by Dr. Will Cole
Your brain is a brilliant biological machine that manages every aspect of your body – from your thoughts and hormones, to your muscles and digestion. Yet, our modern lifestyles have compromised the power and function of this most-important organ and diseases of the brain run rampant in our society.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that close to 20% of American adults currently suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder and the U.S. shells out around $113 billion every year for mental health treatment. These figures don’t even factor in the cost of autoimmune brain problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and autism, which affect more people every year. As a society, we have to ask: why this increase in brain health problems?
Leaky Brain: A New Understanding of Mental Health
I have written in the past about leaky gut syndrome. Now research is finding that a leaky gut can also be associated with a “leaky brain,” or the slow and insidious destruction of the protective blood-brain barrier (BBB).
There is a known connection between the gut and the brain, and what affects one affects the other. This is critical to understand when investigating brain problems. For example, occludin and zonulin are two proteins that can contribute to both gut lining and blood-brain barrier permeability. Elevated antibodies against occludin and zonulin are one way to determine the presence of both leaky gut and leaky brain syndrome.
A molecule called microRNA-155, which elevates with inflammation, is also implicated in this problem. This molecule can create microscopic gaps in the blood-brain barrier that let material through, ultimately leading to brain inflammation and autoimmunity.
Another area of medical research that looks at brain inflammation and its role in depression, anxiety, brain fog, and autoimmune brain disorders, is known as “the cytokine model of cognitive function.” One area of study researchers are working on is looking at how inflammation decreases the firing rate of neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain in people with depression. Prescribing antidepressant medication often proves ineffective in these cases because it doesn’t address the underlying brain inflammation. As you can see, blood-brain barrier permeability, or leaky brain syndrome, is a likely culprit in cases of depression, anxiety, brain fog, and autoimmune brain problems.
What Should I Do If I Think I Have This Problem?
Here are some steps you should consider taking to improve your brain health, which could help resolve a leaky brain:
1. Ask your doctor about getting labs to asses your blood-brain barrier.
Blood-Brain Barrier Proteins: I run these labs to help determine if the blood-brain barrier has been breached.
Occludin and Zonulin: Blood tests can measure antibodies against these two proteins, which can suggest both brain and gut permeability.
Test for other common contributors to poor brain health: Chronic inflammation accelerates your brain’s aging. High blood sugar is one risk factor for blood-brain barrier destruction.
2. Ask your doctor about microbiome labs.
An unhealthy gut can lead to an unhealthy brain, so looking at the state of the gut (or “second brain”) could shed light on what’s going on in your brain. Bacterial imbalances and yeast overgrowth are two conditions that can have neurological implications – for example, anxiety and depression have been linked to lower levels of bacteria called Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum.
3. Avoid known brain zappers.
Be sure to steer clear of common brain-damaging foods such as highly refined and sugary foods, as well as exposing yourself to other toxins.
4. Wrangle your stress.
Research suggests that acute stress increases blood-brain-barrier destruction. Tai chi, yoga, and mindfulness meditation can all be effective ways to mitigate the stress in your life.
5. Try targeted natural medicines.
Various research has shown that natural compounds such as apigenin, baicalein, catechins, curcumin, luteolin, resveratrol, and rutin can reduce brain inflammation levels. The correct dosage will be case specific, so work with a functional medicine doctor to figure out which types and what dosages are best for you (what works for someone else may not be right for you).
6. If you don’t already, start exercising.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the health of brain and nerve cells.
7. Dial back the alcohol.
Alcohol is stressful for the brain, and some studies suggest it can damage the blood-brain barrier, so while you are working on healing this all-important protection, take a break from the booze.
8. Consider functional medicine.
There are no quick fixes when it comes to healing from chronic brain problems, but functional medicine customizes diagnostics and natural protocols based on your unique needs. Consider a free webcam or phone evaluation to see if functional medicine might be right for you.
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