Episode #76

How to Clear Your Mind and Optimize Your Brain

Episode 76: Interview with Dr. Daniel Amen

About Dr. Daniel Amen

Daniel Amen believes that brain health is central to all health and success. When your brain works right, he says, you work right; and when your brain is troubled you are much more likely to have trouble in your life. His work is dedicated to helping people have better brains and better lives. Dr. Amen is a physician, double board certified psychiatrist, television producer and nine-time New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Medical Director of Amen Clinics in Newport Beach and San Francisco, California, Bellevue, Washington, Reston, Virginia, Atlanta and New York City.



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Dean: I’m Dean Jackson, he’s Joe Polish and this is the I Love Marketing Podcast.

Joe: Hello, this is Joe Polish, Founder of the Genius Network and Ilovemarketing.com. I’m here with Dr. Daniel Amen. Hello Daniel.

Daniel: Hey Joe.

Joe: It is great to be here in your office in Newport. How many of these offices do you have all over the country?

Daniel: I have four, but soon there’ll be six. We have a new clinic in New York and Atlanta opening this fall.

Joe: Awesome. Okay, well I’m going to read from, actually the only portion of this interview that I’ll actually be doing any reading it’s your latest book, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age. Secrets to look, feel and think younger every day. And so Daniel Amen is a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist and brain imaging expert who heads the world renowned Amen Clinics.

He is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and he’s just done a ton of stuff. He’s published 45 professional articles and a number of audio and video programs and is the best-selling author of 28 books including Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Magnificent Mind at Any Age, Change Your Age Change Your Body and The Amen Solution.

He’s an internationally recognized Keynote speaker and a host of six popular PBS specials. He also spearheads the groundbreaking retired NFL player imaging study at the Amen Clinics and is one of the architects of The Daniel Plan. A project of Pastor Rick Warren and Saddleback Church to create brain healthy churches.

And you’ve done so much more so I mean, man, what should people really know about you? I’m not only a friend of yours but I’m also, I guess, a client and a patient because you’ve actually done brain imaging on myself. But really, who are you? When people think of Daniel Amen, they probably think of the guy that does brain stuff but there’s so much depth to what you do.

Daniel: Well most people who know about me, know about me through my work on public television, so I love spending time educating people on brain health. So I was in the airport yesterday and someone came up to me and said, “I changed my whole life because of you,” and I like that.

I like having influence to help people do the right things because nobody thinks about their brain and why? Because you can’t see it. You care about your skin or the fat around your belly because you look in the mirror and you don’t like what you see. But besides us brain imaging guys, no one looks and so they don’t care, and we have an avalanche of brain health problems that are wreaking havoc on our society.

So I’m the crusader. Think of me as the brain crusader to get people to take care of their brain because it’s your brain that controls everything. Controls your money, your relationships, how you feel about yourself. And when your brain works right, you work right and when it’s troubled, you have trouble in your life.

Joe: One of the first things I heard you say that really stuck with me was, psychiatry is the only profession that doesn’t look at the organ it treats. And I was like, wow you know that’s, I don’t know if that’s exactly the way you say it, but that’s what I remember and I thought that was pretty profound and I’d love to have you elaborate on that a bit.

Daniel: Well, I decided to be a psychiatrist in 1980 when I was a third year medical student. And I told my father that and he was very disappointed. He said, “Danny, why don’t you want to be a real doctor?” And it sort of hurt my feelings but now 30 years later, I realize he was right. Psychiatrists don’t act like real doctors. I mean we are literally the only medical specially that never looks at the organ we treat.

We make diagnoses today exactly like they did in 1840 when Abraham Lincoln was depressed. You know, Lincoln had two severe episodes of depression. He was suicidal, didn’t go to work, and so how did they diagnose Lincoln? They talked to him and they looked at him and then they made a diagnosis and put him some fairly torturous treatments.

And we do exactly the same thing today. You come in, you tell me you’re sad or you can’t get out of bed or you have negative thoughts. You’re thinking of killing yourself. I’m like looking at the symptom clusters. I decide in my mind what’s the matter with you, and then I put you on a course of treatment which could be psychotherapy or group therapy or medication and I’ve never looked at your brain.

How crazy is that in 172 years later that we’re doing the same thing? Cardiologists don’t act that way, neurologists don’t act that way. Gynecologists, Urologists. Every other specialty in medicine, we take a clinical history that’s important, but then we combine it with imaging technology and that’s how we make diagnoses and it’s just backwards.

And what most people don’t know is psychiatrists in many ways, they’re like emperors without clothes and that the outcomes in psychiatry are no better now than they were 50 years ago, despite the billions of dollars in research because we’re not looking at the brain on a regular clinical basis. So for example, can I talk about you just for a little bit?

Joe: You are welcome to talk about me, my brain, what’s been discovered, everything.

Daniel: Well and so you come here because you’re not doing as well as you should and you’re curious and what do we discover? That you had an injury when you were young and if you don’t rehabilitate that, you could have any diagnosis in the world and it’s not going to work. And the problem is, is when you make a diagnosis and the treatment doesn’t work it’s not innocuous. It’s toxic because you go, you try to get the help you want, it doesn’t work and then you wonder, well what’s the matter with me?

And its demoralizing and it’s just not right. We have the highest success rate in our industry. We actually do a six-month outcome study on all of our patients. We call them, we have them fill out forms when they come and also again at six months. And what we’ve found is the average success rate in a psychiatric practice is about 31% when you look at the big studies, placebo is 30%. So I call that psychiatry’s dirty little secret, except it’s really not a secret. It’s now our dirty laundry because 60 Minutes just did a story on anti-depressant saying they work no better than placebo. That’s a crime really.

But what we find with our patients, on average they’re complicated. They have 4.2 diagnoses, they failed three people in four medications. So we tend to see complex people and after six months, 77% of our patients report high levels of improvement. 83% jump a whole category in our quality of life survey. So we’re very excited that what imaging does is it adds a layer of information to help you better target treatment.

And then of course, we add brain healthy habits. Got to sleep right, eat right, and exercise. And if you’re overweight, get the excess weight off you because it’s not helping you being better. We’re very excited about what we do. We’ve now built a database of 73,000 scans on patients from 90 different countries, so we have a level of confidence and excitement and it leads me, the images really lead me to do all the other work I do because I realize your brain is the organ of behavior. It’s the organ of thinking, learning, laughing, loving and when your brain works right, you work right.

And when your brain has trouble, you are much more likely to have trouble in your life and you don’t want it. So it really attacks this idea of free will because if your brain’s working great, well you probably have about 90% free will. But if you had a brain injury, that may get dropped to 40% and then if you get drunk, it may just go away.

So optimizing the brain, just think about it from prisoners. People classically, they’ll just say, well rehabilitation doesn’t work. Well of course it doesn’t work because they’re doing software programs on people that have hardware problem. So if you’re going to rehabilitate people, first thing to rehabilitate is their brain. And when you do that, you see your success rates dramatically elevate and that’s exciting to me.

Joe: That’s quite interesting what you just said about the software, hardware problem and optimizing the brain. What does that mean? Optimizing the brain?

Daniel: Well our brain health program really involves three things. Brain envy, avoid bad, do good. So brain envy, what’s that? You have to care about your brain. Until you saw the picture of your brain, you didn’t care about your brain.

Joe: I wouldn’t even know how to think about it until I saw that.

Daniel: And once you see it, you go, “Oh, that’s not very good. I want it better.” I mean when I saw my first scan in 1991, when I started the imaging work, I went, “Oh yuck. That’s not that good.” And, you know as I think about it, I had viral meningitis when I was in the army, I played football, and I had a lot of bad habits. I didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs but I drank diet soda like she was my best friend. I was carrying an extra 20 or 30 lbs. I didn’t need. I was chronically stressed, not sleeping. I thought I was special because I could get by on four or five hours of sleep at night and then when I really understood about how important sleep is, I realized I was just stupid.

So brain envy, it starts with love. It starts with caring about your own brain. And then what you have to do is you have to avoid anything that hurts your brain; drugs, alcohol, brain injuries, being in a toxic environment. So if there was a flood in your house and you have mold at home, totally could damage brain function.

I just went to Hong Kong and did eight lectures and Hong Kong’s got more pollution than anywhere I’ve ever been and I just sort of felt toxic and dirty. So having clean air, clean water is really important, not having things like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sleep apnea. All of those increase the risk of brain damage. Chronic stress, negative thoughts, hanging around toxic people and in fact if the habits of your family and friends are not healthy, you’re not going to be healthy.

People are contagious. Having low levels of Vitamin D, testosterone, thyroid, iron, all of those things are not good for brain function. So it’s really important to know what are the things I need to avoid and then what are the things to do? So brain envy, avoid bad things, do good things. Your diet’s critical. Your brain uses 25% of the calories that you consume. If you’re eating fast food, you’re going to have a fast food mind.

Joe: So you said 25% of the calories you use, your brain consumes?

Daniel: Correct. So your brain is the most expensive real estate in your body. The 3 lbs. between your ears gets 25% of your calories, 20% of the blood flow, about 20% of the oxygen even though it’s only 2% of your body’s weight for most people it’s using a fifth to a quarter to sometimes even a third of the energy that you get in your body.

So making sure the food you eat is clean, nutritious, not empty or toxic is very important. Physical exercise is critical. Why, because it boosts blood flow to your brain. Exercise is the fountain of youth and exercising your mind. You know when we finished high school or college, people go, “Okay, I’m done learning. I don’t want to do that anymore.” And it’s a disaster. That’s why your work is so important because you’re always challenging the minds of the people that you serve with I Love Marketing and you’re teaching them constantly new things so people come to your seminars because they want to learn. Well that’s actually good for their brain.

So new learning is essential, avoiding negative thinking which means you have to know how to correct automatic negative thoughts. It’s so important and meditation, hypnosis have been found to be things that actually boost blood flow to the brain.

Joe: This is awesome. I mean there’s such a good list here, so I want to kind of go down some notes here I was taking as you’ve been talking. Just things that people are experiencing every day. I mean you wrote a book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and it’s a great title. What I really like about you is not only are you very smart and very innovative, you’re also a great communicator.

I run across people constantly when they find out I know you, I cannot tell you how many people have said literally what you said earlier, “He changed my life. He saved my child.” You know, that sort of stuff. I mean people are referring to it as disaster, course corrected because of either reading one of your books and doing what you suggested or literally coming to one of your clinics and doing a brain scan and so Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

One thing that I really want to accomplish with this interview and people listening to it is that that is a possibility because you run across a lot of people here that come to your clinics that are hopeless. They have been in therapy for many years. They have tried countless things. They’ve been on numerous diets and they just don’t enjoy life. They’re hating life and they’re at their wits end.

So Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, what does that mean? I mean other than the obvious statement of it?

Daniel: Well it’s so exciting. I had actually no idea that you could change people’s brains, so I’m a classically trained psychiatrist and I’m double board certified. Which means I’m board certified in general psychiatry and child psychiatry, and both my training programs they didn’t really talk about the brain. It was in 1991 when I ordered my first SPECT scan. So that’s the scan we do at the Amen Clinics.

And SPECT looks at blood flow and activity. It looks at how the brain works. And what I discovered is you could take a damaged brain, do the right things for it and dramatically improve it. And when you improve someone’s brain, they became more thoughtful, they became more effective. And what really surprised me is they also became more loving.

Their ability to attach and connect and have empathy, it was so exciting. I remember this one person who taught me this. His name was Reed and he was just a mean son of a bitch. He had tried to kill himself because his wife divorced him and I could totally see why she divorced and as I started to see him, he was even mean to my staff and I hate that because my staff, they’re like my family. So I saw him a couple of session. I said, “You have to go get scanned.” He’s like, “Well, I don’t want to do it.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to treat you.” I said, “You are mean and you’re difficult. If you want me to treat you, I need to get you well fast.” And so he went and got scanned. His brain was a wreck.

He had had a brain injury that he didn’t tell me about. I looked at his scan and I said, “So did you ever have a brain injury?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well are you sure?” He said, “Well I don’t think so.” I said, “Were you ever in a car accident? A bike accident?” He goes, “Oh my god Dr. Amen. I was when I was 16 years old. I was riding my bike going fast downhill in Colorado and I hit a rock and flew off my bike onto the left side.” Left sided brain problems tends to go with more irritability.

So we had this scan. I knew what to do with him so the scan then gave me targets to go after to fix. Within three months, he was dramatically better and he turned out to be one of the sweetest people that you would ever know. He’s brining my staff flowers. He comes in, they’re excited to see him. I mean you can imagine how bad that then translates to the rest of his life. The woman he loves most in the world. He’s mean to her. She divorces him. He wants to die. I mean that’s what happens when relationships break up but no one goes after well what’s the cause of the problem? It’s his brain that was hurt, and so people can become more thoughtful and more loving. So I’m like a little kid. So excited I have this great technology and most of my colleagues think I’m a charlatan.

Joe: Oh yeah, and even to this day, a lot of people think I think it’s human nature when someone’s not up on, they’re down on.

Daniel: That’s it. That’s exactly it because they don’t know the research that they dismiss it. Even though on our website today, there are 2,571 scientific abstracts on imaging related to psychiatry. So the science that underlies our work is vast, but I still get into these food fights with my colleagues, although less. It’s beginning to change. We just had a debate in Philadelphia in May of 2012 and the audience was very interesting.

There was the chair person and he was pro imaging and then me and Dr. Henderson and the opposite side, the con side were just clearly people who didn’t know how to use the technology and they were researchers. And they’re like, “Oh, we’re very excited about this couple of years away maybe decades away,” and it was a fun debate. We actually filmed it so we’re going to put it on YouTube.

Joe: Oh good. That’s awesome.

Daniel: So people can actually see what’s said. Now you and I are friends with Ned Hallowell.

Joe: Yes

Daniel: So I have a fun story about Ned and I love Ned. Ned has referred to me, I’ve referred to him, but until he knew about what we did he was very down on it. And in fact, he criticized me in a conference I was speaking at and we saw each other in the hallway and there’s like 50 people around and in a very sarcastic way, he said, “Now why would I ever order a SPECT scan?” I looked at him and said, “So you’d stop guessing and you’d be a better doctor. And if you had any nerve, the next time before you criticize me again, you’d actually come to one of the Amen Clinics. See what we do and then you can criticize me with information.” And to his credit, he said, “I’ll do that.”

And he actually came to Newport Beach where I’m at. Got scanned and at the end, he wanted to open a clinic with me. And that’s how it goes when people get beyond their biases and they actually show up and see what we do. How do you argue against more information? I mean it’s basically what we do. It’s like, “Oh, but he makes money at it.” It’s like, “So when’s that a crime? “Right? I mean everybody else who’s a physician makes money at what they do. It’s crazy. The arguments against it are crazy. But we’re excited about it every single day and if you’ve talked to my wife, she’s like, “There’s no where we can go where people don’t come up and say how your work has changed their life.”

I mean so that’s really despite the criticism and comments like I’m a snake oil salesman, although what I always tell people is snake oil is 23% omega 3 fatty acids so maybe it’s not that bad of a thing.

Joe: You know what, I have got to figure out a way to actually use that, I love it. You know, I’ve never had anyone ever in my life quantify it at the levels of snake oil, so I guess if one’s in a pinch and they don’t have any official.

Daniel: Eat a snake.

Joe: Awesome. What are some of the things that people can do? I mean you’ve got all these best-selling books. Got a lot of PBS specials. What I really like about you is that you’re a marketer and I appreciate marketers because marketing to me doesn’t mean what it means to a lot of people, like, oh, it’s just a clever way to try to sell stuff.

I mean as far as I’m concerned, our good friend, Dan Sullivan, he defines selling as getting someone intellectually engaged in a future result that’s good for them and getting them to emotionally commit to take action to achieve that result. So in order to sell someone, you have to get them intellectually and emotionally engaged and then committed to taking action. And if you’re doing that in an environment where it’s good for somebody, that’s the most ethical, honorable, awesome thing that you can do, so you are a spreader of a message. You are a story teller. You are a person that goes out and publically takes this work and this knowledge and this insight and these proven methodologies and you do a really darn good job of getting the public to know about it. So they obviously do business with you and take action on what it is you’re offering.

So you’re just a really great marketer from that standpoint which is not what most doctors are normally like. You’ve got all these books. You’ve created this body of work. Where does someone start with it? I mean because I can’t imagine someone listening to this interview not saying, “I want to maybe check into this. Maybe I want to go to one of the Amen Clinics. I want to read one of these books.”

And I know there are all kinds of different areas that you focus on from how you feel from a happiness standpoint to diet, to exercise. I mean where does someone start with your work?

Daniel: You know, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life is a great place to start because it really talks about the science that underlies our work. If they want to be physically healthier either my book The Amen Solution or Change Your Brain, Change Your Body. They want to look and feel younger. I love my new book Use Your Brain to Change Your Age.

A lot of corporations use Magnificent Mind at Any Age. It sort of depends on where they start, the message really underline all of it’s the same. Is you can have a better brain and a better body.

Joe: I’m going to go through some topics; sleep, eating, exercise. Some tips and things that people can do on their own, and then I’m going to ask you about addiction, and ask you about self-destructive behaviors and how the brain plays into that and what to do about it. So let’s start with sleep. Let’s take the country we’re in right now, America. What’s a typical if you had to give a diagnosis of sleep in this country?

Daniel: So 60 million Americans have trouble sleeping, so that’s a fifth of us, that’s huge. Because sleep problems are associated with all sorts of negative things. People who don’t get five hours of sleep at night have three times the risk of early death.

Joe: Wow.

Daniel: Sleep related problems cause more accidents than alcohol related accidents. I used to think I was special because I could get by on four or five hours of sleep at night. Always very driven and then I realized I was just dumb and focusing on seven or eight hours of sleep is very important.

And how do you do that? And, you know, it’s funny because I talked about those three ways to optimize brain health; brain envy, avoid bad, do good? The same thing’s true for sleep. You have to have sleep envy. I want to have great sleep. I mean really see it as one of the vehicles for your brain to properly maintain itself.

And so sleep envy and then you avoid things that interfere with it. Stimulants during the day; caffeine, nicotine, sedatives at night, smoking pot or drinking. Yes, it can help you get to sleep but then your brain rebounds and it wakes you up in the middle of the night. Too many bad thoughts before bed, so you should never watch the news or be on the Internet before bed because you’re getting bathed in the negativity that goes along with that.

Joe: Can I ask you a question about that? Just the consumption of what people are exposed to; imagery, violent movies, negative news. I mean how much does that really affect everything from sleep to happiness levels to fear, paranoia’s, self-esteem, depression, anxiety?

Daniel: It’s huge. Another thing it’s doing that we should talk about is it wears out your pleasure centers. So whenever you watch a scary movie, an area in the brain’s very interesting is called your nucleus accumbens. It reacts to it, so when we talk about addictions, we’ll talk about it more. We don’t want to wear out your pleasure centers because then you can’t feel anything at all. You can’t feel normal.

But your environment has a huge impact because the brain often can’t tell the difference between what’s real and not real. That’s why we cry at movies. I mean why would you really like cry at a movie that because you actually get exported to that situation. Your brain is playing it like it’s actually happened to you, it happens to therapists all the time. We get something called compassion fatigue because as we listen to the trauma that you went through, our brain is playing it out as if we were there. Reporters get that as well if they go and cover the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan, they get compassion fatigue. So you have to be careful what you allow in your mind.

Joe: Interesting, okay.

Daniel: So avoid bad things, and that also is if you have light in your bedroom or your bedroom’s too hot. Brain tends to sleep better when it’s a little bit cool. Not having your cellphone where it can buzz and wake you up in the middle of the night or if you get a text messaging and you have a little bell rang.

Interrupted sleep is very hard on your body and then you do good things, so the room is dark and you know how to clear your mind. A lot of people have no discipline when it comes to their thoughts. I was at a conference speaking at the American Society of Training & Development and I watched this dance troupe at one of the big events and it was so beautiful the control they had on their own body and I’m like, “Oh, if I could only teach people to have that same kind of control over their mind.”

But when you go to bed, a lot of people can’t turn their thoughts off. And so all of the bad things that happen during the day, now they begin to replay them and so they can’t sleep. And so what I have people do is just focus on one thing, the number 1. Any color you want, but all I want you to do is think about that. The number one and if any other thoughts come in, your job is to imagine a big broom and sweep the thoughts away.

Now, if the thought won’t leave you, write it down so you’ll think about it later. Often, just the act of writing it down will get it out of your head. So having a little discipline around your thoughts at bed time can be really helpful. Also, certain meditations especially breathing meditations can help put you to sleep, or one of my favorite things to do is hypnosis.

I was trained on hypnosis when I was a medical student. I actually took a whole month off medical school. Came to UC Irvine and did a whole elective in it. It was great fun and when I was an intern at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, my patients, they all wanted sleeping pills because it’s hard to sleep in a big noisy hospital and I went, “Well, can I hypnotize you first and if you don’t fall asleep, I’ll leave an order for you to get a sleeping pill?” And all the patients loved that because they get extra time with their doctor which is unusual. I mean it only take me like 20 minutes.

And I prescribed half of the sleeping pills as the other interns so I was excited about that. And my first three published papers were on what happened to my patients when I would put them to sleep. So my first patient, his name was Fritz Perls. He wrote a famous book called The Forefront War about getting Jews out of Germany during World War II so he’s a war hero.

He has Parkinson’s disease and with Parkinson’s disease comes a bad hand tremor and he’s like, “Dr. Amen, I can’t sleep. Will you leave me a sleeping pill?” And I said, “I will but can I hypnotize you just to see if that would help to relax you?” And he’s like so excited about it. And so I do, but before he falls asleep in a trance, his tremor went away. In my mind, I’m like, “Holy shit. That’s so cool.” So I’m paying attention to it and the next morning, I saw him before going around and I’m like he said, “I just slept like a baby. Thank you so much.”

So when I was presenting his case to my attending Dr. Jabari I told him about what happened with the hypnosis, and Dr. Jabrari’s a neurologist. They have no use for psychiatrists and I was a psychiatric intern. And I’m telling him this, Dr. Jabari rolls his eyes and I knew what he was thinking. Psychiatric interns, and I’m like, “No.” I said, “Let me show you.” Because, you know, I can get excited and so in front of like the whole group, there’s eight of us. I put him in a trance, his tremor goes away.

Now he’s fully awake and I could see Jabari’s eyes now they’re getting big and later that afternoon, we did the same thing with him videotaping and doing an EEG on Mr. Perls while I’m hypnotizing him. It became my first professional paper. I was like so excited. And on our website so we have a community website called Amen Solution so theamensolution.com. I actually have one of the hypnosis audios specifically for sleep.

Joe: Wow, okay, very cool. I wanted to ask you about simply feeling happy. There are so many books that are written about happiness and about self-esteem. What role does the brain play into happiness? Are some people just born with a propensity towards being happy, positive and others negative and unhappy or is it?

Daniel: Well certainly there’s a genetic predisposition to it, but our sloppy thinking has a lot to do with it as well. Now, depression isn’t one thing, its many different things. So what makes people sad or what makes people happy, you have to look at it really from a bio, psycho, social even spiritual standpoint. So from a biological standpoint, if you had a head injury, the left side of your brain, you’re less likely to be happy because that’s sort of the happy area in the brain.

If you have a low thyroid, you’re not going to be happy. If your iron levels aren’t good, you don’t produce enough dopamine, you don’t feel that happy. So making sure your brain and your body are physically healthy clearly goes with feelings of happiness. Psychologically, are you good at correcting the negative thoughts you have? I call them ANTS automatic negative thoughts.

In fact in my office, I have ant puppets and anteater puppets because I play with it with the kids. ANT stands for automatic negative thoughts and you don’t have to believe every stupid thought you have. Depression really is an invasion of negative thinking that you’ve never corrected, and so teaching people how to identify and correct their negative thought patterns is so important.

And then socially, the people you hang out with really matter. If you’re hanging out with people who gossip, who are unhappy, who are negative, you’re just more likely to feel that way too. I mean there’s a real group thing going on the who’s very contagious. And then spiritually, what does your life mean? If your life doesn’t mean anything and you’re just here by random chance, you’re less likely to be as joyful as if you’re actively engaged in meaning work or meaningful purpose. But I want to say this because the don’t worry, be happy people, they’re the quickest ones to die. They die earlier than everyone else.

Great research on this. That the people that are just like concerned about their health, they live longer than everybody else. The don’t worry, be happy people die from accidents and preventable illnesses. So I used to always want to be when like my older brothers, a don’t worry, be happy person just plays a lot. I always wanted to be with him because I’m fairly intense and driven and, you know what I do is important and I’m like, “You know, damn. I want to be like Jimmy.”

But Jimmy’s like 150 lbs. overweight and I then read this study that they started at Stanford. They look at 1540 10-year-old children in 1921 and they followed them for 90 years, and what they found was the Jimmy’s of the world, they die early from accidents and preventable illnesses. So happiness may not be goal. Happiness is usually a byproduct of having an engaged life.

Joe: Interesting. I love the automatic negative thoughts things, we’ll come to that in a minute. Eating and exercise. Everyone has their take on it. People probably that are listening to this have probably in their life read many diet books, maybe been on many diets, in and out of different exercise programs. We’re looking around this country, the health of people is just deteriorating, it seems to me just on a daily basis getting worse and worse, which there’s many things that feed into that from lifestyle to processed food to everything.

If you could give some recommendations through a subject that you’ve really written lots about, elegant ideas, thoughts, insights, in a few minutes what would those things be for people to improve?

Daniel: Well there’s no reason to not exercise. You look at the research, exercise is associated with all sorts of good things cognitively, emotionally, physically but not too much. So that’s the one surprising thing I would say. If you stress yourself with exercise, you’re doing too much and it hurts your brain. So one of my closest friends died recently, he was 56, was a marathoner and he said, “I’m an outlier,” because I said, “Marty, what’s the matter with you?” He eats like crap. I’m like he said, “I’m an outlier. I exercise so I’m going to live to 120 and eat like crap.” 56, he died in his sleep. I mean it’s just really horrifying.

Over exercising is bad for you because it causes too much stress. I actually see it on the brain scans we do that it’s toxic. So I tell people, “Walk like you’re late 45 minutes, four or five times a week and lift weights.” Because the stronger you are as you age, the less likely you are to get Alzheimer’s disease and in my last PBS special, I put 22 lbs. of weight around my waist and did eight pull ups. And the only reason I put it in my special was when I figured out that I could do that, I had my trainer take a video on my iPhone and then when I got home, I showed it to Tana, my wife and she’s like, “That’s female porn.”

And I’m like since most of the audience in my PBS specials are women, I’m like, “Well that can be a cool subliminal message.” They’re all going to get this program for their husbands because it will turn them on. But I do that because I know it’s good for my hormone balance, and to keep my brain healthy. You know, how crazy? Having good arms is actually good for your brain as long as you’re not doing the stupid things that muscle heads do. You know, steroids and drinking and all that.

Food is so important, that the food you put in your body you almost have to think of it like a sacrament, because you’re nourishing the cells that make you who you are. I like to say, ‘If you had $1 million racehorse,” or now, you know, I don’t know how much I’ll Have Another is worth but a lot of money, maybe $20 million. Would you ever feed a horse junk food?

So, “If you had $20 million horse, would you ever just come by and give it a Snickers bar? Or would you get it a burger from a fast food giant?” Only if you’re an idiot, right? I mean only if you’re flat out stupid. We do that to ourselves all the time. Even though we’re worth so much more. I have some simple rules about eating, whole high quality calories and not that many of them. There’s a lot of research on you over eat. It’s just bad for everything. Water; 80% of your brain is water so clean water is important.

Now, I actually don’t like water, so what I do is I’ll squeeze a lemon, put just a little tiny bit of Stevia in it. Now I have lemonade, no calories. I’m totally good. I’ll drain that in a minute. Whole high qualities not that much. Water, lean protein. I’m not a vegetarian and wouldn’t recommend it because the brain actually started to grow after humans started eating meat, so meat is loaded with nutrients that we need for our health.

But, it needs to be hormone free, antibiotic free, free range, grass fed. And people go, “But that’s expensive.” Yes, but if you eat the way I tell you to eat, you’re only eating half of it so it’s a wash and it’s less expensive because being sick is really expensive. The Cheapest food is always the most expensive food. Smart carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are not the enemy, it’s bad carbohydrates that are the enemy. Carbohydrates that are refined and filled with sugar, and even gluten is just not good for you. Even though gluten’s a protein that’s often found in wheat. So a lot of my patients I put them on a milk free, wheat free diet especially if they have any issues with pain or GI issues. So what’s a smart carbohydrate? Think low glycemic, high fiber.

So take a look, glycemic index is how fast does a food raise your blood sugar? And I like to keep that number under 60, and so for people to learn more about that, they can either look at one of my books or go to glycemicindex.com and fiber helps you digest food. It helps things move along. It’s been shown to actually balance your cholesterol levels.

Healthy fat; the worst thing we did in this country is went on low fat diets because your brain, if you took away the water, 60% of the solid weight of your brain is fat so if someone calls you a fathead, say, “Thank you.” Because it’s totally true.

High cholesterol will kill you, but did you know low cholesterol will kill you as well? It’s associated with both homicide and suicide. So if you’re in a party and someone’s bragging because they’re on a statin, that their cholesterol level’s 90 be really nice to that person. Eat from the rainbow; so that means put foods in your diet of many different natural colors because they’re loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants, and then cook with brain healthy herbs and spices.

Foods medicine; sage, for example is A level scientific evidence that it boosts memory. Saffron has been shown to have an antidepressant effect. Turmeric; from curry has been shown to decrease the plaque thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. So just some simple rules to help people think about food.

Joe: There’s a tremendous amount of overweight people in the country, talk a little bit about what you’re doing. I mean and even Time Magazine in June in 2012 featured a story where they talk about you and The Daniel Plan that you’re doing with Saddleback Church and Rick Warren. I mean you’re very involved in helping lots of people lose weight, so what are you doing and how do you do it?

Daniel: Well it was the summer of 2010. I just finished writing my book The Amen Solution: The Secrets to Being Thinner, Smarter, and Happier. It was my second book connecting physical health and mental health, and I go to my own church where I tell Tana and drop Chloe off at children’s church and I’ll go save us seats.

And I walked by hundreds of donuts for sale for charity, and I’ve been going to church since I was four years old. Today I’m just horrified by the donuts. On the other side of the donuts, there are bacon and sausage cooking on a grill and now I’m really irritated. And as I walked into the sanctuary, they were cooking hundreds of hotdogs for after church and I’m just furious.

And as I sat down, the minister started talking about the ice cream festival they had the night before and now I’m crazy upset. And when Tana found me in church, I’m typing on my phone. She hates that. She just hates the iPhone. She thinks the iPhone’s the other woman, and she gave me that look that only your wife can give you like, “Why the hell are you on this thing in church?” And so I showed her what I was writing, “Going to church, got donuts, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ice cream. They have no idea and this is all in CAPS, they’re sending people to heaven early, It’s not the plan.” I was furious. And I prayed that God would use me to change the culture of food at church.

Now where that prayer came from, I was just irritated. No lie, two weeks later, Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church calls me and you know Pastor Warren. He’s the author of the Purpose Driven Life. Sold 40 million copies worldwide. It was the world’s best-selling book four years in a row. Saddleback’s one of the largest churches in America and he’s like, “Dr. Amen, last Sunday I baptized 867 people. Halfway through, I realized I’m fat. We’re all fat and I’m the worst example.” So he said, “Would you help me get healthy and get my church healthy?”

So I teamed with Mark Hyman and Mehmet Oz and we created something called The Daniel Plan for the church which was a 52-week program to get the church healthy. And it’s beautiful because it’s the smartest health plan I know because it includes good science from the three doctors, brain health which my part. We did it in community so we actually got better together, and we did it not just for ourselves but to glorify God and our purpose on Earth.

So it’s beautiful because it’s a biological, psychological, social and spiritual program that had been widely successful. 15,000 people signed up for our plan and over the first year, they lost about 250,000 lbs. but losing weight was a side effect. I mean it was a stunning side effect of really getting healthy. Because the stated goal of this was not for you to lose 10 lbs. It was to get control of your brain and your body for the rest of your life.

Joe: Awesome. So how would someone learn how to do what it is all of these people are doing to lose all that weight? What would they start with?

Daniel: Well, they can read my book, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age. The last chapter is all about The Daniel Plan and how it came to be and what were the principles? How do people get better together? They can get on The Daniel Plan’s website.

Joe: The one area that I think is most fascinating which I think brain imaging has done a tremendous amount of work on it. I first saw this from you is in the field of addiction, and that an addict’s brain shows up differently than a non-addict’s brain. What causes addiction? Is it a brain disease?

Daniel: Well of course it’s a brain disease, but it’s not one thing. So we should start there. Like depression’s not one thing, addiction’s not one thing, and ultimately it’s you brain that controls everything. And people that don’t look at the brain can come up with all sorts of interesting explanations about behavior that just have no basis in reality, sort of like Freud. If you’re blaming unrepressed or repressed sexual impulses for everything but you’re not looking at the brain, forget it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Or you’re blaming mothers for schizophrenia or autism or bipolar disorder. I mean it’s easy to do when you don’t look at the brain. When you start looking at the brains of addicts, you realize, one I mean if you’re talking about drugs and alcohol, it’s flat out toxic to the brain and you’re not getting better until you rehabilitate the brain.

But what we’ve discovered is addictions are not one thing. There are at least six different kinds of brain patterns associated with addicts so they’re impulse addicts who can’t impulse to do something when they get it. They’re compulsive addicts; can’t stop thinking about it. They’re impulsive, compulsive addicts which is very common. They’re sad addicts and they’re anxious addicts, and you would have to sort of know what your type is in order to get to get to the best treatment for you.

With addictions, one of the things that happen and this can happen with sex or food or gambling or alcohol is as this thing, we get hijacked by is we experience it over and over. Let’s take gambling. The process of how people become addicted to gambling is they have a big first win and they love it. So always pray when you go to Las Vegas that you lose because you’ll always have more money in your life than you win, because if you win, a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens I think of it like the pleasure button in your brain. If it gets pressed on too much then it’s going to start to crave that feeling over and over again. The problem is when you get the first big win, you get excited and you want to repeat it, but the more you repeat it, the less you feel so it becomes sensitized.

And it then requires more and more in order to feel anything at all, and that’s a really bad place because most addictions, they don’t go after the euphoria, they go after not feeling bad anymore and it’s a big problem. And I’m really worried that our children are going to have more problems with addictions because we’re wearing their pleasure centers out; Gameboys and fancy cellphones and iPads.

I did an article recently with Parenting Magazine where it’s not the cellphone’s bad for kids, it is playing on your cellphone while you’re on the iPad while you’re watching TV is bad for kids. So it’s the multiple device problem that’s happening all at the same time that is problematic. So I think to rehab addictions, it’s critical to rehabilitate the brain.

If someone’s had a brain injury or someone’s had toxic exposure either from an environmental toxin or from drugs and alcohol, it’s critical to work to rehabilitate that brain while we are teaching them the steps to beat addictions. It’s like the big missing piece. Hardly anybody besides me is talking about how to create a brain healthy treatment program. On my mind, it’s just psychotic to do anything less.

It’s 12 steps, great. Very helpful for many people. Totally a software program. If you do that, where people have hardware problems you’re not going to be nearly as successful is if you do that along with a brain optimization program.

Joe: Yeah, this is interesting too because I mean out of all of the things that are out there. What has had the longest term success and has helped literally millions of people are 12 step programs, and again for what you’re saying and from what I’ve learned, doing that in conjunction with working on the hardware and the software at the same time is going to obviously give you the best possible chances of success.

What is happening with 12 step groups in the people that it really does help, why is that so helpful to so many people? The mutual suffering that is being shared. The sitting in the community and talking? What is that doing in the human brain to change it in the ways that meditation help change the neuropathways or whatever? I mean what is actually taking place?

Daniel: Well you’re replacing the pleasure of the drug or the activity with the pleasure of connection. And as a species, we are a pair bonded species. I mean we’re a social species. You know, it’s different. 12 step wouldn’t work at all polar bears because they just like don’t care.

So it’s that connection, and that’s what worked with The Daniel Plan. I mean one of the things that worked was people got better together. You know, if I say I’m going to work out to myself I may or may not do it. If I say I’m going to work out with you, I’m generally going to do it because I don’t want to disappoint you so there’s a whole social dynamic that is very helpful.

Joe: You have levels of accountability and stuff like that. So you talked a little bit about different devices, electronic devices. All the texting that’s going on while people are driving; the intraconnectivity. What is happening to the brain, what have you seen over the last seen decade, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, the internet didn’t even exist and we now have generations of children growing up, this is all they know. I mean they’re connected all the time. What’s happening to the brain?

Daniel: Well, you know, we have to be careful with that because no one’s really studied it. We’ve unleashed this technology on now generations of children and nobody knows. I know from my grandson, when he was eight months old, he could turn on your iPhone and go to an app, oh my goodness. And we realized, he’d get upset if he couldn’t have it. And so we just had to take it away from him, and you know after a period of withdrawal, he’s done fine. But it is important to be really thoughtful in how we use this technology.

Technology’s not going away, but there’s clearly a point and I’ve seen it with kids who get addicted. They act just like addicts. They cheat, they lie, they steal, it’s dangerous. We actually scanned one of my patients who was a video game addict and when he was playing the game, his brain went into a more violent state, it was really scary. After his parents took away his computer, he had broken his bed in his room and he’s normally like a really nice sweet kid. These devices are rewiring the brain and it may not be in a good way.

Joe: I think there’s a huge link between addiction in that sort of programming that is actually taking place and you know the reason this is such an interesting topic to me is I see a huge link between highly successful people and self-destruction. I mean even William Styron, saying his name right. He wrote Darkness Visible about depression and about the huge link between some of the world’s most creative artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs and suicide and depression.

Do you see a link between creativity and self-destruction? Is there even a way to explain that or is this just Joe Polish piecing it together and that’s my perception of it?

Daniel: You know I see a lot of very successful, very wonderful creative people are not filled with mental illness. Then, like everybody else, you can point to those special people who have both. But, you know, the people who aren’t very smart have both too.

Joe: Right.

Daniel: And the people who are not very successful have both. So the scientific way to explain creativity and madness is they have more access to the right hemisphere and less access to the left. So the left side is generally thought of as the happy side. Right, more creative but more anxious, fearful and mournful side. If you fall out of a second story, I always recommend fall on your right side. You’re going to be in denial that you have a problem. You may be less creative but you’ll still be happy. If you fall on your left side, you could try and kill yourself. It’s just that clear.

Joe: Wow, wow, Interesting.

Daniel: Practical neuroscience.

Joe: Some of the things that you most recently have worked on I mean just in the last week there was an article in the Washington Post about your work with NFL players and the damage that certain sports, in this particular case football does on the human brain. You’ve got all kinds of people that are listening to this that have children, have probably played sports. What have you discovered?

Daniel: Don’t let them play football. Children should not play contact sports, this is really clear. Your brain is soft, about the consistency of soft butter. Your skull is really hard that has many sharp bony ridges. Football’s a brain damaging sport. We published the largest study on active and retired NFL players.

When we first started our work, the NFL was in active denial about the problem, and if you don’t admit that you have a problem, you can’t do anything to solve the problem. So at least now, they’re out of denial. It’s just too dangerous. Golf is good. Tennis is terrific. Table tennis is the world’s best sport. Your brain is not finished developing until you’re 25. I just think doing any activity that puts you at risk for brain damage is just not the sign of intelligent life

Joe: So there could be a lot of people hearing that and saying, “I mean that is totally wimpy advice. You know, I’m a boxer or MMA fighter, you know, I want to play soccer and football and baseball and you’re just basically saying well yeah, but you’re going to pay the price for that?”

Daniel: See, I don’t think it’s wimpy advice at all. I think if you really want to be a man, you do the smart thing. You don’t do the impulsive stupid thing because what kind of father are you going to be? What kind of provider are you going to be? What kind of CEO are you going to be? I know we’re sort of in a testosterone driven gladiator society, and if you listen to some of the sport talk shows, there’s that kind of pervasive attitude. But I just don’t see how it’s smart to encourage or put yourself at the risk for brain damage.

If you believe your brain controls everything you do and when it works right you work right, and when it doesn’t you don’t. And I’ve scanned and treated more NFL players than anybody I know and these guys are suffering. This is not a joyful life, even though all of us growing up, we wanted to be like them, right? Because they got the girl, but the problem is they got the brain damage along with that and I love the players that I’ve seen, many of them are just wonderful. But, you know the vast majority of the ones I’d seen, sort of wish they didn’t play. Not all of them but a lot of them.

And Kurt Warner recently just came out and said he wouldn’t let his kids play. Now that’s a sign of intelligent life. If you knew then what you know now, see I loved playing football in high school but would I let my kids? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t let them do cocaine if I could help it. Why would I let them be involved in a brain damaging sport?

Joe: Makes a lot of sense. So what do you think these discoveries which are relatively new and literally, you’re on the cutting edge. You’re kind of the guy leading this up. What do you think’s going to happen to psychiatry 10, 20 years from now as a result of many discoveries? Many that you’ve made as a result of this? How are people going to deal with all kinds of problems from depression to anxiety to addiction to weight loss, exercise?

Daniel: If I was in medical school today and I was picking what I would be, I would totally be a psychiatrist because we have more room for growth than any other field in medicine. I think 30 years from now, it will be radically different. We’ll be using imaging and genetics and we will integrate mental health with physical health. So we’ll be looking at things like iron and your thyroid and optimizing your weight because that has a huge impact on brain function. We are going to become brain health specialists that can integrate biological, psychological, social and spiritual

Joe: Okay, and one thing I failed to mention probably because I probably a little bit of ADD is about the subject of ADD, because I kind of make a joke about it every once in a while and so many of my entrepreneurial friends. Do you find entrepreneurs is it just a buzz word that they use or are they really sort of distractible and ADD and I know you’ve done a lot with ADD, ADHD and recommendations for that?

Daniel: You know a high percentage of CEOs have ADD but not COOs so people who follow through, you don’t want them to have ADD. So ADD, short attention span, distractibility, impulse control problems, disorganization and they’ve had it for a long time. It’s not new. I mean if it’s new, you have to wonder, did they have a head injury or some sort of toxic exposure? It is associated with low activity in the front part of the brain. The part of the brain, they call it the most human thoughtful part of the brain, and when it’s low it interferes with their life because they have problems with impulse control and they get distracted easily, and they’re off task and they have trouble finishing things. Lots of ideas and that’s what makes them good CEOs, but trouble with follow through and staying on task.

The natural ways to help it? I mean if I was like an evil person and I wanted to make all the ADD children worse, what would I do? I’d give them a high sugar diet and give them lots of wheat, lots of artificial colors and dyes. I would let them watch all the television they wanted, let them play all the video games they wanted. Deprive them of sleep and exercise.

Joe: Which is what a lot of people do.

Daniel: If you want the natural way to treat ADD, intense aerobic exercise. Think Michael Phelps, eight gold medals last time and diagnosed with ADD. Didn’t want to take the medication, at six he really treated himself with intense aerobic exercise, so that really helps. Fish oil can help. Especially fish oil more toward the EPA side.

So there are two types of omega 3s; EPA and DHA. DHA is sedating, EPA is more stimulating. Tends to help more with focus and omega 3s that we make, it’s actually made with a higher level of EPA. A higher protein, lower simple carbohydrate diet can be really helpful, so how you feed them is really important.

And sometimes some simple supplements. Zinc can be helpful, magnesium can be helpful, and if the simple things don’t work then medicine’s not the enemy. It’s just not the first thing.

Joe: Mastermind, my 25K group and just blew everyone away and we’re talking some really, really sharp entrepreneurs and you’re a fantastic speaker and you’re a great packager. You really have something valuable to share with the world and you do a really great job of doing it.

So I consider you a great marketer and since I’m going to put this as a bonus episode on I Love Marketing one thing that’s awesome about you is that you’re not too cool for school. You educate yourself. You’ve learned about a lot of different areas and you’re a student, and a lot of doctors I’ve met are not.

I mean they’ve gone to medical school, they’ve learned a lot but they kind of don’t learn how to be a businessman and how to be an entrepreneur so you do a lot of work with entrepreneurs. Why do you like marketing? What are your thoughts on marketing? Since I Love Marketing, I figured I should ask the guy who really is a great marketer and tends to have an appreciation for it and is good at it. What are your thoughts on it?

Daniel: Well if you have something that you’re passionate about, that you love to do, you should be good at sharing it. I’m blessed and I do something that I believe in and I love that makes a difference. But I want to share it with as many people as I can, and if I’m not good at marketing, I’m not good at sharing.

So I don’t really think of it as selling, I think of it as sharing. Let me tell you the story of why I do what I do and how it could help you. I think it is my obligation to do. I know a lot of, you know, especially medical doctors, they just like hate it because they think it’s cheap somehow, and if people don’t know about what I do, I can’t help them.

Then you have to tell them in a way that they can hear it. Ad so when I do my public television specials and when I write them, I practice them like crazy. I’m always looking for what are the right words that get their eyeballs on me. That gets their attention so they’re not paying attention to their phone or mowing their lawn or why they’re irritated at their husband, but it’s like how can I get them engaged in the story?

Joe: Well that’s what I’m here for and that’s why I actually wanted to interview you so we can get more people aware of what you do, who you are and give them some direction on how to change their brain and change their life. So thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Daniel: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Your work has been very special to me.

Joe: Thank you. So I would like to at least leave what we’ve talked about I mean there’s so much that I would love to ask you but we could be here all week. For people that can get a brain scan, I highly recommend it, fascinating. When I first came here, it was very, very enlightening and you gave me some recommendations that had to do with hyperbaric and supplementation and we did a scan a little less than a year later and dramatic improvement in my brain, in my mood and how I felt about myself and clear improvement. And you’re hearing this all the time from people that go to your clinics, and there are people that can afford it and can come and do a whole gamut of things and there’s other people that may not be able to.

So recommendations for people out there on kind of where to start, and then talk about what you guys actually do here and how you actually help people.

Daniel: So if people are struggling and they’re not at their optimal self, coming to one of the clinics can be very helpful because you get more information and you get a plan on how to make it better. For most people, picking up one of my books, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age or Change Your Brain, Change Your Life or Change Your Brain, Change Your Body is a great first place to start just to fall in love with your brain and then learn what are the things to avoid and what are the things to do.

And how one of the things we didn’t talk about is what type of brain do I have and how do I optimize that specific type of brain? Then they can learn about us at Amenclinics.com, they can join our community where we literally have thousands of people who are interested in brain health and interact with each other, and use some of the brain training exercises we have.

Joe: And you have a ton of audio programs and stuff and videos so what are some of the best ones to start with? Because I know a lot of my listeners, they love listening to audio. That’s why they’re listening to this.

Daniel: Well my book Making a Good Brain Great is on audio and it won the audio file award for best book in it was 2006. It’s a wonderful book to listen to or Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, or they can get on our website and sort of browse the stores, see what would fit just for them.

Hidden content

  • Taking care and optimizing of your brain
  • Learning how to correct negative thoughts
  • How to clear your mind
  • Simple rules for eating
  • The role the brain plays to being happy

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