In many ways, our brain is at the center of our health. Think about it: Everything from our productivity and digestion to our hormones and mood are impacted by how well our brain is functioning.
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles put our brain health at risk, which has led to a serious rise in brain-related illnesses such as autism, brain fog, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, anxiety, depression, and multiple sclerosis.
As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to understand the root cause of these brain issues, help you prevent them, and come up with a plan to rehab your health if you’re one of the 20 percent (1) of American adults with a diagnosed mental health issue.
How to protect your brain health for life
The best place to start safeguarding your brain health is the gut.
That wasn’t a typo. If you want to optimize brain health, the first place to turn your attention to is your gut health. This is because our modern diets, stress levels, and environmental exposures have all wreaked havoc on gut health; and our gut health is intricately connected to our brain health.
Connected how, you ask?
In the wellness world, we talk a lot about something called leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut is a common condition that occurs when your delicate gut lining is damaged, allowing undigested food particles and other bacteria to enter your bloodstream causing a cascade of chronic inflammation throughout your body — especially the brain. In fact, research tells us that our gut and brain are inextricably linked through what is known as the ”gut-brain axis.” This connection means that what affects one will often affect the other. Therefore, leaky gut can quickly become leaky brain, which is used to describe the breakdown of your protective blood-brain barrier.
What you need to know about leaky brain
The breakdown of the blood-brain barrier can cause a lot of chronic inflammation. And when inflammation levels rise, a molecule called microRNA-155 (3) creates gaps in your blood-brain barrier, which lets toxins and other materials that don’t belong in the brain through. The result of this is more inflammation since your brain considers these foreign material invaders and works to fight them off by triggering an autoimmune-inflammation reaction.
By looking at these brain problems through this lens, we can better understand why brain health conditions are on the rise and why we struggle to find effective treatments for them. In fact, a whole area of medical research (4) known as the ”cytokine model of cognitive function” is devoted to studying the impact inflammation can have on the brain and the subsequent brain disorders it causes.
So, what should you do if you’re worried about your gut-brain connection and chronic inflammation? The first step is to know where your inflammation levels stand. This can be done through a few different lab tests.
- Homocysteine: Testing for this amino acid is critical since high levels have been linked to the destruction of the blood-brain barrier.
- Microbiome labs: These labs will help you identify any gut microbiome bacterial imbalances, some of which have been linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
- Occludin and Zonulin: When your levels of these two antibodies are high, it can indicate increased blood-brain and gut barrier permeability.
3 ways to improve your gut & brain health
Once you get an accurate picture of your gut and brain health, you can take proactive steps to decrease inflammation and safeguard your long-term brain health by supporting your gut.
Here’s where to start:
1. Clean up your diet
A poor diet is one of the main drivers of chronic inflammation. When you’re choosing your meals, remember that everything you eat either feeds disease or fuels health. If you’re struggling with inflammation, I always recommend trying an elimination diet to identify any food sensitivities or allergies you might have. For a detailed guide to eliminating foods and how to reintroduce them, check out my book The Inflammation Spectrum.
2. Stop snacking
With drive throughs, vending machines, and endless aisles of convenient and delicious snacks, food is always readily available. But that doesn’t mean we should always be eating. In fact, going periods of time without food — such as with a 12 or 16 hour fast between dinner and our first meal the next day — can enhance anti-inflammatory mechanisms in the body including autophagy, your cell’s self-cleaning process that helps keep inflammation under control. If you’re interested in giving fasting a go, check out my complete guide to fasting here.
3. Watch your carbs
When it comes to inflammation, carbohydrates — especially refined and processed breads, crackers, pastas, and baked goods — are one of the major culprits. If you want to fend off inflammation, following a ketogenic diet is a great place to start. Being in ketosis — which happens when your body starts using ketones for fuel instead of glucose, which it gets mostly from carbohydrates — has been shown (5) to be extremely helpful for brain health issues like autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. Ketones are naturally anti-inflammatory; and coupled with their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, reaching ketosis with a ketogenic diet can be a great way to further soothe inflammation. (6)
Plus, despite what you might think, you can maintain a keto diet regardless of what diet you’re following — including plant-based diets — as long as you adjust your macronutrients.
It might seem strange that the secrets to optimal brain health lies in your GI tract. But once you start implementing these gut-healing tips, you’ll be amazed by how your brain responds.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Hartwig Wolburg, Andrea Lippoldt, Tight junctions of the blood–brain barrier: development, composition and regulation, Vascular Pharmacology, Volume 38, Issue 6, 2002, Pages 323-337, ISSN 1537-1891, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1537-1891(02)00200-8.
- 2009) Impaired integrin-mediated adhesion contributes to reduced barrier properties in VASP-deficient microvascular endothelium. J. Cell. Physiol. 220, 357–366 (
- Perry, V.H. Contribution of systemic inflammation to chronic neurodegeneration. Acta Neuropathol 120, 277–286 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00401-010-0722-x
- Ede G. Ketogenic Diets for Psychiatric Disorders: A New Review Psychology Today (2017)
- Swidsinski A, Dörffel Y, Loening-Baucke V, et al. Reduced Mass and Diversity of the Colonic Microbiome in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis and Their Improvement with Ketogenic Diet. Front Microbiol. 2017;8:1141. Published 2017 Jun 28. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2017.01141
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