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Marc Milstein takes current science research on the brain and translates it information that real people can use. He is as much at home on the ‘Dr. Oz’ show as he is lecturing to doctors and psychologists about sleep, memory and the mind-gut connection.
But where he’s really at home is La Jolla. The 41-year-old La Jolla High School graduate grew up here, and recently returned after receiving his doctorate in biological chemistry from UCLA.
The Light picks his brain over coffee at the Pannikin.
How has La Jolla changed since you grew up?
“It’s not so much La Jolla that’s changed as it is me. Now, as a parent of two daughters, I really appreciate the beauty of it. When I grew up, I didn’t really realize that we had an ocean view from Muirlands Middle School. And when I dropped my daughter off there on the first day, it honestly blew my mind how fortunate I am to be in a place where, in almost any direction you look, you can see the ocean. It’s funny because this is something I’ve been researching quite a bit — how easily our brains adapt to new environments and stop noticing them — good environments and also bad.”
You went right from getting your degree to a career in public speaking, without working in brain research. Why?
“When I was doing research in grad school, there were really only two paths. You would go into academic research or work for biotech company. I loved doing research but there were things about it that made me think, ‘Is this the right thing for the rest of my life?’ At the time, I had an opportunity to give a talk to non-scientists at UCLA. I really enjoyed it. I always had this deep passion for wanting to explain science in a way that people without a background in science could get. And somebody at that talk asked if I would be interested in giving another talk. Then it was, ‘Would you come to this company and talk?’ and ‘Would you talk to doctors?’ And it snowballed and snowballed.
There was this need I was not aware of to take the latest science and explain it to people in a way that they could use it. And it grew pretty quickly, to the point where I could turn it into its own thing that I love doing. There’s a lot that we don’t know about the brain, but there’s so much that we do know and can take advantage of, and I think that’s cool and exciting.”
What an example of knowledge about the brain that anyone can take advantage of?
“Science is always searching for something that can lower cortisol levels — that can change the structure of our brain in a way that makes us better able to adapt to stress and make us more focused. Mindfulness is something I did not take seriously at all when I was in school. We would literally roll our eyes at things like this. Then about five or 10 years of high-level studies came out showing that practicing mindfulness — meditation, breathing exercises and other forms of it — will, in about eight weeks, fundamentally change the brain. The part of the brain that helps control your stresses becomes stronger, and the part of the brain where your anxiety emanates becomes weaker. So people are better able to manage their emotional state.”
How many minutes of meditation a day for that eight weeks?
“The initial studies showed that 30 minutes a day. But studies since then have shown that it doesn’t need to be nearly as much as that.”
According to your website (dr.marcmilstein.com), you specialize in the brain-gut connection. There have been studies linking the microbiome to depression. Can bad microbiomes cause depression?
“There are people who suffer from depression where the gut plays a role. If we look at the data, not everyone with depression has a microbiome issue, but for some people, the gut plays a role, and for those people, we want to look at ways to optimize.”
For those people, can probiotics cure depression? And, if so, why shouldn’t everyone take them?
“The marketing of probiotics is a humongous business, but there’s really no definitive evidence that taking a supplement will have a benefit for a healthy person. Scientists and doctors were hoping that it would be more simple and there what would be a healthy microbiome that we could point to and say, ‘That’s the makeup of bacteria that should be there.’ But it turns out, when you look at enough people, this person has one type of healthy microbiome and that person has very different types of bacteria and they’re healthy, too. So the big step now is trying to pinpoint what exactly is the correct combination and makeup of bacteria that makes a healthy microbiome, and that really needs to be determined before we can determine what is not optimal about a specific individual’s microbiome.
The good news is that this probably opens the door for many options to have a healthy microbiome, but it doesn’t give us a quick answer to say, ‘All you need is this probiotic and you’re set,’ because it might be beneficial for one person and not do anything for another person.”
Is the microbiome a second brain?
“You could think of it that way because there are cells in the gut that pretty much look like brain cells. The gut makes serotonin, which the brain also makes. There’s a lot of communication between these organs, and what we’re learning is that what your gut bacteria are impacts your immune system, which impacts inflammation, which impacts things that enter the bloodstream and make their way to the brain. So this idea of this very powerful connection is a very real and exciting aspect of science.”
What are people most surprised to discover about their brains?
“Here’s something … What you do in the first few minutes after you wake up has a strong impact on how you’re going to fall asleep that night. A Nobel Prize-winning discovery recently uncovered a tiny clump of cells in your brain, called your suprachiasmatic nucleus, that’s a brain clock, a master conductor of the body. It synchronizes your metabolism and how you sleep. And when you wake up, if you get outside in the presence of some natural sunlight, it actually sets a timing mechanism in your brain that will play a key role in when you fall asleep. In our modern world, a lot of people work from home or get in a car and miss out on getting a couple of minutes every morning of outside time. And when they have trouble sleeping, their focus is on what they’re doing right before bed, when it should be on the first thing they do in the morning.
Another surprise is that stress is good for you — as long as it’s managed. A study just came out that showed that people with stress in their life have memories that stay sharper longer, and that they age slower. The brain is like a jet. Jets don’t want to sit on the ground too long. They’ve got to be used. Overusing or underusing it is the problem. So this whole idea of living a stress-free life — going to Club Med and just relaxing — that’s really not the answer. That whole model has been shifted and now we should look at stress as energy for the brain.”
What’s the worst thing most people routinely do for their brain health?
“Not taking breaks. Even if it’s for five minutes, put your phone away, do something relaxing and let the brain calm down before the next challenge. It’s easy to become trapped in our constant state of multitasking, checking phones, running from one moment to the next in an endless stream and not finding moments in the day to just power down. My computer always has a million windows open. Then it stops working and you call IT and the first piece of advice they give you is to reboot. The brain is the same way. It’s taking in so much information constantly.”
What happens when we think? Is it purely an electrochemical reaction or are there quantum or maybe even spiritual phenomena involved?
“That’s a really good question. The short answer is that we don’t know. We know some things. We know that there is electrical and chemical communication, and genes turning on and off in the brain at the molecular level. There are hormones and neurotransmitters binding to receptors. We know that when you are thinking, you are tapping into memory, conscious thought and unconscious thought, and that all of that works together. We know that tangible things are happening at the cellular level — that when you’re forming and revisiting memories, you have cells connect.
At the same time, the brain is so complex, there’s aspects of this we absolutely don’t understand. We’re dealing with 80 billion cells. If you were to count to 80 billion, it would take you 3,000 years.”