The Link Between Brain Inflammation and Mental Health
Extensive research has shown that brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness. Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia, and even schizophrenia, have all been linked to inflammation of the brain.
Inflammation is also a contributing factor in such health issues as cardiovascular disease, asthma, and allergies; autoimmune diseases like arthritis and hypothyroidism may be influenced by inflammation as well. Please see Dr. Dave's blog on Psycho-Neuro-Immunology for more details.
What do we mean by inflammation, and why does it affect us negatively in so many ways?
Inflammation is an immune system response to environmental irritants, toxins, and infection. When the immune system is activated by one of these intruders, pro-inflammatory hormones signal the white blood cells to rush in and clean up the infected or damaged tissue. Once the invaders have been subdued, anti-inflammatory agents move in to begin the healing process.
In a normal immune system, a natural balance exists between inflammation and the anti-inflammatory agents. But in some cases, the immune system gets stuck in high gear, and symptoms of inflammation do not recede. This is known as chronic inflammation.
Inappropriate inflammation over a long period of time can lead to the damage or destruction of tissue; this tissue damage can ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease; cancer; neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and other forms of dementia; ADHD; autism; and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
If you have had or are currently experiencing more than a few of the following health issues, this may be a sign that you have chronic inflammation:
- Seasonal/Environmental Allergies;
- Frequent colds, infections, sinusitis;
- Asthma or bronchitis;
- A history of frequent cold sores or canker sores;
- Acne, eczema, or skin rashes;
- Exposure to environmental toxins (pesticides, heavy metals, industrial chemicals);
- A work environment with poor lighting or ventilation;
- Food allergies, sensitivities;
- Inflammatory bowel disease or colitis;
- Spastic colon;
- An autoimmune disorder (rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroid disease, lupus);
- Cardiovascular disease, including a history of heart attack;
- Type II diabetes or obesity;
- Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, or a family history of either;
- Mood or behavioral disorders (depression, anxiety disorders, etc.);
- Consumption of more than 3 alcoholic beverages per week;
- Sedentary lifestyle, or less than 30 minutes of exercise 3X weekly.
If you are experiencing more than seven of these warning signs, you should be tested for inflammation.
Causes of Inflammation
What causes body and brain inflammation?
There is a great deal of evidence which suggests that inflammation has its roots in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The digestive system is designed to remove toxins, bacteria and viruses from our food before it has a chance to reach the rest of the body; the GI tract is the body's first line of defense against infection and disease.
Unfortunately, the digestive tract is often overwhelmed by what we put into it. Poor nutrition, medications, stress, and environmental toxins can damage the gut and cause inflammation, which is then free to spread unchecked throughout the rest of the body.
Regular consumption of foods such as the following are largely responsible for inflammation:
- Refined sugars;
- Processed and refined flours (white bread, cookies, pasta, crackers, and more);
- Foods high in acids;
- Dairy products;
- Animal fats;
- Food Allergens (hidden food allergies cause body and brain inflammation)
Environmental and lifestyle factors also affect inflammation:
- Exposure to toxic metals;(mercury, lead, cadmium)
- History of infections;
- Environmental toxins (pesticides, herbicides, food additives and preservatives)
- Chronic stress;
- Lack of exercise, sedentary habits;
- Nutritional deficiencies; ( B12, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, vitamin C)
- Overuse of antibiotics and acid blocking medications;
- Poor sleep habits.
Lab Tests for Inflammation
- The C-reactive protein test is the most decisive test for detecting inflammation. This simple blood test can reveal high levels of C-reactive protein; CRP is produced by the liver in response to inflammation, infection and injury. It is available by fingerstick or blood draw.
- Food allergy testing can uncover immune responses which may point to inflammation.
- An inflammatory cytokine test can reveal evidence of inflammation, as well. Cytokines are proteins which act as messengers between immune cells to trigger an inflammatory response.
Inflammation Reduction Strategies
The good news is that there are several things you can do to promote your body's natural anti-inflammatory response and restore natural balance to your immune system.
* Exercise stimulates your body's anti-inflammatory abilities and keeps your blood circulating at its optimum level. Start off slowly, and work your way up until you are getting 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at a minimum of 3 times per week.
* Rest and stress management are vital to keeping your immune system in proper working order. Make sure you get enough sleep, and find a relaxation technique that you enjoy. Deep-breathing exercises are also an excellent restorative approach, do them 5 times a day, everyday.
Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
* Make sure you get plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids. These oils are in short supply in our diet, and most people require a supplement to ensure they are getting enough Omega-3's in their system.
- Avoid eating saturated fat by eating less butter, cream, cheese and other full-fat dairy products;
- Avoid regular safflower and sunflower oils, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and mixed vegetable oils.
- Avoid margarine, vegetable shortening, and all products listing them as ingredients. Avoid products made with partially hydrogenated oils.
- Eat avocados and nuts, especially walnuts, cashews, almonds, and nut butters made from these nuts.
- Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are salmon (preferably fresh or frozen wild or canned sockeye), sardines packed in water or olive oil, herring, omega-3 fortified eggs; hemp seeds and flaxseeds (preferably freshly ground); or take a fish oil supplement.
* A high-alkaline diet - one that includes plenty of green, leafy vegetables - is invaluable in combating
inflammation. Eat cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables regularly. Eat plenty of organic brightly colored fruits. Drink pomegranate juice, and green tea daily for their anti-oxidant effects.
*Eat more vegetable protein from soy products such as tofu, edamame, soynuts, and soymilk.
*Whole grains, brown rice, and bulgur wheat are less inflammatory than white flour products.
* Stay away from refined foods. Added sugars, convenience foods, and refined carbohydrates provide little nutritional value and provoke inflammation. In other words do not eat anything that comes from a bag or a box.
Bioflavonoids and other beneficial anti-inflammatory herbs are gentle on your system and extremely useful in reducing inflammation.
- Digestive Enzymes
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids (fish oil)
- Anti-inflammatory powder drinks
- Herbal anti-inflammatory supplements
By making a few changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can find yourself feeling energized, refreshed, and filled with a sense of well-being. By taking steps to reduce inflammation, you will greatly improve the quality of your life.