Have you ever felt like your brain wasn’t working? Many people today struggle chronically with lack of motivation, problems with executive functioning (organizing tasks), memory issues, poor comprehension, and other symptoms that often end up under the umbrella of “depression”. Doctors often dismiss these vague but debilitating concerns. People are told that they are just “hormonal” or that they are “getting older”, or that if they just managed their stress better the problem would go away. But there may be more going on here. Clinical research is showing that an inflamed brain is a foggy, overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed brain. We don’t have to chalk it up to “hormones”, “aging”, or “stress” anymore. There are clear root causes of this inflammation that we can address directly.
. 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, emotional and neurological symptoms.
Signs of brain inflammation can include:
-Poor cognitive abilities
-Low “mental endurance” (easily tired or worn out mentally)
-Slow thought processes
-Migraines, tinnitus or chronic pain
-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 a chronic immune 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, and the toxicant in question is hopefully eliminated, so that 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
-Food intolerances (or “leaky gut”)
-Chronic gut infections (or “gut dysbiosis”)
-Toxin overload (generally from man made sources such as heavy metals, pesticides, medications, etc.)
These root causes either create an energy imbalance (blood sugar issues) 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 some amount of 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 low carbohydrate diets. The problem happens 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, often accompanied by hunger, 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:
-Start your day with breakfast, not coffee. If you are nauseated, try to at least take a bite. Prioritize fat and protein with breakfast (instead of oatmeal and fruit, eat avocado and eggs).
-Don’t eat “naked carbs” as snacks through the day. If you are eating a higher carbohydrate food, always pair it with a fat or protein. For example, have your rice with butter and chicken, and have your fruit with nut butter or cheese. Avoid high sugar snacks such as dried fruit, fruit juice, candy, crackers, pretzels or pastries.
-Look into supplementing with B1, magnesium and chromium, deficiencies of which can affect our ability to process carbohydrates.
Food Intolerances and “Leaky Gut”
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 severely compromised gut due to extensive inflammation in the digestive tract. These items should be avoided until the underlying gut damage 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 processed foods. Once these inflammatory compounds are cut out, food intolerances resolve quickly. 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, 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, 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:
-A gut healing diet is one that eliminates all complex carbohydrates, including many foods that would be considered “healthy” for someone without these chronic gut infections. These include grains, legumes, starchy vegetables such as potatoes and cassava, and more. Excessive sugar in the diet should also be avoided, even from natural sources. This includes maple syrup and high glycemic fruits such as banana and pineapple. A “gut healing” or “gut rebuilding diet”, as I call it, should be done for a minimum of 3 months and up to 2 years, depending on severity of symptoms, and how quickly they resolve. While this way of eating is very restrictive, it is not a lifetime commitment, and it can have a powerful effect on your long term health. The primary foods in your diet should be 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.
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:
-Avoid excessive toxic exposure in your environment. Filter your water, avoid synthetic fragrances and strong cleaning supplies. Store food in glass, rather than plastic. Don’t use teflon (non stick) cooking gear. Buy organic and local when you can.
-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, glycine, selenium, cordyceps, and drinking home made meat stock (short cooked bone broth).
-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.
Brain inflammation is a well documented cause of many of the psychiatric, cognitive and neurological symptoms that many of us take for granted, or have been dismissed by doctors with medications and therapies that aren’t effective. Getting to the ROOT of your brain inflammation is the key!
If you are looking for more detailed nutritional plans and information to help feed Your Starving Brain, click the button below to learn more about my new mini course. You can also watch my youtube video below for more information! Healing is possible.