Dr. Mike Dow: “Shift to a Journey Mindset”

Understand Why You Want to Change. Whether you want to optimize mental wellness or treat symptoms, the first step is connecting with your why. For some people, their why is about waking up feeling good every day. For others, it’s about enhancing their healthspan (the length of time they will be in good health). It’s great […]

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Understand Why You Want to Change.

Whether you want to optimize mental wellness or treat symptoms, the first step is connecting with your why. For some people, their why is about waking up feeling good every day. For others, it’s about enhancing their healthspan (the length of time they will be in good health). It’s great to live to be 90; it’s even better to be able to walk a mile at that age. When you connect with why you want to change, the how you’re going to change becomes easier. So begin by asking: What’s your why?

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D, Psy.D

Dr. Mike Dow, Ph.D., Psy.D., is America’s go-to therapist, a functional nutritionist and a New York Times bestselling author with a newly released book, The Sugar Brain Fix. He’s part of Dr. Oz’s core team of experts and is a recurring guest cohost on The Doctors. Dr. Mike resides in Los Angeles where he is in private practice.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My brother David had a massive stroke when he was just 10 years old. Throughout his long and difficult recovery, I met so many people who were struggling emotionally — just like my family and me. As a teenager, I had this deep and overwhelming feeling of wanting to help but not knowing how. Years later, I went to therapy for the first time. It was about 20 minutes into my first session when I had a massive aha moment. This is what I’m meant to do with my life! More than a decade of school followed. I set up my private practice. A few years after that, I started doing therapy on TV and writing books about brain and mental health — one of which I cowrote with my stroke survivor brother. Since I believe food is potent treatment for the brain, I also became a functional nutritionist. The Sugar Brain Fix is my 7th and most recent work, and I can’t wait to write more. Today, I juggle my private practice, writing, and shooting an exciting health-based TV show that will be announced soon.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career as a functional nutritionist?

I’m blown away by the people I treat every day. Oftentimes, they find me when they’re at the end of their rope. Everything else has failed, but they are still determined to get better. One of the things I say over and over again is: mental illness is treatable. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a quick and easy fix. Mental wellbeing requires a whole-person approach since the brain is our most complicated organ. I recently did some genetic testing on a woman who had tried everything to treat her depression. Based on a genetic mutation I found, we changed her diet and tweaked her supplement regime while doing weekly therapy. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said: I think I actually feel like a normal person for the first time in my life. Brains are like snowflakes, and this success story was a reminder of that.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting as a functional nutritionist? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Well, it was pretty funny how naïve I was when I started. I can be almost too enthusiastic about health. When I began using functional nutrition to optimize mental wellbeing, I would suggest all of the recommended changes I wanted people to make. Then, I would be confused when they would come back reporting that they hadn’t changed anything. I guess I have to laugh at myself for making a rookie mistake: assuming that everyone is as passionate about health as I am. Now, I combine my training in cognitive behavioral therapy (namely, baby steps) with functional nutrition. I help people attain optimal health — but now, I do it one small step at a time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was finishing undergrad, I was friends with this ex-TV journalist — who had all but thrown in the towel and was studying to become a real estate agent. Then, he landed this big national news show and moved to New York. Just as I finished my first doctorate a decade later, we ran into each other in LA. To my surprise, he remembered I had told him about my aha moment of wanting to become a therapist. As we stood there, I remember thinking about the power of your dreams. He wanted to set me up with a meeting with his big-time TV agent. I was pleasantly surprised when that meeting actually happened just a few days later and ended with me signing a big-agency contract. A few weeks after that, the agency sent me out for an audition to host the American version of a show called Freaky Eaters — which TLC had just bought from the BBC. After multiple auditions and a screen test, I had a contract from the network.So, I’ll always be grateful to my old journalist friend.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Practice what you preach and be diligent about self care. Now more than ever, we all need to take care of ourselves. The harder self care feels, the more you need it. I think that’s especially true for my colleagues who, as healers, inherently put others before themselves.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Behaviorism isn’t just for parents; it’s increasingly relevant to the American leaders in the workplace. Do punishments work? Yes — but only to an extent. Punishments only truly work when they’re outnumbered by rewards. When a work culture has an unbalanced focus on consequences, resentment festers. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we outgrow the need to be recognized; we are human after all. Rewarding a job done right with a quick 3-second acknowledgement helps us all to feel seen and appreciated. In the long run, it’s far more effective to create an environment where people actually want to work hard and be a champion for a company.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

Step 1: Understand Why You Want to Change.

Whether you want to optimize mental wellness or treat symptoms, the first step is connecting with your why. For some people, their why is about waking up feeling good every day. For others, it’s about enhancing their healthspan (the length of time they will be in good health). It’s great to live to be 90; it’s even better to be able to walk a mile at that age. When you connect with why you want to change, the how you’re going to change becomes easier. So begin by asking: What’s your why?

I recently ran a genetic test on a patient, and we discovered he had one copy of “the Alzheimer’s gene.” While this increases the risk of developing dementia, it doesn’t make it inevitable — since lifestyle, nutrition, and supplements can turn these genes on or off. However, having this gene makes these essential. He wanted to be able to see his grandchildren graduate college and remember his kids’ names. Because this man was connected with his why, he was able to do all the things I recommended outlined in my book The Sugar Brain Fix: alternate-day intermittent fasting, improving his omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and slashing his saturated fat intake. In other words, connecting with his why motivated him to make these challenges.

Step 2: Give Yourself Credit for What’s Already Working

This is the paradox to creating change: To fix what’s wrong, start by giving yourself credit for what’s already right. When you do this, it becomes exponentially easier to acknowledge weaknesses without hopelessness or self-loathing setting in. In many ways, this helps to turn off that binary, sick-versus-healthy view of mental health. If you’re an adult, your brain shrinks a little every decade — but you can either accelerate or slow that process. All human beings have the opportunity to optimize their mental wellness.

I worked with this really successful attorney who was a partner at her firm. I can sum up our first meeting with her saying to me: “I’m a total mess.” Were there changes she needed to make in her life? Of course. Was she a total mess? Absolutely not. There was already more right with her than wrong with her. She was financially stable. She had great friends. I began our work together by asking her, “What are some things in your life that are already working?” The more we focused on the “what’s right,” the easier it felt to address the “what’s wrong.” Lean into your strengths to help you overcome weaknesses. Otherwise, your weaknesses will diminish your strengths.

Step 3: Prioritize Emotional Health

I think people don’t prioritize brain health because it’s not as visible as a physical problem. Taking your temperature on your emotional wellbeing is just as important as measuring blood pressure. Mental wellness affects physical health. Negative thinking has been shown to increase the risk of dementia, and cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to reduce inflammation. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to create a You First Aid Kit for your emotional bumps and bruises — just like we all have a First Aid Kit for the physical ones. If you notice brain fatigue, stress, or restlessness, reach for something in your kit. Natrol has some really effective products that address these challenges. Natrol’s new Cognium Focus can help keep your mind alert and sharp. If it’s stress, reach for an adult coloring book or Natrol’s new line of Relaxia products in your kit. Since restful sleep is one of the most restorative practices for your brain, fill your kit with some lavender oil and Natrol 3 a.m. Melatonin for middle-of-the-night wakeups. Trust me: it works. I wear a sleep-tracking ring and can tell you my sleep is deeper when I take it.

The pandemic has taken quite a toll on our emotional wellbeing. My 92-year-old grandpa lives in a senior living community. At one point, he wasn’t allowed to leave his room. He thought he was possibly having a heart attack and went to the ER, but they realized it was actually his first panic attack. I’m still not allowed to visit, so I made him a You First Aid Kit with Relaxia Gummies, crossword puzzles, and some 3 a.m. Melatonin. Hopefully, this little kit will help keep him take care of his emotional health.

Step 4: Baby Step Your Way to Optimal Health

One of my favorite questions is: What’s one small change you can make this week to be 5% happier? It doesn’t matter how big the step is — as long as it’s in the right direction. Day by day, you start feeling a little better about yourself. The rewards you reap become like jet fuel that thrust you forward even more.

I’ve used this strategy with people who’ve hit rock bottom, and they’ve used it to rebuild their lives. I’ve also used it with CEO’s and celebrities who want to reach the next rung on the ladder. And, I use it on myself every single day. Using cognitive behavioral strategies or being in therapy doesn’t mean you’re damaged. In fact, it’s not the people in therapy I worry most about. It’s those who aren’t.

Step 5: Shift to a Journey Mindset

I think our culture is quick-fix obsessed. If you have this diagnosis, then fix it with that pill. That reductionist approach is inherently symptom-focused and, therefore, focused on pathology. But when we focus on the journey instead of being obsessed with the destination, it allows us to shift our mindset in several ways. First, we can have patience with ourselves. Second, it allows us to be more systemic instead of being reductionistic. Third, it allows us to examine the root cause of the way we feel and, in doing so, get to know ourselves better. Most importantly, it allows us to find more peace and joy in our daily lives.

When one of my patients is dealing with a difficult situation, I’ll usually respond to what they say with: “Tell me more about that.” I’m awestruck by the aha moments that come to people simply by being present enough to deep dive with them. If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, anxiety, or depression, you probably know that a symptom is like the part of the iceberg sticking out above the water. I treated this man with terrible insomnia and a history of abusing Ambien, alcohol, and Xanax to self-medicate. In our work together, his light bulb moment was realizing that bedtime was the time he felt afraid in his abusive childhood — which was the root of his self-medication. Our journey included everything from deep spiritual work to more practical strategies like brain-health supplements.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

Remember these two phrases when it comes to the brain. First, use it or lose it. Second, use it and improve it. If retirement is marked by the complete cessation of productivity, you’re not using or improving your brain. I believe retirement is more of a transition into other types of productivity mixed with peace and purpose. Remember those 3 P’s: productive, peace, and purpose. Be sure to fill your day with activities that fill you one or more of those qualities. The other thing to remember is that the older your brain gets, the more diligent you have to be with its care. When you have a brand-new car, you can probably skip the first oil change without the car breaking down. But when you have 100,000 miles on it, you’d better be sure to get that oil change…along with all the other recommended maintenance, too. That’s where diet, supplements, and lifestyle become exponentially more important with every year that passes. To optimize mental wellness, get your omega-3’s. Have the wild salmon over the burger. Skip the second glass of wine. Aim for 7 servings of whole fruits and veggies every day — and make them different colors. Play a game instead of watching another hour of TV. Meditate, do yoga, or walk more. Combine those changes with supplements to prevent your brain from becoming stagnant like the Natrol Cognium line of brain supplements. They’re formulated with silk protein hydrolysate which comes from the cocoons of silkworms. This is actually the #1 most clinically-studied ingredient. It’s been shown to improve memory and recall in healthy adults. When you add all of these things together, the sum tends to be greater than its parts. You’re synergistically using supplements, diet, and lifestyle changes to prevent your brain from becoming clouded or gray.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

Absolutely. First, rethink social media. The irony is that it tends to make many teens and pre teens more antisocial. Social media should make you feel more connected to real-life friends — not replace them. Research shows that being glued to Instagram all day is associated with mental illness symptoms in young people. Take tiny phone breaks throughout the day by leaving it behind during a meal or a walk. If looking at certain accounts on Instagram makes you feel insecure, unfollow those and follow uplifting accounts. Thirst traps are just that — a ruse that drags down your mood, confidence, and self-worth. Second, remember that your young brain is still under construction. That means they have to be even more careful than adults. One example: marijuana is a mixed bag for the adult brain, but it’s overwhelmingly negative for a developing one. Having a young brain also means that you’re creating behavioral patterns for the first time. It’s like laying tracks down for your brain’s trains to travel on. If you learn to self-medicate to deal with negative emotions, you’ve built train tracks to a bad destination. If you want to send those trains somewhere else later in life, it’s possible — but it requires more effort. So, be mindful of patterns you’re creating. When you’re feeling stressed out, take a walk, a brain-health gummy, or talk to someone. By doing so, you’re laying down some really healthy tracks.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

The Alchemist. I remember reading it multiple times as I was finding my path when I was in my 20’s. As a dreamer and a seeker, I always had this feeling that I had to keep reaching higher or further to attain fulfillment. Now, I know that most of my treasures are found in the simple joys — most of which are actually right here at home. It also reminded me that when you really want something and do your part in seeking, the universe conspires in your favor to help you. When I look at my career and my personal life, I certainly can see how this was true for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I think everything I’ve gone through in my life was my preparation — some of which took years or a decade. Our rapid-fire culture can as though we should all become overnight sensations as Shark Tank or The Voice encourages us to “chase our dreams.” But chasing a dream requires years of sacrifice, diligence, and hard work — the part you don’t see in the 5-minute hyper-edited, tear-jerking segment for national television. I used to think I had great luck, but now I know that it’s actually that intersection of preparation and opportunity. That makes me feel better, because I know my “luck” is something I earned.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Instagram: drmikedow

Twitter: doctormikedow

Facebook: drmikedow

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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