Brain Health

I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference where Dr. Daniel Amen, a neuroscientist from California, was the guest speaker. Dr. Amen has spent many years learning about the brain through the SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging he does of the brain. Through imaging the brain, he is able to see what part of the brain is healthy, underactive, or overactive. Along with this, he is able to diagnose issues that people have as a result of how their brain is working. He can identify a brain that has depression, anxiety and many other things by looking at the blood and activity patterns found in the brain. I thought I would give you an overview of the conference and his presentation.

The brain is involved in everything we do – how we think, feel, and act. It affects how we interact with others. If your brain is working right, you work right and if it isn’t working, you will have troubles. That is why Dr. Amen wrote the book, Change your Brain, Change your Life (Daniel G. Amen, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, 1999). The brain is a very complicated organ and although it is only 2% of your body weight, it uses 20-30% of the calories you intake on a daily basis. We lose 85,000 brain cells per day. Aging occurs when we lose more than we make. Of course, all of this should get our attention.

Smoking and drinking both affect the brain significantly. People who drink everyday have smaller brains and the size of the brain does matter in its function. Alcoholics double their risk of Alzheimer’s. Smoking restricts blood flow to the brain, causing the skin to look older and crinkly. And this is how it causes the brain to look as well. Caffeine also restricts blood flow to the brain, dehydrating it. Our brains are 80% water so being hydrated definitely affects our brain function. Other behaviors that affect our brain and its function include excessive chronic stress, sleep deprivation (less than six hours of sleep decreases blood flow, affecting how the brain works), and negative thinking. Negative thinking causes the brain to be clumsier and disrupts how the brain works.

Dr. Amen believes that we should start teaching our children about correcting negative thoughts in 3rd grade. (I think he is right because as adults it is much harder to do this). He calls the automatic negative thoughts ANTS and teaches children and teenagers how to identify these negative thoughts and how to change them. Did you know that when you focus on what you do not like, it deactivates the temporal lobes? And by the same token, if you focus on positive, gratitude things, the executive function, the prefrontal cortex of your brain, becomes engaged and working. The executive function is the director of the brain. It helps you focus, have forethought, impulse control, organization, planning, judgment, empathy and insight. It manages your life. Plus, when you focus on negative thoughts, negative chemicals are released into your body that make you feel bad; when you think about positive thoughts, positive chemicals are released into your body. Fear causes the cerebellum to deactivate and increases confusion. Gratitude activates the cerebellum. The cerebellum involves both mental and physical coordination.

Your thoughts affect your brain health. Interpersonal psychotherapy can enhance brain function because it works on changing how you think, how you see life and how you interact with others. It helps your relationships be more positive. Longevity is enhanced with positive relationships. Brain problems often interfere with relationships and loving someone. Dr. Amen encourages all of us to observe and pay attention to our own negative thoughts, noticing more of what we do like in our life than what we don’t like. I found this to be very exciting information because I believe so strongly in monitoring and changing how we think so that we maintain a more positive outlook on life. But now we know that physically our brain responds to this in both a negative and positive manner, depending on how we choose to have our thoughts go.

Social connections can affect brain health. Being involved in groups, family, and church organizations all help your brain. Other things that help brain health include new learning, healthy diets, fish oil and multi-vitamins, exercise, dancing, being in gratitude, meditation, and making love!

Yes, having sex can improve your brain function. After many years of doing SPECTS, Dr. Amen started doing brain SPECT imaging of the brains of couples. Through this he was able to see why a couple was having marital issues and consequently could treat the brain along with treating the couples in their interactions. He started to realize that healthy sexual activity was also good for the brain, which was supported by their brain SPECTS.

Sexual activity with a committed partner improves well-being by enhancing longevity, immune system function, joy, pain management, and sexual and reproductive health. It can reduce stress, improve your mood, give you better memories, help you stay younger-looking, and improve your sleep patterns. Sexual activity may be a preventive measure against heart disease and cancer. An orgasm causes a surge in oxytocin and endorphins that may act as a sedative. Orgasms also have an antidepressant effect because they calm down the activity in the limbic area of the brain. People who have regular sexual activity experience less depression. So if I have peaked your interest and you would like to read more about this, turn to Dr. Amen’s book, Sex on the Brain (Daniel G. Amen, 2007). It is packed with lots of information that is informative, easy to read and easy to put into daily practice. For our next issue, we will take one part of the brain and talk about what problems can be seen when it is unhealthy and what can help the brain function improve.

Daniel G. Amen, M. (1999). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. In M. Daniel G. Amen, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press.
Daniel G. Amen, M. (2007). Sex on the Brain. In M. Daniel G. Amen, Sex on the Brain. Three Rivers Press.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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