Biohack Your Brain: Diet And Lifestyle Changes For A Healthier Life With Dr. Kristen Willeumier

Medications can only do so much and, most of the time, only really alleviate symptoms. To find the long-term healing you need, you have to go straight into the root cause. Dr. Kristen Willeumier, a neuroscientist with expertise in neuroimaging and psychiatric disorders, is all about doing that. With her new book, Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power, she details the ways you can balance your brain’s chemicals so our body and mind can function more efficiently. She sits down with Dr. Diane Hamilton to tell us about it, discussing topics from the gut-brain connection and how we can use diet and lifestyle nutritional interventions to help with anxiety, depression, and stress. 

TTL 803 | Brain Biohack

 

I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Kristen Willeumier here. She’s a neuroscientist, and she has an amazing new book called Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance, and Power. It’s going to be an interesting show.

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Biohack Your Brain: Diet And Lifestyle Changes For A Healthier Life With Dr. Kristen Willeumier

I am here with Dr. Kristen Willeumier who is a neuroscientist with expertise in neuroimaging and psychiatric disorders. She has a new book that I’m excited to talk to her about, Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance, and Power. It’s so nice to have you here, Kristen.

Diane, it such a pleasure to be here as well, or should I say Dr. Diane is proper.

Please call me Diane. It’s nice to be able to use it, but when you’re talking to people on and off the air, it’s hard to keep always calling everybody by their proper names. I hope you don’t mind if I call you Kristen as well.

You can call me Kristen but I understand what it takes to get that doctorate so I want to acknowledge you.

Yours is in neurobiology. I can’t even imagine what you went into that. I was excited to talk to you because I’m very interested in anything that deals with neurology and the brain in general. I love watching Amy Farrah Fowler on Big Bang Theory. Anytime they get into figuring out why we think certain ways and how the brain impacts us. I can’t wait to talk about your book but before we do, I want to get a little backstory on you. I know that you get your PhD from UCLA, and you’ve got an interesting background, but for those who haven’t heard about your work or don’t know you, can you give us the little backstory on you? 

TTL 803 | Brain Biohack
Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power

I’ve been in the field of neuroscience for several years. In 1998, I came from Chicago to go to UCLA and I attained a Master’s Degree in Physiological Science. That’s when I started working in the laboratory setting. I worked in a laboratory of neuroendocrinology setting, how hormones act on the brain. I got interested and found that I had an aptitude for scientific inquiry, which led me to do a second Master’s and a PhD in Neurobiology. My area of focus was studying Parkinson’s disease, specifically, a gene that becomes mutated in the young-onset form of Parkinson’s, so for people who get the disease before the age of 40. My work in that area entailed understanding why neurons die. Neurobiologists study things at the level of the single cell. That work entailed slicing the brains of rats and mice, dissecting very specific brain regions, and then working under a confocal microscope, understanding how cells function, fire and connect, or do not function. Function abnormally when they have a disease, gene or a protein being made. I did that for ten years. I loved it.

I also concurrently held a position over at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the Department of Neurogenetics. When I finished that work, I then went and did translational neuroscience research. I became the Director of Research over at the Amen Clinics. They are a very large nationally recognized outpatient psychiatric center that focuses on treating complex psychiatric disorders using neuroimaging. The kind of people that would come into our clinic typically had on average 3 to 4 diagnoses, anxiety, depression, ADD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse issues. On average, we’re taking 5 to 6 medications. These were people who are having challenges with psychiatric issues. They had typically been to a minimum of three psychologists or psychiatrists, and still could not figure out how to treat their issues. They would come to us because we would use different neuroimaging modalities to essentially help tailor treatments to their specific issues.

I ran their research department and I was also the Director of Nutrition and Nutraceuticals, which was fun because I was able to use a great neuroimaging technology and run clinical trials to test the efficacy of nutritional supplements. As you and I know, nutritional supplements are a huge business in themselves, and to have the opportunity to test to see, do these things do anything in the brain. Is there anything measurable when you take a certain amount of one ingredient versus the other, or certain ingredients in combination? That was a lot of fun. In having that position, I also worked with our patients and helped them, not only to educate them on how to be brain healthy but number two, helping to tailor supplement protocols for certain people who may not want to be on medications. We were in that beautiful space of how we can use diet and lifestyle nutritional interventions to help balance anxiety, depression, stress, before having to go to medications and/or technologies like transcranial magnetic stimulation. Long story short, that’s what I am doing for the last number of years.

As you’re talking about that, I was a pharmaceutical rep for a long time. I’m thinking blood-brain barriers. I’m thinking of all the things I had to study as you’re talking about some of this. I used to sell Atenolol and it would sell against Propranolol. We didn’t go across the blood-brain barrier as much. I’m thinking of all these things as you’re saying this. I meet a lot of people who end up on a lot of medications because they keep going to doctors to get help. You don’t go to a slippery place unless you want to slide. If you go to a doctor pretty much, you’re going to get on drugs because that’s what they do. There’s nothing wrong with what they do, but that’s what they do. My husband is a doctor. I have no problem with doctors.

What kind of doctor?

He’s a plastic surgeon. They have to prescribe it on occasion, at different things. There are medications. I understand that. Having Albert Bandura on the show and different people that have dealt with cognitive ways of dealing with things, there are other ways too. Many people are looking for a panacea and they think the doctor has that. That’s not always the case.

I love that you bring this up. It’s such an important topic. I’m sensitive to how I address it because coming from the psychiatric setting, there are certain people who require the medications. They cannot function day to day without them. Most doctors treat based on symptoms. You come into the doctor’s office, you rattle off the symptoms that you’re struggling with, and they say, “We’ve got these three medications we can try, these three antidepressants.” The beautiful thing that I learned being a neuroscientist is when we added the neuroimaging component and it could be acute EEG where we look at the electrical activity of your brain, or it could be a spec scan where we look at the function of your brain so activity plus blood flow. What we were able to do is find patterns that were consistent with different anxiety disorders. OCD is different from a generalized anxiety disorder and is different from PTSD. When you’re thinking about depression, there were different types of depression. We were able to target what kind of treatment would work best for that individual. That was what opened my eyes to, this is how we can make it easier for patients to choose what medication they need, which is very helpful and then helps them to manage the side effects.

People love medications because they do have a sledgehammer effect. If you have anxiety, we put you on a benzodiazepine, it’s going to work. You are going to calm down quickly versus when you have anxiety, and I may recommend GABA which is a nutritional supplement that works on the GABA receptors. It will still calm the brain down, but it’s a subtler effect. There are minimal to no side effects. You get into that interesting zone where it’s the cost-benefit analysis of taking that medication. To your point, people go to the doctor. They go, “We want the med,” that’s the one thing. There’s that second layer of the mind-body approach. Having doctors and clinicians start to teach their patients ways that they can empower themselves to change their diet, start to exercise, take some supplements, pick up meditation. Some of these lifestyle changes that work and help the brain to function more efficiently. That’s part of why I’m even out in the world with this book is helping to add to that conversation and say, “Your efforts are not in vain. If you practice these habits consistently, they will change your brain function in measurable ways,” which is exciting.

So many people are looking for a panacea, thinking the doctor has that. That's not always the case. Click To Tweet

It’s such an interesting topic to me because I’ve known many people who have had issues with different things. If you mess with your brain function at all with hormones, that’s what I find fascinating. When they took out my ovaries, I got a real taste of the reality of when you were talking about neuroendocrinology of how hormones can impact your brain. I couldn’t even put words together. I would look at a grocery cart and I know it’s a cart or I’d look at the ceiling, I know it’s a ceiling, but I couldn’t figure out what the words were. I couldn’t put it together. It was scary. 

That’s a frightening reality to go, “I’m a young woman. I’ve had my ovaries removed.” Was it a breast cancer?

No, I had endometriosis and they were filled with blood so I had to. It was such a strange thing because I’m thinking, “I’m going to get hot flashes.” It’s nothing like that. I could not think at all completely. My brain completely went gone and I wasn’t even going to try estrogen, and then the minute I couldn’t talk or think, I’m like, “Give me the estrogen.” Immediately, I would put a patch on. If I, for some reason, bumped the patch off, within minutes of it falling off, I couldn’t speak or do anything. I’ll be in grocery stores, pulling my pants down, trying to show a new patch on me because I can’t speak. It’s the most amazing thing that I would’ve never have believed if it didn’t happen to me.

It’s almost as if that was an experiment for you. We significantly cut down your estrogen levels, and then all of a sudden your cognitive function declined.

It happened overnight too, within a day or two of having that happen immediately. It was such a wake-up call to how much we are a bag of chemicals. 

We are all chemicals. That is absolutely how we are functioning. It is amazing to see how these changes happen so rapidly. I am in menopause. I have not had a menstrual cycle for over a year. I haven’t had any hot flashes or any issues. Sometimes, I will tell people who are going through it, that’s one of the benefits of taking great care of your health. If you make sure your body and brain are functioning efficiently, you are less likely to have symptoms. In your case, because we’ve removed the source producing the estrogen, you need the compounding pharmacy to create the chemicals. We know over time when your estrogen levels go down, even testosterone, you have an inability, your energy levels go down, and you start to have cognitive issues, just like you’ve said. Thank God we have compounding pharmacies who can give you these chemicals that help you to stay balanced emotionally, and the progesterone which helps keep you calm. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, we need all of those levels balanced. It’s why it’s so important. Anybody over the age of 40 should have an annual physical and lab work done to make sure those levels are balanced.

It’s amazing when you start to look at how much one thing impacts the other. I know someone who had her gallbladder taken out, and the minute she had that removed, she couldn’t eat. She had a lot of nausea and everything after that forever. They say your stomach is impacting your brain than you realize. How much did you study the gut on the impact of the brain? That had to be a big part of it.

We all are now getting comfortable with the gut-brain connection. All of the foods you eat, I would say nutrition and physical activity are two of the most powerful ways to impact your brain function. Every single thing that you put in your mouth, you want to think about how this is impacting the health of your microbiome. Those trillions of bacteria, fungus, yeast, that are lining your intestinal tract. There is the vagus nerve that goes from the brain to the gut. It’s a bi-directional communication system. If your gut is not healthy and happy, it’s going to send a signal up to the brain and it can be correlated with anxiety, stress, depression. I don’t want to call it a philosophy, but I think people are starting to appreciate the gut-brain interaction and knowing if we do not eat the foods that are going to take care of and nourish our gut health. What are those? It’s not very hard. There are fruits and vegetables. There are prebiotic foods like onions, leeks and garlic, which is why we cook with them pretty much every night. Those feed the healthy bacteria in our gut to help maintain great gut health.

What are the things we need to eliminate? Sugars, processed foods, and saturated animal fats. The sugars are rough on your microbiome. When I’m working with patients, a lot of times I try to get people’s sugar down to 25 grams per day if you’re a woman. If you’re a man, 36 grams per day. Let me tell you something. Those numbers are from the American Heart Association, and I will tell your audience, I taught what we call brain-directed weight loss groups in the clinical setting. I’ve taught thousands of people how to lose weight to take care of their brain health. I would have them journal. We did a lot with journaling or tracking. I would say, “We’re going to take a week and I want you to track the number of grams of sugar you eat per day.” On average, people take in about 70 to 90 grams of sugar. When I would say, “I’m going to see if you can strive for 25 grams,” for most people, it’s impossible until they start tracking. I teach label reading. You have to be mindful or you’re not going to do it. That sugar is inflammatory to the system. It’s one of those things where that’s one of the smartest strategies you can do to take better control of your health. It’s being more aware of the sugar.

TTL 803 | Brain Biohack
Brain Biohack: If your gut is not healthy and happy, it’s going to send a signal to the brain correlated with anxiety, stress, and depression.

 

Even though my husband does plastic surgery, he also reads so much about health in general. All the sugar thing is a huge thing for cancer. It’s the worst thing you could do.

For people with cancer, a lot of people will go on ketogenic diets to make sure we cut off the sugar supply. There are healthy ways to do that. Your husband is not wrong. Is he an ENT as well?

He’s board certified. He had five years of general and two years of plastics. He has seven years of residency. 

Before I went to graduate school, I was planning to go to medical school. I worked for two years with a plastic surgeon who was an ENT craniofacial microsurgeon. I love surgeons.

He’s one of the guys that did all the micro, if you blew your face off with a shotgun surgery. He does that. He did all the reconstruction. It’s amazing what these guys could do. He does research all this stuff and he’s very much interested and I’m interested. What was interesting to me as I’m Italian so I always eat onions, garlic, and all the things you mentioned. As soon as they took out my ovaries, I couldn’t do it again. I can’t eat it anymore. I can’t eat any of the foods I used to eat. It was interesting to me. 

What did you cut out?

Anything with flavor. Anything that’s not white and boring.

You couldn’t have the bread?

Those are the only things I could eat. It’s the vegetable. Anything that grew that had a flavor like onions, garlic, any kind of seasoning, and spice. 

What kind of reaction would you have?

I get severe eosinophilic esophagitis.

Could you do a juice like a green juice?

No. If it’s white I could eat like a banana or something like that. It was strange. I’ve never had it in my life. I always made chili.

Are you able to eat now? Can you have fruits and vegetables?

No. I went to everybody for it. It was the weirdest thing, but I’m not a foodie person. If you were at this, this would be hard for a lot of people. There are certain things that I could eat, like blueberries, bananas.

Please keep eating those. Can I give you a teaching moment about blueberries? I get very excited.

Yes. My husband talks to me about blueberries. I’d love to know it.

Here’s the teaching moment. This is what I used to do in the clinical setting because I had to get people excited about taking care of their brain health. To do that, sometimes you have to give them what I call fun research facts. Harvard did a longitudinal dietary study. It was over the course of twenty years. They studied 16,000 people. They were older women. They studied their dietary habits and found that those who had a minimum of two servings of blueberries or strawberries per week slowed cognitive aging by as much as 2.5 years.

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I’m good. Those are two things I eat. 

If you look in our refrigerator, there is never a day where you don’t see blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries. I’ve been doing it probably for several years. It’s extraordinary brain health tips. Berries are one of the best-researched foods when it comes to preserving and protecting brain health. As I was hearing your story, I’m thinking, “She needs berries,” because the antioxidants and the flavonoids cross the blood-brain barrier and protect the neurons of your brain from oxidative stress. The brain is such a highly energetic organ. It weighs 2% of the body’s mass but utilizes 20% of the body’s oxygen and energy. It’s highly energetic and a highly oxidative environment which is why having two servings of fruits, and three servings of vegetables a day is so critical for your health.

When I work with people, I’m like, “If that’s the minimum you can do, I’m really happy,” because if you did that every single day, whether you’re getting it through a fresh juice that you’re having. I like the fiber as well for your gut health, and making that full circle link, you keep your microbiome healthy also through having enough fiber. You want to get approximately 33 grams a day of fiber. If you have one cup of berries, it’s 11 grams of fiber. I know if you do a cup of berries, a salad and some broccoli, you’re getting your 33 grams of fiber. You’re getting nutrients to protect your brain. It’s that simple to take care of your brain. You just have to practice that daily.

I’ve always been a pretty good eater as far as eating very simple foods like baked chickens, baked fish, and different things like that. It was interesting to me what an impact, like overnight, it was. I don’t know if it’s because it reacts with exogenous estrogen. If I take off the patch, I can’t talk or function.

If we did that right now and took off your patch, you would not be able to communicate.

I wouldn’t be able to remember. It’s weird. We talk about memory. You talk about some of the causes of memory loss in some of your writings and stuff. It is an interesting thing because, to me, it felt like having Alzheimer’s in a way.

You couldn’t access the information. It is there in your brain. It’s the connectivity between the neurons. That’s where the memory is stored. That’s why when we drink alcohol, what alcohol does is slow the connections between the neurons. You temporarily can’t remember things. It gets metabolized and all of a sudden, your memory comes back. It’s the same thing with you.

The levels that other people get of estrogen was fascinating to me because I could function if I’d get all the way up to a seven which isn’t that high. It’s barely anything on my estradiol. I talked to women, they’d have to get up to 100 and something. It’s high levels the doctors were keeping them at. Everybody is unique. The one thing I found is there isn’t one answer for how to get your brain back which is frustrating. 

TTL 803 | Brain Biohack
Brain Biohack: One of the smartest strategies you can do to kind of take better control of your health is just being more aware of sugar.

 

One of the things that I learned in the neuroimaging space was having a look at thousands of scans. We created a database with over 150,000 brain scans and I had to run a separate study. It was a brain health study so we can build what we call a normative database. A database of people with healthy brains that don’t have psychiatric conditions or a history of degenerative disease in the family. They haven’t had head injuries and abuse toxic substances. We’d scan their brains. Whenever we found somebody who didn’t have any issues, we’re like, “Can we please scan you for a normative database?” Even those people, we would see perfusion deficits and things going on in the brain. I started to realize, “People have no idea what their brains look like.” I’ve seen it enough for the last several years. I know what’s going on under the hood, so to speak.

Once you see it, you have a visual and you go, “Here’s what’s going on and here’s how I can fix it.” I think that’s why I’m the cheerleader for brain health with people because I’ve seen enough scans where I go, “I know people don’t know what’s going on.” Imagine, here I am talking about blueberries, but how easy is that to do whether you’ve got frozen ones? Everybody can have some berry and everybody can have a green juice, green vegetable, or we can all have a little less sugar in our day. Maybe we don’t drink our calories anymore. We could say, “We’re going to go for water because that diet soda is not adding value.” It’s those little things. You are in a unique case. I’m glad you brought it up. I will say everybody’s brain is unique. No two brains are the same which is why from the medical side of things when you’re trying to figure out what medications to give a person, there’s such a complex. We all have these complex histories. Psychiatric disorders run in the family so you might have inherited a pattern. We’re in COVID-19, now you’re stressed. For you, it’s interesting, you can’t eat certain foods.

Which is weird to have that happen overnight.

Have you found your happy meal?

I’m one of those people I’m happy eating five different things and I’m not a variety person, but if you were a variety person and you’ve got this, this would be torture for you.

We are blessed to live here and it’s the paradox of choice. We have so much available to us. I’ve had to work with people who can only eat this very narrow window of food. They have immune reactions to certain foods and I’m always like, “How do we get the antioxidant foods in there?”

It’s like that. If you go to get help, what I find is they go, “You can’t eat these things.” I’m like, “I know that. That’s why I’m here.” 

This is the missing piece that a lot of people don’t get the education. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to teach people the simple changes that you can make if practice consistently will make measurable changes in your brain function. I don’t even know if a lot of clinicians know this because that’s not what they’re focused on. Somebody coming in with a problem, I’ve got twenty minutes to talk to you, maybe an hour. If I’m lucky, I’m going to give you some general advice, and then you’re off and running. The person goes home and it’s like, “Now what do I do?” I’m seeing this more with COVID where people have long hauler syndrome in they’re home. They’re like, “I have brain fog, I can’t think, I have anxiety, I’ve been to the doctor, I’ve been to the hospital. I don’t have COVID-19 in my system anymore but I feel awful. How do I get up and function every day?” It’s no different for you. You’re like, “Now I don’t have my ovaries. I thank God I have my patch, but I now can’t eat certain foods.”

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It’s crazy because there are many aspects to what you have to deal with in terms of dealing when you have something upsetting you. I remember when they were first giving me medications, I always felt the adrenaline from the estrogen. It’s almost like a cortisol reaction. They’d go, “You’ve got to take ashwagandha.” I’m like, “I can’t do that. I can’t take things.” They go, “No. You will.” I go, “Everybody else doesn’t have any reaction. If you give me something like that, I’ll go nuts.” They always try to give you stuff and that’s hard for people. I know a lot of people can take things and go, “That was great.” Do you suggest that you try stuff like that?

I’m glad you brought that question up because everybody has their unique sensitivities. While I have worked in this field with supplements, typically, I look at somebody’s entire background, like family history and psychiatric history. I look at the medications they’re on. Sometimes we do the EEG where I measure your brainwave activity and I can see, “This area is too active. Here’s what we use to calm it down.” I’ve even gone to the point where we’ve done an EEG on somebody to get their baseline and I will give them a nutraceutical. An hour later, I can see, is this helping? Is this not? From a very scientific perspective, I saw what works and what doesn’t. The reason why we did it in a clinical setting is we wanted people to feel comfortable with if I’m going to recommend a 5-HTP or a GABA.

We don’t send somebody off to the Whole Foods to randomly try and figure out what to buy, what company to go to, what works, and what dosage. There’s a lot of nuance to it. I’m trained in how to tailor supplement protocols to people in their specific needs. With you, knowing that you’re sensitive to supplements, I would take a very soft approach. Ashwagandha can work, help balance the nervous system, and calm people down, but that isn’t my first suggestion if I’m going to calm somebody down. I tend to recommend omega-3 fatty acids which are great for stabilizing mood.

Was that salmon? 

The fish oil. It’s a very basic EPA DHA fish oil, 1 to 2 grams. Most people can handle that. If you don’t like swallowing things, you’ve got to get a minimum of two servings of fish.

I eat a lot of salmon. Maybe it’s a natural thing that you crave what your body needs.

What I like to have people do to figure out if their omega-3 fatty acid levels are stable or at the right level is you can go get a blood test done and see where the levels are at, and then we can adjust accordingly. Most people don’t get that worked on. We did it in the clinical setting. It’s a blood test and easy enough to do. We’ll tell people 1 to 2 grams of fish oil. Sometimes if you have a traumatic brain injury, we’re going to recommend 3 grams or higher. The fish oils are important because not only do they build brain volume, but the neurons in your brain help the cell membrane stabilize and be fluid. The receptors that sit in those membranes work more effectively. This is why it helps with mood issues, anxiety, and depression. A good fish oil, and I like GABA supplement, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain to calm the brain down. Most people don’t tend to have contraindications taking that. When you start to get into some of the herbal preparations, you can take them but it wasn’t our first-line approach.

I think it’s interesting to see the changes that you get from taking one thing or another. I know with taking estrogen, all of a sudden, I’m wide awake. It makes you very hyper. If you have it opposed by progesterone, it helps. There are different things that help do different things. As I experimented with some of this, I see many people who are frustrated by the stuff that they’ve tried. There’s so much that I had no idea how many women were suffering with many things. They always go to a doctor and they’ll put you in that fibromyalgia group thing.

Fibromyalgia is scary.

There are doctors who call it that because they don’t know what it is, and they are suffering.

The female brain is wired a little bit differently than the male brain. We are more sensitive. We have a higher tendency towards anxiety and depression. We looked at 46,000 brain scans, half men, half women, and ask the question, what’s the difference between the two? That’s why men’s brains are a little quieter in those emotional centers. They’re not as emotionally reactive. They can be because every single person is unique. We are a little more sensitive emotionally, and we are highly attuned to the things that we put in our bodies. Working with either somebody like me, a naturopath, or a functional medicine doctor who can sit and do the lab work, tailor the supplement regimen to you, that’s going to help alleviate some of the anxiety and the guesswork around what do I take? How much do I take? The other thing I like to tell people, having worked with supplements and study them, most of them have a half-life of about 4 to 6 hours. If you take it within a 4 to 6-hour window, it will be metabolized and clear your body. That is a relief for many people. It can alleviate some of the fears whereas medications.

TTL 803 | Brain Biohack
Brain Biohack: It’s those small habits, like putting great foods into your body, over the course of weeks, months, and years that are slowing down and saving your brain.

 

I’m glad you brought that up. When you go to the dentist, they give you laughing gas. Some people like nitrous oxide. I’ve never taken it. I thought I had to have some major work done one day and I’d try it on just this little thing. They go, “The half-life is only 90 seconds or something. As soon as we take it off, three minutes later, you’ll be fine.” Six hours later, I was flying from this stuff. It’s the funniest thing. My sister had the same reaction and we’ve never had problems with other things. If you hear something that’s got a 25-hour half-life, I’m like, “No, thank you.” If you hear something short half-life, you’re like, “How bad can it be?”

Six hours later, you’re still knocked out. You should not be operating a motor vehicle.

They’ll tell you, “You can drive home after three minutes.” It was dangerous. It was scary. What’s up with that? Am I a blood-brain barrier person?

I’ve noticed this with supplements and medications. There are certain people that are highly sensitive to supplements. B vitamins are a supplement I recommend for a lot of people because it helps our central nervous system. It helps to build our central nervous system and neurotransmitters, but some people take it and it makes them anxious.

It’s almost like ADHD if you can give him speed and it will slow them down and whatever. That is so fascinating. What is it?

You can modulate the brain. In ADHD, we need to help stimulate the frontal lobes. It’s increasing dopamine in the front part of your brain. Doing that through foods and supplements is a healthier way to do it than having to rely on stimulant medications, which have that sledgehammer effect. If you take it, it will work. There are also controlled substances. You have to go to a doctor and get that prescription every month. It’s highly regulated, where if we can do it through diet, having more of a high protein diet helps with the neurotransmitters. That can help with focus. Certain kinds of exercise, HIT training, High-Intensity Training, and burst training can help boost neurotransmitters in the frontal lobe. We can do that. We can use things like omega-3 fatty acids and certain supplements like pycnogenol is a pine bark extract that has been shown to help boost dopamine in the front part of the brain. There are certain things that we can do nutritionally speaking and through our exercise to help stabilize the frontal lobe.

For the balance, if you do too much sugar without the protein, I can’t handle too much of one thing or another. Do you have more of a balance that protein to carb or are you a super high protein thinker? 

It is different depending on the way your brain is wired. If you’re somebody who has focus and attention problems, we might want to start your day with more protein and make sure you have a little bit more protein at every meal. If you’re somebody that struggles with anxiety or even depression, we may want to have more healthy carbs that help to calm the brain and healthy carbs from vegetables, sweet potatoes, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat or millet.

I am so not a vegetable person. I have such a hard time. 

How do I change that?

I’m good. I’ll eat 3 or 4 different vegetables, but that’s it.

That’s good as long that you get them in.

If it starts with an A, I seem to be good, like asparagus and artichokes are good.

What’s more important is that you do it every day. People will happily drink their cup of coffee every day. That’s a no-brainer. How do we do that with our green juice? I have my green juice right here. Between you and me, I’ve been drinking fresh green juices for twenty years. I started in graduate school. I have treated professional athletes and all kinds of people to do the green juice because it is so extraordinary for your health.

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Does it taste like a vegetable?

No, it is so good. I only want it to be good for you. I would not do anything I do not like. When I wrote my book, everything in there I do. It’s what I teach people to do. The green juice, the one that I have is celery, kale, and a pear. It’s very easy. To make a green juice, you need either celery or cucumber, a hydrating vegetable. When you’re juicing it down, you need the water from it. You would have to have bucket loads of kale.

I could eat raw spinach.

Spinach and parsley, put that in there. The base has to be enough water. Can you do a cucumber?

Our whole family hates cucumbers. It’s too strong for us.

You can’t do the celery because that’s water.

I’m not a huge fan. The vegetables in general fall into I’ll eat them, but I can’t stand them category. 

You are so funny. You’re like a ten-year-old. I’ve got to get you excited. How about throwing an apple in there?

I’m good with fruit. I miss fruit because I can’t eat it now from the estrogen. I can’t have oranges and citrus anymore, some of them that I love.

If you live down the street from me the way you do one of our mutual friends, family.

Felisa Israel was on the show.

I would be delivering one of my juices to your house so that you would try it.

You’re not in Arizona, are you?

No, I’m in Los Angeles, but when I come to visit her, I’m going to bring one to you the way I like it.

No cucumbers, though.

I’m going to figure out something that you like.

I love avocados. Can you put avocado in it?

You could do an avocado smoothie drink. You’re a beautiful female. It’s going to help preserve your skin. You’re going to look beautiful. The reason why I love juicing is you can get a lot of vegetables and you’re hydrating yourself. The enzymes from the fruits and vegetables help your digestive system break down food. It’s slightly alkaline which is good for your system. It’s hydrating and it’s going to protect the neurons in your brain.

Why not eat that food separately? I eat avocado every day for lunch. 

I like you eating it as well. I know from GTPs groups that most people are dehydrated. Most people are not even hydrating enough during their day.

I drink a lot of water. That’s interesting to me because I have a friend who tells me, she can’t make herself drink water. I’m thinking, “How could you not? I’m so thirsty.”

She has to. Hydration is the number one thing.

That’s my hugest thing. I drink so much water, the waiters hate me.

That’s good. I’m so pleasantly surprised to hear it.

I’m a big water drinker. I love it.

As women, we need to drink 90 ounces of water per day. The formula is half your body weight in ounces of water each day. Why is that important? Through our excretions, through our respiration, our body excretes between 1.8 to 2.5 liters of fluids per day. You need to either hydrate with water, fruits and vegetables. Green teas are great, coconut water is great, but you need the fluids for your body to function. You want to clear out the toxins. You do not want to be recirculating toxins. It helps with metabolic function. Most people who are trying to lose weight, a lot of times, they’re not drinking enough. They mistake the signal for hunger and thirst. A lot of times, I’m like, “Let’s have something to drink.” If you are trying to stay lean, you have 8 ounces to 16 ounces of green juice. You’re not going to be hungry. For people who want to do more of an intermittent fasting plan which is extraordinary for your brain and try to keep your eating between an eight-hour window, have a green juice in the morning. It’s fantastic. You can then have your first meal at noon.

My brother was big on doing a lot of juicing of different vegetables. For me, I do drink so much water. I remember hiking out of the Grand Canyon. I think we got hyponatremia because we drink so much water. Somebody brought out a piece of beef jerky and we all came back to life. You do have to have a balance with some salt.

I put electrolyte mix in the water at times because I need it. I talk about in the book how I had fainting spells during graduate school. It was because I wasn’t hydrating. I wasn’t drinking any water. The dehydration combined with the stress was causing my body to shut down and short circuit. It was to the point where I needed to start carrying around water bottles with the electrolyte mix. I learned several years ago how important it is.

One of the reasons why I’m such a cheerleader for the green juicing, the water, and the vegetables is when I worked in a laboratory setting and I had to keep neurons alive for 3 weeks, 4 weeks to do experiments, I would grow them on these dishes. I would see how stunningly beautiful they are. These cells are making connections with their neighbors. I saw what killed the cells. If they died, I have to start over again. You would have to always replace the media with this fresh alkaline media with enzymes and nutrients. The minute I would do that, my cells would spring to light. For several years, doing this and looking at neurons under a microscope, how beautiful they are and I saw what made them make connections with their neighbors. I saw what made the connections retract, and I saw what made the cell bodies explode.

Ten years of this, you just go, “Clean fluids, slightly alkaline media, enzymes, nutrients equals big, beautiful neurons that make connections with their neighbors.” This is the life that I’ve led. I’ve seen in the laboratory setting how important it was to keep neurons healthy. I go into the clinical setting. I’m using neuroimaging and I’m seeing the same thing in the brains, I’m going, “Everybody needs to drink their water.” Green juice is an easy way for people to get fruits and vegetables in and you do it daily. It’s like checking off the box. If you can eat them as well as part of your meals and having salads even better. You realize the more in these great habits that you have and the great foods you put into your body, the less of the unhealthy foods you put in. Over time, it’s those small habits over the course of weeks, months and years that are slowing down and saving your brain. I don’t want you coming in at 65 years of age, and we’ve got to diagnose you with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

You lost a certain number of neurons and a certain region of the brain that we can’t get back. What we’re doing is trying to slow down that aging process. I get excited for people if they’re healthy. Let’s do the things we can do to stay healthy if you have a degenerative issue. My father had Parkinson’s. I work with plenty of football players who are getting diagnosed with degenerative diseases in their 40s and 50s because of the repetitive sub-concussive impacts. I’m committed to helping all of them and anybody who plays those sports get ahead of the curve and start taking care of their brain health. That’s the important message. It’s no different than people starting an exercise program to lose weight. You start exercising and weight loss is 90% diet and exercise. You know you’re going to get a positive return. I’m that person that wants to tell people, “I know you may never get your brain imaged ever in your lifetime.”

I want to though. I may have to come. I want to see what’s in there.

We’ll do an EEG on you, and then all of a sudden you’ll go, “I want to care about my brain health.” I will close with this, which your readers will appreciate. There used to be a show on the air called Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew Pinsky, the addiction medicine specialist. He came into our clinic with Dennis Rodman, Heidi Fleiss, and there was one other young woman who was on the show. We scanned their brain. I remember Dennis Rodman at that point did not believe he had a problem with alcohol. He’s like, “I’ve got this under control.” We scanned the brain and he saw what his brain looked like. It was the first time he had this tearful moment with Dr. Drew, which is touching where he goes, “I do have a problem. I didn’t realize how this was impacting my brain.” It resonated with him. I believe it helped to change some of his habits.

That’s the message that I want to tell people, your brain can change at any age. We can still grow neurons up into our 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th decade of life. We’ve got Betty White who is 99 years old. I read a story. This was so endearing. I see her in my building all the time. She knows somebody who lives here and she radiates health and positivity. I’m reading this article and she says, “What’s the secret to staying young and healthy?” She said, “I’m so grateful, at 99 years of age, I have an agent who still books me jobs.” It’s her optimism and just appreciating each day. As I was reading this, I’m thinking how many people at 99 years of age are memorizing scripts and booking jobs on television shows. Betty White is. None of us have an excuse. We can live a long, vibrant, healthy life, keeping our mind sharp, engaging in activities that keep us learning, growing, reading, and doing the best we can to eat cleaner, healthier foods. We all know what to eat. If they are grown out of the ground and they don’t come out of a box, it’s probably going to be good for your brain. It’s the simple thing.

There are many things that people need to learn about what you put in your body and how it impacts everything. This is a perfect book because many people could use this. A lot of people are going to want to find it. I know it’s by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. I’m excited that this book is out, Biohack Your Brain. How are people going to find that? How can they find you? Do you have links or something that you’d like to share? 

People can go to my website at DrWilleumier.com. They can find me on social media, Instagram is @KWilleumier. Twitter is @DrWilleumier. The book is everywhere books are sold, from Amazon to Barnes & Noble, to your local bookstore which I hope people go out and support their local bookstores.

This was so much fun. Kristen, thank you so much for being on the show. 

It was such a pleasure to meet you. I had so much fun. I’m proud of you on your brain health journey. Thank you for being vulnerable and open. It’s amazing that you share your story, and we all now have a greater appreciation for estrogen.

We do. I’ll tell you that.

I’d like to thank Kristen for being my guest. We get many great guests. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can catch them at DrDianeHamilton.com. Take some time to explore the site. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I hope you join us for the next episode.

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About Dr. Kristen Willeumier

TTL 803 | Brain BiohackDr. Kristen Willeumier is a neuroscientist with an expertise in neuroimaging and psychiatric disorders. She conducted her graduate research in the laboratory of Neurophysiology at UCLA and the laboratory of Neurogenetics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She received M.S. degrees in Physiological science and Neurobiology and a Ph.D. degree in Neurobiology from UCLA. She was a post-doctoral scientist in the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center working in the field of neurodegenerative disease. She was the recipient of a fellowship award from the National Institute of Mental Health and has presented her work internationally. Having served as the Director of Neuroimaging Research for the Amen Clinics, she led the efforts in utilizing imaging technologies to better understand the neurobiological issues underlying psychiatric disorders. Dr. Willeumier is widely published in peer-reviewed journals including The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Translational Psychiatry and The Journal of Neuroscience. She is the author of the book Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Proficiency & Power which will be published by the William Morrow imprint of HarperCollins in 2020.

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