by Dr. Will Cole
The brain is the source of our wondrous lives – our consciousness, our very self-concept. But it may also be the source of many health issues, when it isn’t working as it should. This is hardly rare. Almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by conditions such as ADD, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, autism, brain fog, depression, or fatigue. In part one of my series on natural mental health, I give my favorite tips for a healthy and happy brain. In part two, I go over the things to avoid to support good mental health. But in this article, I want to look at something very specific that could be fueling mood issues in particular: Inflammation.
In the mainstream medical system, health problems from ADD to depression are usually “solved” with a prescription, even though for many, medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications provide only temporary or marginal relief. Others end up living in a constant state of medicated numbness. The truth is that most psychotropic medications designed to help with mood issues do not address the root cause of the problem which is, in my experience, boils down to inflammation.
The term “inflammation” has become a bit of a buzzword lately, when talking about chronic health conditions. This is warranted because inflammation really can set up a chain reaction of dysfunction that can result in health problems in just about every system, including the brain.
Normally, inflammation is a productive response. For example, when you hurt your knee, acute inflammation helps the injury to heal and causes pain that keeps you from using your knee and worsening the damage. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is inflammation with no end in sight. Like a fire burning out of control, chronic inflammation goes beyond healing and straight into destruction. However, unlike other organs and structures (like your knee), your brain has no pain fibers. You won’t feel pain from chronic inflammation of the brain, but what you are more likely to experience is mood dysregulation and other issues, such as anxiety, depression, brain fog, trouble concentrating, or extreme fatigue.
Fortunately, science is making progress in this area. A growing field of study referred to as the cytokine model of cognitive function attempts to explain how inflammation affects brain function. Cytokines are proteins that regulate your body’s immune response. Wherever there’s inflammation, there are pro-inflammatory cytokines, including your brain.
There are many different ways in which your brain can become inflamed, both directly and indirectly. These primary sources of inflammation aren’t necessarily in the brain. In fact, one of the situations I see often in my practice is inflammation originating in the “second brain,” aka your gut.
Just like your brain, the inner mucosal lining of your gut has no pain fibers, but inflammation in this part of your body can wreak serious havoc on your mood and brain function. For example, 95% of your body’s serotonin, your “feel-good” hormone, is produced in your GI tract, which has many of the same neurological features as your brain. In fact, the gut manages quite a few neurological functions. I’ve written in a previous article about how your gut-brain axis can cause weight loss resistance; it’s also at the center of the cytokine model of mental health. Who knew your gut played such a role in your mental health!
Another key playing in the second brain is zonulin, a protein that’s released when the gut barrier is compromised (during inflammatory gut conditions like leaky gut syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or a chronic yeast or parasite infection). One of zonulin’s jobs is to open up your intestinal tight junctions, which are typically closed to protect your guts delicate environment. When this happens, zonulin and certain bacterial endotoxins called lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are normally isolated to your gut, can escape from your gastrointestinal system and circulate throughout your body, causing systemic inflammation.
Just like zonulin opens your protective gut lining, it has also been shown to open your protective blood-brain barrier. Voila – your leaky gut has now caused a leaky brain. When your brain’s protective barrier is breached, this can activate the glial cells, your brains immune cells. More than half the weight of your brain is made up of these immune cells. Once these “immune soldier” glial cells are activated, they turn on an inflammatory response in your brain, and they don’t have an “off switch.” This chronic inflammation can decrease neuron firing and can be linked to just about any problem of the brain, from depression to dementia.
This altered brain output can also decrease the gut-brain axis lines of communication, so both brain and gut function are compromised. It’s a vicious, perpetual cycle of inflammation and dysfunction which can also involve your brain’s ability to communicate with the endocrine (hormone) system, including the thyroid (HPT axis) and adrenal glands (HPA axis). But other areas can also contribute to mood issues. This is why a big-picture approach is so critical to addressing and healing brain dysfunction. We must also investigate and address:
- Gluten sensitivity
- Food intolerances
- Autoimmune conditions
- Poor sleep habits
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Chronic stress
- Elevated homocysteine
- Hormonal imbalances
- Past head or neck injuries
Two natural tools that have been shown in the literature to decrease the inflammatory immune response in your brain are turmeric and green tea. These natural food medicines, in addition to the components I laid out in part one and part two of the brain health series, are all tools you can use to help restore brain health and improve your mood and other brain-related issues.
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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