Dr. Datis Kharrazian – How to Optimize Your Brain Health And Build Superhuman Energy

Content By: Ari Whitten

In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Datis Kharrazian – who is an award-winning researcher, academic professor, and functional medicine healthcare provider. He specializes in developing evidence-based models to treat autoimmune, neurological, and unidentified chronic diseases with non-pharmaceutical applications, such as diet, nutrition, and lifestyle medicine. We will talk about the best ways to optimize your brain health and get superhuman energy.

In this podcast, Dr. Kharrazian and I will discuss: 

  • The role of the brain in energy levels
  • The things that set the brain apart from the rest of the body 
  • The role of lifestyle habits in health and wellbeing
  • The best way to train your brain for optimal brain health
  • How to self-diagnose your brain-related symptoms
  • The 5 primary causes of brain dysfunction

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Ari: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Energy Blueprint Podcast. I am here with the brilliant, wonderful, amazing Dr. Datis Kharrazian, who is an award-winning researcher, academic professor, and functional medicine healthcare provider. He specializes in developing evidence-based models to treat autoimmune, neurological, and unidentified chronic diseases with nonpharmaceutical applications, such as diet, nutrition, and lifestyle medicine, which I absolutely love.

His academic and clinical research has been featured in numerous documentaries. And his clinical models of functional medicine are used by several academic institutions and thousands of healthcare providers throughout the world. He’s also received appointments as an associate clinical professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, and a research fellow at the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. And in this talk, he’s going to be telling us all about the role of the brain, and maybe also we’ll get into some immune stuff in relationship to energy levels. So welcome, Dr. Kharrazian. Such a pleasure to connect with you again, as always.

Dr. Kharrazian: It’s always a pleasure, Ari.

The role of the brain in relationship to energy levels

Ari: So to start us off, let’s talk about your big picture paradigm of the role of the brain in energy levels. So there are lots of different mechanisms and paradigms that are out there. There’s people talking about limbic system dysfunction; there’s people talking about childhood trauma. There’s the Polyvagal theory with Stephen Porges and sympathetic versus parasympathetic. There’s people talking about more of the psychological angle of negative beliefs and thought patterns. There’s glial excitotoxicity. There’s toxins and the glymphatic system. There’s neurotransmitters. There’s all these different layers of mechanisms and things that we could talk about as far as the role of the brain in how it impacts energy levels and mood, which kind of overlap. But what’s your big picture kind of paradigm of the role of the brain in relationship to energy levels?

Dr. Kharrazian: So all the things you talked about like dysautonomia and neuroinflammation and SNP activity and neurodegeneration, they’re all part of it. But fundamentally as a clinician, one of the things that I think most people see is that a patient comes in, and one of their chief complaints is their fatigue. And one of the quickest things to do as a clinician is to go, is this brain-based fatigue, or is this metabolic fatigue? And there’s a difference between the two. Brain-based fatigue is a type of fatigue that shows up when a person uses the brain. So when someone says, hey, when I drive, I just need to take a nap. When I start reading, I can’t go past a — I can’t get through a chapter. That’s brain-based fatigue, and that’s different than metabolic fatigue. Metabolic fatigue, they are just tired for no reason throughout the day.

And some people have both, but I think there’s a lot of people that really have brain fatigue, and they get treated for like adrenal dysfunctions and all these metabolic things. And really ultimately what they really need to do is get their brain healthier. And that’s one of the key immediate things I would like to kind of — when you look at the big picture, first of all, what are you dealing with? And brain fatigue is a red flag of something going wrong with how the brain’s metabolism is working, and then all the things you brought up then have to be dissected out to see what’s the cause of it.

Ari: Got it. Is there any overlap between these two things? Like, for example, there are certain people out there who are in the chronic fatigue syndrome niche, and they’ve promoted a theory of that the brain is very central to chronic fatigue syndrome and it’s specifically stress and trauma that kind of rewires the brain, the limbic system, especially in a way that promotes very physical fatigue. I guess you might call it metabolic fatigue in addition to maybe brain-related symptoms. What do you see as the overlap there?

Dr. Kharrazian: Well, it’s definitely a vicious cycle back and forth between the two. For sure metabolic fatigue is going to cause brain fatigue. The key thing about the brain is that the brain is one of the tissues in the body that’s — it’s called post [inaudible]. It doesn’t go through cell division any further. So once you’re born, the amount of neurons you have in your brain, that’s it. Those neurons can either connect with each other and develop plasticity. But the total quantity of neurons you get is what you’re born with, and that’s different than other tissues in the body.

So like your liver is always regenerating; your gut is regenerating; your kidney is regenerating. All your organs are constantly regenerating, but your brain, the amount of neurons you have are what you have. And when you have like a chronic inflammatory, metabolic disease, like inflammatory bowel syndrome or something, there’s going to be a toll it takes on the brain because systemic inflammation is going to cause brain inflammation and promote neurodegenerative mechanisms.

And then what people sometimes forget is the reason they’re not feeling better or recovering out of the chronic fatigue is because their brain is in trouble. And now, when the brain is in trouble, depending on the region of the brain, if the frontal motor areas are a problem, then using your arms and exercising is going to be fatiguing for you. If your autonomic centers, the basic ganglion that controls your limbic system are a problem, then you have dysautonomia and have more heart rates that are going to raise your blood pressure is going to cause you to be fatigued. It all depends. If your center lobe is involved, watching TV with quick flashes of screens. Once we see someone that does have brain-related fatigue, there’s a couple of questions you ask. What areas of the brain are involved, and then what are the mechanisms causing it?

So you could have someone that fatigues when it’s really bright, and they don’t have their sunglasses. That means their brain’s cooked. That’s a different area of the brain than someone who has fatigue when they read versus some who has fatigue if they’re in a windy road. One is the vestibular system; one is the occipital lobe, one is involved with autonomic centers for people with constriction and dilation. So literally, you can listen to a patient, listen to their symptoms, and get fine-tuned. And usually, patients say, oh, it’s so weird. But when I do this, this is really what I noticed, this symptom. But that’s specific to regions of the brain.

Ari: It’s interesting. So how separate are these different manifestations as far as the causes? And for context, we could look at obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, dysregulated blood lipids, metabolic syndrome. All of these things are largely different manifestations of a lot of the same root causes at the nutrition and lifestyle level. How much of that same type of thing is going on with these different regions of brain dysfunction that you’re describing? Is it the same set of root causes, or is it totally different root causes depending on how it manifests?

Dr. Kharrazian: Right. That’s a good question. So the first thing is all the things you mentioned, all those metabolic conditions, all those inflammatory conditions all promote neurodegeneration. It’s well established in clinical research. So the question is then why does certain areas show up, and others don’t show up. So that goes back to some fundamental concepts that are actually your personal neurodevelopment. So each of us have different regions of the brain, which have greater connectivity, greater plasticity than other areas. So, for example, let’s say you were a kid, and you grew up, and you try to play sports, and you were bad at it. And you weren’t coordinated, but you were just developing. You were a kid, but people started making fun of you.

And then you never played sports, and you always avoided sports forever. Then your vestibular motor system is not going to develop.

So you have maybe a least efficient system. So maybe then you excel at math, or it could be the opposite. Maybe you were terrible at math. So you avoided all math and then focused on sports your whole life growing up. So during that newer development state, you have different areas of your brain that have greater plasticity than others. Now, when you have that as a baseline, and everyone has different degrees of greater function and greater connectivity in certain regions based on how they exercise or use their brains. 

Now, when you overlap an inflammatory, metabolic condition on top of that, let’s say like diabetes, well, the areas — You’re going to have neurodegeneration, neuroinflammation throughout the brain, but the areas that show up first are the areas that have less plasticity. So if you’re the person who didn’t have a very developed motor coordinated muscular system because you never played sports, well, you might end up with your neurodegeneration first showing up with vertigo and dizziness and instability.

For someone else, maybe it’s the other one who didn’t do the math. They’re going to start, but not remember phone numbers and remember lists. And so, everyone’s brain is different. Everyone’s brain has different levels of connectivity or plasticity in certain areas. And then, when you put a metabolic condition on top of it, the clinical presentation is always showing the first with the least amount of connecting. So that’s why it’s different from one person to the next.

The link between nutrition and brain health

Ari: Very interesting. So as far as how nutrition and lifestyle play into this, what do you see? Are there sort of well-defined, more typical root causes at the nutrition-lifestyle level of these conditions, or to what degree do you see nutrition and lifestyle as factoring into these brain-related symptoms that you’re describing?

Dr. Kharrazian: Well, they’re critical. So I think one of the key things is — First of all, if a person is suffering from a chronic condition or a fatigue issue or a condition — we’re trying to figure out patients — so realize what role the brain plays and then what are the mechanisms? Well, obviously, inflammation is as a key mechanism, but inflammation in the brain is totally different to the rest of the body. So in the brain, you have primarily neuroglial cells, microglial cells, and they don’t have an off switch. In the systemic immune system, we have suppressor cells that can shut down the immune system. We don’t have two suppressor cells in the brain. We don’t have two regulatory cells in the brain, and we have these neuroglial cells in the brain. And then the other key feature of these neuroglial cells, the immune cells of the brain, is that they can get into a physiological state called neuroglia priming where they don’t shut off.

As a matter of fact, things like traumatic brain injury that’s really impacting area of the brain turns on these glial cells. And then they stay on, and they’re hyper. They have a heightened state of an inflammatory reaction, and they’re triggered by inflammation throughout the body. So you could have also someone who has like a head injury and then their neuroglial cells are already primed probably from 10 years ago in a car accident. And now they’re starting to get early diabetes, and now they’re really getting severe degeneration and symptoms there. So inflammation is a role with all — like just the general concept of diet, lifestyle impacts brain function. But in addition to plasticity in different regions, we will have different areas of prime glial cells, maybe from past injuries; maybe from past assaults to the brain, maybe someone’s hypoxic due to poisoning. Who knows?

And then, when you add all those up, yes, the underlying causes of all this is inflammation, but everyone has a different level of glial priming and a different degree of plasticity. So the expressions of it is all different, but otherwise, you have to treat the inflammation. — when people have prime glial cells, there’s only certain things that can make a difference for that from a nutritional perspective. For example, if you take flavonoids, they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier.

So if you don’t take it — some people, for example, have a really nice response to the curcumin or resveratrol, but not respond to SI extract or pomegranate extract because let’s say resveratrol can cross the blood-brain barrier. Some of the reasons why people go, my depression, or my energy changed could be because of the ability of that natural nutraceutical to cross the blood-brain barrier and then actually turn on the glial cells. So that’s where it gets really exciting when you think about inflammation that the immune system in the brain is different than the rest of the body. And then now routine will be to get those cells from a nutritional point of view. There’s only so many things that could cross the blood-brain barrier.

How brain inflammation manifests

Ari: Interesting. I want to come back to the nutraceutical aspect of things and phytochemicals that do that effectively, but is there a point at which all of these different mechanisms converge into some of the same pathways? So what I mean is you mentioned a number of different potential causes of how the brain could start to dysfunction: everything from toxic exposure, heavy metals, or carbon monoxide poisoning, or something like that to head injury, to, I’m sure, just poor diet to being sedentary to, I’m sure, there’s probably ten other things that you could list off.

Do they converge through this inflammatory pathway and the glial overexcitement? Is it possible to sort of say there is a general pattern of excessive inflammation and glial excitotoxicity that results from almost all of these different causes and that may manifest differently for different people, depending on their genetics, their unique causes, their personality development as you described different plasticity differences, but do they converge like at some of the same biochemical mechanisms at some point?

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah. I mean, I think for the most part. Like you said, inflammation is where everything merges. It triggers all these different cascading events downstream. But the other unique thing about the brain is when you look at the brain, there’s two types of cells in the brain. There’s neurons, and then there’s the glial cells, and glial cells or even neurons are what branch into each other and have electrical activity. So inflammation will definitely turn on these glial cells in the brain that can promote a neurodegenerative process. And some people have different degrees of primed glial cells, but then something unrelated to inflammation is just activity of the brain.

So neurons make mitochondria within them for their ATP production only after they’re stimulated. So your mitochondria biogenesis in neurons, or even in muscles throughout the body and the brain specifically, take place from activation. So your brain naturally literally unrelated to inflammation as a common area because the brain is unique that it needs stimulation also. So you need to reduce inflammation, but it needs activation. So when you stop using different regions of the brain, it degenerates. As a matter of fact, these neuroglial cells that are involved with inflammation, their normal job is to get rid of dead cells and debris in the brain. When neurons stop firing, they just start tearing them up.

Ari: Oh, wow. So it becomes a neurodegenerative process in areas of the brain that are not as active as they should be?

Dr. Kharrazian: Right, and we tend to kind of focus on certain things we’re good at and like to do. And as we get older, those start to show up, especially if you have an underlying metabolic, inflammatory disease, which adds fuel to the fire. So what’s very unique about the brain is, of course, inflammation is the vergence area, but one of the most overlooked areas is activation and stimulation.

Ari: You’re speaking my language now because hormesis is my favorite subject and transient metabolic stress and how that affects mitochondria. But to some extent what you’re talking about here, I’m sure there’s a hormetic element, but there’s also just like challenging areas of your brain that you may not be making conscious efforts to, for example, do math or do crossword puzzles, or do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Is that accurate?

Dr. Kharrazian: It’s accurate. It goes to the point, like let’s say, for example, someone is tired all the time, just fatigued, and they’re exhausted. And they know when they drive in a windy road, that really fatigues them. And that’s all vestibular. The vestibular system tries to figure out where you’re in space in relation to your environment. So for them, they’re going to have to do the vestibular rehabilitation to get their brain function back. They can take all the nutraceuticals in the world. It’s not going to make those neurons develop mitochondria, develop plasticity — only activation will.

Inflammation will promote it. And if you reduce inflammation, it can slow down the process, but it’s not going to make neurons connect, and it’s not going to make neurons have mitochondria. The person that is bad at math and now every time they try to do calculations with math or timeline, they get really tired, fatigued. They’re going to have to start doing math and very basic level 101 brain rehabilitation. Whatever they can’t do is what they do.

Ari: Is what they should do; in other words, yeah.

Dr. Kharrazian: If your balance is bad, you do balance. If you can’t find your nose because you keep missing your nose, you’ll figure it out.

Ari: Got it. Yeah, fascinating. I had never thought about it quite like that. Okay, so it seems like there’s two elements here, and I’m sure this is still oversimplifying, but one element is this sort of personalized element that depends on individual assessment and identification of which parts or systems of the brain are not adequately stimulated or under activated and don’t have adequate degrees of neuroplasticity and are prone to this sort of neurodegenerative process that you’ve described.

And then the other aspect of it is maybe more universal recommendations as far as nutrition and lifestyle that we know decreases inflammation in the brain and supports optimal brain function and brain cell health. Is that accurate to say?

Dr. Kharrazian: Exactly, yeah.

Ari: Okay, so given that we are doing this interview, and we have tens of thousands; hopefully, a couple of hundred thousand people listening to this who, unfortunately, don’t in this moment have the luxury of sitting across from you and your office where they can get a personalized assessment. My first question, I want to dig into the universal stuff and recommendations, nutrition, and lifestyle stuff, but are there any aspects of assessments that someone could do at home sort of on their own? And obviously, there’s no substitution for seeing someone like you in person, but is there any way that someone could sort of self-assess and identify, hey, these parts of my brain maybe are under active.

Dr. Kharrazian: There is. So let me give you a general answer. And so, I wrote a book called Why Isn’t My Brain Working?. And then, at the beginning of each chapter, I wrote the symptoms of different mechanisms, dysfunctional differences of the brain — lack of blood sugar issue or from a neuroinflammation issue or from a blood-brain permeability issue or from gutbrain access issue. So there’s different symptoms that present each one. My attempt to try to share more of the specific application was to write a book and break it down by chapter with symptoms in each chapter for each section. So that was one way to do it.

Ari: I actually have that book in the cabinet right behind me. I should’ve gotten it out, but it’s a phenomenal book, and it’s filled with all my notes and highlights all over the place.

Dr. Kharrazian: So that was the attempt for me to try to like teach people that when you look at your brain, there’s so many different things that can go wrong, so many different mechanisms, and here’s how you can kind of finetune which ones may be involved with you. And here’s the research of how you can change these things. And then once I wrote my brain book, I had a lot of people contact us and say it’s a great book. I read it, but I have so much brain dysfunction. I can’t even get through it. It’s hard to understand, and then made a video program called Save Your Brain — an online program — that doctors can you use, but it really goes into a step-by-step approach.

And it teaches people to do their own physical, neurological exam and look at symptoms and kind of get what checks to do. But for the most part, maybe you kind of think of it front to back of the brain. Like if you have a hard time with math, then get a math app and start doing multiplication tables and games that — I don’t know — elementary school people are wanting to do. That can really help you. If you have a really hard time with directions and people’s faces and shapes, then do games like Tetris, where you’re looking at shapes and trying to fit them into different spots. If you close your eyes and put your feet together and see if you sway or how your balance is, or stand on one foot and close your eyes and it bounces off, you get to do some balance exercises.

Those are general, the most common things. It’s just left-right brain and balance. I mean, you can get to the very fine-tuned areas of each region of the brain if you had a chance to do an exam, but those are the general guidelines. And for the most part, highly active and doing multitask exercise where you’re hitting a tennis ball, running, timing, planning, those are like fantastic ways to keep your brain healthy from aging, whether it’s tennis or ping pong or basketball. So those are important to do. And then cognitive things like you should try to learn a language. You should try to keep your brain active and stimulated. Definitely, just watching TV passively is not good for the brain. So those types of activities make a big difference. Be an athlete, be a scholar, keep your brain healthy, keep your inflammation down, and then that’s the way to preserve your brain.

Ari: Excellent. So I want to dig into the nutrition-lifestyle aspects here. I know in your book; you talk a lot about a lot of things. It’s a gigantic book. I think what is it? 600 pages or something?

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah, something like that, but a lot of references in the back so it’s not a —

The most common causes of brain fatigue

Ari: Yeah. So blood sugar regulation is a big issue as far as brain-related issues, stress, sleep, circulation is something that you talk about, the braingut access. What do you think — I’m sure all of these are pretty common, but if you were to say, hey, here are the three most common causes of why someone would have brain-related fatigue or the five most common causes of why someone would have brain-related fatigue as far as nutrition, lifestyle factors, what would be that list for you?

Dr. Kharrazian: Okay. Well, gosh, that’s a tough question. Number one, for sure, in the current US population is going to be blood sugar stability. And that could include being prediabetic, diabetic, or being hypoglycemic where blood sugar levels drop. So blood sugar rollercoaster rides are going to devastate the brain.

And one of the things that — when a person eats too much carbohydrates, which turn sugar or if they’re prediabetic, they put out more insulin and insulin just turns on these Neuroglial cells in the brain. It causes significant inflammation and really promotes the neurodegenerative process, and just the daily function of the brain uncouples mitochondria bioenergetics to be efficient. And you really can’t use the brain — The brain dysregulates. In people with low blood sugar, they’re the ones — when the blood sugar is low, the brain doesn’t have fuel.

And even when their blood sugar levels drop, there’s an insulin surge too as an attempt for the body to get glucose into the cells, whatever it can. And those create the inflammatory cascade. So number one is blood sugar. And for me, I would say that the first thing that I ask my patients to determine if they have a blood sugar issue is how do you feel after you eat? And the normal response would be, I just don’t feel like I’m hungry. If there’s any symptom change of energy, then I know there’s a blood sugar problem.

So hypoglycemics will typically say, oh, I feel I can function again. I feel better. I can think again. I’m not hungry anymore. That’s a sign that they’re dealing with a low blood sugar rollercoaster ride. And those that eat a meal and need to take a nap and crave sugar, who need to immediately have a coffee, those are insulin resistant people. Those who are getting these surges tend to be on diabetic, prediabetic side. So the normal response is you should actually be hungry, have an appetite, eat, no longer be hungry, but no change in energy and function. So that’s number one. Number two, the key thing that really promotes neurodegenerative response since you’re making me come up with five.

Ari: I’m sure you come up with 20 if you think hard enough.

Dr. Kharrazian: It’s hard to pick which ones like the top ones. Actually, the second one is going to be the activation of the brain. Like if someone doesn’t activate the brain, it’s going to neurodegenerate. By activation of the brain, let’s just stick to cognitive aspects. Like you really should be challenging your brain. Some people play Sudoku. Some people do word puzzles. That is fantastic, but you really need to do an activation of do you think that’s ready. If they’re watching your summit, then they’re stimulating the brain by learning and through reading a book, or if they’re focused on some topic to explore and learn, those are critical. For a lot of people just have neurodegenerative changes because they don’t use their brains anymore.

Ari: Yeah. It’s interesting that as you’re saying that I realized this is something that I’ve neglected in my thinking about these subjects. For example, in the context of neurodegenerative disease, I tend to just really think more in the context of nutrition and lifestyle factors and stress and disrupted circadian rhythm and sleep and poor diet and poor gut health and so on. But the stimulation aspect, it’s interesting to hear you describe it as number two, as being so important. And I’m just curious if you were to — this is a really tough question. I’m sure you can’t accurately answer, but just your hunch about what percentage of the overall neurological disease problem you perceive to be related to just a population that just doesn’t use their brain very much and challenge themselves to learn and to stimulate these different parts of the brain.

Dr. Kharrazian: Oh, I think it’s a large percentage of the population, especially once people are not in a position to challenge their brains anymore. We just go to school. We learn a language. We can throw in PE, maybe, not anymore. We turned to music, and that’s very stimulating for the brain. Once we get older, we kind of lose those things, and we get focused on doing the same task every day and the same focus every day. And then if you’re not stimulating your brain, your brain will degenerate. The areas of your brain you’re not using will have less mitochondria in them, and they will have less plasticity in them.

So they’ll have fatigue sooner when you start to use them. So it’s like someone may be in their midlife career; they go back to school. The first week of going back to school, they’re sleeping 10 hours a day because their brains are tired because they are not used to reading and studying and everything. What you’re actually doing is saving the brain. So a lack of activation, I think, is common, especially as we get older. Some people are professional, and they’re using their brains all the time, and that’s actually very good for them. It keeps them healthy.

And when you look at patients that come in, you see a 75-year-old, 90-yearold, that’s still highly functional. They were constantly using their brain, and they were constantly doing things, and you see people retire, and all of a sudden, everything goes downhill. They’re not using their brain anymore. So use your brain. You have to challenge your brain to stay healthy. Even there’s all these apps today and online programs, people go in and learn to challenge some of the puzzles and games. They do that 20, 30 minutes a day. That’s really a good idea.

Ari: Excellent, fascinating stuff. Okay, so blood sugar dysregulation and brain stimulation, number one and two. Where would you go from here?

Dr. Kharrazian: The third one has to be physical activity. It’s another common one that people just don’t do, and it really impacts the brain function. And physical exercise is one of the few things that causes neuronal branching and neuronal branching, and especially with runners, there’s some phenomenal research that shows that runners, in particular, the most studied, when they run their neurons branch so aggressively, and they release things like brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which now has these neurons to connect. And that one is high. It creates this opioid response. And that sets the stage on for major neuron branching and growth and calms down the inflammatory response. So I’d say getting an exercise, high feeling turns on all the biochemistry to really protect brain.

Ari: This is kind of a weird thing on one hand. It’s counter-intuitive, but I think everybody’s seen over the last five years, ten years, there’s been a number of articles in the media about exercise improves brain health and combats depression, combats neurological disease, things like that. So I think a lot of us have heard that exercise is good for our brain, and we accept that. On the other hand, it’s kind of a weird and counter-intuitive thing in my view, because it’s like, in my background in exercise, so I’m used to thinking of exercise is good for your muscles. And we can study all the ways that muscles adapt in terms of strength and endurance and muscle fiber type and mitochondrial biogenesis and the muscles and muscle hypertrophy and yadda yadda yadda.

But it’s like, okay, well, why does doing bicep curls and strengthening your bicep muscles, just as an example, or doing squats or going for a run, why would that from an evolutionary perspective boost our brain health?

Dr. Kharrazian: Well, I’m not sure from an evolution perspective, but for sure, just doing bicep curls is immediately going to raise things like a brain-derived neurotrophic factor to allow connectivity. And you’re going to boost your antioxidant production throughout your body, including the brain. And you’re going to increase circulation and blood flow because when you do a bicep curl, you’re actually activating your homunculus distribution of your motor and premotor areas and setting the sensory cortex to fire, and you create that condition. So it’s very stimulating to the brain.

So it’s not something to the brain as just sitting around watching YouTube videos and watching TV and eating inflammatory food. So on the list of the most common things that cause neurodegeneration and make the brain not preserve itself as we get older is just not getting physical activity. The brain gets activated. Any physical activity you do, whether it’s a bicep curl, or you’re running, or you’re playing basketball is integrating different regions of your brain. After exercise and during exercise, there’s lots of increased circulation and blood flow to the brain, which keeps your neurons healthy. So it’s critical.

Ari: Fascinating. So to what degree do you think that it’s important just to do exercise and sort of get a workout or versus like using your body to learn a physical skill? Like one of the activities that I do is rock climbing, and rock climbing is this very unique mix of, yes, it absolutely can be a workout. It can be very intense at times, but a lot of times it’s this act of you’re using your body, like you’re playing a chess game like you’re using your body to figure out how to solve problems in physical space, and how to manipulate your body movements to be stable in a particular position to get to that next position up the wall. So to what degree are the benefits from this sort of like working out, like getting a workout versus like moving your body, learning how to move your body in new different ways and kind of coordinating that?

Dr. Kharrazian: That’s a great question. So like, for example, if you’re learning how to mountain climb or rock climb, you’re activating a lot of fine motor coordination activities, your balance, your shift in weight. That has a tremendous stimulus to your brain. Someone’s in shape they may fatigue their brain before they fatigue their body on their first time on how to rock climb. So they get done, and they’re like, I’m so tired, but it’s not the body that needs recovery. It’s their brain. They need to just close their eyes and shut down. So that is helping connectivity in that specific region of motor planning, coordination, body shifting. So that’s one thing. 

So the type of activities you do can fatigue your brain when you’re doing exercise, but also very therapeutic for your brain. So if someone had some frontal lobe degeneration and dysfunction, rock climbing would be very difficult for them because they can’t get that motor planning that’s very much involved with that type of activity.

Running is a little bit easier because they just kind of do the same thing over again. Sequence is not as cognitive of a task, but it’s also as therapeutic. So one part of it is the specific types of activities you do will activate different regions versus others. So if you’re constantly doing exercise on a BOSU ball or an unstable platform, that’s more vestibular, right? Just doing dumbbell curls, the same motion is not going to have as much stimulation to your coordination integrated part of your brain. So that’s one thing. But the other thing is your heart rate. So when they look at brain research, they have a direct relationship between the intensity of the exercise and changing the neurochemistry of the brain. What they find is burst of high intensity do have a different impact on the biochemistry of the brain?

So one part of it is the chemistry of it. And one part is the connectivity of it. So the actions you do are going to impact the connectivity and plasticity, and then how high your heart rate gets during the activity will change the biochemistry. So higher heart rate equals more blood flow, more circulation, more growth factors, more brain-derived neurotrophic factor. That’s related to how high your heart rate is. But then the more coordinated your activities are, the more connectivity you get in those areas of the brain. So when we work with patients that have brain injuries, sometimes we have to pick exercises —

Like if you gave a patient that has brain injury in the vestibular system, their balance centers of the cerebellum, some exercises on a BOSU ball with the bicep curl, they would be tired and exhausted maybe before the muscles are tired because their brain is — They may not make that connection. They go, oh my God, I’m so tired. I’m so out of shape. And they think it’s a physical issue, but it’s the brain that has an issue. If the brain is fatigued, your muscles don’t work anymore. Nothing works if the brain is fatigued because your brain is impacting, controlling everything, and it’s all integrating.

Ari: This is fascinating stuff. I’m loving this conversation. So one other thing I think is worth mentioning here — We’re obviously focused very much on the fatigue, energy aspect of things, but would you say it’s accurate to say that basically all of the same constellations of issues are also the major causes of neurological disease more broadly?

Dr. Kharrazian: Oh, absolutely. These are all risk factors and mechanisms that promote neurodegenerative disease, yeah.

Ari: Okay. I want to make that connection for people listening in so that they understand these are really the same factors. Like if you want to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases and keep your brain healthy as you get older, it comes back to these same things. So optimizing your brain — I’m curious if you would agree with this — optimizing your brain for energy is very much the same thing as optimizing your brain for disease prevention and having good brain health well into old age?

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah. You can even say it’s identical. They overlap.

Ari: Got it. Yeah, so we’ve got blood sugar dysregulation. We’ve got exercise. We’ve got stimulation, brain stimulation, and we’ve got exercise.

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah. Fourth on the list is going to be sleep. Your brain cannot function in sleep-deprived state. Your brain cannot branch. It can’t develop plasticity. It can’t get rid of debris when it’s in a sleep-deprived state, and studies clearly show when people don’t get enough sleep, and they monitor them over time; there’s a difference in brain volume sizes, and it promotes atrophy of the brain. So like we think, well, I can rush through it. I can have the alarm wake me up, and I can get through it. And then I can take the stimulate to keep me going. But that actually changes your brain to a point where it can’t develop connectivity and plasticity, and it can’t get rid of this debris. So we all get debris in our brain from dead cells that are dying off, whether it’s beta-amyloid or vagus nucleon, or whatever the aggregate protein is, they build up in our brain.

Our body has to clear those out. It can’t do that in a sleep-deprived state. So one of the biggest factors that as I talk about top five is just sleep. So when we’re working with a patient recovering from brain injury or working with a patient that has a neurodegenerative disease and trying to get into a lifestyle, first thing we tell them is you have to get to the point and figure this out. So you wake up without an alarm clock, or your body just has enough rest, and then it gets up.

Like whether you have to start going to bed at eight o’clock to make sure you have had enough time to do it, but you have to get to the point where you’re not stimulated up to have — the brain we need to help it recover and rehabilitate or so forth. So sleep is a major one. I think this is a major problem most with the kids with developmental issues and so forth. They just can’t have sleep. They’re still stimulating and wiring. They get up, and they had to be forced out of bed. That is a major mechanism for causing an inefficient brain. And also, like you said, being a faculty for neurodegeneration.

Ari: This is a bit of a digression, but you mentioned the kid thing. And I just remember seeing an article maybe a year ago or something like that, where they were talking about changing school start times from whatever 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. or something like that because they’re finding so many kids are sleep deprived, and their brains are not functioning early in the morning. So they’re forcing themselves to wake up with an alarm clock. They’re tired. They’re not getting enough sleep. And then they’re going to school.

But in my view, this is really not getting at the root cause of the problem. And this is a bit of a digression, but the root cause of the problem, as I see it, is we live in a modern world that is phase-shifting our circadian rhythm to more of a night owl rhythm, and kids are staying up too late due to artificial light, and they’re going to bed too late. And then they’re being forced to wake up too early. And then I just don’t know how much extending school start times actually fixes anything because now kids are just going to say, oh, I can stay up even later now. And ultimately, I think in the long run, making things even worse potentially.

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah, definitely you’re right. It’s just this constant stimulation that’s keeping them up at night, but whatever the cause is, that has to be addressed. For some people that have neurodegeneration as they get older, we can’t get their brain healthy until we stop their frequent nighttime urination. For someone else, they’re stimulating and playing on their iPad all night, and all that light is — We have to get them a blue flight filter and put time limits and get them to read actual books or do things to fall asleep. 

Some people is their blood sugar. They get hypoglycemic throughout the day, and then they don’t eat enough protein. And they wake up in the middle of the night with a hypoglycemic spike and wake up from enjoying their rest. They are trying to break down some protein for sugar. But sleep is a major one. Like if you don’t get sleep, your brain has no chance function well, and it’s going to neurodegenerate faster.

Ari: Yeah. So we’ve got sleep; we’ve got exercise; we’ve got brain stimulation; we’ve got blood sugar dysregulation. Is there anything else worth mentioning here?

Dr. Kharrazian: I want to make number five, inflammation. I’ve got a lot about inflammation, and inflammation is critical, but everyone has some degree of inflammation, and it’s a common point area. And by the way, lack of sleep, lack of physical activity, blood sugar issues all will increase your inflammatory load. And so, again, like you’re saying, it does converge, but I wanted to make it number five because I wanted it to kind of highlight the other ones. So ultimately, these five, you have to converge. And those things all creating inflammatory cascade also, but that being said, sometimes people can get confused and go, okay, so I’m taking my anti-inflammatory nutritional protocol, so I should be okay, or I eat well. I don’t eat junk. I don’t eat fast food, so I should be okay.

No, if you’re not sleeping, not getting enough cognitive stimulation, you’re still hypoglycemic, your blood sugar is spiking in between your salads or whatever, you’re going to have neurodegenerative changes and inefficient brain. So for me, being a healthcare practitioner, alternative medicine, I see a lot of alternate healthcare practitioners as patients, too, and they are eating well, but they’re still hypoglycemic. They’re eating well. They’re hypoglycemic, but they still don’t get enough rest, and they’re not stimulating their brains. They’re just so caught up in the work and doing other activities to keep themselves excited about whatever they need to. Maybe they need to learn art or something. So I wanted to highlight those more than just inflammation. However, they all do convert to inflammation.

Ari: Yeah, very interesting. I know that there’s — I’m sure it’s not an exaggeration to say 30 hours at least that you could talk about all the mechanisms of how our brain dysfunctions and how to fix it. So this is necessarily kind of a very short summary and oversimplification in some instances, but two other things that I’m curious to get your thoughts on one is the role of the vagus nerve and kind of the Stephen Porges model of the Polyvagal theory and also, neurotransmitters.

There are some people out there who are very brain focused who just kind of, in my view, reduce everything almost down to neurotransmitter imbalance and then use specific amino acid supplements, whether it’s AlphaNine or tryptophan or whatever to optimize neurotransmitter balance. And that’s kind of their whole model, which I think is very myopic compared to the model that you’re presenting here. But what are your thoughts on neurotransmitters and the Polyvagal theory — the role of the vagus nerve in all of this?

Dr. Kharrazian: Well, let’s start with neurotransmitters first. Well, for sure, there’s nutraceuticals that impact neurotransmission activity in the brain. Precursor amino acids can raise your neurotransmitters. Different botanicals can bind to different receptors for different neurotransmitters in the brain. So there’s something to be said there, but they’re also very superficial band-aid type mechanisms. 

Like if someone, for example, took some kind of valerian root or hops or passionflower to sleep, that doesn’t last. I mean, there’s a point where the brain adapts. It doesn’t work anymore. Someone taking L-theanine to help them raise their GABA levels, they’re going to maybe for the first two weeks feel something then it stops, or it decreases. I mean, in my experience, yeah, those nutraceuticals can be helpful, but they’re really short-term, and they’re not really addressing the main issue. And then we know there’s no accurate way to really measure neurotransmitters in the brain.

The levels of neurotransmitters in the brain are different in different regions at different times. Urinary neurotransmitter testing is not valid. There’s no reflection in between which region of the brain has different neurotransmitter activity. So it’s hard to measure, but it is some people’s model. And in my book, I do talk about symptoms related to common neurotransmitter imbalances, but it’s like we always put it the last and say, this is the last place you go. You start with blood sugar, or you start with these factors and get rid of all the smoke screen and see if there’s any neurotransmitter imbalances left. And then maybe you can kind of boost them that way.

Ari: Because ultimately, most neurotransmitter imbalances, if they are present, are largely related to these same root causes you’ve already mentioned?

Dr. Kharrazian: Absolutely. But sometimes, like, for example, if I want to focus and concentrate and improve recall when I’m working on a cognitive project, I may take some catecholamine or acetylcholine support during the project to let me focus. When you drink coffee, you’re getting catecholamines elevated. So that’s a neurotransmitter stimulator, for example. Things like Huperzine help raise acetylcholine levels. I know when I take it, when I’m trying to do long-term cognitive tasks, it helps me have greater endurance. So they’re useful to some degree, but if you overlook down-line methods that cause neurotransmitter imbalance, that’s I think where things fall apart. I’m not sure what the Polyvagal theory is.

Ari: Oh, really? So yes, Stephen Porges has been out there for, geez, I think maybe 10 or 20 years at this point. I think the last time I interviewed you, there was a similar thing like this, where I mentioned somebody’s work, and you were like, huh, never heard of it. And it’s so funny to me because it just speaks to the fact that you’re so immersed in the research that you just oftentimes don’t even pay any attention to kind of what’s going on in the popular sort of internet health world.

Dr. Kharrazian: No, I do not know what’s going on. What’s the theory?

Ari: I don’t want to not do it justice and oversimplify it, but basically, it’s conceptualizing a dorsal vagal response and a ventral vagal response. And basically, it’s a model that says, hey, it’s more sophisticated than — it’s more complex than just fight or flight, sympathetic mode, stress mode versus rest and digest parasympathetic mode. The vagus nerve is just more complex than that. 

And we have this ventral vagus and dorsal vagus response, and there’s also this kind of more of a freeze response, and he relates this to fatigue and depression and apathy and things like that. And ventral vagus response is more — it’s largely about safety. So like safety is a big thing in this model where basically to be in a ventral vagal state means your brain is, and your nervous system senses that it’s in a safe environment. It’s not in a stressed, dangerous environment, but yeah, I’m oversimplifying and not describing it well, but I would say that’s kind of the gist of it.

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah, so, I mean, obviously, autonomic system is always more complicated than just sympathetic versus parasympathetic, and I think we’re learning more about it. I can’t criticize it or comment on it because I just don’t have any experience on it, but I would just generally say autonomics — I think the only way I can answer on autonomics from my world and just from my background and my bias and my exposures is we have patients that do have dysautonomia, and we have patients that do have dysfunctional autonomic nervous system that need to get those systems organized and balanced to have any chance of getting function.

So typically, we’ll see what this autonomic is. Like I will put a heart rate monitor on them, and their heart is all over the place. Like most people, you put a heart rate monitor on them and just leave it there for a minute or two, you get a resting heart rate, and it’s pretty stable. For some people, it goes all over the place. It goes from 60 to 110 to 70 to 80, and it’s just sitting there.

We’ll look at their pupils, and normally people have resting pupils. There is a little bit of activity, but others are all over the place from one to the other. We’ll see vascular changes, blood flow changes. They’re typically very sensitive to light or sound. I mean, for me, my only way to try to answer your question about vagus is I work with patients with dysautonomia and —

Ari: But you do use and talk about vagus nerve stimulation as playing a role in —

Dr. Kharrazian: So for me, I’m not as complex between dissecting ventral versus dorsal. And I don’t know if in any real physical exam you can do that, but we know we can look at vagal function, nucleus function, we can look blood flow. We can listen to their gut. We can listen to their heart. We can listen for bowel sounds. We can look at their pallet when they say, aw — if the pallet moves. We can see if they have a normal gag reflex. And then if we don’t, we can activate those centers like ganglia or things like that. I talk about that in my book, but also the autonomic centers.

I remember this one time. I think I thought I learned autonomics wrong for the brain. And I think it was updated. So I spent nearly three weeks going through all these papers. I had to do a lecture for an hour and a half on brain autonomics. So I spent a long time reviewing everything I could find on it. And I’m like, oh my God, it is so complex. There isn’t one region of the brain that just autonomic function. So the vagal nucleus is the postsynaptic output.

So there’s the vagus, and there’s all these that are pretty synaptic to the vagus. So all different areas of the limbic system, the nucleus, the cabins, all the different areas in the temple and frontal lobe, they’re involved with some of sensory integration autonomics. They all end up branching here. So even a vagus dysfunction can be caused by other areas. Like you can have someone that gets point of injury from whatever, a sport or car accident. And then from that point on, their heart rate is never the same. They can’t digest food anymore, their balance is off, their heart rate and anxiety all the time. And their vagus could be off ventral or dorsally, but it’s that pre-synaptic input to that region that may be a factor. So I’m limited to brain injuries and vagal point of view from that perspective, but it is a role with these any people, though, for sure.

Ari: Got it. So we have a short amount of time left. I want to make sure we get into your top tips, like practical tips. So you’ve mentioned a number and alluded to a number of practical tips already, but we’ve got — again, just to recap — we have blood sugar dysregulation, brain stimulation, exercise, sleep, and I’m forgetting the last one. What does that say about my brain function? Dr. Kharrazian: The last one was just inflammation as a general.

Ari: There we go — inflammation. So exercise, I think we’ll leave alone. Sleep we’ll leave alone, but as far as may be blood sugar dysregulation — I think mental stimulation you’ve already covered pretty well as well. Maybe blood sugar dysregulation, if you have a few tips on how people can avoid that. And then I want to get into inflammation and phytonutrients and some of the supplements that you perceive to, or supplements and or nutrition-lifestyle changes that can combat the brain inflammation and some of these mechanisms that are going on that destroy brain cells.

Dr. Kharrazian: So with brain inflammation, blood sugar issues related to that question, there’s always a scale. For some people, all they need to do is stabilize the blood sugar. They’re hypoglycemic. They need to not skip meals and keep their blood sugar stable, and they need to avoid those drops, where they lose function. So that’s like basic 101. Then you go to a deeper level, and then you have people that are not prediabetic. For those, they have to get their insulin and blood sugar under control, whether it’s physical exercise and eating less carbohydrate-rich foods — that’s basic. Then you get people that have brain inflammation, and they’re doing everything right, whether it’s a traumatic brain injury or neurotic immunity.

And now there’s been a lot of good literature in states of ketosis, actually dampening microglial cells and helping MS. There’s two clinical trials with MS published where it shows it actually helps neurons branching. So we’re finding in some patients, it’s not just getting their insulin down or getting their blood sugar down. They actually have to go into a state of ketosis to actually calm down their brain inflammation to get the blood sugar under control. And that’s another level. So there’s definitely people that have to go into that degree of dietary change to calm down their brain inflammation to control their blood sugar.

Ari: And real quick to that point is that something that you perceive as like, hey, that you need to be on a keto diet forever, permanently, indefinitely from that point on, or is it something that’s more of a temporary solution?

Dr. Kharrazian: So it depends. If someone has seizure activities, sometimes that’s the only way we can get their seizures under control. And as soon as they deviate from keto diet, it happens. We don’t have a theory. It’s obvious. Some people throughout the recovery of their brain injury, they have to do it. For most people, they kind of get into ketosis. They get tired of it. They take a break from it. They see how they function. Some people they’re just like it’s not worth it. And I need to stay on it — they kind of know when it’s their own right time, where they can function without it. So we kind of just observe and see how they function and kind of go from there. So there’s no general rule as far as how you do it. And then the next level up is they have to do so.

The other key thing with blood sugar regulation and how it impacts brain is during fasting. I think that’s pretty popular. But one of the interesting things in fasting is when you have those prime glial cells that stay on and turn an inflammatory state, and you have debris in the brain, you have to promote a physiological state called autophagy where you get rid of debris and get rid of these prime glial cells. And the only thing that’s really been shown to be effective doing that is intermittent fasting.

So when it comes to blood sugar issues, there’s a spectrum, whether it’s just not missing meals or controlling your insulin, or getting into ketosis or doing intermittent fasting, or for some people even fasting with ketosis, depending on how severe their blood sugar dysfunction is and how much it’s impacting their brain inflammation. So it’s a scale, right? So I don’t know if I answered your question.

Ari: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, there’s also a distinction between prolonged fasting and the daily feeding and fasting window. And my understanding is that if you have an adequate fasting window each night on a daily basis, that in itself would likely take care of the autophagy and brain aspect of things.

Dr. Kharrazian: The common, most popular one, I think, is the 18/6 — sixhour feeding window, 18-hour fast. That has tremendous benefits for brain inflammation and helping autophagy and so forth.

Ari: Got it. But as you said, then there’s this other potential, especially if someone goes to such a narrow feeding window, now you have potential for maybe hypoglycemic episodes if you’re not eating enough during the day, and people who are maybe in poor metabolic health, especially if they try to go straight to a six-hour feeding window, they might experience hypoglycemia for a lot of the day. And that’s going to be problematic as well. So do you perceive overall metabolic health and metabolic flexibility as being a big factor here as well?

Dr. Kharrazian: For sure. And actually, one of the things I do in my own practice is if I need to get a patient to a fasting state to deal with brain injury or neurodegeneration to promote autophagy, many of them I’ll actually make sure they can get into ketosis first. And then, once they get into ketosis, they get adapted to using ketones as an efficient energy source. That may take them four to six weeks. And once they get adapted to being in a ketogenic state, they’ll just notice themselves fasting longer. And then once the body can actually work in that state, they can function, but to take like a hypoglycemic to intermittent fasting can cause serious problems like brain function is going to go down dramatically.

Ari: So do it slowly. Like you wouldn’t tell somebody who is sedentary, go run a marathon. You’d say, go start with a five-minute walk and build up from there slowly.

Dr. Kharrazian: And they could do a 14-hour fast to 15 to 16. Yeah, and as long as they’re not really losing function doing it.

The top phytonutrients for optimizing brain function

Ari: Got it. Last question, what would be your top phytonutrients and supplements for optimizing brain function and decreasing brain inflammation and glial over-activation? And I’m sure that in itself is something you could address for a few hours, but just to list off some of your top supplements and herbs and phytochemicals.

Dr. Kharrazian: My number one supplement is short-chain fatty acids. And there is an explosion of research on short-chain fatty acids, which is like butyrate, propionate, acetate, predominate butyrate, which most people use for the gut, but there’s enormous information showing that it calms down brain inflammation and turns down neuroinflammation. So it’s really the gutbrain access, but there’s now been some clinical trials and studies with butyrate in MS, and it’s mind-blowing.

Ari: And so, we would normally produce large amounts of butyrate from bacteria in our gut from some of the foods we eat, from digestion of fibers, but especially maybe in people with dysbiosis, they may not be producing adequate butyrate. And you’re talking about using butyrate as a supplement?

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah. So you can use butyrate. You can get your own butyrate by eating a high-fiber meal or just taking fiber supplements, but you can also take exogenous butyrate. And for people that have a lot of serious inflammation, they’ll definitely want them to do both. Exogenous butyrate is a game-changer for some people. Myself I take exogenous short-chain fatty acids every morning just because once you read all the papers, you can’t like ignore it. So that’s one of the main things that just blocks down brain inflammation, which is not a common one that people think about.

My second favorite is actually vinpocetine, which is the botanical that increases endothelial nitric oxide, and down-regulates cytokine-inducible nitric oxide. It helps get blood flow to the brain but also dampens brain inflammation, and vinpocetine is a game-changer too, for a lot of people, especially if they have cold hands, cold feet, poor circulation. So I think those are the top two. And then when you look at the rest, it’s going to be the typical list: fish oils, resveratrol, turmeric, acumen, pomegranate, polyphenols, that’s the typical list. And those are for sure all therapeutic.

Ari: Are there any particular phytochemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier, especially — well, I know you mentioned that.

Dr. Kharrazian: Most research is on turmeric and resveratrol that cross the blood-brain barrier.

Ari: Is there any form of turmeric that you prefer like Longvida or Meriva or Theracurmin or something like that?

Dr. Kharrazian: The only thing that I’ve seen is there’s no clear distinction between those that I’ve seen with the blood-brain barrier that makes a big difference. So I don’t have any preference, but as far as oral, you get it orally absorbed at first. First, there’s two papers now published that show a liposomal liquid has four to eight times more absorption to use the liposomal liquid curcumin because powder curcumin is very hard to absorb is the only thing I could add to that.

Ari: Dr. Kharrazian, this has been phenomenal, brilliant, as always. I just love talking to you and geeking out with you. I love being able to throw all kinds of questions at you and hear how you respond. So much amazing stuff here. I think these top five things are just critical. And I think the mental stimulation aspect of things is a game-changer, even just for my own understanding. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with all of our listeners. If somebody is interested in following your work, where’s the best place to do that, or reach out to work with you, or wherever you want to send them?

Dr. Kharrazian: Sure. DrKNews, D-R-K-N-E-W-S.com. DrKNews is where we have more articles and information.

Ari: Beautiful. Thank you so much, my friend — great connecting with you, as always.

Dr. Kharrazian: Yeah, pleasure talking with you.

Show Notes

The role of the brain in relationship to energy levels (5:59)
The link between nutrition and brain health (13:28)
How brain inflammation manifests (16:33)
The most common causes of brain fatigue (25:50)
The top phytonutrients for optimizing brain function (59:20)


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