Could your brain be “burning up” from inflammation, and you may not even be aware of it? Let’s find out. When most people think about inflammation and its effects on health, it carries a bad connotation, such as chronically inflamed joints in someone with arthritis. Not surprisingly, the inflammatory response is far more complicated than that. Acute inflammation is actually part of the natural protective process in the body that helps our immune system defeat foreign invaders from making us sick.[i] However, when inflammation becomes chronic and begins to affect how our brain functions, it may contribute to and worsen a whole host of mental conditions including depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, and even schizophrenia.[ii] [iii]There are many foods we can eat and lifestyle factors we can adopt to help reduce inflammation throughout our bodies and especially our brain.
Acute Inflammation: Why it’s Good
Acute inflammation is part of the body’s defense system against irritants and infection. For instance, if you fall and scratch your knee, and contaminate the wound with bacteria, the immune system will be activated and it will send inflammatory hormones to your white blood cells to “clean up” the damaged skin and destroy the germs. Your skin may turn red and swell up. Once the germs are subdued, your body sends out anti-inflammatory agents that will begin the healing process. When your immune system is working properly there is a natural balance between inflammation and the anti-inflammatory agents.[iv]
Chronic Inflammation: Why It’s Bad
Sometimes the body gets stuck in the inflammatory process and you could develop chronic inflammation. Inflammation over an extended period of time can lead to the damage or destruction of tissue; which can ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease or even cancer. It also can negatively affect your brain – contributing to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.[v] In this instance, it’s as if your brain is on fire, and the flames are destroying the most valuable property you own – your brain cells and mental health!
Causes of Brain Inflammation
Below are some of the most common causes of brain inflammation that might be causing you to feel foggy, “sick” or to have trouble focusing for a sustained amount of time.[vi]
- Head trauma such as a concussion.
- Unregulated blood sugar, such as diabetes or insulin resistance.
- Poor blood circulation to the brain.
- Inflammation in other parts of the body, such as an inflamed gut.
- Chronic stress
- Alcohol abuse
- Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (“simple carbs”)
The Link Between Brain Inflammation and Mental Health
Extensive research has shown that brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness. As mentioned, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as more serious conditions like autism and dementia, have all been linked to inflammation of the brain.[vii] There has even been a growing body of research demonstrating that the inflammation could be causal in the mood disorder.
Depression is also commonly found in people who are suffering from autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, type 2-diabetes, and cancer, all of which have chronic low-grade inflammation as a substantial contributing factor.[viii] Research suggests that dysfunction of the “gut-brain axis” may be the primary cause of inflammation, and that treating gastrointestinal inflammation with Vitamin B, Vitamin D, probiotics, and Omega-3 fats may improve depressive symptoms by lessening inflammation in the brain.[ix]
Anti-inflammatory Food and Lifestyle
The following foods will help to reduce inflammation throughout the body including your brain.
- Oily fish: salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines
- Dark green veggies: Swiss chard, kale and broccoli
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts and cashews
- Yogurt, with probiotics, helps specifically with gut inflammation
- Beets: reduce inflammation but may also protect against cancer and heart disease
- Onions: red or yellow, as opposed to white or sweet
- Fruits: most fruits’ fiber and antioxidant properties reduce inflammation – especially berries
Lifestyle factors such as reducing stress through meditation or regular exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation. Meditation helps to stop the “danger” signals our brain puts out when we are stressed and exercise helps to flush our bodies of the inflammatory hormones being released due to stress.
While acute inflammation is a necessary response to protect you from infection and foreign particles invading your body, if there are constant triggers of the inflammatory response it can get out of control and become chronic. Adopting a healthy anti-inflammatory lifestyle — making positive changes in diet and supplementation, sleep, exercise, and stress levels — will help turn off the inflammation response in the brain and lead to a healthier brain and overall you. Turn on these simple “fire extinguishers” right away!
Learn more about Supplements and Probiotics
Genes, Stress, Nutrition and Antidepressants – How They Affect Anxiety Depression and Bipolar Disorder
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s new book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love
Dr. Bruce Kehr’s psychiatry practice, Potomac Psychiatry
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