About This Episode
The guest for today’s episode is the highly esteemed Dr. James Goodwin, Director of the Brain Health Network and Special Advisor to the Global Council on Brain Health. He is also the author of the book Supercharge Your Brain: How to Maintain a Healthy Brain Throughout Your Life which Tristan claims is the best book he has read so far in 2022.
In this episode, James talks to Tristan about how we can slow down aging and brain degeneration through our diets, physical activity, and social lives, and the things he discovered on his two-year journey to writing this book.
The Human Brain
People find it easy to give answers on how to take care of their hearts: try to lower your cholesterol, exercise, and stay away from fatty foods like pork chops. But when asked how they take care of their brains, a lot of people are stumped. This is ironic because the brain is many times more important than the heart.
The brain is a tremendous organ, composed of billions of neurons and billions of support cells. The connections in one human being’s brain would go to the moon and back. It is an organ that defies belief and science has still barely scratched the surface in terms of what is known about it.
Many scientists have tried to contribute to uncovering more of the human brain’s many mysteries, and James Goodwin is one of them. And he realized that not a lot of people have access to the existing information about the brain and how it works, so he wrote "Supercharge Your Brain" in such a way that ordinary people outside the scientific community can understand and enjoy it.
Bugs for the Brain and Food for Thought
Why is it that when we get upset, our digestion suffers? Phrases like “butterflies in the stomach” when people are nervous, or feeling their insides churn when they are afraid or threatened, are common. But why do we feel our feelings in our gut?
In the last decade, there has been more research about the gut-brain axis, or studies of how the bacteria in our bowels affect the brain, our mood, and how people think. And still, not a lot of people realize that “you are what you eat” applies to brain health as well.
James dives deep into explaining the role of nutrition in our brain health and mental health.
“One of the most important hormones or transmitter substances in the brain which helps to communicate across all those cells is called serotonin,” James says. “Serotonin is widely known as the ‘happy hormone.’ Now, you’d think serotonin would be made in the brain because it is so important. But that serotonin, 90% of it is made in the gut.”
He explains how serotonin enters the bloodstream and goes to the brain, making people feel good.
James also says that if you stress out the bugs (or bacteria) in your gut, that messes with the brain. Those “bugs” control how we feel and our mood, which then affects our behavior and thought patterns.
According to his research, 75% of food products in US markets today are composed of 5 types of meat and 12 plants. Back in the 1850s, if you went to a food market in New York, you'd find 300 different kinds of apples alone.
This narrowing of the human diet starves the bugs in the gut, which affects why modern humans, despite the advancements in technology, still show signs of early aging and why there are a lot of age-related diseases such as dementia.
Also, things like lack of sleep and chronic states of stress affect the healthy and balanced production of hormones by these bugs and throw the whole gut-brain axis into chaos.
Enough amounts of sleep and keeping as wide a variety of diets, and leading a lifestyle that doesn’t stress these bugs out help us build resilience and the ability to resist aging, maintain a healthy production of hormones, raise immunity, and reduce inflammation of the brain.
How sleep, stress, diet, and exercise affect the aging brain
As James says, “Our Western way of life does us no favors. It is almost like a ghastly experiment of sleeplessness, poor diet, low levels of activity, and lots of stress. And incrementally, day by day, this has an influence on how fast we age, which can be slowed down and even reversed.”
He cites an experiment by Kirk Erickson from the University of Pittsburgh, where they split people aged 45 and above into two groups: exercise and non-exercise groups. After a year of study, they found that the exercise group who engaged in aerobic exercises showed 2% growth in the hippocampus (part of the brain associated with learning and memory) in their brain scans. This is a 4% increase because the non-exercise group showed a drop in their hippocampus sizes by 2%.
“That’s a natural process—every year we lose 1–2% of the size of our brain. He [Kirk] had reversed it simply by doing exercise,” James says.
The recommended daily dose of exercise is 150 minutes of aerobic activity and two periods of strength or resistance training.
It is common knowledge that when we exercise, our muscles produce proteins that help build up the body. But those proteins (pepsin b and irisin) also switch on the BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in our brains, which promotes the generation of new brain cells. And this process doesn’t stop with age. Yes, protein production becomes less vigorous with age, but continued physical activity helps slow brain degeneration and reduces the risk of dementia.
"Abiding by simple things like exercise and healthy diet, good sleep, social life, rest, all these things, we can make sure the brain is producing new cells—you can keep it young,” James says. “I didn’t know all these things when I set out to write the book. It was a journey for me as well.”
And the good news is that some physical activities can be fun and pleasurable too. Like sex.
David Sinclair from Harvard University also studied a substance called resveratrol, which is found in red wine. What it does is reduce inflammation, which is the root of aging and most age-related diseases.
Inflammatory substances such as cholesterol, IL-6 (interleukin-6), and fibrinogen are higher among older people. These molecules go around the body and wreak havoc, especially in the brain, and they suppress the growth of new brain cells and accelerate the destruction of existing brain cells.
Moderate drinking, getting enough exercise and sleep, and having sex are all activities that help lower these inflammatory substances.
James also interviewed famous nutritionist Chris Talley. Chris is friends with Luke Aikins, a professional skydiver who is the first ever to jump off of an aircraft without a parachute. Chris wanted to know how the stress of that event would affect the blood chemistry of his friend, so after the jump, he took blood samples from Luke and tested them.
Chris found that the stress vitamins in the body (Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C) had been zeroed out, and Luke’s stress hormones, such as catecholamines, adrenalin, noradrenaline, and cortisol, were through the roof. He was even surprised to find cortisol in his blood because it is associated with long-term stress—apparently Luke had been worried for weeks prior to the jump.
“That taught me a lot. The conditions of our lives and the chemistry of our bodies can do huge amounts to counter aging, look after the brain, and feel and think better,” James shares.
Chris also taught him about the importance of having a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 in the human diet. Omega-3 is vital for the brain. If you take a human brain out and dehydrate it, the material left would consist of 60% to 80% omega-3, which is found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.
“You can’t un-evolve what’s evolved,” James says. “The human brain grew to where it is today—present size and complexity—on the back of three things: meat, fish, and varied plants. And it is that fish diet that over evolution has helped the human brain to build up that complexity.”
When humans lived in caves and hunted for food, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in their diets was 1:1. Now, the ratio in our diets is 20:1 in the wrong direction. James advises cutting down on ready-made meals rich in omega-6 and eating more omega-3-rich foods to regain that balance.
Sex and the Brain
Research from Princeton in 2010 studied the (sexual) behavior of rats and their effects on a process called neurogenesis (generating new brain cells).
They found several things:
- When male and female rats that are “strangers” to each other have sex, both show high levels of stress. And male rats showed less reluctance than female rats in engaging in sexual behavior with strangers.
- Over time, when the male and female rats grow “familiar” with each other, stress levels during mating go down.
- Both stranger and familiar groups showed an increase in the number of brain cells, but with the absence of stress in the familiar group, brain cell growth was through the roof.
Sex is an evolutionary activity and is pivotal in the survival of humans as a species. What this study showed is that sex doesn’t just make us feel good and help with reproduction; it also helps with brain health.
Another study showed that in a survey of over 6,000 people over the age of 50, those who engaged in regular sex with a familiar partner had a 20% better memory than those who did not.
Research done at Oxford University found that mathematical ability, memory, performance on visual tests, and fluency with words all improved with those people having regular sex. And a study among a small sample of female students showed that having regular sex improves facial recognition, remembering names, and attaching those names to faces.
“The threshold for brain benefit from sex is once a week—that’s the minimum. And it is a dose-related effect. So the more sex you have, the more the benefit,” James says, chuckling a bit.
But why is that the case? Having sex produces feel-good hormones, and these hormones, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, go up in volume at the moment of orgasm.
Another reason lies in the social nature of having sex with a partner. While orgasm from masturbation has positive effects, intercourse with a familiar partner shows better results for brain health. Things like eye contact, physical touching, and the social experience of sexual acts produce other hormones that are beneficial to the brain.
Also, sex is a form of exercise. Scientists use a measurement called MET (metabolic equivalent of tasks), which measures the energy of all tasks required in life by assigning a number to them. For example, sitting is MET 1, which is 3.5mL of oxygen per kg of your body weight per minute that you are doing that task.
Sleeping is.9, shopping is around 2.3, jogging is 7.7, and a flat-out mile of running is 23. On average, sex falls to 5.5 for women and 6 for men. The difference in value lies in the difference in lean or muscle mass and fat mass of male and female physiology.
The Brain isn’t an Island
Humans are social beings. Social cognition is deeply wired into our DNA.
This is evident during the pandemic, when government bodies had to impose social isolation on people in almost every country. While lockdowns are done with the best intentions to flatten the curve, it is still pretty damaging to people’s mental health and the brain.
In a longitudinal study that started in 1998 and was done by Harvard University on loneliness, more than 8,000 participants were asked to describe their social lives, the quality of their interactions with others, and to gauge whether or not they felt lonely.
After 12 years of the study, image scans showed that people who felt lonely had brains that aged faster. They also experienced a 20% decline in thinking skills compared to the group of people who didn’t feel lonely. Their blood chemistry also showed high levels of inflammatory molecules in the blood.
“Loneliness is really bad for you,” James says. “Cognitive performance and the risk of dementia as we get on in years is greatly affected by our social lives.”
A virtual connection alleviates some of that loneliness. A study showed that simple interactions with strangers, such as smiling at them, nodding hello, or saying “Have a great day!” are beneficial for both the person saying or initiating it and the recipient.
“These little interactions make all the difference. It raises your confidence and self-esteem, makes you feel better about yourself, lowers your stress, and raises your well-being,” James shares. “These basic courtesies and little acts of kindness—we’re in a world where we need to be kinder to other people. We need to be friendlier. It is how we are wired.”
James also says that even negative feelings such as fear, disgust, and anger are beneficial to people. The body produces hormones that emulate these emotions to protect our bodies, and those negative emotions are a necessary part of human psychology.
“We are a fluid dimension of moving emotions and interactions. And all of it is coming from the brain. That’s why we have to look after it.” –James Goodwin.
The three pillars of brain health, healthy stress, and neuroaesthetics
James says that brain health depends a lot on having balance in our lives.
There are three pillars of brain health:
- How well are you thinking? This includes your higher brain functions such as decision-making, mathematical calculations, reasoning, and logic.
- How well are you interacting? Examine the quality of your social life and your connections and communication with other people.
- How well are you regulating your emotions? Are you balancing the negative and positive experiences in your life? How do you regulate your stress?
One way to do that is by improving your well-being. Stress has a bad name in our society now, but we all need a healthy level of stress in our lives. For others, like Luke, it is jumping off a plane at 25,000 feet without a parachute. For some, it is surfing, exploring caves, climbing mountains, or playing football.
Everybody has a safe level of stress they can cope with and that helps them improve. But we need to identify when stress becomes too much and do two things: move away from and reduce that level of stress and start to do things that make us feel good.
Art also has a profound effect on brain health.
“A professor at University College London, Semir Zeki, has made a whole career studying empirical science, the effect of art on the brain,” James shares.
Neuroaesthetics, a recently coined term, is the scientific study of the neural consequences of contemplating a creative work of art, such as the involvement of the prefrontal cortex (in thinking) and limbic systems (for emotions).
(Source: Science Direct)
In fact, James himself says that music engages more parts of the brain simultaneously than any other single activity. It affects people’s moods, perspectives, raises arousal, and generates “happy hormones” in the body.
There are so many enjoyable ways to take care of the brain, keep it young, and help slow aging and other age-related diseases.
The best takeaway from this conversation between James and Tristan is that it is not too late to start taking steps to take better care of our brain health. You can start today.
What’s next for James Goodwin?
James has been invited to speak at a fundraiser organized by the American Jewish Federation in Routt County, so check that out.
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.