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What Is Brain Inflammation and What Effect Does it Have on Health?

Inflammation is an immune system response to injury, infections, toxins, and irritants.  It happens when white blood cells are sent to the part of the body that is ‘under attack’ or injured in order to defend and repair it.  

Normally, inflammation subsides over time, such as once the infection or toxin is cleared out of the body.  However when the body is chronically exposed to and continuously dealing with stressors, the inflammation can continue for a longer period of time.  

For example, a poor diet can lead to a chronic inflammatory state, because immune cells recognize substances such as added sugars, trans fats, and processed foods as toxic and work to eliminate them.

Chronic inflammation in the body, such as that caused by a poor diet, may lead to chronic inflammation of the brain.  When a part of the body is inflamed, such as in the case of autoimmune or gastrointestinal disorders, certain kinds of molecules including cytokines and histamine are released.  These inflammatory molecules can go on to provoke inflammation in the brain.  

Inflammation in the brain may show up in various ways, such as:

• Brain fog

• Inability to focus/concentrate

• Slower reflexes

• Slower recall 

• Reduced endurance for reading, working, or driving

• Dampened mood

• Fatigue and feeling sluggish

• Headaches and migraines

• Problems with vision 

• Longer term, chronic inflammation of the brain may eventually lead to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia (1).  

There is also a link between brain inflammation and psychiatric disorders (2). Inflammation in the brain may cause chemical imbalances which manifest as psychiatric symptoms such as chronic depression.  For example, when the cells in the brain are in distress, they release inflammatory cytokines that in turn disrupt the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is correlated with mental well being.  

Diet and Brain Inflammation

In cases of brain inflammation, it is essential to examine diet as a possible underlying cause of the problem.  While there are anti-inflammatory and psychiatric medications available, functional medicine takes a ‘root cause’ approach and seeks to address the fundamental reason for the inflammation, rather than just treating the symptoms.  

There are a number of potential causes of brain inflammation, including exposure to environmental toxins, stress, infections, drug and alcohol use, and diet.  The remainder of this article concentrates on the relationship between this last factor (diet) and inflammation.  

While some foods are toxic to the body and may cause inflammation, there are healthy alternatives that reduce the chances of inflammation occurring.  

In essence, the anti-inflammatory diet focuses on getting plentiful amounts of antioxidants, healthful fats, and nutrients, by eating fresh foods.  It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, plant based proteins, and fresh herbs and spices.  Four more specific strategies are explored in more detail below.       

#1 – Avoid Common Inflammatory Foods

Certain foods are low in nutrients and high in substances that the body perceives as toxic.  Examples of such foods include:

• Refined carbohydrates

• High sugar foods and artificial sweeteners

• Highly processed foods, including processed meat products

• Alcohol

• Saturated fats and trans fats

• Refined vegetable oils 

Consistently eating these foods may result in continuous activation of the immune response and chronic inflammation.

Conversely, following a natural whole foods diet will support lower levels of inflammation throughout the body.  As described above, this type of diet centres around:

• Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables

• Non-gluten whole grains  

• Heart healthy fats

• Plant based proteins and fresh animal proteins

# 2 – Identify Potential Food Sensitivities as Triggers for Inflammation

Individual food sensitivities and intolerances are also a common underlying reason behind chronic inflammation.  For some people, certain foods such as gluten and dairy may irritate and damage the lining of the gut and interfere with normal gastrointestinal functioning.  Over time, gaps in the intestinal lining occur, allowing foreign particles to enter the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract.  This is known as leaky gut syndrome, and it is a common cause of inflammation.  

In turn, when the health and balance of the digestive tract is compromised, the brain may be affected as well, as gut health and brain health are closely linked (3).  This article explains more about how the gut-brain axis works. 

Specifically, when toxins and infectious particles escape from the digestive tract instead of being eliminated, they may circulate throughout the body and damage the blood-brain barrier.  This thin lining that surrounds the brain is meant to protect it, allowing nutrients to pass in and cellular waste to pass out.  When the integrity of the lining is compromised, it becomes ‘leaky’ and allows larger, harmful particles to pass through.  These harmful substances may then damage the brain and lead to inflammation.  

For this reason, individual food sensitivities may be explored when evaluating the reason for brain inflammation and how to address it.  

#3 – Keep Blood Sugar Levels Stable

Foods that are inflammatory and that raise blood sugar may damage the blood-brain barrier and contribute to brain inflammation and cognitive impairment. This is supported by research that has found a correlation between high blood sugar and brain inflammation (4), and between diabetes and dementia (5).  Furthermore, Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes referred to as ‘Type 3 Diabetes’ (6) because of the strong connection between blood sugar and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.  

Therefore, to help avoid or reduce brain inflammation, it is essential to follow a diet that maintains normal and stable levels of blood sugar. 

Tips for balancing blood sugar through diet include:

Consume plenty of low-carb, high-fiber vegetables. Dark leafy greens are an excellent choice.  

Select fruits with lower amounts of sugar.  Some options include blackberries, blueberries, plums, apples, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peaches.  

Opt for whole grains. Choose quinoa, oats, and rice in place of refined grains, and avoid white flours in particular. 

Eat enough protein. Fresh meats and fish, as well as healthy plant-based proteins,  can help to regulate the release of glucose into the bloodstream.  

Choose healthy fats. Healthy fats, including olive oil and fresh fish, can help to improve satiety and slow the release of glucose.  Avoid saturated fats such as those found in dairy products.  

Avoid foods and drinks with added sugars.  Make sure to check labels, as many products with added sugar are disguised as healthy options.

#4 – Identify Nutrient Deficiencies

There are certain nutrients that are required for proper brain function (7), so to help avoid or reduce brain inflammation, focus on getting adequate amounts of the following:

• Omega 3 Fatty Acids

• Turmeric (curcumin)

• B Vitamins

• Vitamins C, D, E, and K

• Calcium

• Choline

• Zinc

• Magnesium

• Copper

• Iron

• Selenium

Of these, omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important for brain development and function (8).  Two types of omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, are anti-inflammatory compounds essential for brain membrane health.  They can naturally be found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.   Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet tends to be low in omega 3s so supplementation may be required.  

A functional medicine micronutrient test can help to determine if your body has adequate levels of all the nutrients that are key to lowering inflammation and preserving brain health.  A functional medicine practitioner can also discuss dietary changes and supplementation options with you, if necessary.  

For more personalized guidance, request a functional medicine consultation with Dr. John Gannage, MD

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