by Dr. Will Cole
These days, it seems everyone is talking about how to support the immune system. From vaccinations to bottles of echinacea at the health food store to managing autoimmune disease, you may have thought about your immune health, but what can you do that really works?
Here’s something that may surprise you: For ultimate immune health, you need ultimate brain health. You may not think your brain has anything to do with your immune system, but your brain is one of the major players in your immune health. Supporting your brain health can help you build a strong immune system, but to do this, let’s first go over the two major ways your brain is directly linked to your immune system.
The Brain-Immune Axis
Your brain-immune axis is just what it sounds – a direct connection between the brain and the immune system. This axis is responsible for the link between stress and autoimmunity. For example, I have patients who started having severe immune dysfunction and autoimmune conditions following a head injury in a car accident. But why? One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that the cerebellum played a substantial role in modulating helpful immune cells.
Similarly, a study in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine found, via brain mapping, the cerebellum playing a role of attempting to activate immune function in people with cancer! In addition to the cerebellum, your brain’s cerebral neocortex has been found to be another key player in the brain-immune axis.
The Gut-Brain Axis
I’ve written in the past about how the communication between your microbiome and brain (gut-brain axis) is pivotal for overall health. Your gut is even referred to as your second brain, and physically they actually resemble each other and both were formed from the same fetal tissue while you were growing in your mother’s womb.
Around 80% of your immune system is found in the gut, and 95% of your serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, is made and stored in the intestines. You can see that as the gut affects the brain, the opposite is also true. For example, the brain has been shown to regulate gut mucosal immunity.
How To Take An Active Role In Your Brain + Immune Health
Functional medicine tailors care to the individual. Since everyone is different, so are treatments. While there are many specifics to consider, here are four things I recommend doing to support and improve the brain-immune-gut connections:
1. Support healthy methylation pathways
Methylation is sort of an antioxidant recycling process in your body, and it’s needed for optimal brain and immune health. Proper methylation produces your body’s top disease-fighting antioxidant glutathione. When your glutathione levels are low, so is your immune function. Things that deplete glutathione are:
- Toxic exposure
- Antidepressant medications
- Birth control pills
- Diabetic medications
- Antacid medications
- MTHFR gene mutations
I gauge methylation function in patients by running a lab called homocysteine. Homocysteine is supposed to be converted to glutathione via methylation. If homocysteine levels are high, methylation isn’t functioning well. Everyone should have this test run.
Homocysteine levels above 7 UMOL/L have been shown to cause brain inflammation, destruction of the blood-brain barrier, and decreased immune health. The good news is that in the presence of methyl-donors like vitamin B6, homocysteine is converted to glutathione.
2. Optimize your vitamin D level
The sunshine vitamin is crucial for brain and immune health because it is responsible for many different brain-immune pathways. Low levels are linked to both autoimmune conditions and poor immune health.
Optimal vitamin D levels should be around 60-70 ng/mL for most people, especially those with autoimmune conditions.
3. Drive-down inflammation
Chronic inflammation is one of the major underlying culprits of chronic disease, but healthy inflammation levels fight off disease. To support healthy inflammation levels, it is essential to support your brain’s neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Healthy acetylcholine activity has been shown to produce optimal nitric oxide balance. Nutrients like huperzine A and adenosine triphosphate have been shown to activate this pathway. Providing my patients with condition-specific amounts of these nutrients helps support this brain function.
4. Improve microbiome health
For a healthy immune system, you need to have a healthy microbiome, and conditions associated with dysbiosis, or an unfavorable balance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria (such as SIBO and leaky gut syndrome) can drastically suppress healthy immune function.
Having optimal brain-immune-gut axis function overall is a crucial way to optimize your immune system, so tackle health from all sides to thrive.
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