Brain Inflammation: The Underlying Cause of Cognitive and Neurological Dysfunction
Have you ever felt like your brain wasn’t working? While many of these symptoms are dismissed as the natural effects of stress, hormones or aging, the truth is, they may be entirely preventable. The brain has its own immune, circulation and detoxification system to keep pathogens, toxins, and other threats at bay. When these systems are not working effectively, inflammation can build up in the brain and cause a myriad of cognitive and neurological symptoms.
Signs of brain inflammation can include:
-Poor cognitive abilities
-Low “mental endurance”
-Slow thought processes
-Migraines, tinnitus or fibromyalgia
-Depression, anxiety, OCD, or bipolar disorder
-Insomnia or chronic fatigue
-Tics and other movement disorders
If you identify symptoms you experience on the list above, they might be related to brain inflammation. That means there is an immune dysregulation response happening in your brain. Inflammation is a short term effect that the body creates in order to deal with a threat. The immune system ramps up, the toxicant in question is hopefully eliminated, and the body can return back to a non-inflamed homeostasis. Unfortunately, if the body is unable to successfully deal with this threat, inflammation can continue long term, and these types of cognitive and neurological symptoms are the result.
The good news is that we can work to identify the underlying cause of brain inflammation and reverse the effects through targeted treatment. Something is triggering your brain’s immune system to create these symptoms. If we address the root of the problem, the immune system will settle, inflammation will reduce, and these symptoms will begin to dissipate naturally.
Here are the major root causes of brain inflammation:
-Blood sugar dysregulation
-Chronic gut infections
These root causes either create an energy imbalance (blood sugar issues, poor circulation) or an immune response (infections, intolerances, toxins) that can lead to a phenomenon called “leaky brain”. You may have heard of “leaky gut”- an issue where the intestinal barrier becomes permeable and unwelcome items can “leak” into the blood stream from the gut. A similar phenomenon may occur in the brain. There is a blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from inflammatory compounds. However, in a state of long term immune stress, this barrier can become permeable, leading to inflammation in the brain itself.
Let’s look at each one of these root causes a little closer, and discuss options for treatment.
Blood Sugar Dysregulation
Our brain requires glucose to function. This glucose can be obtained directly from food (carbohydrates), or can be converted from protein in the liver (gluconeogenesis) in the case of extremely low carbohydrate or carnivore diets. The problem is when our blood glucose levels become unstable. That is, they are chronically too high, too low, or jump between too high and too low in the very common phenomenon of reactive hypoglycemia. Unstable blood sugar levels are extremely stressful to the body, and the brain will go into “shock” temporarily when our levels are not in optimal range. This is where symptoms such as mood instability, anxiety, irritability, brain fog, low energy, and others can begin to surface. Your brain is literally starving or overloaded by sugar (or both, one after the other) and these symptoms are the result.
Other hints that your body is dealing with blood sugar dysregulation includes difficulty going more than a few hours without eating or you get headaches, shakiness, light headedness, or conversely, you have a lack of desire to eat in the morning due to nausea, agitation or anxiety. Hormone imbalances, mood swings and a tendency to startle awake between 1-3am are additional signs of blood sugar dysregulation.
If you have identified blood sugar dysregulation as a likely problem for you, here are some ways to address it:
-Eat your first meal before 10am. Only drink coffee with or after your first meal. Prioritize fat and protein with breakfast (instead of oatmeal and fruit, eat bacon and eggs). Even if you are nauseated and have no appetite in the morning, try to at least have a small something (half an avocado, one hard boiled egg, etc.)
-Don’t eat “naked carbs”. If you are eating a heavier carbohydrate food, always pair it with a fat or protein. For example, have your rice with butter and chicken, amd have your fruit with nut butter or cheese. Avoid high sugar snacks such as dried fruit, fruit juice, candy, crackers, or pastries.
-Take a mineral complex. Mineral deficiencies, especially chromium, vanadium, magnesium and zinc have a significant influence on your ability to regulate blood sugar.
This is also known as “poor oxygenation”. It means that your brain is not getting enough oxygen through your blood vessels to properly function. This can be caused by breathing problems, blood pressure that is too high or too low, which is often a sign of adrenal stress (dysregulated cortisol), or low nitric oxide levels. People with poor circulation to the brain may experience brain fog, memory or cognitive issues, “fuzzy” thoughts, and other problems. People who find that they have a significantly clearer mind after they exercise, have chronic issues with fungal growth on their fingers and toes, or tend towards cold hands/feet/nose have additional signs of poor circulation in the body.
If you have identified poor circulation as a likely problem for you, here are some ways to address it:
-Learn to “belly breathe”. Stimulate your diaphragm by taking slow, big, deep breathes into your belly. Many people have chronically shallow breathing which creates low oxygen levels in the body. Try to be mindful of your breathing patterns through the day and do 10 intentional “belly breaths” first thing in the morning.
-Do short bursts of intense activity to boost your heart rate and nitric oxide levels. This might look like 5-10 minutes of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or sprinting, ideally in the morning.
-Address adrenal issues. Both cortisol that is too low or too high can influence blood pressure, which in turn effects oxygenation. Being mindful of daily stressors, engaging in relaxation practices, eating a balanced diet with regularly timed meals, and supporting the adrenals themselves with bovine glandular supplements can be helpful.
While some people have intolerances to what should be perfectly healthy whole food items, such as carrots or tomatoes or shellfish, this is usually a side effect of a compromised gut due to a chronic infection. These items should be avoided until the underlying gut imbalance causing them can be addressed. See the section below to address those. Some are severe enough, as in anaphylactic responses, that they should be avoided permanently.
Other food intolerances are related to the inherently inflammatory compounds found in those foods. When we consume too many inflammatory compounds, the brain can become inflamed as a result. This can cause symptoms such as learning disabilities, brain fog, aggression, child behavioral issues, compulsive behaviors, anxiety and panic.
If you have identified food intolerances and inflammatory food compounds as likely problems for you, they should be eliminated for at least 4-6 weeks to start seeing a change in neurology and cognition. Here are helpful places to start looking at eliminations:
-Any foods that you have a known intolerance to should be eliminated.
-The most inflammatory compounds to eliminate actually exist in “non food” items that masquerade as food in our contemporary diet. These include refined seed oils (canola, soybean, corn, and sunflower/safflower oil), artificial sweeteners, flavorings (artificial and natural), colorings, preservatives, and emulsifiers. These should really not be consumed by any living organism and the nervous system does not recognize them as food, causing a “threat” response to be sent to the brain.
-The second most inflammatory compounds in foods are ones that have appeared more recently in human evolution, and have been greatly impacted by heavy industrial processing, genetic modification and pesticide use. These include gluten (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, etc.), soy, corn, and conventional pasteurized dairy.
-It is important to note that there is no such thing as eliminating 90% of an inflammatory food- if it is causing you brain problems, it must be eliminated 100% to see a significant change in symptoms. This is a major pitfall many people working on healing fall into.
Chronic Gut Infections
The gut-brain axis is a significant factor in modulating brain inflammation. The gut and brain are intimately tied together through the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to the enteric nervous system (the part of your nervous system that sends information to and from your digestive tract). When the gut is in distress, for example from an overgrowth of bacteria, yeast or parasites, it sends inflammatory cytokines directly into the brain where a neurological and cognitive effect can occur. The amazing part of the gut-brain connection is that sometimes severe digestive problems ONLY manifest as neurological and cognitive symptoms. Brain fog, fatigue, OCD, tics, depression, behavioral difficulties in children, anxiety and panic disorders, even psychosis can all be related to chronic infections in your gut creating an immune response in your brain. Sometimes digestive symptoms do manifest as well, such as heartburn/acid reflux, constipation or diarrhea, bloating and gas, or undigested food in stool. These are all signs of imbalanced gut bacteria and chronic infections in the digestive tract.
If you have identified chronic gut infections as a likely problem for you, here are some ways to address it:
-Stimulate the gut-brain connection by increasing the tone of the vagus nerve. Exercises like loud humming, vigorous gargling, inducing a gag reflex, and coffee enemas can help improve the communication between the gut and the brain.
-The gut is highly influenced by food. A “gut healing” or “leaky gut” diet done for a minimum of 4 weeks and up to 6 months, depending on severity of symptoms, can be a game changer. While this way of eating is very restrictive, it is not a lifetime commitment, and it can have a powerful effect. In this diet you eat only meat, seafood, eggs, animal fats, olive and coconut (flesh and oil), avocado, low starch vegetables (mostly cruciferous and alliums such as broccoli, cabbage and onions), herbal teas, and small amounts of low glycemic fruits such as berries. All other foods are eliminated including all processed foods, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, starchy vegetables, and higher glycemic fruit (pears, apples, bananas, etc.).
-Sometimes supplemental support can be helpful. L-glutamine, marshmallow, and a good soil based probiotic are recommended.
Gut infections are not the only things that can create an inflammatory response in the brain. Heavy metals, fragrances and chemicals found in hygiene and cleaning products, plastics, pesticides and occupational related chemical hazards can also trigger the immune system which can reach the brain. These issues are often related to symptoms such as chemical sensitivities, migraines, chronic pain, sensory sensitivities, depression, brain fog and memory issues. Other symptoms that could indicate this problem include asthma and chronic skin conditions.
While “detoxing” has become a very trendy activity in the alternative health sphere, Dr. Datis Kharrazian in his book “Why Isn’t My Brain Working” clarifies that it is not so much the toxic substance, but rather your immune system’s response to the toxic substance, that causes the inflammation. That is why the same people can experience the same toxic exposure, and one develops brain inflammation while the other does not.
If you have identified toxic overload as a likely problem for you, here are some ways to address it:
-The primary compound that the immune system uses to naturally detoxify the body is glutathione. Many people with toxic overload were already glutathione deficient before the exposure, therefore causing the immune system to be overwhelmed and creating inflammatory symptoms. You can boost your glutathione levels by taking the precursors as supplements such as N-acetyl-cysteine, Alpha-lipoic acid, l-glutamine, selenium, cordyceps, and milk thistle.
-Our immune system health is directly tied to our gut health. Read the section on “chronic gut infections” again and implement the recommendations there- they will help with other issues of toxic overload as well.
-Vitamin D and omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid balance are also closely tied to immune system health. Getting plenty of sunlight, eating seafood regularly (especially cold water fish like sardines and mackerel) and supplementing with cod liver oil are great options.
While Dr. Kharrazian’s book “Why Isn’t My Brain Working” is quite long and technical at times, I highly recommend it as a comprehensive guide to brain and neurological health. He goes into great detail the mechanisms connecting the immune system to the brain and where cognitive and neurological symptoms are so often related to brain inflammation. Additionally, he describes specific testing recommendations related to gluten intolerance and autoimmunity, and a wealth of information on neurotransmitter status, gut infection treatment, and insulin resistance. Numerous case studies are included to help flesh out the information he is providing in a practical and individualized context.
The most important message that Dr. Kharrazian provides is that cognitive and neurological problems are symptoms of an identifiable root cause. They are not normal side effects of stress, hormones, or aging to struggle with brain fog, anxiety, and memory issues These issues are entirely preventable and usually reversible with the application of proper immune system support. I hope this article empowers you to take the health of your brain into your own hands.