How Improving Brain Health Boosts Your Immunity
From vaccinations at your doctor's office to that bottle of echinacea at the health food store, a lot of health care is centered on your immune system. But why exactly should you care about your immune health?
The immune system is the body's sophisticated defense against disease. It's what keeps you from getting a cold when everyone else in the office has one, and it's also what keeps cancer cells from spreading throughout your body. From colds to cancer, your immune health is essential to whether or not you thrive in life. With the epidemic rise of chronic and autoimmune diseases, your immune health is pretty important, wouldn't you say?
For ultimate immune health you need ultimate brain health. Your brain is one of the major players in your immune health, and not many people talk about the connection between the two. Instead of masking symptoms, functional medicine is concerned with the underlying mechanisms that give rise to health problems like a weak immune system.
I want to show you how supporting your brain health can directly help you build a strong immune system. To do this, let's first go over the two major ways your brain controls your immune system:
Your brain-immune axis is an important connection for your ultimate health. I know many patients who started having severe immune dysfunctions and autoimmune conditions following a head injury in a car accident. But why? One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that the cerebellum played a substantial role in modulating helpful immune cells.
Similarly, a study in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine found, via brain mapping, the cerebellum playing a role of attempting to bring immune function in cancer patients! In addition to the cerebellum, your brain's cerebral neocortex was found to be another key player in the brain-immune axis.
I've written in the past about how the communication between your microbiome and brain (gut-brain axis) is a pivotal system to understanding your overall health. Your gut is even referred to as your second brain, and physically they even resemble each other! Around 80% of your immune system is found in the gut, and 95% of your serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, is made and stored in the intestines.
How To Support Your Brain & Immune Health
Functional medicine tailors care to the individual. Since everyone is different, so are your needs. While there are many specifics to consider, here are four things I look for in just about everyone when addressing the brain-immune-gut connections:
1. Healthy methylation pathways
Methylation is sort of an antioxidant recycling process in your body. It's needed for optimal brain and immune health. Proper methylation produces your body's top disease-fighting antioxidant, glutathione. When your glutathione levels are low, so is your immune system.
What depletes glutathione?
- Birth control pills
- Diabetic medications
- Antacid medications
- MTHFR gene mutations
I gauge methylation function in patients by running a lab called homocysteine. Homocysteine is supposed to be converted to glutathione via methylation. If homocysteine levels are high, methylation isn't functioning well. Everyone should have this test run.
Homocysteine levels above 7 UMOL/L have been shown to cause brain inflammation, destruction of the blood-brain barrier and decreased immune health. The good news is that in the presence of methyl-donors like vitamin B6, homocysteine is converted to glutathione!
2. Vitamin D
The sunshine vitamin is crucial for brain and immune health. It's responsible for many different brain-immune pathways, and low levels are linked to autoimmune conditions and poor immune health.
Optimal vitamin D levels should be around 60-70 ng/mL for most people and for those with autoimmune conditions.
Chronic inflammation is one of the major underlying culprits of chronic disease, but healthy inflammation levels fight off disease!
To support healthy inflammatory levels it is essential to support your brain's neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Healthy acetylcholine activity has been shown to produce optimal nitric oxide balance.
Nutrients like huperzine A and adenosine triphosphate have been shown to activate this pathway. Providing my patients with condition-specific amounts of these nutrients helps support this brain function.
4. Microbiome health
For a healthy immune system, you need to have a healthy microbiome. You don't have to have gastrointestinal symptoms to have an underlying gut problem. Underlying conditions like "leaky gut syndrome" can have a major impact on your immune system.
Having optimal brain-immune-gut axis function is a crucial way to optimize your immune system!