If you have a chronic health or autoimmune condition, chances are you also suffer from brain inflammation. Brain inflammation causes symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, lack of motivation, and depression. We all have some degree of brain inflammation, but it can range from barely perceptible to debilitating depending on how advanced it is.
What kind of brain inflammation do you have? We can look at brain inflammation as either subtle, moderate, or severe, and as transient or chronic. Brain autoimmunity is another cause of brain inflammation and brain-based symptoms.
Subtle brain inflammation:
Slower mental speed
Reduced brain endurance (can’t read, work, or drive as long you used to)
Brain fatigue after exposure to specific foods or chemicals
Inability to focus and concentrate for long periods
Need to sleep more than 8 hours
Loss of appetite
Unable to be physically active
Severe brain inflammation:
Disorientation or confusion
Tremors or trembling
Symptoms are activated by exposure to a trigger but subside. Person has more good days than bad.
Symptoms are persistent symptoms and the person has more bad days than good.
Autoimmunity is a condition in which the immune system attacks tissue in the body, mistaking it for a foreign invader. Neuroautoimmunity is more common than people realize and can cause a wide range of neurological symptoms, depending on the area of the nervous system being attacked. Symptoms are caused by flares of the autoimmune condition, which can be whatever triggers the body’s immune system. These people also have symptoms of brain inflammation.
Most people think the brain is made up mainly of neurons and that neurons run the show. But in recent years, research shows neurons only make up about 10 percent of the brain. The rest is made up of the brain’s immune cells, called glial cells. Glial cells outnumber neurons 10 to 1.
Although the glial cells are the brain’s immune system, scientists have discovered they do much more than defend the brain. When the brain is not battling inflammation, glial cells support healthy neuron function, clear away plaque and debris that can lead to brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and they help facilitate efficient pathways of communication in the brain.
Factors that cause brain inflammation include a brain injury, unmanaged autoimmune disease, high blood sugar, eating inflammatory foods, undiagnosed food intolerances, excess alcohol consumption, a chronic viral or bacterial infection, leaky gut, leaky blood-brain barrier, hormonal imbalances or deficiencies, or other chronic health conditions and imbalances.
When the brain is in a chronic state of inflammation, this takes glial cells away from their job of supporting neuron health, debris clearing, and neuronal communication. This not only causes symptoms like fatigue and depression but also raises your risk of more serious brain disorders down the road.
If your symptoms are in the mild category, following functional medicine protocols (finding and addressing the root causes of your brain inflammation) can help restore your brain health. As long as you follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can keep brain inflammation at bay.
Removing foods that cause an immune reaction from your diet, gluten in particular.
Repairing leaky gut and leaky blood-brain barrier.
Improving microbiome diversity.
Addressing autoimmune conditions.
Addressing chronic infections.
Taking high-quality glutathione and other supplements to dampen inflammation.
Daily exercise, especially high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Hormonal balance if necessary.
If your brain inflammation symptoms are in the moderate to severe category, you still need to follow these steps, but you may need pursue one or more of them very aggressively, as well as adjust your expectations. Unlike the immune system in the body, the brain’s immune system does not have an off switch and inflammation can move through the brain like a slow-moving forest fire for months, years, or even decades. If you have not been the same since a brain injury or other brain insult, this may apply to you.
Additionally, if glial cells undergo a severe inflammatory event, such as a brain injury, they can become “primed.” A primed glial cell permanently changes its physical structure to function less as a neuron helper and more as an immune soldier. This also shortens its lifespan. As with neurons, we only have so many glial cells — their numbers dwindle as we age, and unmanaged brain insults and injuries and unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits can accelerate their demise.
Once glial cells are primed, acute inflammatory events can trigger your brain inflammation symptoms, even if you are following a healthy diet and lifestyle. Also, symptoms from triggering events will be much more severe once your glial cells have been primed. Whereas someone with mild to moderate neuroinflammation may suffer from some brain fog or fatigue if triggered, a person with primed glial cells may see loss of brain function, depending on the area of the brain most affected. This could mean bouts of memory loss, inability to speak properly, loss of muscle function, fatigue so severe they are bed ridden, and more. Once your glial cells are primed, it becomes necessary to structure your life around preventing flares.
Note: One scenario that can occur with primed glial cells is that anti-inflammatory functional medicine protocols may work great for a few weeks and then the person has a rebound crash with severe symptoms. This does not mean the protocols aren’t working, it just means you need to slow down with your protocols and keep systematically working through the various mechanisms until you find your primary triggers, whether its blood sugar, hormonal imbalances, or a dietary or chemical trigger. They will be different for everyone.
Outside of brain inflammation lies another mechanism of brain-based symptoms called “neurons close to threshold.” This means that a triggering neurological event, such as smelling perfumes for the chemically sensitive person, eating gluten for the gluten intolerant person, pushing your brain past what it can handle (with reading, working, studying, driving, etc.), too much noise for someone who is sound sensitive, etc. can fatigue fragile neurons and trigger symptoms.
For instance, a scent-sensitive person may develop migraines and fatigue walking past a perfume counter, or a gluten sensitive person may suffer from brain fog and fatigue after eating gluten. Or a day-long drive may take three days to recover from for the person whose neurons have lost endurance.
Poor health and chronic inflammation sabotage neuronal mitochondria, the energy factory in each cell. This causes a neuron to fire too easily, and then to fatigue. A classic example is tinnitus — auditory neurons are too close to threshold and “hear” noise that isn’t there, which causes ringing in the ears.
In these cases, rehabilitation includes anti-inflammatory strategies for the brain, but also gently exercising the neurons back to better health. This may mean a gradual introduction of essential oils for the scent-sensitive person, using hearing aids to gently stimulate the auditory neurons for the person with tinnitus (there are other causes of tinnitus, this is just one), or gradually increasing reading time each day to build endurance.
This is a broad overview of neuroinflammatory concepts. Ask my office how we can help you manage your brain inflammation.
Chronic fatigue syndrome — more correctly called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) — is one of the more frustrating chronic illnesses because most doctors don’t believe it exists or that it’s a psychiatric issue. Despite symptoms that completely debilitate its victims, ME/CFS is often the butt of jokes or medical ridicule because there is no lab marker to diagnose it even though it has been linked to inflammation of the nervous system.
However, that may change thanks to the invention by a father whose adult son has been bedridden with ME/CFS for the last 10 years.
The father, who is also a Stanford scientist, developed a simple blood test that measures the energy cells expend in order to maintain homeostasis after exposure to salt. Salt stresses cells, which must retain balance in sodium levels in order to function properly.
The researcher passed the cells exposed to salt through a small microchip that uses an electrical current to measure the energy exertion of the cells. Less exertion indicates the cells are able to easily maintain sodium balance, while more exertion meant finding balance required considerable effort.
The test was run on 40 people — 20 of whom suffer from ME/CFS and 20 healthy controls. In all 20 of the ME/CFS group, the cells expended significantly more energy in response to the salt compared to the cells of the 20 healthy people. This indicates the ME/CFS group had cells that were considerably less functional and more stressed.
Poor cellular function leads to poor function of the body and brain. Dysfunctional cells that can’t produce enough energy result in a body that is constantly fatigued and in poor health with multiple symptoms.
Although the test needs to be run on larger groups of people, if the research is able to replicate these results, it means conventional medicine will finally have the biomarker it needs to legitimize ME/CFS as a medical condition in the eyes of ordinary doctors.
Conventional advice for ME/CFS can be debilitating
One mistake many conventional doctors make when they examine a patient with ME/CFS is to assume they are lazy or hypochondriacs. As such, it’s common for doctors to tell ME/CFS patients to exercise to improve their symptoms.
This is bad advice for the ME/CFS patient whose cells are struggling to maintain just basic functions.
In fact, many patients with chronic fatigue are so severely fatigued they cannot work, have normal lives, or even leave their beds. Any exertion exacerbates their symptoms in what is called “post-exertional malaise.” For these individuals, exercise is an extremely inappropriate prescription.
ME/CFS affects several million people in the United States, although it’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of sufferers have not been diagnosed, due to the difficulty of receiving a proper diagnosis. It can take years and visits to multiple doctors to find one who will take the symptoms seriously.
Another difficulty in diagnosis is that patients suffer from multiple symptoms in addition to chronic fatigue, such as chronic pain, difficulties with memory and concentration, gut issues, and extreme sensitivities to light, sound, smell. Poor cellular function affects multiple organs so that symptoms can vary depending on the person.
ME/CFS can be diagnosed though a simple checklist of symptoms, however most primary care doctors are not aware of the list or adhere to the belief the disorder is imaginary. Conventional doctors also don’t like to diagnose ME/CFS because no drugs exist to treat it.
However, should the new testing prove to be accurate, it would give the millions of sufferers a diagnosis, thus eliminating the demoralizing mystery. This would also open the doors to new research into the condition.
Recent research into brain inflammation could also bring hope for ME/CFS
Fortunately, recent research breakthroughs in brain inflammation offer promise in not only validating ME/CFS but also its treatment.
Brain inflammation is more common than previously realized and is increasingly linked to myriad conditions other than ME/CFS, including depression, anxiety, childhood brain development disorders, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Immune cells in the brain outnumber neurons 10 to one and are vastly more important than previously realized. They are responsible for maintaining neuronal health and function and removing debris and plaque from the brain. However, when the brain is impacted by inflammation from dietary or lifestyle factors or a brain injury, the brain’s immune cells must abandon their jobs of supporting neuronal health and instead go into persistent warrior mode, damaging brain tissue in the process. Unlike the body’s immune system, the brain’s has no off switch.
There are no drugs to tame brain inflammation, however, it has been shown to respond to certain botanical compounds and functional medicine protocols that include dietary, lifestyle, and health interventions.
Ask my office for more advice on how we can help you with fatigue.
American children are busier than ever. Between tutoring, over-scheduled after-school activities, and the addictive lure of video games and smart phones, children spend half as much time playing outside than their parents did. Kids today play outside an average of a dismal 4 hours a week, compared to 8 hours when their parents were children. Sadly, lack of play time robs children of important developmental and health benefits. Humans are actually designed to grow based on plenty of play time (adults too!).
Two of the most important ingredients for beneficial childhood play are the outdoors and boredom. Though it can feel temporarily nightmarish to the child, boredom is great for the developing child brain — it forces children to employ their own agency, creativity, and, if other children are present, collaboration.
Why play is vital to childhood development
Free play develops social, emotional, and academic foundations that will server children later in life. It improves emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate. It also helps children learn about themselves, what they’re good at, and what they like to do.
Some industry experts argue that the qualities developed through free play will be what gives those children an edge in a world increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence and robots. Free play encourages compassion, creativity, complexity, and dexterity — skills that will always set humans apart from robots.
Also, health experts argue that lack of sufficient free play is contributing to the explosion of depression and other mental disorders in children. Depression is rising fastest among teens and young adults. Free play develops self-directed life-coping skills in kids that they don’t get in a violin lesson or soccer practice.
For children to fully enjoy the developmental aspects of free play, there is one thing parents must do: stay out of it. “Successful” childhood play is self-motivated by the child, as well as fun, engaging, and free of the normal rules of life.
If you would like help understanding how your children Become Healthier, you can schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.
Several categories of healthy child’s play have been identified:
Imaginative play. This includes drawing, painting, sculpting, and playing with water. Imaginative play is necessary to develop creativity, self-expression, communication, and experimentation with reality.
Building. Kids love to build stuff out of whatever materials available, whether it’s Legos, rocks, or sticks. Building play develops fine motor skills, reasoning skills, resilience (because these structures always collapse), and problem-solving.
Physical play. This is the kind of play that makes harried moms send their kids outdoors in order to protect the furniture. Rough housing, wrestling, play fighting, and other forms of physical play develop gross motor skills, physical fitness, perseverance, and memory.
Dramatic play. Some of the most engrossing forms of childhood play are the elaborate dramas, play acting, dress up, and shows that kids create. This form of play develops emotional regulation, relationship skills, empathy, cooperation, and negotiation.
Nature: A vital ingredient to childhood play
In addition to allowing children the space to transition through boredom into play, the outdoors is another vital ingredient to healthy childhood play.
Between addictive digital lures, overscheduled afterschool activities, and helicopter parenting, children today spend less time outdoors than do maximum security prisoners. This is tragic.
Sunshine. Regular exposure to sunshine is necessary for human health to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and hormonal system, prevent mood disorders, and promote healthy immune function and bone growth.
Exercise. Children should exercise an hour a day. Free play outdoors better encourages this.
Healthy risk taking. Taking risks is an important part of free play, despite parental fear. Healthy risk taking during outdoor play helps children build good life skills and confidence.
Socialization. Socialization is one of the most important factors in good health. Letting kids play outside gives them the opportunity to meet other kids and develop social skills.
Appreciation of nature. Many studies point to the health benefits of time spent in nature. Letting children have unstructured play time among trees, dirt, streams, and other natural features instills a lifelong appreciation of nature.
It used to be parents sent their kids outside to play to get them out of their hair. These days, parents must contend with pushback from kids who would rather play video games or do other online activities indoors. Parents too must unplug long enough to enforce some digital-free outdoors play time — in all kinds of weather. Kids act like boredom is going to kill them, but if you let them see it through chances are they’ll eventually engage their innate resources for unstructured play.
Although few doctors know how to successfully manage autoimmune disease — a condition in which the immune system attacks the body — researchers say it has become a modern epidemic, affecting more people than heart disease and cancer combined. Conventional medicine also argues autoimmune disease has mysterious origins and is primarily genetic, but again research paints a different picture — autoimmune disease has largely been traced to the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in our environment.
It takes the average person five years and visiting at least five different doctors before they receive a diagnosis for autoimmunity. Despite many published and peer-reviewed scientific studies about autoimmunity, rare are medical doctors who know how to identify symptoms of autoimmunity, properly screen for it, or appropriately treat it.
Most autoimmune patients are prescribed antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, told they need to exercise more or lose weight, or told they are making up their symptoms. More than 75 percent of patients with autoimmunity are women, which suggests the sexism shown to exist in medicine stands in the way of better treatments.
If medical doctors do diagnose autoimmune disease, it is typically only after the disease has almost completely destroyed the targeted tissue, whether it’s parts of the brain, the thyroid gland, or the sheaths that coat the nerves. At this point they can offer invasive treatments such as steroids, chemotherapy drugs, or surgery.
Examples of popular autoimmune diseases include Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and vitiligo. Although about 100 autoimmune diseases have been identified so far, the truth is the immune system can attack any cell in the body and researchers believe there are probably more than 100.
Autoimmunity rates are skyrocketing. Consider the following:
Type 1 diabetes rose 23 percent between 2001 and 2009 in the US
Crohn’s disease rose 300 percent in 20 years in the UK
Inflammatory bowel disease has risen more than 7 percent every year in Canada
An Israeli study showed autoimmune rates are rising worldwide
Studies show autoimmune rates rise the most in developed nations and in countries that are developing while they are lowest in the least developed countries.
“Developed” has become synonymous with “toxic.”About 80,000 chemicals that haven’t been tested on humans are in our environment in the US and about 5,000 new ones are added every year. Random blood sampling studies show that we all have dozens, if not hundreds (depends on how many they test), of these chemicals in our bloodstream. One study of fetal cord blood found almost 300 different chemicals in newborns around the country.
Other studies link different chemicals to different autoimmune diseases. For instance, mercury has been shown to trigger lupus and pesticides are linked to rheumatoid arthritis.
Rising autoimmune rates are also traced to poor diets high in processed foods and low in plant fiber. This compromises the gut microbiome, or gut bacteria diversity, which has been linked to poor immune function.
Low vitamin D levels, high chronic stress levels, hormonal imbalances, high sugar consumption, and sedentary lifestyles are some of other common reasons for the autoimmune epidemic.
A functional medicine approach to autoimmune disease
When it comes to autoimmunity, functional medicine shines.
For one thing, we listen to you. We know you are not crazy, making up your symptoms, or attention seeking. Autoimmunity is frustrating and confounding in its wide variety of symptoms and mysterious nature. We understand how demoralizing this can be.
Although symptoms vary depending on the tissue being attacked, common symptoms among all autoimmune sufferers include fatigue, malaise, pain, brain fog, depression, and periods where you “crash,” or have such low energy you can’t function.
In functional medicine we use lab tests that screen for multiple autoimmune conditions at once. This allows us to identify an autoimmune reaction taking place that may not be advanced enough yet to cause extreme symptoms. This allows us to halt or slow its progression.
We also can test for the triggers in your environment, such as certain foods you may not be aware are sending your immune system into a tailspin, such as gluten, or specific chemicals, such as benzene. Avoiding these triggers can help you feel better.
Successfully managing autoimmunity is not necessarily about managing the part of your body that is being attacked. Instead, it’s about addressing your hyper zealous and misguided immune system. The immune system is very complex and always in flux, but thankfully new research is continually helping us learn new strategies to balance immunity, dampen inflammation, tame autoimmune flares, and prevent autoimmunity from progressing and devastating the body.
In fact, some autoimmune patients say their autoimmune disease has taught them how to live more balanced and healthy lives than they would have otherwise.
Ask my office for more information about how to manage your autoimmune condition.
For many women, the onset of their hypothyroid symptoms began either during pregnancy or just after. Most of these women went on to be diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that attacks and destroys the thyroid gland. Pregnancy often triggers Hashimoto’s due to normal shifts in immunity that cause an already beleaguered immune system to tip out of control and begin attacking the thyroid gland.
Factors that can contribute to developing Hashimoto’s around pregnancy or childbirth include shifts in immune function during the third trimester, shifts in immune function postpartum, the dramatic shifts in hormone function, genetic tendency, and the exacerbation of existing disorders such as blood sugar imbalances, food intolerances, gut infections, and other autoimmune diseases (which may or may not be diagnosed).
How pregnancy can trigger Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism
Women make up the vast majority of people struggling with autoimmune diseases, about 75 percent. Researchers suggest this is because women have more complex hormonal systems that involve more fluctuations; hormone and immune function are closely tied. Hormone imbalances are a major contributor to chronic inflammation that can trigger autoimmunity.
Pregnancy simply exacerbates these fluctuations and underlying imbalances.
Shifts in immune function during and after pregnancy can trigger autoimmune disease
Women experience major immune shifts towards the end of pregnancy and then again immediately after birth. These are natural shifts designed to help protect the baby.
During the third trimester, a pregnant woman’s immune system becomes more heavily weighted toward what is called the TH-2 system. This arm of the immune system is the delayed immune reaction that produces antibodies that identify a foreign invader a short while after it enters the body. This response allows the body to recognize the invader in the future.
After the baby is born, a woman’s body then becomes more TH-1 dominant. This is the arm of the immune system that reacts immediately to a foreign invader, such as with swelling and pus around a splinter.
Most people who either already have an autoimmune disease or are at high risk of developing one are overly dominant in either the TH-1 or TH-2 arms of the immune system.
The immune swings that pregnancy and childbirth cause tip an already imbalanced immune system into full expression of an autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.
Although about 90 percent of hypothyroid cases are caused by Hashimoto’s, some cases are caused by chronic stress. As any mom can tell you, pregnancy and childbirth can bring inordinate amounts of stress.
Extreme or chronic stress depresses function of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a small gland at the base of the brain that is like a control tower for the body’s hormones, telling the various glands throughout the body how much hormone to secrete in response to external and internal cues.
Chronic stress overwhelms the pituitary gland and depresses its function. As a result, the pituitary falters at its job of telling the body’s hormone glands to secrete hormones. In the case of the thyroid gland, this means it doesn’t tell it to release enough thyroid hormone.
This not only causes tiredness and other hypothyroid symptoms, but it can also explain postpartum depression in some women.
It’s important to understand that stress doesn’t just mean bad traffic or a demanding job. Many women enter into pregnancy already under enormous stressors they may not be aware of:
Leaky gut or gut infections
Blood sugar that is either too low (hypoglycemia) or too high (insulin resistance)
Undiagnosed food intolerances such as gluten sensitivity or celiac disease
Undiagnosed brain dysfunctions, such as from an old brain injury, brain inflammation caused by poor diet, or PTSD or CPTSD
Sensitivity to chemicals or over exposure to chemicals
Poor liver detoxification
Undiagnosed chronic bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal infections
Are you at risk? Check your TPO and TGB antibodies before pregnancy
It’s not a bad idea to screen for risk for Hashimoto’s before conceiving. You can do this by testing TPO and TGB antibodies. Many people have autoimmune mechanisms already in place that not advanced enough to cause symptoms. However, a big shock to the body such as pregnancy can be the tipping point to send you over the edge into autoimmune expression.
If you have Hashimoto’s in your family, other autoimmune diseases in your family, or you suffer from other inflammatory conditions, it pays to screen for your risk before pregnancy. This gives you an opportunity to use functional medicine strategies to slow down or send into remission your autoimmune condition.
Studies show that women with no thyroid symptoms but positive blood serum TPO antibodies have a 25 percent higher risk for developing an autoimmune response to their thyroid.
Reducing the risk of autism, allergies, eczema, and more in your baby
Using functional medicine to manage autoimmunity or heightened risk for autoimmunity is not only good for the mother’s health, but also for that of her child. Children born to mothers with autoimmunity such as Hashimoto’s show increased risk for varying health disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, eczema, asthma, food allergies, and food intolerances.
Researchers have increasingly found that autoimmune disorders underlie many cases of autism, which is caused by an autoimmune attack against the brain in these children. Whether it’s autism or other immune disorders, children born to mothers with imbalanced immune systems may be more vulnerable to environmental triggers that can tip them over into full blown autoimmunity.
Triggers can include food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances, or toxic chemicals introduced into the bloodstream.
Of course, no one willingly or knowingly brings these hardships onto themselves or their children, but in today’s world the modern immune system faces significant burdens. Going into pregnancy knowing how to manage and minimize the impact of those burdens on the body can help minimize the risk. If you already developed Hashimoto’s during pregnancy or after childbirth, understanding why you did can help you better manage it.
Ask my office for help addressing the root cause of your Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.
Have you ever wanted to know everything there is to know about your thyroid? This 7-part video series will cover thyroid lab testing, nutrition and infections that affect the thyroid, toxins, thyroid hormone conversion, lifestyle, and adrenal interplay.