If you have a chronic health or autoimmune condition, chances are you also suffer from brain inflammation. Brain inflammation causes symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, lack of motivation, and depression. We all have some degree of brain inflammation, but it can range from barely perceptible to debilitating depending on how advanced it is.
What kind of brain inflammation do you have? We can look at brain inflammation as either subtle, moderate, or severe, and as transient or chronic. Brain autoimmunity is another cause of brain inflammation and brain-based symptoms.
Subtle brain inflammation:
- Brain fog
- Slower mental speed
- Reduced brain endurance (can’t read, work, or drive as long you used to)
- Brain fatigue after exposure to specific foods or chemicals
- Comes and goes with exposure to triggers
Moderate brain inflammation:
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to focus and concentrate for long periods
- Need to sleep more than 8 hours
- Loss of appetite
- Unable to be physically active
Severe brain inflammation:
- Disorientation or confusion
- Difficulty speaking
- Tremors or trembling
- Involuntary twitching
- Symptoms are activated by exposure to a trigger but subside. Person has more good days than bad.
- Symptoms are persistent symptoms and the person has more bad days than good.
- Autoimmunity is a condition in which the immune system attacks tissue in the body, mistaking it for a foreign invader. Neuroautoimmunity is more common than people realize and can cause a wide range of neurological symptoms, depending on the area of the nervous system being attacked. Symptoms are caused by flares of the autoimmune condition, which can be whatever triggers the body’s immune system. These people also have symptoms of brain inflammation.
Why the brain becomes inflamed
Most people think the brain is made up mainly of neurons and that neurons run the show. But in recent years, research shows neurons only make up about 10 percent of the brain. The rest is made up of the brain’s immune cells, called glial cells. Glial cells outnumber neurons 10 to 1.
Although the glial cells are the brain’s immune system, scientists have discovered they do much more than defend the brain. When the brain is not battling inflammation, glial cells support healthy neuron function, clear away plaque and debris that can lead to brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and they help facilitate efficient pathways of communication in the brain.
Factors that cause brain inflammation include a brain injury, unmanaged autoimmune disease, high blood sugar, eating inflammatory foods, undiagnosed food intolerances, excess alcohol consumption, a chronic viral or bacterial infection, leaky gut, leaky blood-brain barrier, hormonal imbalances or deficiencies, or other chronic health conditions and imbalances.
When the brain is in a chronic state of inflammation, this takes glial cells away from their job of supporting neuron health, debris clearing, and neuronal communication. This not only causes symptoms like fatigue and depression but also raises your risk of more serious brain disorders down the road.
If your symptoms are in the mild category, following functional medicine protocols (finding and addressing the root causes of your brain inflammation) can help restore your brain health. As long as you follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can keep brain inflammation at bay.
These strategies include:
- Balancing blood sugar; lowering blood sugar if it’s too high.
- Removing foods that cause an immune reaction from your diet, gluten in particular.
- Repairing leaky gut and leaky blood-brain barrier.
- Improving microbiome diversity.
- Addressing autoimmune conditions.
- Addressing chronic infections.
- Taking high-quality glutathione and other supplements to dampen inflammation.
- Daily exercise, especially high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
- Hormonal balance if necessary.
If your brain inflammation symptoms are in the moderate to severe category, you still need to follow these steps, but you may need pursue one or more of them very aggressively, as well as adjust your expectations. Unlike the immune system in the body, the brain’s immune system does not have an off switch and inflammation can move through the brain like a slow-moving forest fire for months, years, or even decades. If you have not been the same since a brain injury or other brain insult, this may apply to you.
Additionally, if glial cells undergo a severe inflammatory event, such as a brain injury, they can become “primed.” A primed glial cell permanently changes its physical structure to function less as a neuron helper and more as an immune soldier. This also shortens its lifespan. As with neurons, we only have so many glial cells — their numbers dwindle as we age, and unmanaged brain insults and injuries and unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits can accelerate their demise.
Once glial cells are primed, acute inflammatory events can trigger your brain inflammation symptoms, even if you are following a healthy diet and lifestyle. Also, symptoms from triggering events will be much more severe once your glial cells have been primed. Whereas someone with mild to moderate neuroinflammation may suffer from some brain fog or fatigue if triggered, a person with primed glial cells may see loss of brain function, depending on the area of the brain most affected. This could mean bouts of memory loss, inability to speak properly, loss of muscle function, fatigue so severe they are bed ridden, and more. Once your glial cells are primed, it becomes necessary to structure your life around preventing flares.
Note: One scenario that can occur with primed glial cells is that anti-inflammatory functional medicine protocols may work great for a few weeks and then the person has a rebound crash with severe symptoms. This does not mean the protocols aren’t working, it just means you need to slow down with your protocols and keep systematically working through the various mechanisms until you find your primary triggers, whether its blood sugar, hormonal imbalances, or a dietary or chemical trigger. They will be different for everyone.
Outside of brain inflammation lies another mechanism of brain-based symptoms called “neurons close to threshold.” This means that a triggering neurological event, such as smelling perfumes for the chemically sensitive person, eating gluten for the gluten intolerant person, pushing your brain past what it can handle (with reading, working, studying, driving, etc.), too much noise for someone who is sound sensitive, etc. can fatigue fragile neurons and trigger symptoms.
For instance, a scent-sensitive person may develop migraines and fatigue walking past a perfume counter, or a gluten sensitive person may suffer from brain fog and fatigue after eating gluten. Or a day-long drive may take three days to recover from for the person whose neurons have lost endurance.
Poor health and chronic inflammation sabotage neuronal mitochondria, the energy factory in each cell. This causes a neuron to fire too easily, and then to fatigue. A classic example is tinnitus — auditory neurons are too close to threshold and “hear” noise that isn’t there, which causes ringing in the ears.
In these cases, rehabilitation includes anti-inflammatory strategies for the brain, but also gently exercising the neurons back to better health. This may mean a gradual introduction of essential oils for the scent-sensitive person, using hearing aids to gently stimulate the auditory neurons for the person with tinnitus (there are other causes of tinnitus, this is just one), or gradually increasing reading time each day to build endurance.
This is a broad overview of neuroinflammatory concepts. Ask my office how we can help you manage your brain inflammation.