Use Your Brain to Change Your Age: Secrets to Look, Feel, and Think Younger Every Day
By Daniel G. Amen, MD
Crown Archetype, New York 2013
You may have seen Dr. Daniel Amen, the controversial integrative psychiatrist, who got his medical degree from the Oral Roberts University School of Medicine, on the PBS channel doing pull-ups on an overhead bar, embracing his younger wife, and talking about his many books on the brain. His presentations have been aired thousands of times all over the country in connection with major fund-raising. His PBS presentations are available on his website, amenclinics.com. He has also been featured on “Dr. Phil,” Larry King, “The View,” and other programs. In contrast to the general “bad rep” of psychiatry in this country, Amen seems like a breath of fresh air.
In his most recent book, however, there are no secrets revealed, just some standard health advice presented via other sources. The nonnutrition- related information discussed in the various chapters such as sleep, stimulating the brain with learning (brain workouts), exercise, and so on, is pretty standard. We can read similar information in other recent books on the brain by a series of MDs, such as Neal Barnard, David Perlmutter and Mark Hyman, among others.
Unfortunately, Dr. Amen is a member of the low-cholesterol camp and he recommends total cholesterol below 200 mg/dl. He says that “high cholesterol is obviously bad for the brain [no reference provided], but concedes having too little is also bad, as some is essential for making sex hormones and helping the brain function properly.” He does not define “some” and thinks that 130 mg/dl is progress. This is surprising because a body of research dating back forty years has shown that low cholesterol (160 mg/dl and below) is detrimental to the brain. Those with low cholesterol tend to die earlier, are at greatest risk of developing dementia, commit violent suicide and crime, are fire starters and self-mutilators. Those with the lowest levels of LDL cholesterol are at the greatest risk for Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Amen is the author of a series of books dealing with the brain: Unleash the Power of the Female Brain, Change Your Brain, Unchain Your Brain, The Brain in Love, etc., and this book is similar to the others. But unlike several other physicians recently publishing on brain health, such as Barnard and Campbell, Amen in his most recent effort does not promote a specific diet plan, but asserts that the best diet is “high in nutrients, low in calories, high in Omega 3’s and antioxidants.” He recommends eating with the acronym CROND in mind—calorie restricted, optimally nutritious and delicious food. (Sounds oxymoronic to me.) According to Amen this diet consists of lean meat, “good” fats, and five servings of vegetables per day. He is a strong proponent of “counting your calories” in opposition to the work of Robert Lustig, David Perlmutter, Gary Taubes, and others who have demonstrated that “a calorie is not a calorie.”
Use Your Brain presents a series of case studies. Each chapter opens with a short discussion of the patient’s history and relates to a specific topic, with the centerpiece of the chapter being the SPECT (single photon emission computerized tomography) scan of the person’s brain. He shows each case before treatment and after treatment based on the individual brain scans.
Dr. Amen’s dietary advice is to “eat like a gorilla, eating lots of fruits and vegetables,” and “to eat regularly.” He does recommend eating organic. He further advises to cut out junk food and the white stuff (sugar); to eat foods in season; and to buy hormone-free, free-range, grass-fed meats. He also recommends eating low glycemic foods.
So far, so good, but his breakfast begins with a smoothie of protein powder, green food powder, and fresh veggies and fruit. The best part of this advice is the fresh veggies and fruit because protein powders usually consist of GMO (genetically modified) soy protein isolate, or whey protein, which are highly refined, subjected to high heat and chemical treatments, and are of little nutritional benefit.
He recommends using salt “only sparingly,” avoiding caffeine, and using “brain healthy” spices in cooking. His protein recommendations consist of “lean, high-quality protein like beans, fish, tofu, turkey, chicken and . . . spinach.” Chicken skin, fatty cuts of meat, and organ meats are out.
Spinach, claims Amen, is nearly 50 percent protein (page 79)! However, nutritional sources state that one serving of cooked spinach (180 grams) contains about five grams of protein (Bowes and Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used). The USDA says that this amount averages out to about 2 percent protein. The main amino acids in spinach protein, glutamic and aspartic acid, are non-essential amino acids and can be made by the body without an external source. Transformed by an ion to glutamate and aspartate, they become the major excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain.
It seems that Dr. Amen is so fond of spinach that “ I use it instead of lettuce on my sandwiches for a huge nutritional boost.” If the spinach is raw, he is getting a part of his huge boost in the form of oxalic acid, which contributes to the formation of kidney and bladder stones, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia pain.
Amen advises limiting fat consumption to “healthy fats” which are found in fish, olive oil, grape seed oil, avocado, walnut and green leafy vegetables (and other vegetables). He tells us that the brain is composed of sixty percent fat but neglects to mention that this fat is mostly saturated, which does not appear on his “healthy fat” list.
He advises clients to avoid saturated animal fats and recommends lowfat dairy products. A high saturated fat intake according to Amen is a “modifiable health risk factor which should be decreased.”
Other chapters deal with exercise, better skin, better sex, memory, depression, aging and other topics. At the end of each chapter twenty tips are enumerated which deal with the topic of that chapter. The book is generously illustrated with many photos of brain scans, and Dr. Amen dedicates chapter ten to this discussion as well.
The SPECT scan, which is the focus of this book, is a nuclear procedure that requires the injection of a small amount of radioactive substance, Technetium99m (Tc99m), into a vein. At his clinics located across America, Dr. Amen uses the scan, priced at thirty-five hundred dollars per shot, as a diagnostic procedure when treating conditions from marital discord to exhaustion. Most insurance policies do not cover the cost.
Amen claims that SPECT imaging will help his patients with an ADHD diagnosis, “by evaluating whether or not the person has ADHD,” and “by determining the type of ADHD involved,” of which he says there are seven types, including “ring of fire.” Ring of fire ADHD is defined as “primary ADD symptoms plus extreme moodiness, anger outbursts, oppositional behavior, inflexibility, rapid-fire thinking, excessive talking, and high sensitivity to sounds and lights,” and “refers to the intense ring of overactivity that Dr. Amen has observed in the brains of affected people” with his SPECT scans (www.amenclinics. com). Although he emphasizes using natural treatments throughout the book, he also relies on using drugs like Adderall and Ritalin for this condition and recommends a battery of lab tests.
In a 2012 article in The Washington Post (wapo.st/18Rd6k0), Neely Tucker reports that Daniel Amen “is the most popular psychiatrist in America.” His clinics see at least twelve hundred patients per month. Last year he grossed twenty million dollars.
Psychiatrists have been looking for such a definitive test to identify mental illness for decades and the SPECT scan may be it—yet his colleagues are skeptical and even hostile. “Officials at major psychiatric and neuroscience associations and research centers say his SPECT claims are no more than myth and poppycock, buffaloing an unsuspecting public. A sham. Outrageous. Obscene,” reports Tucker.
Are these comments spurred by professional jealousy or are other researchers merely dinosaurs woefully behind the times? Some think Amen is a “pioneer, a trailblazer, who is twenty years ahead of the entire psychiatric field.” His colleagues may think of him with disdain but the public loves him, judging by the comments that followed this Washington Post article.
In his book, Amen provides a list of the seven “brain types,” and, to support the explanations of these types, shows SPECT scans of the “sad” brain, and the “impulsive” brain, among others. According to Amen, the SPECT scans help him identify areas with high and low brain activity in various mental illnesses.
But what if you can’t get a scan? Amen says that he has developed a questionnaire to help people predict what the scan might look like if they could get one. And based on this, he can recommend supplements—“the Amen Solution”—which he sells. He developed these supplements because “he wanted his patients and his family to have access to the highest-quality research-based supplements available.” However, his supplements contain magnesium stearate, titanium dioxide and soy, much like other mainstream products. He also recommends hyperbaric oxygen for some cases.
In his book and in his practice, his multiple vitamin of choice is “NeuroVite Plus;” for fish oil, “Omega 3 Power;” and vitamin D. All are his brands, of course. Throughout the book he unabashedly recommends his supplements, scans and other books, over and over, “Much like an infomercial” wrote several commenters on Goodreads.com.
Use Your Brain has no reference section to support the statements made in the chapters, except the few citations mentioned in the text. The references can be found on his website at www. amenclinics/com/uybcya but are not correlated with any pages in the text, identified only by chapters, or by topic. But is this important?
Amen may be a good storyteller and a good showman, but most of all he is a master marketer. He has succeeded in marketing himself, his books, his wife (as an expert nutritionist), and his services all on an unbelievable scale. His books feature many anecdotes to illustrate his major points, are an easy read, and offer some credible advice.
Although his nutritional advice may seem helpful, the fad and the fact are blended together. His advice on exercise, staying intellectually young, and other topics may be useful, but have you heard it before? Indeed, if you have some spare time on your hands and come across a copy, give it a “skim,” but this is no serious book to seek out.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2013.