individual who needs to change. How do you not necessarily force someone to change, but rather initiate it for people who badly need it but are resistant to change?
You nudge, you inform, you do what you can to motivate. Ultimately, it's on them.
I have a very personal example of this. In 1979, I told my dad I wanted to be a psychiatrist and he asked me why I didn't want to be a real doctor, why I wanted to be a nut doctor and hang out with nuts all day long. I was not close with my dad. My dad worked all the time, the only time I saw him was when he took me to work. He was not a positive person for me.
I'm the second son in a Lebanese family, which meant you're irrelevant. Because I'm seeing all this stuff with Prince Harry and the title of his book, Spare, it makes me feel so bad for him because I used to have that mindset of being second. Now, when I corrected my thoughts, I want to be the second son. I don't want to be the person that's expected to become the king, or in my world, expected to run the grocery business, which was my brother. I have the freedom to do anything I want. Anyways, my dad and I did not have a close relationship.
You've got to get your brain healthy, which means you've got to get your body healthy because your body supports your brain.
I learned, “No, I do what I want to do,” so I became a psychiatrist. Then I started looking at the brain and I'm like, "It's not mental health, it's brain health." You've got to get your brain healthy, which means you've got to get your body healthy because your body supports your brain. In the early '90s, I'm like, "Dad, you've got to get healthy," because all the time I've loved him, "Dad, you've got to get healthy." He's like, "Oh great. The nut doctor is now a health nut." Literally 25 years, he'd make fun of me, he'd belittle me. It's irritating, but because I was not bonded with him, I would let it run off my back, but deep down it's still hurtful.
He would say to people, and he was a powerful guy, he was chairman of the board of a $4 billion company, he's like, "I don't get heart attacks, I give them," and he'll tell a story about how he chewed somebody out and they had a heart attack. That's my dad.
When he was 85, I guess it was about 10 years ago, they had mold in their house and he developed a chronic cough and then a heart arrhythmia and heart failure. It's the first time I saw my dad depressed. One day I went over to his house and I could just tell he was so sad. He's like, "I'm sick of being sick. What do you want me to do?" The only reason he asked me that question is I'm an authentic person, I lived the message of brain health, and he saw that for 25 years.
So you leading by example eventually became the motivator?
He did everything I asked him to do. In six months he lost 40 pounds, he and I would workout every Sunday. He's texting me, "Can I eat this? Can I eat that?" I'm one of seven and all he's doing is talking about me to my siblings, like, "Well, your brother wouldn't like that. You should talk to your brother about that."
They're texting me, "Can you tell him to lighten up!?" It made all of it worthwhile, because when you live by example, when people need you, when they want you, and that's the only time they'll change. When he needed me and when he wanted me, he changed. It was so special.
You mentioned before about the difference between positive thinking and accurate thinking. What has all your work, scanning people from more than 150 countries, taught you about the law of attraction and manifestation, the realities around how thoughts can become things?
Well, the one psychiatric condition that teaches us so much about manifestation is something called pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy. If a woman unconsciously believes she is pregnant, even though she's not, her body takes on the shape of a pregnant woman. Her periods stop, her lower belly gets bigger, her breasts get larger, she stops having periods, and she may even lactate or produce milk from her breasts. I've seen it nine times in my career. It always blows people away, but your mind is so powerful and what you feed it will determine what it focuses on.
I'm feeling pretty good about myself because, public knowledge, I've been Miley Cyrus's doctor for 11 years and she has the number one song in the world right now – I’m pretty proud of her – and it's all about self-love. I have an Olympic pole vaulter, Alicia Newman, it's public knowledge that I'm her doctor, and she just won the indoor world pole vaulting championship, 2023. I'm so proud of her.
We focus a lot on mental rehearsal, "You don't see yourself failing, you see yourself succeeding." Then we put all these obstacles in your way and your brain figures out how to succeed.
We focus a lot on mental rehearsal, "You don't see yourself failing, you see yourself succeeding." Then we put all these obstacles in your way and your brain figures out how to succeed. Any negativity disrupts the function of the cerebellum, the coordination center of the brain, so if she sees herself failing she absolutely will fail.
You need to be rehearsing what you want rather than allowing your negatively set mind to go and hurt you.
Can we dive a little bit more into what that mental rehearsal looks like?
Well, I'm a huge fan of mental rehearsal, I talk about it in the book, a fan of what do you want, how are you going to get what you want, and then repeating, what do you want, and visualizing it only in the positive because the brain reacts immediately to negativity, it reacts in a bad way to negativity.
Visualize what you want. It starts, in general terms, with an exercise called the one-page miracle. I do it with all of my patients, what do you want? Relationships, work, money, physical, emotional, spiritual health? Notice alcohol's not going to fit anywhere on that, it's not going to fit.
What do I want, and then is my behavior getting me what I want? Every day you know your one-page miracle, and until you've memorized it you read it every day, and then you ask yourself this little simple question, does it fit? Does my behavior, do my thoughts, fit the goals I have for my life?
Have you had to take a step back before that with some people who say, "I just don't know what I want"?
When you ask people what they want, and I've been doing this for 40 years, a lot of people immediately will go to money or they'll go to work or they'll go to marriage or they'll go to a baby. Those things are important, but people get burned out when they're unbalanced.
That's why relationships, and I purposefully put that first, work, because that's really important, money, it's totally important for security, physical, emotional, spiritual health. When I define it like that, people know what they want.
It gives them a framework to be able to work through.
They may not know that they want to be a surgeon or do they want to be a pilot or do they want to retire, but it's like, "No, let's make you a whole person and then let's talk about what you want in each area of your life."
At my age, I'm like, "I want energy, I want memory, I want clarity. I want longevity. I want connection." Then you ask yourself, well, does it fit? I'm drinking green tea, that fits. That'll give me energy, it'll give me clarity, it'll give me longevity with green tea catechins. It's like, "Oh, I want a beer." Well, it doesn't fit. It doesn't fit any of it.
As a foundation of all that, I feel like momentum is very important. You're heading in the direction of something. Whether or not you get there, that's not important. It's having the momentum that enables you to make the binary decision of, “Is this good for me or not?”
It's like the ultimate filter when you have an idea of what that life looks like for you and you start having that momentum.
Especially if you focus on the day rather than, "I have to have this or that outcome."
I was just thinking of Alysha Newman. When I first met her she had a bad concussion and she was telling herself, "If I don't win an Olympic gold medal, I'm nothing." I'm like, "Oh no, we need to get rid of that thought. That is misery."
I've seen some of the world's most decorated athletes who are miserable human beings.
I've seen some of the world's most decorated athletes who are miserable human beings. What we need is, "That's a great goal, but what are you going to do today?" You have to stay present in the day to get that goal. Our goal is not the gold medal, our goal is to be there so you have the opportunity, because there are too many variables.
That would also then be the context, even after the Olympic games had passed, it'd be the same conversation, wouldn't it, “What are we doing today?”
Yes, what's the goal?
What am I doing today, and does each action fit, which is why love, does it fit? For some of my addicts, we add, "Then what?" If I do this, then what happens? If I say this, then what happens?
I had a sex addict that I treated for a long time, and I just love him so much because that became our theme, what do you want and what happens when you do that behavior. You want to see both the positives that happen when you engage in the right behavior, but you want to see what hell looks like and avoid it if you're smart. If you don't want your daughter growing up in a broken home, texting that cute girl, I want you to see your daughter sad and freaked out because you disappointed her.
You want to see both the positives that happen when you engage in the right behavior, and what hell looks like so you can avoid it.
I have this fork in the road exercise I do with my patients. I want you to see if you make these bad decisions what's going to happen and I want you to visualize hell and feel it. Then I want you to come back to the fork and go down the other side and see if you make consistently good decisions, what your brain's going to look like, what your relationship is going to look like, and what gets you what you want, rather than saying “You should do this…”
This is the Win the Day podcast, what are some things in particular that you feel like everyone can do so they can get up and Win the Day every day?
Start the day with, "Today is going to be a great day." It's just a great habit. That way you're directing your mind to what you like and what you want. I do that every day.
When you go through your day, ask yourself, "Is this good for my brain or bad for it?" It starts with love, all of this is about love. I do the right thing not because I should, I do the right thing because I love myself.
Also, doing the right thing is love for your family. It's love of your spouse, love of your children, love of your coworkers. When you do the wrong thing, it's stressful not only for you but for everybody who loves you. Is this good for my brain or bad for it? We'll talk about love more, especially around food.
Then when I go to bed every night, and this is so powerful, I say a prayer and then I go, "What went well today?" I start at the beginning of the day, when I get up, and I go hour by hour looking for what went well that day. I have a lot of really cool things happen in my life and I often don't focus on them because I'm busy. This time at night is a treasure hunt and I love it so much. I've been doing it for a decade. If people do it for just three weeks, it increases their level of happiness.
My dad died three years ago. He got COVID and then got Epstein-Barr. The day he died was the worst day of my life. When I went to bed that night, just because it's my habit, I went, "What went well today?" Initially, Hermie, the voice in my head goes, "Seriously? We are going to do that today?" But because I do it, my brain just did it.
It went to a conversation between my mother and the police officer, Officer Darling. I'd been doing a program for the Newport Beach Police Department. It's right in the beginning of COVID and nobody can come over. I have a family of seven children and 30 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Within two hours, everybody's at the house, the officer was cool.
I just remembered this funny interaction between my mom and the police officer. Then I remembered the hundreds of texts I got from my friends that day when they heard about my dad. I remembered sitting with my dad and holding his hand before the mortuary took him away, I just remembered how soft his hand was. Then I went to sleep.
If you have the right practices, you can manage even awful days.
You mentioned nutrition there. What is the role that nutrition plays in brain health?
Your brain is 2% of your body's weight, about three pounds, but it uses 20 to 30% of the calories you consume. When they do whole body scans, the brain's like this little heater and everything else is ghost-like.
You are what you eat, you think based on what you eat. I often say ISIS has nothing on our food industry. The real weapons of mass destruction are highly processed, pesticide sprayed, high glycemic, low fiber food-like substances stored in plastic containers.
The real weapons of mass destruction are highly-processed, pesticide-sprayed, high glycemic, low-fiber, food-like substances, stored in plastic containers.
It's the fattening and the killing of American society that we've now exported around the world. 72% of Americans are overweight, 42% are obese, 20% of children are overweight or obese. It's the biggest brain drain. I've published three studies that show as your weight goes up the actual physical size and function of your brain goes down, which should scare the fat off anyone.
If you want to think right, you have to eat right.
Complemented by overmedication from the pharmaceutical industry that's deep in Washington's pockets seems like a bit of a recipe for disaster for the progress of a civilization!
337 million prescriptions last year for antidepressants. 27% of all doctor visits, no matter the specialty, someone's getting prescribed a benzodiazepine, like Xanax or Valium. It's insanity.
In Australia, pharmaceutical companies are not legally allowed to advertise to consumers on television. I come over here, I don't really watch much TV, but if someone throws on the TV in the background and they run through the list of symptoms and these pharmaceuticals that are being targeted at the consumer, it just seems crazy to me.
It is crazy, and we're not better. We have four times the level of disability for mental health problems than we did in the 1950s. Obviously, all of these medication solutions are not good.
Medicine should never be the first and the only thing that you think about.
Now, I'm not opposed to medicine and I think I have a pretty rational view. You need medicines for cancer and you need medicines for heart disease, yes, sometimes the brain needs medicine, but it's never the first and the only thing that you think about.
First, do no harm.
You mentioned addiction earlier. What have you discovered from all of your research to help people be able to overcome addiction for the long term?
In the new book, there's a new 12-step program. I reimagined, because a lot of people have heard of AA or other 12-step programs. They were written in the 1930s, when nobody was really thinking about the brain. I rewrote them based on neuroscience.
What I learned is that all addicts are different. It's one of the big lessons from imaging: depression is not one thing, ADD is not one thing, addictions are not one thing, overeaters are not one thing. I talk about the six different types of addicts. There are impulsive addicts, they have sleepy frontal lobes. There are compulsive addicts, their frontal lobes work too hard. There are impulsive-compulsive addicts, parts are low, parts are high. There are anxious addicts, sad addicts, head trauma addicts. You've got to know your type so that you can get the right help.
We need to stop thinking of one treatment for everybody who's depressed, one 12-step program for everybody who's an addict. It's just stupid. It's like giving everybody the same treatment for belly pain. It's like, well, you can't do that, you have to figure out why they have belly pain. Or the same treatment for chest pain, I was like, "Well, that's stupid. You have to know, why do you have chest pain?" The same thing is true with addiction or depression.
You've done a lot to advance the literature in so many ways. Is there anything that you believe to be true that has not yet been proved through the science?
Well, you have to look. If you don't look, you don't know.
I'm still a controversial figure. A lot of people say, "You can't tell anything from imaging." I'm like, "Are you stupid? Of course you can tell things from imaging!"
A lot more than if you’re not imaging!
More than not imaging, yeah.
My favorite story, in 2005, 20/20, big famous television show, they lied to me. They were going to do a gotcha interview on me and shame me. They told me that they were going to come to the clinic and do an interview on my work with childhood bipolar disorder, and I'm excited because I love sharing my work. The reporter starts the interview with, "There's a psychiatrist from Columbia by the name of Brad Peterson who does imaging and he thinks you should be arrested for your work." That's how the interview started.
You're reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Daniel Amen, including bonus content that doesn't appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀
I am so grateful, because I was on the speech team in college and I did debate and extemporaneous speaking and my speech coach said, "When you don't know what to say, take a breath and smile." I took a breath, I smiled, and then it came to me. I said, "That's so interesting. Last week someone told me I should win a Nobel Prize for my work. This week you're telling me I should be arrested. It keeps me balanced."
Then we did the interview and the correspondent threw off his microphone and said to the producer, "This guy's legit. This isn't what you told me it was going to be at all." Then I got to meet Brad Peterson, because one of the doctors that works for me in New York was his mentor at NYU.
I met Dr. Peterson. I'm like, "What's with throwing me in jail?" He's like, "Oh, I didn't really understand your work." Well, now, in 2023, Brad Peterson and I have a paper coming out together on childhood bipolar disorder.
Amazing, wow. It's funny how the world works and things can turn around.
Yeah. Dealing with haters, that's been challenging for me because it can unbalance me.
Do you stop to take a moment to see if there is any validity to the hate? I suppose, given your medical profession, you have a much higher standard of accuracy than a post that an influencer might receive.
Oh, I don't think the hate's accurate at all. I think the hate is mostly bullshit.
Yeah, but is there ever a time when you-
Well, of course. You always go, "Why do I get it and they don't get it?" I think it's just because the paradigm is so wrong. There's a great book called The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn. He talks about how there are five stages to the revolution. Things have gone along normally and then somebody notices a problem, like I would put someone on Prozac and they met all the criteria for depression and now they want to kill themselves. That's a problem. If you are a psychiatrist because you love getting people well and you're hurting people, now you're terrified. I noticed there was a problem.
Then the status quo will also notice there is a problem, but there's too much money involved in the status quo so they'll only make small incremental fixes. For psychiatrists, we have a diagnostic bible called the DSM. There's six versions, but it really isn't any different than it was in 1980. Then someone comes up with a new mousetrap, you should look at the brain and rather than just give medicine you should get their brain healthy. It's a new paradigm.
The next stage is you're rejected. Kuhn says it's the most common, predictable stage of a revolution, and it can last for decades. Then it's accepted.
I think we're between four and five, because we've had about 10,000 medical and mental health professionals refer to our 11 clinics. We're making progress, but there's still the haters.
But once you see, you can't unsee. Once you see how powerful the images are to decrease shame, it's not mental. It's medical, not mental. To increase compassion from the families, to motivate people to do the right thing.
How do we improve brain health for kids specifically?
You play games with them. When my daughter, who's 19, was two, her name is Chloe, we played this game called Chloe's Game. I would go, "Is this good for your brain or bad for you?" If I would say frozen blueberries, because I like frozen blueberries, she would go, "Are they organic?" Because non-organic blueberries hold more pesticides than almost any other fruit. I'm like, "Of course they're organic," she goes, "Two thumbs up, God's candy."
If I said avocado, she'd go, "Two thumbs up, God's butter." Her mother makes something called avocado gelato. If I said hitting a soccer ball with your head, she would roll her eyes at me, "Are you stupid? The brain is soft, the skull is hard. The skull has sharp bony ridges." If I said, "Talking back to your redheaded mother." "No, very bad."
Love food that loves you back.
You plant it. Where is your brain? What does your brain do? How important is your brain? What helps it? What hurts it? Getting them involved to see, oh, it controls everything. We have a high school course, and right after you do the session on things to avoid, it's always a boy, it's never a girl, always a boy raises his hand and goes, "How can you have any fun?"
We play a game with them called Who Has More Fun, the kid with the good brain or the kid with the bad brain? Who gets the girl and gets to keep her because he doesn't act like an ass, the kid with the good brain or the kid with a bad brain? Who gets into the college they want to get into, the kid with the good brain or the kid with the bad brain?
The big lesson is you are not depriving yourself by engaging in a serious brain healthy life. You're not depriving yourself of anything.
I think my favorite quote for me was, "Love food that loves you back." That's just such a simple thing for people to be able to remember.
What about alcohol? Didn't they say for a while there, it was like you have one glass of wine a day, it's supposed to actually be beneficial for you for longevity or one of the markers? How damaging is alcohol?
Two glasses was the message from the wine industry. Follow the money, always follow the money!
Alcohol is terrible for your brain. Why would you drink a disinfectant? Why would you drink something that purposefully makes you uncoordinated? Why would you drink something that purposefully makes you hungrier and increases the number of bad decisions that you make? Why would you drink something that tastes terrible, that's ultimately yeast poop?
During the pandemic, it was fascinating, Jim Beam, one of the whiskey companies, turned its plants into a hand sanitizer company, because what's alcohol? My nurse, my wife is a nurse, why does she put alcohol on your skin before she gives you a shot? Because it kills all the bugs. Well, how many bugs do you have in your gut? You have a hundred trillion, it's called the microbiome. The microbiome is your defense force.
I remember when I told Chloe about all the bugs in her guts, she was like, "Ew, I have bugs in my gut." I'm like, "You have to think of them like these are your soldiers. They protect you. They digest your food, they detoxify your body, they make neurotransmitters. They help keep your hormones healthy, they decrease inflammation, they help your body fight off infections. They're really important. They're your soldiers." You're going to really get them drunk or murder them?
Alcohol is terrible for your brain. Why would you drink something that purposefully makes you uncoordinated? Why would you drink something that purposefully increases the number of bad decisions that you make?
We know kids who had a lot of ear infections and took a lot of antibiotics. They tend to be more anxious because they damage or disrupt their microbiome. Alcohol does the same thing, it disrupts your microbiome, plus, it decreases the white matter in your brain. What's that? Gray matter, nerve cell bodies where a lot of processing happens, white matter are nerve cell tracks, nerve cell highways. It helps your brain communicate with itself. Any alcohol has been shown to damage it.
Now, I've been talking about this ever since I started scanning people because when I first started scanning people I was the director of a substance abuse treatment program and their brains were just horrible. I'm like, "Drinking is not healthy." Our first clinic was 11 miles from downtown Napa, in the Napa Valley in Northern California, so wine was a big deal.
Yeah, you wouldn't be very popular there!
I'm like, "This is not helpful. Stop lying." I've been talking about it for 30 years.
Last year, the American Cancer Society came out against any alcohol, the American Cancer Society. Why? Any alcohol increases your risk of seven different types of cancer. It's not for you if you want the things I want. I want energy, I want memory, I want longevity, I want connection, I want purpose. Why would you purposely damage your brain?
Marijuana's in that same category. I published the world's largest imaging study on 62,454 scans on how the brain ages. Our youngest scan in our study group was nine months old, our oldest scan was 105, 62,000 scans. When you're a little kid, you have a busy brain, sort of drops until you're about 25 because of some processes in the brain, stays stable till about 60 and then begins to drop again, so how the brain ages.
Any alcohol increases your risk of seven different types of cancer.
Then, because of all the charts we have, we looked at what accelerates aging. The worst was having schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a very serious brain health, mental health problem, your brain looked 10 years older. The next worst was marijuana. It surprised me, quite frankly. I knew marijuana makes your brain look toxic, but that was the second-worst thing.
The third-worst thing was alcohol, then nicotine, then being overweight.
On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard to show yourself on your worst day?
Today is going to be a great day.
I don't know if this is an affirmation, but I say it all the time to myself and my patients – I said it a lot during the pandemic – "Argue with reality, welcome to hell."
Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?
Stay with the habits that work.
Dr. Amen, thanks so much for coming on the show.
What a joy, James. Thank you for helping me spread this message.
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