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Please enjoy the full transcript below

Philippe: That’s the thing. When people start to approach their life in different ways, they start to see just how their life can change.

[music]

Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach at DocWorking. Welcome to The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m excited today to bring my next guest, Dr. Philippe Douyon, who is a neurologist, and has a really interesting take on how that can help with brain health, and how brain health helps with physical, emotional, and mental health. Dr. Douyon, welcome to The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you for being here today. 

Philippe: Oh, thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you. 

Gabriella: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m going to start right off and ask you about your medical journey. How did you get from neurologist to leading your own institute on brain health?

Philippe: Well, I think in part, it’s because I’ve been a patient my entire life. Before I became a doctor, I was diagnosed with kidney disease when I was 18 years old and went through college in kidney disease, went through medical school in kidney disease. Eight days after graduating from medical school, I walked into the operating room at NewYork-Presbyterian, Columbia, and had a kidney transplant. At that time, my father was my donor. That really gave me just a unique perspective on healthcare on how to approach a chronic illness, because I still went through college with a chronic illness, I went through medical school in kidney failure. The more that I learned about the brain as a neurologist, I took my personal experience, my professional experience, put all of that together, and really started formulating ideas on how to best help patients. After years of really helping patients with my unique perspective, that’s when I decided to form my own institute.

Gabriella: We’re going to talk about your institute in a minute, because I just have to say, my heart just went, “Whoa!” because I didn’t know that part of your story that your father was your donor and having to deal with a chronic illness as you were going through medical training give you an interesting perspective. Can you share with us what that perspective would be? It probably goes into the conversation about the institute, but what shifted for you as a medical doctor and a patient as you’re going through this process?

Philippe: Yeah, I think the really unique thing is that as a doctor, it was always seeing patients. You really see patients begin to completely identify with their disease. There are terms that we sometimes use where it’s almost like they become their disease. I’m an epilepsy specialist by training. You’ll have patients that will say, “Oh, I’m an epileptic,” or a doctor will say, “That patient’s an epileptic,” as if that is the only thing going on in that person’s life.

As a person who’s experienced kidney failure, that’s part of my story but that’s not the entire story. I’m also a father, I’m a son, I’m a friend, I’m an author, there’s so many different aspects to who I am. It really depends on what you decide to focus on. Sometimes people will ask me, “Well, how did you get through college in kidney failure? How did you get through medical school in kidney failure?” Well, there was always a bigger picture. That wasn’t just the only aspect of my life, that wasn’t the only thing that I was focused on. Sometimes it felt almost like a nuisance as opposed to really who I was. There were all these other things. I was an athlete. I was a college athlete. Really, there were all these other aspects to my life and to who I was. 

As I began to learn about the brain as a neurologist, I began to realize what we focus on is so incredibly important. We know that with patients. We know that patients will do better when they’re not so focused on themselves and what they’re going through in that moment, but they’re also thinking about others and how they can better other aspects of their life or better other people. That’s what I was doing when I was going through my education. There was this other thing that I needed to focus on. I needed to get my college degree, then I needed to get my medical degree, so that I can help other people get healthier. That really helped me along the way. That helps also my patients, because I have a completely different perspective. It’s not just about popping a pill. It’s about all the other things that you can do in your life to really help you get healthier.

Gabriella: Well, that’s interesting to me, because I think as a primary care doc, it was a similar situation. As you said, the patient identifies with their diagnosis, and after a while, my diabetes, my hypertension, to be able to really just get attached to it in those ways psychologically, emotionally. At the same time, that’s not all that you do and all that you are. I’ve been a doctor and I’ve been a patient as well. Yes, there are times when it’s easy to get lost in the sauce sometimes. How do you pull yourself out of it in your experience? In my own personal experience with medical illness and diagnoses, there were moments where I’m like, “Well, how the hell did I get here? I’m supposed to be a doctor. I’m supposed to be healthy. What’s wrong?” How do you get out of those dark places do you think, or do you experience them?

Philippe: I think we all have our moments where we experience those dark places. I know for me, especially when I was in my 20s and in kidney failure, there were moments where I was really angry, there were moments where I was really down on myself. I was in my 20s, I was not supposed to be sick, and then I was becoming a doctor on top of that. I was supposed to be the epitome of health. You’re juggling all these different emotions. Now, I’m in my 40s, and actually, I just had my second kidney transplant after I got really sick with COVID, went through dialysis, and recently was lucky enough to have my second kidney transplant. 

Just with the experience that I’ve had over the years, it was a completely different approach to it this time. It was still a lot of times taking the focus off myself. That’s one of the things that I realized at least for me and for others, in those moments where you are down on you take the focus off yourself and do something really good for somebody else. Being a doctor allows us to do that, because we’re always focused on other people. That really allows me to get out of those darker moments.

Gabriella: I think that’s such a precious thing to say. When you want to break that cycle of negativity, I’ve been in those cycles of self-pity. I’ll just call it what it is. Somebody says, “Well, serve Gabrielle. Break the cycle by serving, by doing something good for someone else.” I think that that is a huge lesson to share, and to have learn, and to continue learning. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Tell me about the brain Institute, because you talk about how your thoughts and how managing one’s mind is just as important as managing one’s body. Is that your approach, or am I making stuff up?

Philippe: No, that’s definitely part of it. Science tells us that we have anywhere between 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. I don’t know how they count these thoughts, [chuckles] but that’s what the science tells us. 60% to 70% of those thoughts are negative. Not only that, 90% to 95% of those thoughts are the same exact thoughts that we had yesterday. When people are trying to change their lives, the first thing that they need to do is change the way that they think about their lives, change the way that they think about themselves. The thoughts that we have really govern the actions that we’re going to take. So, changing the way that you think about things is incredibly important to getting healthy, to being successful, to creating the life that you want for yourself. 

A lot of patients that we see are engaged in that self-pity, or it’s almost they’re waiting almost for their next attack. I said I was an epilepsy specialist. There are patients that I’ll see that haven’t had a seizure in six, seven months. When I see them and I say, “Well, what have you been doing for the last six or seven months?” They’re like, “Oh, nothing. I’m an epileptic.” But you haven’t had a seizure in six or seven months. So, you’re just waiting for the next one to occur? Changing the way that we think about our health, I think, is really important.

Gabriella: What changes would you encourage someone to make starting with their thoughts and how they think about their health? How do you get them to make those shifts?

Philippe: I think having new experiences is really, really important. A lot of people are living the same day over and over again. They have the same morning routine, they talk to the same people, they go to the same places, and our brains thrive on newness. When we have new experiences, that allows our brain to make new neurons, new connections. So, that’s incredibly important. I tell people all the time, being a creature of habit is literally killing your brain. I think having new experiences is incredibly important. 

The other thing that’s really important is physical exercise. Exercise is one of the most powerful things that you can do for your brain health. It is the biggest promoter of neuroplasticity. Your brain’s ability to make new neurons and new connections. It’s not just great for the body, it’s great for the brain. It’s probably the most powerful antianxiety, antidepressant treatment that we have. Those would be the two things that I would say that people can do to get started to get themselves out of the rut.

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Gabriella: Once a patient gets underway, does something different, talks to somebody new, changes up their routine a little bit, starts thinking about nutrition and exercise and those other factors that come into play to brain health, what surprises them about their results? 

Philippe: I think one of the biggest surprises is how their life begins to change. There are certain illnesses that you’re not going to cure. Most illnesses, you’re probably not going to cure unless you have lifestyle diseases and you’re changing your lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t manage them differently. That doesn’t mean that the symptoms don’t start to dissipate. There was one time I took care of a police officer who was having multiple seizures, but a lot of it was really stress induced from his job. 

When we talk about that stress, and we talk about ideally what he wanted his life to look like, yes, he didn’t want to be a police officer anymore. He wanted to do something else. I encouraged him to follow what his passion was. He created this entire new business on his own, and his seizure episodes didn’t 100% go away but they significantly decreased, improving the quality of his life, improving his relationship with his family, and he was just in a much different place. I think that’s the thing. When people start to approach their life in different ways, they start to see just how their life can change.

Gabriella: That’s the powerful story right there. Sometimes, the changes can be very subtle, and sometimes huge such as this one, but there is always an improvement in hope. To be honest, one of my favorite patients was a woman who was on dialysis, and she had a goal. When I asked her what her vision was? She said, “Well, I want to get off dialysis.” [giggles] It seemed such an outlandish, impossible goal. But because of that and she could actually see it, taste it, and feel it, she changed her dietary habits or exercise habits, just everything went overnight. More so than me saying, “Well, this is what you have to do, this is what you have to eat, this is what you can’t eat,” etc., etc., that there was no motivation there, but the motivation had to come from her. 

I appreciate the fact that, once you ask this person, what do you see yourself, what else is there for you, they’ve already had thought about it, which has always surprised me. People already think about what it is that they see it for themselves but there’s that fear of bringing it out or expressing it. The fact that you asked probably helped him give himself permission to go for it, which I think is also part of what you do as a healer, not just as a neurologist, because most people would say, “Okay, you didn’t get a seizure. Great, I’ll see you in three months.” That’s not what you did. I’m totally, totally impressed. That’s the focus of your work as you’re focusing on brain fitness. I understand that you also teach courses, and you speak about it, that you’ve written a book. Tell us a little more about that.

Philippe: Yeah, we’ve learned so much more about the brain in the last 20 years than we have in probably the previous 100 or 200 years. One of the big things that we learned is that our brains are constantly changing. They’re constantly evolving with every thought that we have, every action that we take. I wrote a book about that called Neuroplasticity: Your Brain’s Superpower, because the reality is that if you can change your brain, then you can change your life. Because if you’re changing your brain, that means you’re changing the thoughts you’re having and the actions that you take. Nobody becomes healthier, nobody becomes successful without taking charge of their brain. 

I also created an online course to help people with chronic medical illnesses, neurological illnesses really take charge of their brain, so that way, they can get healthier. That way, they can create the life that they want for themselves. That way, they can be successful in whatever that means for them. The course is really based both on my personal history as well as my professional history. So, it combines that to really help people. 

Gabriella: Excellent. I’m curious about Nuri the Neuron. [laughs] I was like, “Wow.” You’re not only trying to teach adults about taking charge of your brain, but you’re also trying to reach children. So, tell me more about Nuri the Neuron.

Philippe: Yeah. Nuri is a little character that I created to help kids really learn about how everything that they do impacts their brain. If we can start teaching kids at a young age who they spend time with, the exercises that they engage in, the foods that they eat, how much sleep that they’re getting, all of that has an impact on how their brain evolves, then I think we open up a completely different world to them. I created this little character. I’ve got two little boys, myself, 10 and 8. So, I ran it by them. [laughs] Got their approval for it, and we’re about to have the third Nuri: The Neuron book. 

Gabriella: Awesome. What was your son’s reactions to Nuri the Neuron? 

Philippe: They really liked it. Once you’re a parent, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not that cool to your kids, [laughs] but they really, really liked it. I read it to them several times and they always really enjoy it.

Gabriella: What do you think they’ve learned about the brain, and have you seen it in their actions?

Philippe: Yes, I’ve been teaching them about the brain since they were babies. I used to literally sit them on my lap while I was reading EEGs and show them all these squiggly lines. But I have conversations with them about the brain all the time. I recently had a conversation with them about the brain with regard to their thoughts, and how their thoughts are the one thing they have absolute control over. That fact alone has a significant impact on how they go about their lives. Now, there are times where they say, “Probably, that’s right. It’s your thoughts that you have absolute control over.”

Gabriella: Do you think that in general, for adults or children, that helps them mitigate stress? Because the circumstances may not change on the outside, but how you deal with it on the inside makes a big difference.

Philippe: Yeah, I think so. I think once you realize there are things that you’re not going to be able to control in your life, but you can certainly control the thoughts that are coming in from the TV that you’re watching, the newspaper that you’re reading, the books that you’re reading, or you can decide if a thought comes into your head to sort of push it out. You can really control what it is that you want to think about, and I think for a lot of people that’s really, really empowering.

Gabriella: What do you do about these– What was the number?

Philippe: 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. 

Gabriella: [laughs] 

Philippe: [laughs] 

Gabriella: You’re not going to catch every one of them. That’s for sure. 

Philippe: Yeah, no, you definitely won’t.

Gabriella: But the ones you’re aware of, you get to make the decision. I just want to clarify that. [laughs] It’s okay to have 60,000 thoughts a day. Hopefully–

Philippe: Maybe, some people are overthinkers. I mean 60,000 thoughts a day.

Gabriella: [laughs] 

Philippe: [laughs] 

Gabriella: Definitely. It’s like, “Okay, maybe a little meditation.” But let me not go there. At the same time, I think adding awareness to that, I think, is a big thing. No, you won’t catch every single thought but if you are aware of the thoughts that you have. Especially, the thoughts that are associated and I’m wondering what you think about that, those that are associated with different types of emotions, particularly doubt, worry, fear. As you’ve mentioned, most of the thoughts that we have are those that we mull over, over, and over, and over again. Do you talk about that in your work as well, in terms of how to really just break that cycle, stop playing that broken record?

Philippe: Yeah. I’ve talked to people about how those negative thoughts can also be really important. Fear tells you a couple of different things. Fear tells you what you need to do and when you need to do it? If there’s an activity that I’m scared of doing, well, I should probably do it right now, because fear tends to expand with time. The longer you go without facing your fear, the greater the fear grows. You can use those negative emotions, those negative thoughts to your benefit. But you can also choose to just focus on the positive thoughts. If I’ve got a negative thought that comes in and I catch it, and I’m like, “Okay, hold on a second. Let me focus on a more positive aspect of the context of that thought.” 

Gabriella: Exactly. How can I see the same situation in a different way, frame it differently? What I’m hearing from what you’re just saying is that whatever thoughts come in, they’re not necessarily good or bad thoughts, they’re just thoughts. The emotions associated with them, they’re not necessarily good or bad. They’re just what it is. Now, there’s a choice and a decision about, okay, well, let me see how I’m going to approach this. Now that I have a little more neuroplasticity, after reading your book and after taking your course, I can handle it differently. 

I have one more question for you, Philippe. Because what I do know about you is that you are just crazy about tennis, and that you were part of tennis associations at one point, if I remember correctly, and yeah, sometimes these passions need to be put aside for other considerations, and self-care, and all this other stuff. Do you anticipate going back to playing soon?

Philippe: Yeah. The funny thing is just about half an hour ago, I called the National Tennis Center about trying to book a court for this weekend. I’m a month out from surgery. So, I still have to limit my physical activity, but over the last week or so, I’ve gradually increased it. I’m not going to do a lot on the tennis court, but I’m certainly looking forward to just getting out there. I’m going to take my girlfriend out, feed her some balls, and we’ll see if I get to hit some balls also. Tennis is part of who I am. It’s part of my story. I love tennis. I’m involved in tennis. I’m on the board of The Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program. So, I get to pass on my experience now to the younger generation, and I absolutely love it.

Gabriella: Do you see a link? Because to me, everything is connected. There has to be a link somewhere between your passion for tennis and your passion for brain health.

Philippe: Oh, absolutely. I wrote a tennis article not too long ago, and it really applies to all sports, because I think sports give our brains what we need to be successful often on the court. With tennis in particular, you look at all these professional tennis players, they’re all polyglots. They all speak multiple languages. They don’t stay in one country for months at a time, they’re constantly traveling. But because there’s so physically active, their brains are constantly making new neurons and new connections, and their ability to pick things up including languages is that much easier. 

Serena Williams wins a tournament in Italy this week. She’ll deliver her victory speech in Italian. Next week, she wins a tournament in France, she delivers her victory speech in French. Yeah, athletes are really great examples of just how our brains are able to evolve, to change, and to adapt.

Gabriella: Well, now, I’m motivated to go to the gym. Thank you. 

[laughter] 

Gabriella: That helps tremendously. I’ve never thought about it that way. That’s beautiful. Thank you. Last question for you. Where can we find you?

Philippe: You can find me on social media. I’m on Instagram @philippe.md. I’m on LinkedIn @Philippe Douyon. The same on Facebook. You can email me at [email protected], and you can find me on my website at the inlebrainfitinstitute.com. I-N-L-E Brainfit Institute dotcom. Then, my book, Neuroplasticity: Your Brain’s Superpower, available on Amazon.

Gabriella: Philippe Douyon, thank you so much for being with us and for sharing your insights from chronic illness to just having a medical challenge, and being able to not only overcome the challenge, but to focus on other parts of your life as a way to move forward, and that having those illnesses, challenges, etc., is not the end of everything. In fact, it could actually be a new beginning, because it has definitely impacted your perspective as how you take care of your patients, and the work that you bring forward in this world, and how you connect the dots. I think this was a very powerful conversation. Thank you so much for being here, and I hope we can bring you back again at some point. 

Philippe: That would be awesome. Thank you so much for having me today.

Jill: Thanks all of you for tuning in to listen to this edition of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. We have something new and exciting to tell you about. So, I want you to hop over to docworking.com. DocWorking THRIVE is getting ready to launch in a very short time, and what that is, is a subscription service for physicians. It includes an excellent self-paced course called STAT that is all about quick wins for living well. It is group coaching, it is a Facebook group where you have a chance to connect to other physicians and coaches to ask questions about things that are happening in your life. It also includes weekly video tips to come and give you advice on important things in your life. So, we’re really excited about this. The price is almost too good to be true. It’s so good, and I really think it’s going to be a fabulous support network for physicians. We hope you’ll hop on over check out DocWorking THRIVE today, and until next time, we’ll see you on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.

Amanda: Hello and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it if you check out our website which is docworking.com. You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram. On Instagram. We are docworking1 and that is what the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. If you’re a physician with a story you’d like to tell, please reach out to me at [email protected] to apply to be on the podcast. Thank you again, and we look forward to talking with you on the next episode of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.

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