You are not stuck with the brain you have.

As a young boy, Dr. Daniel Amen may have entertained dreams of joining his grandfather in the candy making business. Those sugar-laced aspirations fell by the wayside, however, when Amen discovered the power of the brain.  

Returning to ON Purpose for a second time, Dr. Daniel Amen shared with Jay Shetty the catalyst for his career in psychiatry and what drew him to the study of the brain. He also shares the 11 biggest risk factors he has determined play a part in brain illness and injury. 

It is easy to catch Amen’s fervor for all things brain as he dives into the world inside the skull. What he calls our most underappreciated tool is the focus of his life’s work.  

It All Begins With The Brain

Amen’s passion for imaging and brain health began during his time in the army. After leaving the service, he entered medical school. It wasn’t until a personal experience with the power of psychiatry, however, that he realized what an impact brain imaging could have. 

“In 1979, someone I loved tried to kill herself,” he shared with Jay Shetty. “I took her to see a wonderful psychiatrist, and I came to realize if he helped her, it wouldn't just help her. It would help her children and even her grandchildren as they were shaped by someone who was happier and more stable.” 

“I fell in love with psychiatry,” Amen continued, “because I realized it has the potential to change generations of people.”

Amen set out to become a psychiatrist, and his interest in the brain quickly set him apart from the rest of mainstream psychiatry. His driving force was the question, “How can you practice psychiatry without being a student of the brain?”

”I fell in love with the only medical specialty that never looks at the organ it treats,” he told Jay Shetty. Even early on, Amen recognized that needed to change. 

Determined to change the face of the practice, Dr. Amen began using imaging to get to know the brain. His findings have been groundbreaking – and not just in the field of psychiatry but in the focus of mental illness as well. Amen discovered that to look at the mind, one has to take a good look at the brain.

“If you damage your brain, you damage your mind,” Amen said to Jay Shetty.

Mental Illness is More Than Meets the Eye

As the topic of mental illness has become more prevalent in recent years, the conversations surrounding it have become more fervent. Jay Shetty struggles with the gap he sees between mental illness and its effects on the brain.

“What are we missing in the conversation?” Jay Shetty asked Dr. Amen. “Why are we not talking more about the brain? And why are people not as focused on improving their brain as they should be?”

Amen agrees that the medical community is doing a disservice to those who are mentally by not addressing mental issues as stemming from the brain. 

“Fifty percent of people who are homeless had a significant brain injury before they were homeless,” he told Jay Shetty. “You can do whatever you want from a societal standpoint to help the homeless, but if you don't help their brains, you're not going to help the situation.”

“Twenty-three percent of women between the ages of 20 and 60 are taking antidepressant medication,” he continued to Jay Shetty. “That's insane! You were not born with a Prozac deficiency. It's because our brains aren't right. Our habits aren't right. We have no love, honor, or respect for the brain.”

During his years of extensive research, Amen has discovered that a healthy brain paves the way for mental health. Dealing with illness through medication is only like a bandage covering the wound, never dealing with the root of the issue. 

Dr. Amen shared the story of Justin Bieber, a patient of his. After being told by another doctor that he was bi-polar, Bieber began taking medication. At his wife’s prompting, the star sought a second opinion from Dr. Amen, who discovered that an infection in his brain was causing the distress.  

After appropriate treatment, Bieber is back to full health. The doctor believes a proactive approach to health, especially brain health, will result in vast improvements for patients who are suffering from misdiagnoses. 

Brain Mapping and Types 

Dr. Amen isn’t just interested in his patients’ brains. His children know that bringing home a potential partner is a serious matter. Even before getting to know the person and making small talk, the psychiatrist wants to see their brain. 

“In my mind,” he confessed to Jay Shetty, “they’re not really dating until I see their brain.”  The same rang true for his own wife when he remarried. “I told myself when I got divorced in 2005, if I ever got married again, the first naked part of this person I wanted to see was their brain.”

Why this infatuation with the brain and how it relates to potential love interests? 

Dr. Amen has discovered two key factors that can be unearthed by scanning – often called mapping – the brain. Through mapping, he can assess the brain’s health, or lack thereof, by seeing where trauma has occurred. 

Amen has studied how trauma affects different parts of the brain for decades. Once the brain is affected, a person’s behaviors, decision-making capabilities, and propensity for mental illness can also change.  

Over the years, Amen also discovered that there are six different types of brains and 16 combinations of those types. Brain type is determined by the overall genetic makeup of the person, but it’s also influenced by trauma and environmental factors. How one brain type interacts with another varies. 

“For example, if you grew up in an alcoholic home or you have a lot of alcoholism in your family, you tend to be type six, which is both spontaneous and persistent or what I might call impulsive and compulsive at the same time,” Amen explained to Jay Shetty. 

Medical professionals can more accurately and effectively treat patients when they’re aware of the patient’s brain type. This matters because different types will respond to treatment differently.

Counseling couples looks different and produces better results when brain type is taken into account. Knowing how a spontaneous person responds to anger is vastly different than the response of a sensitive person not only helps the therapist know how to counsel, but also informs the couple of how to best relate to each other. Amen’s book, The Brain and Love, unpacks this further as he looks at the effects of love on different brain types. 

Bright Minds

Keeping the brain healthy is paramount. But Jay Shetty wants to know if that is easier said than done.

“Let's say someone's listening or watching right now, and they're saying, ‘Yeah, Dr. Daniel Amen. I agree. But you know, I've never had any serious brain injury. I've never had an accident. I've never been American football player. I've never done boxing.’ Tell us some of the things that actually cause brain injury. Surprise us,” Jay Shetty implores. 

Amen’s new book, The End Of Mental Illness, is largely devoted to looking at sources of brain trauma that people encounter every day.  Some seem obvious, while others lurk without people being aware. 

“If you want to keep your brain healthy or rescue it if it's headed for the dark place, you have to prevent or treat the 11 major risk factors that steal your mind,” Dr. Amen explains. He has developed the mnemonic BRIGHT MINDS to highlight the 11 highest risks. 

Blood Flow – Healthy blood flow is vital for optimal brain function. Slower flowing blood may contribute to issues such as Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, and ADHD. So can environmental toxins, like mold. A lack of exercise may also be a culprit, especially as people age. Dr. Amen can’t stress enough how vital daily exercise and movement is.  

“If you have been wanting to exercise, but haven’t found the time, this should be your motivation,” he encouraged listeners. He suggests racket sports or table tennis because of their combination of hand eye coordination and movement.   

Retirement/Aging – While aging of the body is inevitable, Dr. Amen contends that aging of the brain does not have to follow suit.  He warns that when people stop living, they stop learning. This is detrimental to the health of the brain. 

“When you stop learning, your brain starts dying.New learning has to be part of everything you do,” Amen urges.

Inflammation – “Inflammation comes from low levels of omega three fatty acids, and 97 percent of people have suboptimal levels of omega threes when we test them,” explained Amen to Jay Shetty. This deficiency is caused by refined processed food and gum disease. Gum disease increases inflammation, which in turn increases heart disease and brain disease. 

Genetics –  “I see genes not as a death sentence, but as a wake up call,” the doctor said to Jay Shetty. He believes everyone should be asking what they can do to prevent genetic conditions.  A history of obesity or diabetes that runs in the family can be seen as a wake-up call, not a death sentence. Make a conscious effort to proactively reverse the effects as much as possible. 

Head Trauma – “If you said, ‘Hey Daniel, what is the single most important thing you've learned from 160,000 scans’? It’s this – mild, traumatic brain injury ruins people's lives and nobody knows it,” said Amen to Jay Shetty. 

Trauma from contact sports, falls and accidents as well as whiplash, bouncing a soccer ball off the head, and small non direct blows can also cause damage, the doctor warned. 

Toxins – “There's no question in my mind alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy are bad for your brain,” Amen told Jay Shetty. “No question. Drugs and alcohol are not good for your brain.”  

Amen also explained that environmental toxins, mold, and smoke also adversely affect the brain. He urges people to refrain from putting toxins on their bodies. Be picky about the body products to which skin is exposed. Daily wear of toxins has an ever growing effect on the health of the brain. 

Mind Storms – Amen described mindstorms as abnormal electrical activity that often increases with sugar. He recommends cutting out sugar If you're having problems with anxiety, moods, and temper. Jay Shetty also recommends meditation.

Immunity & Infections – Dr. Amen thinks everyone should be aware of their Vitamin D levels. He recounts the relief he was able to help Justin Bieber find with Vitamin D. Pinpointing an infection and properly treating it turned his health around. 

Neurohormone Deficiency – According to Dr. Amen, many young men have low testosterone levels. Often, the cause is one of two things. The first is head trauma, which affects the pituitary gland (the place hormones are made in the body). If injured, the pituitary gland’s ability to produce the right amount of hormones will be hampered. The second culprit are hormone disruptors.     

Diabetes/Obesity –  “I have published several studies that say, as your weight goes up, the physical size and function of your brain goes down,” explained Amen to Jay Shetty. “If you're overweight, you automatically now have five additional risk factors because being overweight decreases blood flow to the brain, increases inflammation, stores toxins, and decreases your hormones.”

Sleep – According to Dr. Amen, 16 million Americans have sleep related problems.  People get an average of just six and a half hours of sleep each night. Amen stated that turning devices off at dark is crucial to ensure their light does not disrupt the production of melatonin in our brains. 

Brain Health

The above list can be overwhelming, but Dr. Amen has some tips that can help.  

“It's almost like this vicious cycle,” confessed Jay Shetty. “One bad habit leads to another, leads to another, leads to another and it just keeps imprinting negative impact on our brain right? It's all interconnected. But I love what you said. Just do one thing. The thing to start with is one little tiny habit in the book.”

Amen explained that asking yourself whether something is good for your brain can have a dramatic effect on decisions. Like Shetty said, tackling one habit at a time paired with asking that question can have a huge impact over time. 

Amen also recommended that listeners work on rewiring their thinking to focus on the positive instead of the negative.  He terms this ANT – Automatic Negative Thinking. 

“Every single time you have a thought, whenever you have an angry thought, a hopeless thought, a helpless thought, or a mean thought, your brain releases chemicals that actually changes your body,” he said to Jay Shetty. “It happens that immediately your hands get colder, they get wetter, your breathing changes, your heart rate changes. Your blood flow to your brain drops.” 

“The opposite is also true,” he continued. “Whenever you have a happy thought, a hopeful thought, a loving thought, a purposeful thought, your brain releases a completely different set of chemicals that help relax your body.”  

While Amen maintains that changing the way thoughts are processed in the brain – choosing to find the positive instead of the negative, will over time make a drastic difference on the brain.  

“There's a linear correlation between the number of fruits and vegetables you eat a day, and your level of happiness,” Amen argued to Jay Shetty.  He says one of the best things a person can do for their brain is stop the sugar and up the fruits and vegetables. Nourishing the brain leads to optimal brain performance.  

Diet, exercise, movement, learning, and meditation are also key components to brain health. 

 As the years have passed and medicine advances, Dr. Daniel Amen stands firmer than ever in his resolve that focusing on brain health should be the highest priority, and Jay Shetty agrees. New worlds have opened up that lead to further honoring the brain through prioritizing its health and vitality. 

More From Jay Shetty & Dr. Daniel Amen

Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode on “The Most Powerful Habits For A Healthy & Productive Brain” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.