by Dr. Will Cole
I talk to my patients about a lot of different health problems, but there is one that I believe is the most overlooked, taken the least seriously, and can potentially cause the most life disruption. I’m talking about brain fog. I hear on an almost hourly basis how people are left to fend for themselves with debilitating brain fog and its partner in crime, chronic fatigue, because their is so little mainstream medicine can do for these conditions. Patients describe it to me as living in a haze, as their lives pass them by. Instead of being engaged in the present moment, they feel like they’re watching life from a distance. Their thinking is no longer sharp, and their brilliant minds are sidelined.
Why do problems like this fall through the cracks of mainstream medicine? Partly, I believe, because their is no obvious medication available. But in functional medicine, my goal is to get to the core reason why people struggle with health problems, so let’s dig deeper and not settle for a life stumbling through mental fog.
Brain fog and inflammation
We need inflammation to fight off infection and to heal – we would all be goners without a healthy inflammatory response. But as with everything else in the body, it’s all about balance – too much inflammation can cause your protective blood-brain barrier (BBB) to be more permeable, leading to brain inflammation. This neuro-inflammation is sometimes called “leaky brain syndrome,” and this inflammatory oxidative stress (OS) in the hypothalamus of the brain is the underlying cause of brain fog. But what causes the inflammation that leads to brain fog? I commonly see ten contributing issues:
1. Thyroid problems
Thyroid hormone imbalances have been shown to cause inflammatory-immune responses. Your thyroid works by receiving the proper messages from the brain through the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis, so if your hypothalamus is inflamed, it causes dysfunction in the brain-thyroid axis. The end result? A vicious cycle of inflammation.
2. Adrenal fatigue
Just as you have the brain-thyroid axis, you also have the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis. Dysfunction in your adrenal-based circadian rhythm can manifest as adrenal fatigue, when the stress hormone cortisol runs wild, depressing your immune system. As with thyroid issues brain fog can be both the cause and the effect of adrenal fatigue due to this particular brain-hormone connection.
3. Viral infections
Low-grade chronic viral infections such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) are linked to a wide range of inflammatory problems like chronic fatigue syndrome. One of the many issues viral infections can cause is to block the body’s vitamin D receptors, so you can’t use the vitamin D you take in – a particular talent of the villainous EBV, which has been shown to do just this.
4. Leaky gut syndrome
Your gut and brain are inextricably linked – they are even formed from the same fetal tissue when you were growing in your mother’s womb. In the medical literature, leaky brain syndrome is highly associated with leaky gut, and an increase in gut bacterial toxins called LPS, has been shown to affect brain inflammation.
5. Candida overgrowth
Excess yeast in the microbiome, particular those yeasts that are in the candida genus, increases the inflammatory cells IL-1, IL-6, and TNF, which can contribute to too much inflammation in the body and brain.
6. Histamine intolerance
Some people – particularly people with the gut problems mentioned above – are more prone to something called histamine intolerance. This happens when the body doesn’t break down the immune cell histamine properly, or overreacts to its presence, which causes a release of superoxide, a nasty free radical that causes a lot of inflammatory damage that can affect the brain.
7. Inflammatory foods
Inflammatory foods high in sugar or ones that contain gluten (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oats) and casein (milk products) are a problem for many people. In addition, high blood sugar levels from these foods can triple free radical inflammatory damage – not cool.
Toxins such as mold and heavy metals are two factors, often overlooked, that I’ve found contribute to brain fog in my patients.
9. Poor sleep
If you’re not sleeping well at night, you don’t need me to tell you it affects your brain health. Sleep loss decreases the inflammation-fighting antioxidant glutathione, which increases oxidative stress in the hypothalamus, causing brain fog.
10. Methylation impairments
Methylation is a biochemical process that happens 1 billion times every second in your body. Your organs, including your brain, depend on methylation for health and detoxification. Many people (myself included) have genetic methylation mutations, such as the MTHFR mutation, that impede this detoxification process, increasing the likelihood of systemic inflammation.
What to do about brain fog:
So what are you supposed to do about that dastardly brain fog? Here is my five-point prescription:
1. Find out your inflammation levels.
I run several different labs to assess where my patients’ inflammation levels are:
- TH1/TH2/TH17-dominance test
- Leaky-gut labs
- Blood-brain barrier labs
- Methylation genetic labs
These labs will tell you what you’re up against, so you and your doctor can have a more specific idea about what to target.
2. Use plant medicines.
Try adding some gynostemma and gotu kola to your morning. These two plant medicines have been shown to decrease oxidative cellular damage and increase cellular energy, paramount to overcoming brain fog. Just add them to your smoothie, or take supplements.
3. Support your methylation.
Methylation runs primarily on B vitamins, so taking activated B vitamins, like B9 L-Methylfolate (L-5-MTHF) and B6 Pyridoxyl-5-Phosphate (P5P), will support this crucial process. You can also read my other tips on supporting methylation in this article on the subject.
4. Go bright or go home.
In addition to providing you with the most bioavailable source of vitamin D (which is likely to be lacking in those with brain fog), the sun also provides healing infrared light, which is essential to balancing the immune system and calming inflammation levels. On sunny days, spend at least 30 minutes outside and soak up the rays. If you can’t make it outside or live in a cloudy climate, infrared saunas are another great option.
5. Get adaptogenic
Adaptogens like astragalus and reishi are two great ways to balance the immune system and gently boost energy. Read my definitive guide to adaptogens to get the 411 on how to bring these balancers into your life.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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