The complexities of the human brain can leave both a scientist and layperson a tad awestruck. Research is beginning to elucidate the fascinating connections between everyday experiences of fatigue, insomnia, and depression and inflammation in the brain.
Low-grade, systemic inflammation can be simmering unnoticed for years, and eventually target the brain and nervous system in a process known as neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation can cause cognitive changes and increase the risk of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
Quelling chronic inflammation can improve your mental well-being today and preserve your cognitive function in the years to come.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a finely tuned biological defense system designed to maintain the body’s equilibrium. When the body perceives tissue damage or infection, it triggers inflammation as a protective response. A deep wound in the hand, for instance, causes the body to trigger acute inflammation in the area as a first aid measure.
The redness, swelling, pain, heat, and loss of function in the hand are five hallmark signs and symptoms of acute inflammation. Once the wound is cleaned and stitched, the hand will begin to heal and the body will turn off the inflammation response.
But if this defense system becomes dysregulated, inflammation can persist for months to years in the absence of an actual threat. Chronic inflammation can be triggered by recurring episodes of acute inflammation, unresolved infections, exposure to harmful physical or chemical compounds, or genetic susceptibility.
Advanced age and deficiencies in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals can impair the body’s ability to resolve inflammation.
The sneaky thing about chronic inflammation is that it often goes unnoticed. Unlike the cardinal signs of acute inflammation, the signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation can be subtle and diverse. Fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, changes in weight, joint and muscle pain, and frequent infections may indicate chronic inflammation.
Left unchecked, chronic inflammation can reduce life expectancy and contribute to the development of conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, cancer, depression, arthritis, allergies, COPD, and neurodegenerative diseases.
When the brain is inflamed
Here are just a few ways inflammation can affect the brain in the short- and long-term.
Neuroinflammation is considered an underlying mechanism in major depressive disorder. Excess inflammation is associated with changes in the region of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. These changes can also present as fatigue and sleep difficulties.
Maladaptive responses to stress are associated with a dysregulation of inflammatory molecules in the brain. Evidence suggests that stress can trigger or aggravate systemic inflammation and worsen inflammation among those with multiple sclerosis.
Chronic low-level inflammation is associated with cognitive decline, changes in behavior, and dementia. Systemic inflammatory conditions may be associated with an increased risk, and faster progression, of Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have increased markers of inflammation.
Often called the “second brain,” the gut and brain are also closely connected. The gut-brain axis refers to this bidirectional communication system between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, and research in this area has identified several gut-based contributors to neuroinflammation.
Symptoms of food allergy can have a wider reach than the gastrointestinal tract, and even affect brain function. Those with food allergies can experience emotional and behavior problems as symptoms.
Brain fog is commonly reported among those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and the neuroinflammation triggered in celiac disease often manifests as cognitive impairment.
The balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut has a bearing on inflammation. Dysbiosis (a bad balance of gut bacteria) can trigger intestinal inflammation, leading to intestinal hyperpermeability (“leaky gut syndrome”). This opens the door to systemic inflammation.
Systemic inflammation can then increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. Inflammation-driven permeability of the blood-brain barrier has been associated with changes in emotional regulation and mood. Breakdown of the blood-brain barrier contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.
Probiotics for the gut-brain axis
Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria probiotics lower chronic low-grade inflammation and may improve communication within the gut-brain axis.
Stress-induced inflammation has been shown to increase intestinal permeability. This disruption of the gut lining triggers a vicious cycle because it may impair the gut’s ability to produce the happy neurotransmitter serotonin.
Transform stress with mind-body practices such as tai chi, qi gong, yoga, and meditation. They have been shown to reduce markers of inflammation and improve well-being as well.
Keep your food, water, and home as natural as possible since pesticides and toxins have been shown to induce inflammation.
Steer clear of the Western diet, which has been associated with intestinal hyperpermeability and low-grade systemic inflammation. Enjoy foods rich in flavanols (berries), healthy fats (fish), and whole grains.
Extinguish the fire with anti-inflammatory foods
Food Anti-inflammatory effects cacao intake has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids—a higher intake is associated with lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP) green tea polyphenols in green and black tea are associated with a reduction in CRP berries antioxidants and polyphenols may protect against inflammation olive oil mitigates pro-inflammatory markers tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) tomatoes regular consumption of tomato juice, rich in the antioxidant lycopene, has been shown to reduce inflammation among overweight women broccoli sprouts compound has been shown to attenuate obesity-related inflammation whole grains consumed regularly, have been shown to reduce systemic low-grade inflammation beans have been shown to reduce low-grade inflammation among those with cardiometabolic diseases avocado consumed once per day, is associated with a decrease in CRP mushrooms rich in anti-inflammatory polysaccharides, which may be helpful in diseases related to inflammation
Bolstering brain health
Supplement Effect on neuroinflammation fish oil has anti-inflammatory effects that may benefit brain function and slow cognitive decline zinc deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to chronic inflammation; research suggests zinc is involved in the regulation of the permeability of the blood-brain barrier magnesium deficiency increases pro-inflammatory cytokines; research shows a role for magnesium in the management of migraine, depression, anxiety, and stroke resveratrol modulates the inflammatory response and may be protective in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s curcumin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and may be helpful for brain function after concussion vitamin C antioxidant properties maintain proper functioning within the central nervous system and may be helpful in the management of neurodegenerative diseases vitamin D supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function and behavior among those with ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder vitamin E plays a role in regulating the central nervous system, and may be helpful in the management of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases selenium deficiency is associated with cognitive decline and increases seizures in epilepsy
Can cannabinoids control neuroinflammation?
The body’s endocannabinoid system plays a role in modulating the inflammatory response. Cannabis and CBD operate within the endocannabinoid system and exert a neuroprotective effect by suppressing proinflammatory cytokines and increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines.
CBD is a promising adjunct in the management of central nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Medical tests for inflammation
Assess systemic inflammation by testing the blood for inflammatory markers including high sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and fibrinogen.
Risk factors for chronic inflammation
- low sex hormones
- sleep disorders
- advanced age
- cigarette smoking
- high intake of sugar and trans fats
- chronic infections