A Recipe For Brain Health…?
Updated: May 19, 2019
Daniel Amens book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain, comes across as patronizing and chock full of old-fashioned ideas about women’s roles and responsibilities in society, the family, and romantic relationships. A quick Google reveals that he’s been criticized as a quack for using SPECT technology to scan his patients’ brains, an expensive technique that, some say, unnecessarily exposes people to radiation when there is no scientific basis for his interpretation of the scans. He is also a “celebrity doctor” with a line of supplements for sale, and the author of at least 5 bestselling books, including another one that piques my interest- Change your Brain, Change your Life. If you’ve read it, let me know – any good?
Notwithstanding, Unleash the Power does contain some solid, common sense recommendations for getting and living healthy. A caveat: his book focuses on brain health, not mental health, and it doesn’t equate smarts or memory with “brain health.” Instead Amens’ book focuses on cultivating a healthy diet, sleep and exercise routines, and mental techniques to combat negative thinking and worry.
Amens’ healthy lifestyle recommendations all tie in to one concept: having “brain envy,” or, the desire to have a healthy brain and by extension, a long and healthy life. However these recommendations merely scratch the surface when it comes to what we can do to “unleash the power” of our brains. Presumably, our brains have more capacity than just being functional because we’re eating right and exercising. But Amens doesn’t go there.
“You worry about the wrinkles in your skin because you can see them. You fret about your waistline because zipping up your jeans is taking more and more effort. And you become concerned about the gray in your hair and make an appointment with the hairdresser because your roots stare back at you in the mirror. Your body gives you feedback when it is not doing well. Your brain, on the other hand, only gives you an indirect glimpse that something is not right when your mood is off, you can’t sleep, or you start dropping words that used to roll off your tongue.” P. 11. He has a point. I personally didn’t give my brain much thought until my 20’s, and didn’t start prioritizing its care until my 30’s. “Brain health” isn’t something our society talks about or focuses on.
Yet: the brain is the control center of the body, and arguably the most important organ we have. It’s extremely important that we protect and nourish our brains - That’s why I think this book is important.
Amens View of Women
I can’t help but talk about it, because reading this book made me uncomfortable at times. Amens expresses a mix of admiration and respect for women, but also a patriarchal viewpoint of the world and women’s role in it. For Amens, women play the role of the matriarch, the household queen bee and church-going community inspirer, who suffers from PMS and worrisome tendencies caused by hormones. Her responsibilities including bearing, caring for, and teaching children how to be healthy. Several sections really got under my skin and it was hard to identify why, but I think it’s because the author presumes that all women want to or will have families, and more than just that, that women are responsible for their families’ health outcomes – the entire family, not just the kids. He assigns this responsibility because this is what he saw first-hand in his own family growing up. Apparently, this is also what he sees in his community and current life as an older, American Christian male psychiatrist of Lebanese descent.
© Anne Taintor (I LOVE Anne Taintor 😊)
Amens posits that women are the lever for change in their families. “They’re typically the ones who plan the meals, and they are often the ones who coordinate household activities and oversee the children. Growing up with a powerful matriarch, I learned firsthand that when Mom gets health right, everybody else has the best opportunity to get it right too. And when Mom doesn’t get it right, that can have a truly devastating effect on both the physical and mental health of the whole family.” P. xiv. In this way, Amens encourages women readers to “fall in love” with their brains, to cultivate “brain envy” towards having a healthy brain, and thereafter be a positive influence on loved ones, families, and communities to engage in brain healthy habits.
Sex and Beauty
Towards the end of the book, Amens dives into how having beautiful thoughts and seeing beauty in the world – having a beautiful soul - is what makes women beautiful. For Amens, being healthy and happy do more to make a woman beautiful than merely having beautiful features. He cites gratitude and self-care as practices we women can use to become truly beautiful. The advice comes across as a bit belittling in tone, though there are underlying truths. A healthy diet free of alcohol, chemical additives, sugar and excessive salt; sufficient sleep; and routine exercise and strength training will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to looking and feeling more youthful and pretty. But the good doctor’s tone and word choice made me feel like he was reaching an arm out of the book and patting me on the head while cooing in baby-speak.
On sexuality, Amens discusses the appropriate hormonal balance for women to ensure a healthy sex drive, which I found interesting. A most curious tidbit, for me, was this gem: “for a woman to relax enough to have an orgasm, it’s necessary for her to feel safe and comfortable, and having warm feet is a big part of that. According to the researchers from the University of Groningen, having warm feet increases a woman’s chance of having an orgasm by 30 percent.” P. 289. 30%! And, women can bring themselves to orgasm just by thinking.
First off: I’m almost always cold in Seattle. Having lived in Miami, I joke (mostly truthfully) that I feel cold when it drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is pretty much all the time in Seattle – 8 months out of the year it’s consistently below 70. It also drives me crazy to have pants that stop short of my socks, or a pant/sock/shoe combo that exposes my bare ankles when it’s chilly. Cold ankles or feet chill the entire body. But who knew cold feet leads to, literally, “cold feet”! I’m rotfl about this one – and will be sure to share the insight with my partner.
Secondly: if women can bring themselves to orgasm just by thinking, I must not be using my imagination effectively. Curious to try this one out. Have any of you?
For me, 2018 was the year of the diet. I learned so much about dieting and health in 2018 that it was almost overwhelming at times. Amens says – and I agree – that “[t]he intestinal tract is virtually a second brain. The gut makes more neurotransmitters than the brain. Neurotransmitters are key biochemicals that regulate mood and energy.” P. 83. The food we eat is critical to our health – mentally and physically.
Amens describes one patient, Susan, who “thought she ate a healthy diet, but started most days with coffee and a bagel and had a terrible sweet tooth throughout the day. She wanted to work out but could not find the time and consistently drank two glasses of wine at night to relax.” P. 2. These are all habits that might seem innocent enough to those who haven’t learned about healthy lifestyle habits, but that are actually destructive to your brain.
Bread is full of simple carbohydrates that break down into sugars that have the same impact on your body as sweets. Sugar is the number one cause of diabetes and obesity in America. Sugar increases stress, reduces cognitive function in children, can cause chronic inflammation and raised blood pressure, and contributes to many other diseases such as heart disease, fatty liver disease, and tooth and gum disease. There is evidence linking sugar intake to acne, depression, cancer, and increased skin and cell aging. In the American diet, the top sources of sugar are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and pretty much all processed foods. But added sugar is also present in items that you may not think of as sweetened, like soups, bread, cured meats, salad dressing, pasta sauce, and ketchup. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.
The typical Western diet, or the “SAD” (Standard American Diet) “contains only fifteen different foods that contain an overabundance of bad fat, salt, and sugar – promotes inflammation and has been associated with depression, ADD, dementia, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.” P. 147.
Alcohol – also high in sugar – is also terrible for your body and your brain. “Studies have shown that one drink a day increases the risk of breast cancer in women. Research has also shown that people who drink excessively have a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, and stomach bleeding, as well as cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum. They may also have problems managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders, and they may increase their chances for contracting sexually transmitted infections from unsafe sex. Drinking too much also increases your chances of being injured or even killed. Alcohol is a factor, for example, in about 60 percent of fatal burn injuries, drownings, and homicides; 50 percent of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults; and 40 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes, suicides, and fatal falls.” https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/Whats-the-harm/What-Are-The-Risks.aspx.
As if that weren’t enough, “Drinking too much weakens your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.” https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body
© Healthline (article here)
Besides merely eating natural foods including lots of fruits and vegetables, and eliminating toxic foods and drinks like alcohol, Amens touts several key vitamins, minerals and herbs for various health benefits for women. I found the following lists interesting.
For hormone balance, he recommends:
Fish oil (2,000 mg a day)
Calcium citrate and chelated magnesium (to keep your nerves calm)
Zinc for testosterone and thyroid
And, to balance estrogen: Black cohosh, flaxseeds, and evening primrose oil.
Some brain healthy herbs and spices you can cook with:
Turmeric, found in curry, contains a chemical that has been shown to decrease the plaques in the brain thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease
In three studies, a saffron extract was found to be as effective as an antidepressant medication in treating people with major depression
There is good scientific evidence that indicates rosemary, thyme and sage help boost memory
Cinnamon has been shown to help attention and balance blood sugar. It is high in antioxidants and is a natural aphrodisiac
Garlic and oregano boost blood flow to the brain
Eat more ginger, cayenne, black pepper – the hot spicy taste comes from gingerols, capsaicin, and piperine, compounds that boost metabolism and have an aphrodisiac effect.
In sum: for a healthy brain, “[m]ake sure your food is as clean as possible…eat organically grown foods, as pesticides used in commercial farming can accumulate in your brain and body, even though the levels in each food may be low…eat meat that is hormone and anti-biotic-free; animals from which meat comes should be free range and grass-fed. It is critical to know and understand what the foods you eat have eaten…eliminate food additives, preservatives, and artificial dyes and sweeteners.” P. 156.
Combating Negative Thoughts
Amens claims that women’s brains “have five special strengths: intuition, empathy, collaboration, self-control, and a little worry,” that “have their dark sides.” P. 3. Every positive aspect of our characters can become twisted if taken to extremes, or if mis-directed. It seems to me that Amens has targeted these five specific characteristics to differentiate women from men, and to highlight the characteristics that can cause women to struggle in ways that men usually don’t. He focuses on worry and negative thought loops.
“If our thinking patterns are excessively negative, harsh, or critical, they will have a negative impact on our moods, anxiety levels, and ultimately on our ability to function successfully.” P. 59. Generational trauma can be passed down from survivors, conveyed unconsciously through looks, gestures, and even silences.” P. 59.
Amens has a term for harmful thoughts that can haunt women: “Automatic Negative Thoughts,” or ANTs. He breaks these ANTs down into nine types: always-thinking (i.e., “I’m always late!”), focusing on the negative, fortune-telling (i.e., predicting the worst), mind-reading (i.e., assuming someone else has negative thoughts about you), thinking with your feelings, guilt beating (i.e., “why did I do that! I’m so stupid!”), labelling, personalization, and blame. He then gives some examples of how you can reprogram your brain by identifying the underlying ANT you’re experiencing, reversing it, and telling yourself the reverse – positive - message. P. 169; 190. Battling ANTs in this way seems akin to giving oneself daily positive affirmations.
Another technique he discusses is called “the work.” “The work” entails asking yourself 4 questions about an ANT:
Is this particular thought true?
Can I absolutely know its true?
How do I react when I believe this thought?
Who would I be without the thought? (Or how would I feel if I didn’t have the thought?)
In this way, you can identify, question, and challenge your negative thoughts. You can recognize when a thought is harmful and choose to disregard it or replace it. I appreciate that Amens presents this task – combating negative thoughts – as equally important for brain health as eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, and etc.
When I was a teenager, I realized that mental hangups – negative thought loops – can prevent people from achieving their full potential. As an adult, I came to realize that this doesn’t just apply to people who are obviously struggling in life. Negative thought loops impact people who are successful, too. I’ve come to believe that it’s critical for success in relationships, your career, and in life to learn to control your thoughts.
How can we motivate ourselves for change? One exercise the author shares to motivate women to change for the better and improve their brain health is the “fork-in-the-road.” This is an exercise where you imagine a fork in the road leading to two alternate futures. The fork to the left leads to a future of pain, where you continue to age and experience brain fog, tiredness, depression, memory loss and physical illness. Presumably, the left fork is the result of not eating right, combating negative thoughts, getting enough sleep or exercising. The fork to the right is presumably the model path, which leads to a future of health: one where you have mental clarity, better energy, a brighter mood, great memory, a trimmer, healthier body, healthier skin, and a younger brain. P. 26.
I find the fork-in-the-road exercise somewhat sordid and exaggerated – but useful. No matter how healthy you might think you are, if you actually examine your behaviors - the amount of sleep you’re getting, how much tv or social media you consume, what you’re eating and drinking every day – I bet 95% of us would probably find we’re not being as healthy as we should be, and are engaging in at least some risky behaviors.
Amens identifies twelve modifiable health-risk factors to quit, in order to start treating your brain right:
high blood pressure
being overweight or obese
high fasting blood glucose
high LDL cholesterol
low omega-3 fatty acids
high dietary saturated fat intake
low polyunsaturated fat intake
high dietary salt
low intake of fruits and vegetables
P. 61. Again though, from my perspective, it’s useful to work on eliminating these health risks but not to obsess over achieving perfection by totally cutting them all out.
The better we treat our brains and bodies, the more “brain reserve,” or resiliency, we build. If we can motivate ourselves to love our brains and bodies, we can routinely make better choices and those choices will become easier and easier to make. Amens describes “brain reserve” as the ability to handle stressful situations without “racing for the candy bowl, reaching for a pack of cigarettes, or searching for solace in drugs and alcohol.” Those with healthier brains are more resilient to challenges– they have more “brain reserves” to rely on to get through hard times in life and overcome obstacles. P.17.
One way to make the right, healthy choices for yourself is to play the “then what” game: when you have a temptation or want to take a certain action (like staying up late watching movies, drinking alcohol at home after work, or wanting to eat a piece of cake) ask yourself the question: “then what”? What will you feel and experience after taking this action, what will be the consequences? Choose only to take actions when the results – the “then whats” – will be in line with your goals as to who you want to be and how you want to live your life.
“Boosting brain reserve may even be more important for the female brain, because according to some studies, women are more prone than men to dementia illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s.” P. 17. I don’t know about you, but I find Alzheimer’s terrifying. One of my deepest fears is losing control of my mind - going crazy or getting dementia. So it’s now on my list of “to-do’s” to work to build up my “brain reserve.” Brain resiliency is a skill that requires practice, just like concentration, memory, deep thinking, and self-control. The more you do it, the better you become at it. Charles Duhigg touches on how habits can be improved and self-control increased through adherence to routines in The Power of Habit (love love love LOVE that book!).
Men vs. Women
I find it interesting that Amens points out the biological differences between men and women’s brains. This provides support for arguments that biologically, women require different treatment.
In women, the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, is typically larger than in men. The PFC is “considered the executive part of the brain. The PFC is the most evolved part of the human brain; it is the center of focus, forethought, judgment, organization, planning, impulse control, and empathy, and it allows you to learn from the mistakes you make.” P. 31.
Men have more gray matter than women – 6.5x the amount – whereas women have more white matter than men – 10x the amount. What does this mean? Amens says that gray matter “thinks” but white matter connects different brain areas so that thinking can benefit from a wider range of information and the relationships between them. So, he says this indicates that men are likely to do more localized processing of information, while women draw on many areas at the same time. Thus women are more intuitive – as a result of our brain structures, we have the ability to pick up on more cues and connect them without even being aware that we’re doing so.
Amens discusses the research of one doctor, Simon Baron-Cohen, who differentiated male and female brain types. “The male brain relies on systemizing tendencies to figure out how things work. A man searches for the underlying rules governing why a system behaves as it does. The goal is to understand the system so she can predict what will happen next. The female brain is better defined by its empathizing tendencies, which are driven to identify what another is thinking and feeling so that an appropriate response can be made. A woman’s goal in this case is to understand another in order to predict behavior and form an appropriate emotional connection.” P. 42. These two approaches to problem solving are apparently evident in boys and girls even when they’re babies. It’s completely unclear to me how Amens or Baron-Cohen explain transgender or non-binary brains.
Amens says women make better bosses than men as a result of our brains. Women demonstrate:
Increased empathy (due to bulkier frontal lobes, apparently)
More focus on collaboration
More concerned about social cohesion of the group
Less risk-taking behavior (which doesn’t say much for how women fare as visionary leaders or executives)
Greater volume in part of the PFC which is the center of judgment, planning, empathy and impulse control. (which, unlike the other characteristics listed, is a physical trait).
All in all, Amen’s book takes the approach of framing women’s holistic health around one organ - the brain. I agree with the emphasis on diet, exercise, and combating negative thought loops or habits as an effective approach to improving womens’ health. While I think this is a useful framework, there are gaps in the health aspects covered which preclude the book from truly being “holistic.” For example, education and the importance of learning and mental stimulation aren’t covered at all, which I consider a glaring omission in a book that claims to explain how to “unleash the power of the female brain.” Socio-economic, gender, and racial issues aren’t considered. Women’s financial health and well-being aren’t discussed either.
If you don’t mind a somewhat patronizing tone about women’s brains and bodies, coming from a (presumably) white Judeo-Christian male with a patriarchal social perspective, I think you’ll find the book more inspiring and less off-putting than otherwise.