The Power of Neuroplasticity - An Interview with Brant Cortright, Ph.D.

The Power of Neuroplasticity - An Interview with Brant Cortright, Ph.D.

What follows is a transcript for the podcast The Science of Neurogenesis - Brant Cortright, Ph.D. - Brain 

Topics within the interview include the following:

  1. The Overlap Between Anxiety, Depression and Cognitive Decline
  2. Holistic Approach to Brain Health
  3. What Are Neurotoxins and How Can They Affect the Brain?
  4. What Is the Hippocampus Brain Mechanism?
  5. How Does Stress Influence Neurogenesis and Synaptogenesis?
  6. How Can You Measure Neurogenesis or Synaptogenesis?
  7. How Can Your Diet Increase Your Neurogenic Rate?
  8. How Can You Help Heal and Strengthen the Brain?
  9. What Is the Role of Insulin and How It Can Be a Neurotoxin?
  10. What Is the Best Diet for People Predisposed Genetically to Alzheimer's?
  11. Why Healing the Brain Is Important?
  12. What Type of Exercise Can Help Improve Cognitive Function?
  13. What Is the Role of Sleep in Improving Mood and Cognitive Function?
  14. Can Plant Medicines Help Increase Your Neurogenic Rate?
  15. What Types of Approach to Meditation Is Effective to Increasing Your Neurogenic Rate?
  16. Why Is the Somatic Approach to Healing Trauma Important?
  17. What Would Work Best for Neurogenesis to Maintain Cognitive Function?
  18. About Brant

The Overlap Between Anxiety, Depression and Cognitive Decline

Heather Sandison, ND: Welcome to Collective Insights. I'm your host today, Dr. Heather Sandison and I'm so pleased to be joined by Brant Cortright. He is an author and our areas of interest overlap immensely, so I can't wait to dig in and pick his brain about how to promote neurogenesis, cognitive function and reduce anxiety and depression. So timely, so important. Thank you for being here today, Brant.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Heather Sandison, ND: So, I want to launch right in to this overlap of anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. I think a lot of us don't put cognitive decline in that mental health space, but you can't really separate them either. So tell me why you put them together.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Good question. For one thing, these three things are skyrocketing compared to what they were 50 years ago. Rates of anxiety, depression and cognitive decline, particularly even in young people, is way higher than it was. 50 years ago compared to now, school kids now have eight times higher, greater rates of anxiety, five to eight times greater rates of depression. And that's not through better diagnosis. That's with the same standardized tests that we used in the '60s.

One in four women between 20 and 45 is on an antidepressant. Rates of Alzheimer's are five times what they were back then. So, these problems are skyrocketing. That's one reason. The other reason is that there are common brain mechanisms behind all three. There are different psychological mechanisms, but there are common brain mechanisms. So this is really a holistic approach, meaning looking at us as psychophysical beings.

We can't be reduced to one or the other. We're psychophysical beings and to make it even more clear, we are multidimensional beings, meaning we exist on different levels, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. And all four of those levels get integrated by the self, right? Our psyche integrates all of those and we experience all four of those levels through the brain, right?

Everything we experience, we experience through the brain. So this is really looking at how a kind of weakened brain is susceptible to these things and how a fragmented, fragile self is also open to these things, more vulnerable to these things. And so it's really trying to heal both sides of who we are, the brain side, the physical side and the psychological side as well.

Holistic Approach to Brain Health

Heather Sandison, ND: You talk about a very comprehensive approach. I've heard you say that you can't just take one or two pieces, you really need to do it all to get the most benefit. I, of course agree, but I'm curious because this is in contrast to our reductionistic sort of scientific approach where we want to say, "Okay, does this one thing help change this metric?"

And you and I have both come to this conclusion that no, really we need to embrace the mind, the body, the spirit, the society that we're in, the environment. How did you get there?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Well, I've been a transpersonal oriented therapist and professor for many years. That really looks at consciousness more than anything and so I've always been interested in the different levels of consciousness. And we can look at the psyche as simply different levels of consciousness. So, we have this physical body, which is the physical level of consciousness that we walk around in and gives us sensory information.

We have this emotional level where we get information from our emotional cells about the world and about people that we just don't get any other way. And also how we feel determines really the quality of our life. If we're feeling good, our life is good. If we feel bad, our life sucks.

Mentally how sharp we are is an important part of how we perceive the world and spiritually. So I've always seen it this way as a whole and reductionism works really well for something like a broken leg where you can kind of set it, but it doesn't work very well in psychology, like curing a neurosis, it's a very different thing or healing a wound or getting over a trauma.

Those are very different things that happen on different levels, cognitive, spiritual, emotional, and sematic as well. So I've always been there, but I've been actually more on the psychological side than the physical side until recently, like depression, for example.

I was always taught that whether you believe it's a biological illness that then causes depression, or whether you believe psychologically it's behaving unskillfully that then causes the person to be depressed and then that causes the brain changes. I was always taught that was a chicken or egg sort of thing. And I've come to actually, I think it's actually a chicken and egg thing. It's both together.


What Are Neurotoxins and How Can They Affect the Brain?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: There is a kind of brain disfunction, I think, that's happening right now. I think there are more neurotoxins in the environment than have ever been in there before. If you look up neurotoxins on Wikipedia, you get something like 200 pages of lists and there's about 30 neurotoxins on each page. 200 pages, that's about 6,000 neurotoxins that are in the environment.

We know about some of them, mercury, aluminum, arsenic, lead, but there are many, many, many more, and we don't really... We've sort of just sleepwalked into this. I think it's kind of death by a thousand cuts. You don't notice one or two, you don't even notice 20 or 30, but after 100 or 200, you start to falter. And you know, probably better than almost anybody, what some of these neurotoxins are and how they can affect the brain.

But there are also emotional neurotoxins. There are mental neurotoxins, there are spiritual neurotoxins as well. But the brain is a big part of it. I began noticing that some of my most fragile clients were vegans and that made me be like, "What's going on here?" And also I was a vegetarian for many years and I began to be more and more etheric, a little bit too etheric.

And when I started eating meat again, I began to come down into the world. I began to be more grounded and it launched me, this may be 20 years ago, on a quest to really understand diet more. And so I've been really looking at how diet influences the brain. How diet really builds the brain and what some of the mines are in this minefield of daily life of neurotoxins that really impact the brain.

And if I can just say one more thing about the brain. So, we think of the brain as a computer, that's often the analogy that's given, but it's a really bad analogy because a computer is a dead machine. It's static. The brain is not like a computer chip. That's dead. A brain is a living, growing, moving process. It's always in movement. It's always in motion.

It's more like a big amoeba that's always making new connections with itself, new connections based on the environment. It's always growing new brain cells. They've known about neuro-plasticity, called synaptogenesis, for a few decades now, but they only discovered neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, about 20 years ago.

And at first they didn't know the significance of it, but then they realized that the rate of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity has a big impact on your functioning. So, they did a series of experiments with mice, where they increased their rate of neurogenesis by five times.

And what they found was that they created not quite super mice, but mice who were cognitively enhanced, who learned faster, who figured things out faster and who were protected against stress, anxiety, depression. They were much more emotionally resilient. It turns out that your neurogenic rate, meaning the rate at which you make new brain cells, that you make new connections is the most important biomarker for brain health that most people have never heard of.

So when the brain is alive, when it is moving, when it has a high neurogenic rate, we feel good, life feels good. It's like we are floating downstream, we're moving but we are cognitively figuring things out very quickly, we're sharp, we are emotionally robust. Life just feels good. When this neurogenic rate slows down, when the brain's movement slows down, when it gets sluggish, that's when we see anxiety, we see depression and we see cognitive decline because the common brain mechanism here is the hippocampus.


What Is the Hippocampus Brain Mechanism?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.:  The hippocampus is the one part of the brain that grows new brain cells. And the hippocampus is this funny crescent moon-shaped structure. Actually, there's two of them on the right and left side of the brain. We have two hippocampi. Half of the hippocampus is involved in processing new memories.

The hippocampus doesn't store new memories. It processes them. It makes them. So when our neurogenic rate is high, we are learning new things, we're engaged. Memory underpins the whole sense of self, like in Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's massively attacks the hippocampus and new memories stop being formed. And when that happens, executive function goes, memory goes, the self goes. It's like the rug gets pulled out from the self. And the person's sense of presence goes as well. That's half the hippocampus.

The other half is involved in emotion regulation, particularly the regulation of anxiety and depression. And so when neurogenesis and synaptogenesis rates are high, then we get protection against stress, against anxiety and depression and we just feel good. So, this common neurogenic rate with the hippocampus, the whole brain, particularly with synaptogenesis, but with the hippocampus in particular with neurogenesis is a common brain mechanism that underlies anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline.

And this neurotoxic environment that we're living in slows down the neurogenic rate and therefore just about everybody is living at a subpar level. Just about everybody is living at a rate where they are practically... I mean, much of the world is just freaking out right now. And granted we've had some tough times lately, but when your brain is functioning well, when you have radiant health in your brain, you're not freaking out, you're dealing with things. Setbacks happen, but you bounce back from them.


How Does Stress Influence Neurogenesis and Synaptogenesis?

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm curious, you mentioned, is it the hippocampus and these neurotoxins? And then you mentioned kind of these maybe social or spiritual mental toxins. So would that be... What comes up for me is social media, the news, the lack of connection, community. That those sorts of things can also be measured and would be influencing part of that sort of comprehensive view of what promotes neurogenesis and synaptogenesis versus doesn't.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Exactly right. That's right. Stress, for example, would be a neurotoxin when it's chronic. We need a certain amount of stress. The brain actually thrives on moderate stress and short-term stress. That actually increases neurogenesis and synaptogenesis. The brain needs to be challenged and when it's challenged, it then responds with its own potentials coming forth.

The brain wants that it wants to be engaged with the world like that, but that's not the kind of stress most people complain about. They complain about chronic stress, and chronic stress slows neurogenesis and synaptogenesis way down. That also begins to cause inflammation and inflammation in the brain also slows neurogenesis and synaptogenesis to a crawl.


How Can You Measure Neurogenesis or Synaptogenesis?

Heather Sandison, ND: Are there some markers we can use to measure synaptogenesis or neurogenesis? Would we be looking at inflammation as sort of a proxy for measuring that? Or can we... The clinician in me wants to know how do I measure my own neurogenesis and my patients'?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. Well synaptogenesis can be measured. They can actually do neuroimaging with that. It takes very expensive equipment to do it, but you can. Neurogenesis on the other hand, we can only really measure in animals or we can measure it in people on autopsy. It's more phenomenological in a way.

If your rate of synaptogenesis is high, probably your rate of neurogenesis is high as well. So we know that certain meditation forums, for example, increase synaptogenesis quite dramatically. Stressful relationships slow down this neurogenic rate.

Belief systems that are toxic, like shouldism, perfectionism, things like this would be sort of mental neurotoxins. But I think a big, huge part of this is the physical neurotoxins. Physical neurotoxins in the environment and particularly in our diet as well.


How Can Your Diet Increase Your Neurogenic Rate?

Heather Sandison, ND: I want to go towards diet and I'm hoping that that's part of why those mice were the little superhero mice. So I'd love to hear, you said there were five things that those mice did or sort of five things they could toggle, levers they could pull. Is that how... Did I understand that right? I want to go through all of them. What are all of the things that we can do to be like the superhero mice? And I'm sure that diet is one of them. So let's go there first.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. Diet is a big part of this. So they increased their neurogenic rate by five times. That's where the five comes from. So they did this in a holistic way, right? In what they called, in an enriched environment, where they had really good food, where they had an interesting environment to explore, where they had lots of friendly mice to play with and to mate with.

They had a running wheel to exercise. But clearly diet is a very big portion of this. So in the Holistic Healing book, I talk about the four pillars of the healthy brain diet. And I think of the four pillars as neurogenic, ketogenic, anti-inflammatory and gut friendly. And there's a healing phase and a maintenance phase.

And in the maintenance phase, it's still neurogenic, but you don't have to do it quite as much. It's not necessarily ketogenic, but it's as many carbs as you can handle. But it's still anti-inflammatory and still gut friendly.

Heather Sandison, ND: I just want to clarify, as many carbs or as many fats?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: As many carbs. So I think that... So the ketogenic diet is low carb and high good fat and for the healing phase of the diet, I think that's a really important part, really helpful for pretty much everybody. But once the brain has healed and strengthened, then if a person is not insulin resistant, they can go back to eating carbs. It's really a matter of that.

So let me just say one quick thing about one major neurotoxin that probably your audience already knows about and you know about, but just to put it out there, which is glyphosate Roundup, right? 93% of Americans have measurable glyphosate levels in their bodies. This was a few years ago. It's probably more now.

Heather Sandison, ND: Are you sure it's not 100%.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: By now it's probably 100%. This was a few years ago.

Heather Sandison, ND: I'll just speak from my clinical experience because I run glyphosate levels through Great Plains Labs on almost all of my patients and I have not found one that's at zero. They're usually a person who eats organic, who really aims... Maybe eats out a couple times a week, but buys all organic is around 0.5 to 0.7.

I have a patient who has unfortunately ALS, she's at 3.7. And then the highest I've ever seen was at 5.8 and it's someone with severe dementia. So, the trend in my clinic definitely is that the higher those levels are, the lower the cognitive function.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Because as you well know, and maybe your audience knows this too, maybe I'm just preaching to the choir here, but glyphosate, which is everywhere, 300 million pounds every year in the United States, it's in the dust and in the rain of people living in the Midwest and the South. It's in so many foods.

Unless you eat purely organically and you live a clear clean life in an unpolluted part of the world, and even then you probably have some glyphosate levels, as you're saying. But it's an antibiotic that kills off the microbiome. It also opens up the tight junctions in the intestine, and when the tight junctions...

The tight junctions keep out the bad stuff and let in the good stuff. But when they open up, they let in the bad stuff. And so it lets in neurotoxins into the body which creates inflammation and the blood-brain barrier has the same signaling mechanisms for the tight junctions. And so when we do glyphosate, it also opens up the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier, which also lets in toxins to the brain, which creates neurotoxins in the brain.

So, unless you're eating purely organically, which everybody should try to do every bite of food you take is going to be neurotoxic to some degree. You are making yourself more anxious, more depressed, lowering cognitive function with every bite of food. It's crazy to think that we are poisoning ourselves like this.

I mean, it's crazy to think that you can poison the earth, but you can't poison people, all right? It's one big system, we're all going to get poisoned, of course. So, that is just one big neurotoxin out there that has a big impact on all of this.

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm so grateful that you brought it up and explained the mechanism because I think when you're standing there at the grocery store and it's a dollar more for the organic versus the conventional, it's hard to sort of motivate or you're really hungry and the shop that has organic takeout is a little bit further or it's going to be a longer wait.

It's hard to maintain that motivation to go the extra step, to pay the extra dollar, to wait the extra time to get organic and it's easy to justify because everyone is consuming conventional food. And also just convincing your family or whoever does the shopping in your household, your parents, your kids, if they're out of the house, that they should also be making the investment.

I think the reminders of the mechanism goes so far in the decision-making, right? And I think we're all trying to do a little better all the time. So I appreciate that you took the time to explain that. Thank you.


How Can You Help Heal and Strengthen the Brain?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Okay. Okay. Good. Good. So to the healthy brain diet in the healing phase. I coined this term, weakened brain syndrome to indicate that I think pretty much everybody in the culture has some degree of brain impairment because of the standard American diet, because of all the toxins that are around.

And so some degree of healing the brain and strengthening the brain, I think is really helpful for pretty much everybody and particularly if you have any of these symptoms of anxiety, depression, or cognitive decline. So the healing phase, there's four pillars, neurogenic, ketogenic, anti-inflammatory, and gut-friendly.

So neurogenic, there are a number of foods and supplements that increase the rate of neurogenesis and synaptogenesis and they've discovered this through a lot of experiments with mice and monkeys and dogs. All mammalians have the same similar mechanism. So certain things like, probably most people have not heard of some of these, luteolin, apigenin, quercetin, hesperidin, omega-3s are really good.

There's a neuroscience researcher, Christine [Thoreau 00:25:32] in London who increased neurogenesis by 40% simply by adding omega-3s. Omega-3s are the fundamental building block of the brain. 60% of the brain is fat. And of that, a third to half of it is DHA, which is one of the three omega-3 fatty acids.

We need a lot of good building material to be building the brain continually. The brain is always under construction. It's always in motion. It's always deconstructing itself, taking down unused connections and then building up new connections and it needs a lot of DHA to do this. If a person has high levels of inflammation, then it's good to have probably a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA in your omega-3. But if your inflammation levels are fine, then a 1:1 ratio and probably most people can use four grams a day of that.

The book goes into about 30 different compounds, bioflavonoids, polyphenols that increase this. Hesperidin is a great one because when you increase the rate of neurogenesis and snaptogenesis, the brain prunes about 50% of these pretty quickly, but hesperidin keeps the new brain cells' new connections alive so you get almost 100% survival rate.

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm curious about that, because the pruning, I mean, just like gardening, right? The pruning is helpful in some ways, is there evidence in hesperidin that by overriding that pruning mechanism, are we getting higher functioning brain cells or synopses?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yes. Yes, because they mostly don't know whether these neurogenic compounds create new brain cells faster, or whether they keep existing new brain cells alive. You want to do both. If you increase the rate of new brain cells and the rate of new connections, you increase your neurogenic rate. But if you're undoing it by quite a bit, you're right.

Some degree of pruning is necessary when we don't use it, but if we are engaged, if we're doing a whole brain approach here where you are using your brain, you want to keep those new connections alive, if possible. And so hesperidin is not very bioavailable, but there's a form of it called methylchalcone, which is five times more bioavailable than regular hesperidin which I'd recommend doing that. But that keeps the survival rate at a very high level.

We also want to not eat certain things which slow down neurogenesis and snaptogenesis. So we want to not eat vegetable oils that we've cooked in. We don't want to do that. A high sugar diet will cut your neurogenic rate in half.


What Is the Role of Insulin and How It Can Be a Neurotoxin?

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm curious about the role of insulin in that and how insulin can essentially be a neurotoxin.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. It turns out that higher insulin levels, higher blood sugar levels decrease our neurogenic rate also. This gets into the second phase, the ketogenic phase, where about 80% of the population in America has some degree of insulin resistance. They're talking about Alzheimer's is type three diabetes that it's a failure of sugar metabolism.

A ketogenic diet involves using ketones for fuel rather than sugar. So it turns out that the brain, although it always needs a little bit of sugar, it actually prefers ketones as fuel. And when ketones are running the brain, when you are in a ketogenic state, it feels like you are operating at a higher level. It's like the brain is just sort of humming along.

There's a Harvard researcher who recently died named Richard Veech, who looked at ketone metabolism in the heart muscle and discovered that the mitochondria of the heart operate at 20% more efficiency with ketones over sugar and neurons have a similar kind of mitochondrial function as heart. The heart muscle does also. So if you can imagine your brain operating 20% greater capacity, you've had Bredesen on and he's using the ketogenic diet with Alzheimer's, because it combines [crosstalk 00:30:48]

Heather Sandison, ND: Yeah. That's what we use at Marama and I suggest to my patients. So I have watched it over and over. I mean, I've been moved to tears so many times watching people just come back from this foggy haze where they weren't themselves back into more, certainly, cognitive function, of course, but just even more energy, more... And the anxiety and depression also resolve.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah, fantastic. That's right. To see a client go from being pretty anxious all the time to feeling much more steady, much more calm or depressed, same thing. There are studies now underway with anxiety and depression. Right now, it's just clinical, anecdotal evidence, but in my experience, these can be very powerful as well.

The next part is anti-inflammatory. So, another thing that anxiety, depression and cognitive decline have in common is high rates of inflammation. Depression is also an inflammatory disease process, anxiety is also, and we know about cognitive decline as well. And there are a number of natural compounds that you can eat as part of your diet to lower your inflammatory levels.

A good blood test to have has a high sensitivity CRP or C-reactive protein. It's a general inflammatory marker. And if your level is 0.5 and above for a male or 1.0 and above for a female, it would be really good to bring those rates down. Inflammation is behind all of the chronic diseases, it seems like, or most of them, and certainly one of the factors behind Alzheimer's and cognitive decline.

Many people are now treating depression, not only with SSRI's, but also with anti-inflammatory medication, because there is a clear inflammatory process going on for most people, not everybody, for most people.

Heather Sandison, ND: Inflammation, whenever there's an inflammatory process going on, at least for me clinically, it makes me beg the question, well, why? Inflammation is a response and it's actually a very healthy, natural response, unless it's not, right? Unless it's out of balance, and it's typically in response to a lot of the things that we've already discussed.

Toxic exposure, high sugar diets, and there can be a litany of things that can contribute to that, but I think I would argue that it's not inflammation that's the cause, but it's whatever causes the inflammation and inflammation is part of the manifestation.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Right. Right. Right. Good point. Good point. That's right. That's right. We want to get to the root of it. That's right. But once it's high and chronic, we also want to bring it down, and there's a number of compounds to do that. Curcumin, green tea extract, omega-3s, black cumin seed extract, tart cherry extract. Again, the book goes into over a dozen of those.

And then finally, gut friendly. We know that cognitive function and emotional function has a lot to do with the health of our gut. When we do conventional food, we are killing a lot of the microbiome. In indigenous cultures, the microbiome, there are about 20,000 to 30,000 different strains.

In the West, with all the causes of antibiotics and everything, most people have about 10,000. Some people have as few as 500 or 1,000, which is really bad. Really bad for the immune system, but also bad for emotional health as well. So we want to, first of all, restore gut integrity and we want to increase the microbiome. And there are a number of strains of probiotics which have been shown to reduce anxiety, reduce depression, and increase cognitive function.

They did a series of studies with mice that were bred to be fearless and just would explore anywhere. And they had another group of mice that was bred to be anxious and scared and not go anywhere. And what they did was, they changed the microbiome of each mice and they transplanted it into the other mice, and when the mice that were fearless got the microbiome of the anxious mice, they became anxious and fearful.

And when the genetically bred anxious mice got the microbiome of the fearless mice, they became fearless and started exploring everywhere. So the microbiome trumps genetics. It actually turns on the epigenetic switches that cause a certain degree of emotional distress or health. So the health of our microbiome is also really important in this.


What Is the Best Diet for People Predisposed Genetically to Alzheimer's?

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm glad you mentioned genetics. In terms of the diet, there are ably four genetics in particular where we start to worry about fat metabolism. And there's a lot of discussion in the field, I think. My understanding, at least, is that we're still trying to understand exactly what it means in terms of the best diet for someone who is predisposed genetically to Alzheimer's, but we're also saying that a high fat diet is the best diet to prevent or to reverse Alzheimer's. Can you square that circle?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I can't. I can't. That one is, I think, still too much in process, to say. It's a great question. Yeah.

Heather Sandison, ND: So, you said healthy fats. You did make a distinction there, and I would love your list of what's on the good side and what's on the bad side.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Okay. So the usual culprits, probably, monounsaturated fats, olive oil, avocados, omega-3s. Most people need probably, again, four or five grams of those per day. We also need omega-6s, but we don't need very many of them, which is why it's better to eat, for example, grass-fed meat over conventional meat, because it has a much more ideal omega-3, omega-6 balance. So we need saturated fats, and we don't need too many unsaturated fats except for the omegas. Omega-7s can be good too, also as an anti-inflammatory.

Heather Sandison, ND: What's an example of an omega-7?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: It comes from fish, and it's Provanol. It's an extract.

Heather Sandison, ND: That one's new to me, thank you.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. Yeah.

Heather Sandison, ND: And coconut oil, that is one-

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Coconut oil is great. Yeah. No.

Heather Sandison, ND: Some people put that on the bad list, occasionally.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I know. I know. I think that's sort of old school at this point, but...

Heather Sandison, ND: Yeah. These are those medium chain triglycerides that are saturated-

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.:  That's right.

Heather Sandison, ND:  That are fully saturated, but they behave very differently.


Why Healing the Brain Is Important?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. So, healing the brain is really important for almost everybody, but we also want to heal the psyche as well, right? There are different psychological processes going on with anxiety, with depression, with cognitive decline, and so I realized we don't have a lot of time to go into this, but I want to just do a nod to that there's many reasons for people to feel anxious, and what I've discovered is that healing the brain and strengthening the self, it's best if we can do both together.

Some people only need one. Some people can just do therapy and they're fine, or some people can just change their diet and that changes how they feel emotionally. For, I think, the majority of people, it's good to do both, but I'm kind of surprised at how many people just as they heal their brain, they actually begin to feel a whole lot better.

The self becomes more solid, becomes more coherent, more cohesive just as the brain begins to function better. And the two go together. As the self heals and becomes more coherent, more cohesive, that also helps brain function. When the self is more fragmented, that causes more stress, that causes more bad behavior, which causes more stress.

That impacts brain function, that creates more inflammation. So the two go together, having good brain function and good psychological function, and when either one of those is altered, it also affects the other because we are, again, one whole being.


What Type of Exercise Can Help Improve Cognitive Function?

Heather Sandison, ND: Exercise is another big piece of what you talk about in the book. Are there certain types of exercise that work? HIIT, the high intensity interval training, is one that I've heard you talk about and the answer you had around how beneficial that was surprised me.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Because it's all the rage these days, the high intensity interval training. It turns out that the best form of exercise for the brain is aerobic exercise, right? Aerobic exercise, meaning it gets you breathing hard, breathing fast. So running, fast walking, dancing, walking upstairs, walking up a hill, biking, swimming, all of these just acts like Miracle-Gro for the brain for the brain cells.

But you need to do it for 20, 30, 45 minutes. And it's good if you can do that a few times a week. You don't have to start off intense. Start off slowly, but then build up. It turns out the high intensity interval training seems to have zero effect on the rate of neurogenesis and snaptogenesis. And they think that it maybe just because the too much stress outweighs the benefits of the aerobic exercise, they're not quite sure why that is the case.

Also, strength training seems to be very important particularly for cognitive decline. Simply lifting heavy things in a balanced way is a good strength and grip strength is an important predictor of longevity as well as helping cognitive function. Not as much as aerobic exercise, but still as an important addition to it.

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm curious, if you could answer one question around cognitive function, anxiety, depression, kind of this constellation that you see, what would it be? If you had all the finances in the world to fund a study, what would be the question?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I would wonder? And I would bet on this, that the natural ways of increasing neurogenesis, ketogenesis, anti-inflammatory response and gut health. The natural ways of enhancing those, how do those compare to what medical science has in terms of drugs? I bet they would win by a landslide, but I think that would be the study I would like to do.

That there are so many ways of naturally enhancing this neurogenic rate. I mean, that's how it turns out antidepressants work. They don't work by increasing serotonin. There is no serotonin deficiency in depression. That's a great marketing tool, but it turns out to be a myth.

The way the antidepressants work is by the increase in serotonin that increases the neurogenic rate. And it's the increased neurogenic rate, which really eliminates the depression. So I think there are just so many natural ways of doing this, that coming up against conventional pharmaceuticals, I think, that would be a great test to do.


What Is the Role of Sleep in Improving Mood and Cognitive Function?

Heather Sandison, ND: Tell me a little bit about sleep. Do you have a hard stop? I forgot to ask you, do you need to be done?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: A hard stop? No, no. I'm good.

Heather Sandison, ND: I'd love to hear your insights on sleep because this is definitely something I've seen play out clinically, that when people get on a CPAP they start getting oxygen at night. Their sleep is not as disrupted for whatever reason, whether it's apnea or something else, but that that dramatically shifts cognitive function and mood. I'd love to hear your insights on sleep and sleep quality in particular.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: That also is huge in this. It looms large in all three of these. When we don't get a good night's sleep, there is a measurable drop in cognitive decline the next day. There's also a measurable increase in emotional reactivity. We are more stressed, there's higher levels of cortisol and stress hormones in our system. We don't think as clearly, we make poor decisions.

So, sleeping well is really important for not only brain function, but emotional function as well and cognitive function. You know all about, no doubt, the glymphatic system and how the brain actually kind of gets a shower or a bath at night, particularly the end hours of sleep and just clears out particularly the amyloid plaque that's built up during the day.

So, when we don't get enough sleep and we just don't feel right, partly we're just feeling the neurotoxins that haven't had a chance to clear out of the brain. Sleep is hugely important for brain health and emotional health. Yes.

Heather Sandison, ND: And with depression in particular, some people associate that with actually being more tired and sleeping more, and that seems to perpetuate then the depression.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. That's right. Depression affects vegetative functions, meaning sleep and eating. So we either eat more or less, or we sleep more or less. So some people who are depressed can't sleep at all, other people find hard to get out of the bed. And we want to encourage them to indeed get out of the bed after eight or nine hours. Too much sleep is not helpful. That's almost as bad as no sleep. That's right.


Can Plant Medicines Help Increase Your Neurogenic Rate?

Heather Sandison, ND: With your interest and specialty, kind of, your area of expertise being around the psychology, I'm curious about, and not so spiritual, your experience professionally with plant medicines. Do you encourage that? What do you think of the new research coming out around psychedelics? And do you think they have much to offer?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I think there's a huge potential there. In the book, I only talk about legal neurogenic enhancers. It's quite clear that the plant medicines have now been shown to be neurogenic. They increase neurogenesis and synaptogenesis. And it's also quite clear from the clinical studies that they have great potential with PTSD in particular, with MDMA, with depression, for a number of these compounds.

And it's unclear whether some of that success has to do with increasing their neurogenic rate. But I think it does go beyond that clearly in opening up consciousness, in entering into new states where we can encounter parts of ourselves and integrate them in ways that we now have the capacity to do.

These compounds have tremendous therapeutic value with MDMA in particular, for example, it opens the heart chakra. I mean, you can literally feel the heart chakra open, and as that happens, there's greater capacity to simply hold emotional experience, emotional experience that we couldn't hold before. And so with PTSD, the results are nothing short of astonishing. It's a therapeutic drug, parks alarms, I think.

Heather Sandison, ND: And what is your experience? Ketamine is one that is legal at the moment and not a plant medicine, but kind of on the spectrum. Do you have patients or clients or have professionally seen the potential in that?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. I'm a little more guarded about that simply because it's a dissociative anesthetic as opposed to a true psychedelic. And I think that the results from the studies I've seen show that it's much better when it's paired with therapy. Most of the ketamine clinics simply give the ketamine and it can be good, but then they have to do it again in three weeks.

And so I think with the dissociative anesthetic, you may be numbing things, but unless you're also working to actually work through the issues, it's going to be just a different kind of psychiatric drug that you'd have to keep on taking. If you can take it in a more kind of psychedelic dose and do it in a therapeutic environment so you can begin to work with the material therapeutically, then I think it has a lot more potential. But most of the ketamine clinics just give low dose and they just keep coming back again and again and again. So I'm a little more circumspect about that one.


What Types of Approach to Meditation Is Effective to Increasing Your Neurogenic Rate?

Heather Sandison, ND: And meditation, you mentioned early on and its role in neurogenesis, there're lots, I mean, you can pick your flavor of meditation these days are there certain types or approaches to meditation or mindfulness that you've seen be particularly effective?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. There's been a lot of research in this area. And I think that two major forms of meditation have come forth as having powerful effects on the brain, on increasing the neurogenic rate in particular. And these are heart opening practices and mindfulness practices.

So heart opening practices are particularly strong in traditions of the personal divine, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the Bhakti traditions of India, and also as a preliminary practice in the mindfulness traditions, Buddhism in particular. And these involve different devotional practices, different practices to increase our capacity for gratitude, for love, for compassion, devotional prayer.

There's many different forms of this, but they all serve to open the heart to sort of break away and purify some of the veils and some of the impediments that keep the heart closed and contracted. So those have been shown in many, many experiments to be quite powerful, have quite powerful effects on the brain. And the other major form is mindfulness practices, both concentration practices and open awareness practices.

So, a concentration practice say on the breath where you simply focus on sensations of the breath and allow all other things to simply pass away and keep coming back to the sensations of the breath. That'd be like a concentration practice, there's many others. Or open awareness practice where you're simply aware of everything that arises. And you try not to grasp on to any particular thought or feeling or sensation simply to allow it all to arise and pass away.

Both of these practices bring us more and more into the here and now, more and more into the present. And as we come into the present, the brain becomes more alive. We become much more awake to our environment, to our internal environment, to our external environment.

And that is exactly what a high neurogenic rate wants and brings about. That kind of awake response, right? Because our brain is always taking in the environment, always changing to every little change in the environment. Every change we see in our environment brings about a change in the brain, otherwise we wouldn't register it. So yeah, these two practices are hugely helpful.

Heather Sandison, ND: And that goes with this idea that stress... There've been studies that show that our memories decrease when we are under stress. We aren't good at forming them, we aren't good at recall. So having one of these... The mechanism by which the meditation is working, is it just that it decreases stress or increases our resilience to stressors? Or is there another mechanism at play there?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: That's a really good question. I would assume there's another mechanism at play, which is simply our spiritual being at the center of everything. Our radical aliveness at the center of our brain, of ourself, that wakes up. That has a chance to come forth, to beam forth. That radiant brain health and spiritual health are intimately linked.

Yeah. I mean, chronic stress has a big negative impact on the brain and particularly when it's early on in life. PTSD or chronic stress early on in life, whether it's abuse, whether it's an accident, whether it's alcoholism, whether it's separations of different kinds, sexual abuse, there can be so many forms of early stress and that actually can shrink the hippocampus.

Some people with very high amounts of stress have a 25% smaller hippocampus, which is pretty astonishing when you think about it. And so when a person like that grows up, it's like their whole nervous system is on red alert, on high alert. It's like, of course there are going to be just high stress hormones going throughout their body. And it's going to be very hard to feel relaxed.

It can happen, but I think it takes healing the brain and also some kind of work with PTSD, some trauma-informed work. We're seeing that trauma is actually much more widespread than we'd ever thought even 20, 30 years ago. 

Why Is the Somatic Approach to Healing Trauma Important?

Heather Sandison, ND: Yeah. I will say that unintentionally, that has become a cornerstone of my practice just purely out of need of what's going to help my patients get better. And I find that people are physically, emotionally, mentally much more susceptible to disease, to all of these chronic processes if they experienced early childhood trauma of any kind and some sort of healing is absolutely necessary.

Some sort of rewiring of that, what you were just describing of that, just being on fire. And I think in adulthood choosing to have some neurological patterning that does serve you. It's a difficult path, but one worth taking. Do you have favorites there?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I do have a few favorites. I think that the sematic approaches are really important because when we are traumatized, what happens is that it's overwhelming experience that we can't integrate. And so what the person does in trauma is they dissociate, right? They move into an astral plane. They move into their heads. They leave their body and they move into a mind space.

And so healing that dissociation is an important part of healing trauma. Having the person be able to come back into their body, come back into their senses so they can really see the world around them once again. They can really feel emotion in their body once again. And so I think the sematic approaches, sensorimotor work, Hakomi, bioenergetics, there's many different sematic approaches, which I think are really helpful in this.

EMDR I think is also really a helpful form, and clearly MDMA is... I noticed you had Rick Doblin on earlier, when two thirds of the people who have had PTSD for an average of 17 years don't have it a year later after three sessions, that's pretty impressive results. So hopefully in the next year or two, that's going to become much more widely available to people.


What Would Work Best for Neurogenesis to Maintain Cognitive Function?

Heather Sandison, ND: So, we've covered a lot of ground here. I'm impressed with your breadth of expertise, Brant and again, that comprehensive approach. You and I aligned so much on that idea that we've really got to address each of these pieces, that we can't separate the person into a body, a spirit and a mind. We've really got to put them back together if we want to be successful.

What we haven't really covered is, you mentioned it a bit, but mental exercises, maybe. And so there are things like... There's several online luminosity, excuse me, is the one that I'm stumbling Over. So there's different ways, learning a new Language, keeping your job into your 70s and 80s, just so that you get the mental stimuli. So I'm wondering, do you have a formula for what would work best for neurogenesis to maintain cognitive function from a mental perspective?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. Good question. It's quite clear that mental stimulation increases neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, and a lack of mental stimulation slows it way down. People who watch more than three or four hours of television every day have slower rates of neuro-plasticity. They actually have measurable rates of cognitive decline. The brain wants to be learning new things, wants to be engaged.

The key is lifelong learning. And that's one reason people keep their jobs. That's great, but even if you retire the idea would be to keep learning, keep doing new things, the people who retire and do nothing experience a very rapid and dramatic cognitive decline. People who learn new skills, who reinvent themselves, who develop new interests that they didn't before, they do not experience that cognitive falloff.

Lifelong learning is the key, and there's so many ways to do it. It turns out that most of these video games and online, like Luminocity, the results are very, very poor in terms of overall cognitive function. It doesn't seem to generalize. Doing crossword puzzles helps you learn to do more crossword puzzles, but it doesn't help you do much of anything else.

So you want to use your brain in lots of different ways, learning a new language, taking a new way home from work, travel, which is hard right now. But even traveling around your town in different places. Doing new things online, not just going to the same websites over and over. Writing is good. Even if it's just email, writing is really helpful for our cognitive function.

Talking with people, talking about ideas, talking about movies, talking about TV shows or sports, talking about things. Putting things into words is really, really helpful. So using our brain, not just passively consuming media, that is a killer for synaptogenesis and for neurogenesis.

Heather Sandison, ND: I think you and I both agree that when it comes to genetics, diet and lifestyle outweigh any genetic potential. So if you're at a genetic disadvantage, we can make decisions that override that. What about societal or sort of these constructs people who have less resources, less money, so if you're poor or minorities, do you think that there is a predisposition there that maybe can't be overwritten?

And then we've already talked about early childhood trauma, these are things you can't choose, right? Your genetics, your race, where you were born, whether or not you experienced early trauma, how much money you have to some degree, especially growing up. Do you feel like those things influence cognitive function, depression and anxiety in a way that can be overwritten?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: You're raising a great point here, which is just how things like economic inequality and systemic racism have huge public health and public mental health consequences. These things are bad for the brain, for people who experienced this and the brain is incredibly neuroplastic regenerative. So I do think that there is a great deal of possibility for people.

I think just about everybody can come back and even go further than they were originally in terms of brain function. Unless there's been a lot of severe damage, like for example, severe Alzheimer's where a person, they've already lost many brain cells. I think that's a harder path to come back from.

Still possible to some degree for many people, but unless you're there, I think there are huge possibilities for brain regeneration and for emotional and cognitive regeneration, but it does take really a focus and a utilizing of the resources that prioritize brain healing and brain health. But if the hope is there, if the aspiration is there, if the drive is there, absolutely, I think that trauma can be healed, the brain can heal and strengthen.

Heather Sandison, ND: [crosstalk 01:03:45] Brant, it's been an absolute pleasure having you today. Like I said before, I feel like my brain has been at the spa, having a conversation with you. You're so calming and easy to learn from. So thank you for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us here today.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: You're welcome. It's been a real pleasure.

About Brant

Heather Sandison, ND: I want to make sure everyone of our wonderful listeners knows how to find your books and how to find out more about what you have to offer.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Okay. They're available on Amazon. The latest one is Holistic Healing for Anxiety, Depression, and Cognitive Decline. And the previous one was The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle. And my website is

Heather Sandison, ND: Wonderful. Thank you again to Brant today for being here and as always to all of our listeners for hanging in there with us and enjoying this conversation. I just want to get some feedback and make sure that Jacqueline can join us. And I wanted to ask if you have a moment to... When you were talking about some of those compounds, I felt like you were listing what was in Qualia to some degree-

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Oh, really?

Heather Sandison, ND: And so, I don't know, have you tried the Qualia mind product?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I haven't.

Heather Sandison, ND: Are you familiar with it?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: I haven't. I've heard of it, but I actually haven't really investigated it.

Heather Sandison, ND: Yeah. We'd love for you to check it out.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: It has, it has luteolin and it's got apigenin and all that great stuff. Wow. Hesperidin and [crosstalk 01:05:15].

Heather Sandison, ND: You didn't get to talk about caffeine. I'd love to get your insights on caffeine, because I think a lot of us we get that increase in cognitive function immediately. And I think you have said that over time caffeine, with chronic use actually reduces neurogenesis.

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Yeah. I'm glad we didn't talk about caffeine because I hate to put it down, particularly from a broadcast company that has a bunch of it in their products. It would be terrible.

Heather Sandison, ND: Well, I think I-

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: But that's right. I think it's a mixed bag. The polyphenols in coffee are great, but the caffeine, I think, again, it's very mixed bag. You get a quick boost, but over time it slows down neurogenesis and it also reduces blood flow to the brain. And you want more blood flow to the brain, not less in [crosstalk 01:06:10]

Heather Sandison, ND: And our goal is to educate people and not just sell products, so it's good [crosstalk 01:06:14]

Jacqueline: ... version as well. So I'll follow up to get your address and would you prefer to have the caffeine-free version of polyamides?

Brant Cortright, Ph.D.: Oh yeah. I'd love to try it. Sure. Yeah. I would prefer the caffeine-free. Yeah.

Jacqueline: Okay. Great.

No Comments Yet

Sign in or Register to Comment