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?