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Foggy, Anxious, Irritable? Here's What Toxins Can Do To Your Brain Health

Image by Lauren Naefe / Stocksy
January 5, 2019

As humans, we are exposed to a multitude of toxins each and every day. They are present in our water, our food, our soil, and our air. They are used as ingredients in our personal care products, our cosmetics, and our cleaning agents. Luckily, there's a lot we can do to reduce our daily exposure to toxins by buying chemical-free and natural cleaning products and cosmetics. And yet, some exposure each day is often unavoidable.

Over time, without proper care, these toxins and their metabolites can accumulate and have detrimental effects on our entire body—but particularly our brain function.

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How toxins are affecting your brain health.

The blood-brain barrier tries to protect our central nervous system from exposures to compounds that may be inflammatory and interfere with homeostatic mechanisms that maintain neurotransmitter balance and synaptic functioning. But when we are chronically exposed to toxins and contaminants, the usually tight and very selective blood-brain-barrier begins to warp under the pressure of these inflammatory compounds and becomes a bit "leaky" so that it allows molecules through that would have otherwise been prevented from entering the compartment that encases our brain. The loosening up of the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier also occurs from cellular damage by reactive oxygen species (free radicals) produced by inflammation in the body.

When toxins are allowed to enter the central nervous system, there can be many changes that occur in the natural milieu of the brain. The presence of toxins may result in:

  • Impaired blood flow leading to inefficient oxygen and nutrient delivery     
  • Decreased dopamine production and function
  • Hypometabolism of regions of the brain, often of the temporal lobes
  • Altered ratios of glutamate/GABA
  • Decreased serotonin levels and function
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These changes might sound complex and overly scientific, but they're important to know because, clinically, these physiological alterations can manifest as:

  • Lack of mental clarity
  • Anxiety
  • Slow processing of new ideas
  • Sadness
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Apathy and anhedonia
  • Cognitive decline

Why detoxing your brain is so important.

Luckily, we have natural, innate detoxification mechanisms that are meant to prevent the accumulation of toxins and their metabolites in our body and brain. We can easily detox with a commitment to lifestyle choices, and one does not necessarily need an online program or to purchase a detox-in-a-box. The first thing to understand is that there are different phases of detoxification, and the first step is heavily reliant on the micronutrients and macronutrients we consume. This first phase is based on the function of the cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver that need to be present and effectively active to start the process. After the first phase, these toxicant metabolites are even more reactive and can cause cellular damage and must undergo further phases of detoxification to convert them to less inflammatory compounds that are more easily excreted via the feces and urine. If not, these toxic metabolites will bind to parts of the cellular membranes and our DNA and result in progressive damage that affects our overall health and well-being and increases our risk of acute and chronic diseases.

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That's why, most importantly, a continuous supply of plant derivatives ensures the nutrients necessary for detoxification do not run out, as they can—and they do! In fact, it doesn't even take that long for depletion of vital nutrients. Think about how sluggish you feel after the holidays and increased consumption of alcohol, processed foods, and sugary treats and also with fewer hours of sleep and less regular exercise. The cytochrome P450 enzymes can also be easily inhibited by chronic disease states but also by some commonly prescribed medications, pro-inflammatory foods such as trans fats, animal meats, and alcohol. Some individuals also have mutations and polymorphisms, which can render the enzymes less efficient.

How to start detoxing for better brain health.

So where do we start adjusting our lifestyle? Considering the myriad nutrients necessary for detoxification, food as medicine should become a mantra of living. This means consuming a largely plant-based diet for the wide array of bioflavonoids, carotenes, polyphenols, thiols, anthocyanins, and other vitamins and minerals—such as copper, ascorbic acid, and manganese—important for their role in detoxification, but they also confer anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticarcinogenic activity. Food-as-medicine living also requires avoidance of foods that can increase the burden of toxins. Foods that should generally be avoided include non-organic produce, processed animal meats, trans fats, sugar, and processed foods.

We are faced with an ever-increasing quantity of exposures to such an extent that it often has surpassed what our body was designed to handle. Our modern lifestyle can very much contribute to a disruption in the many enzymatic reactions that take place during detoxification. Because of this, we also need to better focus on what and how we eat, how much we sleep, how often we move, and ways to manage our stress responses. Active and intentional detoxification is likely more important now than ever.

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Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.