It's easy to take for granted what a brilliant biological machine the brain is. This amazing organ manages every aspect of your body — from your thoughts to your hormones, muscles and digestion.
Sadly, diseases of the brain are rampant in our society.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that close to 20% of American adults currently suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. And the U.S shells out around $113 billion every year on mental health treatment. These figures don't even factor in the cost of autoimmune brain problems like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis and autism — which are affecting more people every year.
With an increasing number of brain health problems we have to ask: why? Functional medicine is concerned with investigating the root causes.
Leaky Brain: A New Understanding of Mental Health
I have written in the past about leaky gut syndrome. Now research is finding that a leaky gut can also be associated with a "leaky brain," or the destruction of the protective blood-brain barrier (BBB).
The Gut-Brain Connection is a foundational system to address for brain problems. Occludin and zonulin are two proteins that help determine both gut lining and blood-brain barrier permeability. Elevated antibodies against occludin and zonulin are one way to gauge leaky brain syndrome.
Researchers are also looking at a molecule called microRNA-155, which is elevated with inflammation. This molecule can create microscopic gaps in the blood-brain barrier that let material through. This permeability can cause your brain's immune system to work in overdrive, leading to brain inflammation.
The area of medical research known as "the cytokine model of cognitive function" looks at how brain inflammation is associated with cases of depression, anxiety, brain fog and autoimmune brain problems.
For example, researchers are looking at how inflammation decreases the firing rate of neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain in people with depression. In cases of neurogenic inflammation, medications like antidepressants are often ineffective because they aren't addressing the underlying brain inflammation.
In other words, if you suffer from depression, anxiety, brain fog or an autoimmune brain problem, blood-brain barrier permeability (leaky brain syndrome) should be considered.
I Think I Have Brain Inflammation. Now What?
Here are some action steps you should consider taking for brain health:
1. Conduct labs to assess your blood-brain barrier.
Blood-Brain Barrier Proteins: I run these labs to help determine if the blood-brain barrier has been breached.
Occludin and Zonulin: Blood tests can measure antibodies against these two proteins, which determine brain and gut permeability.
Homocysteine: High levels of this amino acid have been linked with blood-brain barrier damage. Learn more about why you should get your homocysteine levels tested.
Brain Agers: Chronic inflammation accelerates your brain's aging. High blood sugar is one risk factor for blood-brain barrier destruction. I recommend having fasting blood sugar, Hgb A1C and other brain aging labs ran to know your risk factors.
2. Conduct microbiome labs.
An unhealthy gut can lead to an unhealthy brain. So looking at the other end of the gut-brain axis can uncover underlying factors that might be hidden in the "second brain". That's because bacterial imbalances and yeast overgrowth can have neurological implications. For example, anxiety and depression have been linked to lower levels of bacteria called Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum.
3. Avoid brain zappers.
Be sure to steer clear of common brain-damaging foods like refined and sugary foods, as well as other toxins.
4. Manage stress.
5. Try targeted natural medicines.
Natural compounds such as apigenin, baicalein, catechins, curcumin, luteolin, resveratrol and rutin have all been suggested to dampen brain inflammation levels. The correct dosage will be case specific. Even with natural medicines, what works for someone else may not be right for you.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, which promotes the health of brain and nerve cells.
7. Cut back on alcohol.
Alcohol is stressful for the brain, and some studies suggest it can damage the blood-brain barrier.
8. Consider functional medicine.
There are no quick fixes when it comes to healing from chronic brain problems. Functional medicine customizes diagnostics and natural protocols based on your unique needs. Consider having a free webcam or phone evaluation to see if functional medicine might be right for you.