Brains rule the world.
They run the stock market, huge corporations, the mom-and-pop shops down the street. Your brain governs everything you do: how you think, how you feel, how you act, how you get along with other people.
In my work as a physician, psychiatrist and professor, I strive to spread the message that if your brain works right, you work right.
And as medical director of the Amen Clinics, I apply brain imaging science to clinical psychiatric practice, helping people overcome depression, brain injury and other debilitating issues through rediscovering brain health. We do a study called SPECT Imaging that looks at blood flow and activity patterns, illustrating how well your brain is working. It’s very clear from over 73,000 brain scans that when your brain has trouble, you are much more likely to have trouble in your life.
Most people don’t even think about the organ between their ears, but as a leader, it is vital that you understand the effect of brain health on your ability to lead.
When you see the wrinkles on your skin or the fat around your belly, you do something to change how you look. But if no one tells you what to avoid that hurts your brain or what you can do to help it, you’re left in the dark. You can have the highest IQ and the best education and still find yourself washed up because no one has ever taught you to take care of your brain.
There are some powerful steps you can take to ensure that doesn’t happen—or to reverse course if it already has.
I could jump right in and talk to you about food choices and exercise habits, or even thought patterns that change the way your brain functions, but if you don’t have the motivation to actively pursue brain health, you might as well skip the rest of this article.
So before we get to solutions, ask yourself why you care. To consistently make the right health choices, you have to have a burning desire to keep healthy. And your motivation has to reach the emotional part of your brain, or you’re not going to be consistent with any of these behaviors.
I have an exercise I like that involves putting up anchor images that immediately remind you why you need to make good decisions. For me, it’s a picture of my 18-month-old granddaughter, who has a genetic disorder that makes her vulnerable to seizures and developmental delays. It’s very clear in my head that if I’m healthy and sharp, it’s in her best interest because I can guide my daughter and granddaughter through the medical system that she’s likely going to depend on for the rest of her life. When I think about the chocolate chip cookie or the french fries or the doughnut that are no damn good for me, the question becomes, What do I want? Do I want to make a good decision because I need my healthy brain to serve my family? Or does that not really matter to me?
In business, you must realize brain excellence is your competitive advantage—for both you and your team. Your employees look to you to set the example, and many of them may be struggling with brain illnesses. More than half of the U.S. population will have a mental illness at some point in their lives—attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance abuse. They cost the United States about $100 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity. And if you’re not motivated to keep yourself healthy, how will you stay motivated when the going gets tough for your team?
Now that you’re focused on the proper incentive to stay consistent, there are five essentials to optimizing the health of your brain: sleep, food, exercise, activity and positivity.
Sleep deprivation has been associated with events such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the British Petroleum oil spill, the Union Carbide gas leak and even the Challenger space shuttle crash. More than 100,000 U.S. traffic accidents a year are attributed to sleep deprivation.
As a leader, it’s vital to get enough sleep to function at your highest level. It is especially important for the prefrontal cortex, located in the front third of your brain, which is involved in CEO function: forethought, judgment, impulse control, organization, planning and learning from the mistakes you make. When there are problems with the prefrontal cortex, people have short attention spans. They get distracted; they’re impulsive, disorganized and don’t learn from their errors. It can cause some real trouble in their lives. These people tend to be brutally honest, which is usually not helpful and tends to drive away employees. (You should inhibit the first thought that comes into your head and think, Is this going to be helpful or hurtful in this situation?)
You can strengthen this part of your brain by getting good sleep. When you don’t get at least seven hours of sleep at night, you have low blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. This leads to bad decision-making capability.
Exercise benefits your brain in many ways—most essentially by increasing blood flow and raising serotonin levels.
The emotional brain, called the limbic brain, is involved with bonding, passion and motivation. When this area is unhealthy, you tend to get sad, negative, unmotivated, more socially isolated and less passionate. Exercise is amazing for this part of the brain, which relies on serotonin for proper function.
I recommend that you walk like you’re late for 45 minutes, four times a week. Also lift weights twice a week because the amount of lean muscle mass on your body is associated with longevity and overall health. And you should do coordination exercises like tennis or dancing to keep your brain active in learning new skills.
Whenever you learn something new, your brain makes a new connection. So being a lifelong learner both physically and mentally (like reading some of the books that SUCCESS magazine recommends) is essential. Playing brain games can also be really helpful—try Words With Friends, Sudoku or crossword puzzles. We also have an online community at TheAmenSolution.com where we can test your brain and then give it fun exercises to optimize it.
As we age, too many of us allow our brains to become less active, which is why people have brain fog and memory problems. But you need to know: That fog is not normal. If you’re having memory problems in your 40s, 50s, 60s—even your 80s—it’s a sign that your brain is in trouble. But with a little forethought, you can slow or even reverse the aging process in your brain using the behaviors we’ve mentioned here. How cool is that?
You have to avoid things that hurt your brain. It’s not rocket science—actually it’s some fairly sophisticated neuroscience. But one of the hardest things for people to avoid is the standard American diet. It’s high calorie, low nutrition, filled with bad fat, lots of salt and sugar.
You probably know you should avoid this type of diet if you want to avoid being overweight. And two-thirds of us are; one-third are overweight enough to be classified as obese. It’s a national crisis. But diet isn’t just about looking good. Eighteen studies now show that as your weight goes up, the size and function of your brain goes down. I always say, “That should scare the fat off anyone.” Obesity is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive dysfunction and, now, a smaller brain.
Brain-healthy nutrition is critical. Food can make you focused, vibrant, happy and trim or unfocused, sluggish, sad and overweight. In general, I advise a diet high in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables and low in refined sugars. It should include high-fiber carbohydrates and a nominal amount of fat from sources like olive oil, walnuts and fish. In addition, at each meal and snack you should strive to consume lean protein, such as meat, cheese, eggs, soy or nuts.
And for your brain’s CEO, the prefrontal cortex, the protein in your diet helps maintain a healthy blood sugar. Low blood sugar, which occurs during fluctuations of a high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diet, contributes to low function in this area.
A large portion of your brain is made up of DHA, a form of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. This fat helps your brain cells function properly, and it has been shown to promote positive mood. So indulge in fish weekly.
There are a couple of areas of the brain that are particularly affected by your food choices, so let’s take a look at those.
The brain’s gear shifter, the anterior cingulate gyrus, is deep in the brain near the front. It helps you with flexibility and cooperation. It also helps you shift your attention, seize options, go with the flow and be creative. When there are problems in the ACG, it’s usually due to low levels of a brain neurotransmitter called serotonin. People with low serotonin get stuck on thoughts; they worry, hold grudges and are rigid. They have to do things the same way, and they tend to focus on things that bother them. They are also argumentative and oppositional.
To fix this, or to help you be as flexible as you can, raise your serotonin level. Eating smart carbohydrates will do this. If you tend to be an over-focused person and you go on the Atkins Diet, which is high in protein-based fat, it makes you mean. You’ll do much better augmenting your diet with sweet potatoes, vegetables, a little bit of fruit and some brown rice. Even some simple supplements can make a difference; if you tend to be a worrier, use St. John’s wort. In some cases, pharmacologic support through antidepressants is needed, so consult your doctor if your symptoms are inhibiting your everyday life.
It’s important not to believe every stupid thought you have. I can’t consistently eat well because I travel too much. I can’t reduce stress because of my boss. My weight is in my genes. I can’t start now because it’s Friday. It’s Saturday. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. There’s always an excuse to hurt yourself with poor choices. Getting rid of the little lies that make you sad, depressed and feeble-minded is crucial to staying well and staying motivated.
I have a wonderful exercise to counter those negative thoughts that come into your mind automatically and ruin your day. Whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous or out of control, ask yourself what you’re thinking, and then talk back to it, like you’re a teenager talking back to your parents. (I was actually pretty good at that!)
You need to get really good at talking back to the thoughts going on in your head because they’re not protecting you; they’re hurting you.
For example, I recently saw Austin Andrews, who was one of the finalists on Season 11 of The Biggest Loser. He and his dad were a father-son team. Over eight months, Austin lost 174 pounds. That was an incredible feat. But he didn’t win the whole competition, so he thought, I’m a failure. Then for the next six months, he got depressed and put on 113 pounds.
He came into the Amen Clinic, and as we unraveled the patterns over those six months, we discovered that the one thing they didn’t teach him on The Biggest Loser was how to correct the stupid, negative thoughts that went through his mind.
If you don’t challenge and question that negativity, you believe it 100 percent and then act on it as if it’s true. Instead, question, evaluate and then talk back. This technique has actually been found to be as effective as anti-depression medication for people with depression.
Again, your brain is the origin of your personality, character, intelligence and every decision you make. It rules your world. By making choices that create a healthy brain, you’ll be happier, physically healthier, wealthier, wiser, and you’ll make better decisions—all good traits for a great leader.
How to Develop Resilience
If you want to be resilient—an essential characteristic of a leader—you have to boost your brain’s reserve and have very specific stress management practices. I focus on these five principles:
1. Claim personal control. You’re in charge. Stop blaming other people for how your life is turning out.
2. Nurture your relationships because you become like the people you spend time with.
3. Focus on what you like about your life more than what you don’t like.
4. Be goal-oriented but remain flexible to change.
5. Counter the negative thoughts that can flood your brain.
“When you don’t get at least seven hours of sleep at night, you have bad decision-making capability.”
Watch Your Head
The importance of avoiding brain trauma should be obvious, but head safety is often overlooked. At the Amen Clinics, we’ve actually scanned and treated 116 National Football League players over the years. The damage to their brains is associated with high levels of depression, suicide and dementia. Most people don’t know the skull is hard but the brain is soft; protecting it is essential. So avoid mixed martial arts, skiing, cycling or rollerblading without a helmet, and engaging in activities that can put you at risk for head injury.
Create a Brain-Smart Work Culture
As the leader of a company, you should realize your most important resource is the health of your employees’ brains. To do this, incorporate brain-healthy guidelines at work.
Start with nutrition; your company shouldn’t be spending money on food that hurts its employees. If you’re providing sodas at work, you’re not helping your bottom line. If you provide brain-healthy nutritional drinks and foods, your employees are going to be healthier and more productive.
Encourage exercise. Some meetings could be walking meetings.
Get people engaged in their health as groups because people tend to get better together.
Create champions of brain health—give them incentives to be educators in your organization.
Of course, the best way you can lead is by example; good habits start from the top. You can have an enormous impact, but you have to be serious.
In our clinics, we don’t keep candy on our desks because that’s not helpful. If we have vendors who visit us—we have a lot of drug reps coming in—and they bring cookies, we throw them out because they’re not helping us. If you want to bring us a great veggie tray, a fruit basket or raw nuts, we love you.
Isn’t it time you became the kind of leader who helps your team reach its potential?