Develop a Leader’s Mind

older couple boosting brain health through foods and activity

Brains rule the world, so it’s important to keep yours healthy.

Brains run everything; 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 educator, I strive to spread the message that if your brain works right, you work right. 

And as founder 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 200,000 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 you don’t hurt your brain—or to reverse course if you already have.

Why caring about brain health is important.

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 cookies or the french fries or the doughnuts that are no 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 an example, and many of them may be struggling with a mental illness—after all, in 2020 alone, 52.9 million people above the age of 18 were living with a mental illness, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. If you’re not motivated to keep yourself healthy, how will you stay motivated when the going gets tough for your team?

How to keep your brain healthy.

Now that you have a proper incentive to focus on and stay consistent, there are five essentials to optimizing the health of your brain.

1. Get plenty of quality sleep.

Sleep deprivation has been associated with events such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Union Carbide gas leak and even the Challenger space shuttle crash. As of 2017, more than 90,000 police-reported U.S. traffic accidents a year are attributed to sleep deprivation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

As a leader, it’s vital to get enough sleep to function at your highest level. It is especially important for the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in many of the tools CEOs use to function: forethought, judgment, impulse control and planning, among others. When there are problems with the prefrontal cortex, people have short attention spans. They get distracted; they’re impulsive and disorganized. It can cause some real trouble in their lives. These people tend to be brutally honest, which is usually not helpful and which 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, your prefrontal cortex experiences low blood flow, leading to bad decision-making capability.  

2. Exercise regularly.

Exercise benefits your brain in many ways—most essentially by increasing blood flow and raising serotonin levels.

The emotional brain—i.e., the limbic system—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. The amount of muscle mass on your body is associated with longevity and overall health. And you should do coordination exercises, like playing tennis or dancing, to keep your brain active through the learning of new skills.

3. Do activities that give your brain a healthy workout.

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, we may begin to experience 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?

4. Eat foods that are good for brain health.

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 and low nutrition, filled with bad fat and lots of salt and sugar.

You probably know you should avoid this type of diet if you want to avoid being overweight. And, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted between 2017 and March 2020, the percentage of obese Americans over 20 was 41.9%, with 9.2% classified as severely obese. It’s a national crisis. But diet isn’t just about looking good. Studies 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 can result in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive dysfunction and, now, a smaller brain.

The best foods to eat for brain health.

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 an increased risk of cognitive decline.

A large portion of your brain is made up of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a form of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. This fat helps your brain cells function properly. Plus, it has been shown to reduce depression—particularly when in combination with eicosapentaenoic acid. 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 (ACG), is deep in the brain near the front. It helps you with flexibility and cooperation. It—and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as a whole—also helps you shift your attention, seize options, go with the flow and increase creativity. When there are problems in the ACC, it’s usually due to low levels of serotonin. People with low serotonin get stuck on thoughts; they worry, hold grudges and are rigid. They have to do things the same way, they tend to focus on things that bother them and they are argumentative and oppositional.

To fix this, or to help you be as flexible as you can, raise your serotonin level. Eating complex 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.

5. Try to stay positive.

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 depressed and hurt your brain 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. 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 negative thoughts that went through his mind.

If you don’t challenge and question that negativity, you believe it 100% and then act on it as if it’s true. Instead, question, evaluate and then talk back. 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. These are all good traits for a great leader.

6. Develop resilience for brain health.

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.

7. Protect your brain from trauma.

The importance of avoiding brain trauma should be obvious, but we often overlook head safety. At the Amen Clinics, we’ve scanned and treated over 100 National Football League players over the years. The damage to their brains is associated with high levels of depression, suicide and dementia. The skull may be hard, but the brain is soft. Protecting it is essential, so avoid mixed martial arts, skiing, cycling or rollerblading without a helmet. And stop engaging in activities that can put you at risk for head injury.

8. Create a brain-healthy 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.
  • Engage people 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 a vendor visits us—we have a lot of drug reps coming in—and they bring cookies, we throw them out. Cookies are not a snack that promotes brain health. 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?

This article was published in July 2012 and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock

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Daniel G. Amen, MD, is a double board-certified psychiatrist, professor and 10-time New York Times best-selling author. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on using brain-imaging tools to help optimize and treat his patients. Amen Clinics have one of the highest published success rates for patients. His research was listed as one of the “Top 100 Stories in Science for 2015” by Discover magazine. He has written and hosted 11 highly popular shows about the brain for public television.

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