Exactly How Brain Inflammation Affects Your Mental + Physical Health
Poor memory, anxiety, depression, chronic headaches, and sleep problems are all symptoms that have to do with your brain, but might seem unrelated on the surface. However, as a functional medicine expert, I see the storm that is happening underneath the surface for many people: The storm of chronic brain inflammation. And while this might seem like an overwhelming thing to tackle, there are many ways that you can overcome brain inflammation and reclaim vibrant cognitive function. So without further ado, read on for my favorite strategies to tackle brain inflammation head on.
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What is brain inflammation?
Brain inflammation, or more commonly referred to as neuroinflammation, is a physiological response in which your brain’s immune system becomes hyperactive. This process typically occurs as a defense mechanism to protect the brain from infections, injuries, or other threats when your immune cells, such as microglia, and other molecules involved in your immune response, like cytokines, are mobilized to the site of the perceived threat. However, the problem occurs when this heightened immune response doesn’t subside once the threat is gone, leading to chronic brain inflammation and leaving you struggling to figure out where you last put your keys.
Symptoms of brain inflammation
Since no two people are the same, symptoms of brain inflammation can manifest in a variety of ways - from subtle inconveniences to more extreme symptoms that interfere with your daily life.
- Brain fog
- Poor memory
- Mood swings
- Chronic headaches + migraines
- Sleep problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Balance problems
When inflammation in the brain goes unaddressed for too long, it can contribute to a range of neurological issues, cognitive impairments, and even neurological diseases. Researchers are continuing to evaluate the role chronic neuroinflammation plays in conditions like Alzheimer's disease (1) and multiple sclerosis (2).
What causes brain inflammation?
In order to know how to reduce brain inflammation, we first must understand what causes it. Again, since everyone’s biochemistry is different, chronic brain inflammation can be a result of various factors, or a combination of multiple factors, including chronic stress, poor dietary choices, infections, environmental toxins, and autoimmune disorders - each one contributing to chronic inflammation and a breakdown of your protective blood-brain barrier. The reality is, systemic inflammation is both a cause and effect of neuroinflammation.
This is due to the fact that when your body is chronically inflamed it results in elevated levels of your microRNA-155 molecule which creates gaps in your blood-brain barrier, letting bacteria and other toxins slip through. When this happens, your immune system goes into overdrive resulting in neuroinflammation. It’s this inflammatory oxidative stress in the hypothalamus of your brain that is the underlying cause of brain fog, anxiety, fatigue, and other common symptoms of brain inflammation.
This is likely because this part of your brain is responsible for regulating your appetite and weight, body temperature, emotions, behavior, memory, growth, salt and water balance, sex drive and your sleep-wake cycle. Needless to say, brain inflammation can impact almost every area of your life, even if you aren’t dealing with brain-specific symptoms.
Traumatic brain injuries can also be another cause of brain inflammation. When your brain experiences a traumatic injury, such as a concussion or a more severe injury like a contusion (bruising) or hemorrhage (bleeding), the body's immune response is triggered, leading to an inflammatory reaction.
How is brain inflammation diagnosed?
There is no single test to determine if you have brain inflammation. Instead, testing for neuroinflammation typically involves a combination of clinical evaluations, neuroimaging, and blood work depending on your specific symptoms and suspected cause of brain inflammation.
1. Inflammation labs
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, some of the first tests I run are ones to determine if chronic inflammation is present in your body.
CRP: C-Reactive Protein is an inflammatory protein and the test measures it along with IL-6, (3) another pro-inflammatory protein. They are both linked to chronic inflammatory health problems.
Homocysteine: High levels of this amino acid have been linked (4) to blood-brain barrier damage.
2. Blood-brain barrier labs
Blood-Brain Barrier Proteins: These labs can help determine if your blood-brain barrier has been damaged.
Occludin and Zonulin: Blood tests can measure antibodies against these two proteins that govern the permeability of both your gut and your brain. If antibodies are present, you likely have a damaged blood-brain barrier.
3. Immune labs
Immune labs, like white blood cell count, (5) look for underlying low-grade infections that can fuel inflammation.
If your doctor suspects that a traumatic brain injury might be to blame for your neuroinflammation, they might suggest various neuroimaging techniques through another specialized practitioner to better visualize brain inflammation and its effects on your brain tissue. These can include:
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): MRI scans can detect structural changes in the brain, such as swelling or lesions, which may be indicative of inflammation.
CT (Computed Tomography) Scan: CT scans are less sensitive than MRI for detecting subtle changes in brain tissue due to inflammation, but they may be used in emergencies to assess acute injuries and bleeding.
Identifying brain inflammation can sometimes be frustrating as symptoms can overlap with other neurological and chronic health conditions. That’s why I always take a whole-body approach in my telehealth functional medicine clinic to take into account every aspect of your health case through a comprehensive evaluation looking at everything from past trauma, medications, diet, lifestyle, and lab work.
How to reduce brain inflammation
Even though brain inflammation seems scary and overwhelming, supporting a healthy brain and inflammation levels doesn’t have to be. By following a few basic principles, you will be well on your way to a healthier, happier brain.
1. Heal your gut
If there is one thing I can’t stress enough, it is the importance of healing your gut in order to heal your brain. While that might seem obscure, the truth is, your gut and brain have a lot more in common than you would think.
In fact, your gut and brain are inextricably linked through the gut-brain axis and the same two proteins that control the permeability of your brain-blood barrier - occludin and zonulin - also control the permeability of your gut. Basically, whatever happens to your gut, also happens to your brain and vice versa. Therefore, if you have elevated inflammation in your gut and a damaged gut lining, chances are it's probably happening in your brain as well.
There are many things that you can do to heal your gut (which you can read about in my article here) but I always suggest starting out with a daily probiotic supplement and changing your diet. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Assess your diet
Since food can either fuel inflammation or calm it, looking at what you are eating on a daily basis is a key step in reducing brain inflammation. Sugar, processed foods, and industrialized seed oils are just a few examples of foods that will continually feed inflammation in your brain. Focusing on eating a diet rich in clean, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and animal protein will help calm inflammation at the source.
3. Target your supplements
If you have determined that brain inflammation is a problem for you, there are a handful of supplements that can give you a little extra support while you are healing by targeting inflammation and enhancing your overall cognitive function.
What foods reduce inflammation in the brain?
In functional medicine, food is foundational to optimal health, and thankfully there are many foods that have been clinically shown to support healthy brain function and inflammation levels.
1. Healthy fats
If there is only one thing you take away from this article in terms of diet, it’s that healthy fats are the key to a healthy brain. Made up of 60% fat, your brain is your body’s fattiest organ. Therefore, it only makes sense to give your brain more of exactly what makes it work. For example, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) - a type of omega-3 fatty acids - has been shown (6) to alleviate oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the best sources of omega-3 healthy fats include wild-caught salmon, flaxseeds, walnuts, and sardines.
Antioxidants are compounds that fight against inflammation and oxidative stress and can be found in fruits like blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, apples, and green tea. The antioxidants in blueberries for example have been shown (7) to protect your brain against neurodegenerative diseases.
Curcumin is the active compound found in the bright yellow spice turmeric, and has been connected to improved brain health due to its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and its powerful anti-inflammatory capabilities.
4. Fermented foods
Remember, to start healing your brain, you need to also start healing your gut. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt are filled with beneficial probiotics to facilitate healthy microbiome balance.
5. Functional mushrooms
Functional mushrooms are one of my favorite superfoods for brain health as they have been linked to everything from improved neurotransmitter function, lowered inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, to enhanced growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). But not all mushrooms are created equally. Only the mushrooms that have higher levels of polysaccharide β-glucans, are shown to have these next-level (8) healing properties:
- Lion’s mane
- Turkey tail
- Wood ear
How to prevent brain inflammation
Preventing brain inflammation ultimately comes down to adopting lifestyle practices that promote overall health by reducing factors that can contribute to inflammation. While it can seem overwhelming to get brain inflammation under control, the general principles that facilitate overall health are the same that target and prevent brain inflammation from spinning out of control in the first place.
1. Limit your sugar intake
If healthy fats are the key to brain health, sugar is the key to brain destruction. Multiple studies (9) have shown the devastating effects sugar has on brain function through its role in increasing inflammation, oxidative stress, blood sugar levels, and damaging your gut microbiome.
2. Manage stress
Practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or breathwork can help control the body's stress response and cortisol levels, which can trigger inflammation.
3. Get enough sleep
Prioritize quality sleep by getting 7-9 hours per night since sleep is essential for repairing your brain, and chronic sleep deprivation can promote inflammation.
4. Exercise regularly
Daily movement is beneficial for all areas of your health but it specifically has anti-inflammatory benefits for your brain and body.
Seeking help from a functional medicine expert
As we’ve learned, brain inflammation can be a result of multiple factors from poor diet to traumatic brain injuries, and even chronic stress. But instead of being overwhelmed with this information, let this knowledge empower you with strategies on how to reduce brain inflammation and take the next step in reclaiming your health.
If you suspect that brain inflammation is to blame for your symptoms, schedule a telehealth consultation today to learn more about how to reduce brain inflammation with our help using functional medicine. By taking a whole-body approach we can identify the underlying factors contributing to your neuroinflammation and put you on the right path toward healing.
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- Thakur, Sujata et al. “Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer's Disease: Current Progress in Molecular Signaling and Therapeutics.” Inflammation vol. 46,1 (2023): 1-17. doi:10.1007/s10753-022-01721-1
- Bjelobaba, Ivana et al. “Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroinflammation: The Overview of Current and Prospective Therapies.” Current pharmaceutical design vol. 23,5 (2017): 693-730. doi:10.2174/1381612822666161214153108
- Katriina HeikkiläShah EbrahimAnn RumleyGordon LoweDebbie A. Lawlor; Associations of Circulating C-Reactive Protein and Interleukin-6 with Survival in Women with and without Cancer: Findings from the British Women's Heart and Health Study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 1 June 2007; 16 (6): 1155–1159. https://doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-07-0093
- Kamath, Atul F et al. “Elevated levels of homocysteine compromise blood-brain barrier integrity in mice.” Blood vol. 107,2 (2006): 591-3. doi:10.1182/blood-2005-06-2506
- Farhangi, Mahdieh Abbasalizad et al. “White blood cell count in women: relation to inflammatory biomarkers, haematological profiles, visceral adiposity, and other cardiovascular risk factors.” Journal of health, population, and nutrition vol. 31,1 (2013): 58-64. doi:10.3329/jhpn.v31i1.14749
- Chauhan, Abha, and Ved Chauhan. “Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health.” Nutrients vol. 12,2 550. 20 Feb. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12020550
- Kalt, Wilhelmina et al. “Recent Research on the Health Benefits of Blueberries and Their Anthocyanins.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 11,2 (2020): 224-236. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz065
- Chaturvedi, Vivek Kumar et al. “Medicinal mushroom: boon for therapeutic applications.” 3 Biotech vol. 8,8 (2018): 334. doi:10.1007/s13205-018-1358-0
- Ma, Xiao et al. “Excessive intake of sugar: An accomplice of inflammation.” Frontiers in immunology vol. 13 988481. 31 Aug. 2022, doi:10.3389/fimmu.2022.988481
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
Healing The Shame-Fueled Relationship
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