The number one thing that goes wrong as we age is inflammation.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune system; it’s meant to protect you. If you have an infection or an injury, like a sprain, inflammation helps destroy and remove the damaged tissue. In the case of the brain, if you’re starting to accumulate the pathology that causes Alzheimer’s disease—which happens in just about everybody after a certain age—certain bundles of nerve cells start dying, and the brain responds with inflammation to clean out that area.
But with chronic inflammation, tissue from organs all over the body is constantly being removed, and that eventually leads to lesser functioning of those organs. Inflammation is wear and tear on our entire bodies: our joints, knees, elbows, even our brains. Every single tissue and organ starts to wear down based on too much usage. I play basketball twice a week and my knees are gone—I have to wear braces. What makes my knees hurt?
If you want to age well, especially in your brain, you have to do things in your life—and we’ll cover what those are—to stave off the effects of inflammation.
You can do this by:
1) stopping some of the inflammation itself,
2) protecting cells against the damage that inflammation causes,
3) giving cells more energy.
What we’re learning now is not only how to stop the inflammation and turn it down but also how to protect our cells, how to give them bulletproof vests against the free radicals that are produced during inflammation and cause oxidative stress. All over your body, as you get older, inflammation starts to take its toll; cells lose energy and they die. Part of making cells healthier is bringing them more energy by ramping up mitochondria—the parts of the cell that give it energy.
That might sound weird, but what I mean is that your brain is bringing you sensations that need to be interpreted. Whenever we have a sensory experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something, we have to put it in context of what we already know in order to make sense of it. To do this, you use brain synapses you’ve already formed, based on experiences you’ve already had, all driven by the choices you’ve already made. So the choices you’ve made in the past create the experiences you have now. The choices you make from today forward determine the experiences that will determine who you are in the future.
We like to say that the real you is that entity that’s using the brain. You’re using the brain as it’s bringing you these sensations and images, memories, feelings, and thoughts. In effect, your brain brings you your world. But you have the power to determine the world your brain brings you.
I call it mountaintop consciousness: You’re sitting on a mountaintop, observing what the brain is doing—using your brain, rather than having your brain use you. The mistake that will make you miserable is to identify with the information being made available to your mind.
You’re not going to control your brain. You have to treat your brain like a little kid. If you try to control the brain, it’s going to do whatever it wants. We like to say that resistance leads to persistence. Rather than resist, rewire. If you want to change a bad habit, or if you want to jump the groove on something you’re obsessing about or you’re anxious about in the future, you need to consciously separate and watch your brain and focus on rewiring the brain rather than resisting.
The process of rewiring is called neuroplasticity. You have 100 billion neurons making tens or hundreds of trillions of connections called synapses, which create your neural network. Some are automatic and allow you to breathe and your heart to beat, but others determine your thoughts, feelings, imagination, how you recall memories. That’s where you have power to say: I’m going to navigate what I want my brain to bring me at this moment. Maybe someone just ran through a puddle and made me angry. Well, I’m not angry; I’m realizing that my brain made me feel anger. Evolutionarily, this helps me to survive so I avoid the car hitting me.
Your brain is helping you to survive. But once you become the user of your brain rather than letting it use you, you’re not just giving in to instincts and urges. When you start using the brain and observing what it’s doing, you allow more regions of the brain to connect together, and that allows the brain to work better. Since the brain brings you the entire world, the world it brings you is better. And so you live in a better world.
Once you use your neuroplasticity and you rewire to change a habit, your genes tend to follow suit. Deepak and I wrote about this in Super Genes: Your gene activity—your 23,000 genes firing—is called gene expression pattern. As a thermostat controls temperature, genes can be turned up and down. Depending on the habits you have, you have whole programs of gene expression.
So if you’re eating a junk food diet, if you’re constantly stressed, if you’re not getting any sleep or exercise, you are undergoing inflammation all the time. Your gene expression is programmed to constantly take care of you by destroying all that tissue you’re damaging with junk food, by not getting enough sleep, and so on. Inflammation becomes a way of life. If you take sixty to seventy days to achieve a new habit, rewiring by neuroplasticity, not resisting but proactively rewiring—saying, “I’m going to do something new”—your genes follow suit.
This is epigenetics, meaning how your gene activity is programmed. Your gene expression gets reprogrammed by a new habit and makes that habit autopilot. For example, if you take sixty to seventy days to change your diet, your gene expression programs are now wired for that new habit. And you’ll be uninterested in a high-sugar, high-fat junk meal.
The mind is where you live. The brain connects to the mind as every single day, in our waking state, we are bringing in sensory information to be interpreted. Consciousness is the process of being aware of what’s going on in your own mind as your brain brings it to you and being aware of the experiences you are having as a result. These experiences will then condition your next choices. If you’re unaware of this, your next choices are going to be driven by the oldest parts of the brain. They’re the bullies in the locker room; the instinctive brain, the brain stem, cares about only four things: fight, flight, food, and reproduction.
If you are being dominated by your instinctive brain and letting it determine your desires and your fears, then you’re going to be conditioned by your subconscious to never make a real choice out of free will. You have choice only when you have awareness of your instincts, fears, and desires. Fear is simply the anticipation of pain or punishment from any bad experience you’ve had since the time you were an infant, and it can be cued up by certain experiences. Likewise, desire is nothing more than the memory of pleasure or reward. Every time you have something that was good, you’re conditioned to want it again. That creates desire. Fear and desire, when projected into the future, create anxiety. Fear and desire, when projected into past experiences, create obsession.
The key to dealing with all this is: Live in the moment. Be aware of what your brain brings you right now. Don’t try to control it, but simply be an observer of what your brain is doing. That way you’re always retaining the free will to make choices to determine the next experiences that will determine who you are in the future.
We’ve been thinking about low-grade infections in brain. The brain has bacteria and viruses and fungi in it; we used to think it was sterile, but we’re learning that as we get older, the bacteria and viruses, even yeast, that live in the brain change.
We never knew why the plaques that trigger Alzheimer’s disease form in the brain. The big discovery we’ve made in my lab over the last few years is that these plaques are forming to fight infection. They are not just junk. They are actually being made in the brain to stave off infection from bacteria, viruses, and yeast.
You’ve heard of the gut microbiome. Now we’re mapping the microbiome of the brain. It’s the same type of mapping of bacterial species that you would do for a gut microbiome. We’re looking at brains from unfortunate young people who died, as well as middle-aged, elderly, and Alzheimer’s brains. We’ve mapped sixty brains so far, and we’re seeing that the bacterial and viral and fungal content of the brain changes dramatically, even in healthy people, from when they’re between twenty and forty to when they’re between forty and sixty to when they’re sixty and over. And then in Alzheimer’s it changes even more. There is less beneficial bacteria. We see there are specific infections in the brain that may be triggering plaques and then triggering Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an ongoing story, but we’re feeling that infection plays a big role in Alzheimer’s.
The brain microbiome is analogous to the gut microbiome. If you’re not getting enough sleep or exercise, or you’re stressed out or lonely even—all of these things affect the gut microbiome. Microbial imbalance is called dysbiosis. Your microbiome is connected to your brain and controls inflammation in the brain. You can change inflammation in the brain of a mouse by changing its gut microbiome. We’ve written two papers in the last year in which we discuss that when we changed the gut microbiome of an Alzheimer’s mouse, we were able to reduce the number of plaques in the brain.
So there’s a microbiome in the gut that affects the brain. And there’s a microbiome in the brain that also affects brain pathology. Every time we underestimate the role of bacteria in our body, we’re not paying close enough attention. The bacteria that live in our body, in our gut, are largely helpful—they’re something we couldn’t live without. We’re starting to learn that in our brain it’s the same thing. They may be helpful, and as we get older, helpful bacteria may get replaced by bacteria that are detrimental.
All of this is very new, but it seems to be driving the first pathology of Alzheimer’s.
We’re seeing the brain has its own microbiome that’s healthy in the beginning of life and becomes less healthy with age and even less healthy with Alzheimer’s. Just the fact that we have a brain microbiome, which we learned only over the past two years, is blowing our minds. We’re still trying to find out how it works and how we might be able to affect the brain microbiome. Could it be that diet and how it affects our gut microbiome, or the supplements we take and how they affect our cellular energy and inflammation, are directly affecting the brain microbiome? These are all the connections we’re trying to make now.
In the meantime, the good things you can do for your gut microbiome—like the acronym SHIELD and the seven-day plan you’ll find in The Healing Self—are all aimed at reducing inflammation.
This is good for the brain, too.