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:
- Brain fog
- 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
- Comes and goes with exposure to triggers
Moderate brain inflammation:
- Lack of motivation
- 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
- Difficulty speaking
- Tremors or trembling
- Involuntary twitching
- 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.
If you would like help understanding Brain Inflammation, you can schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.
Why the brain becomes inflamed
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.
These strategies include:
- Balancing blood sugar; lowering blood sugar if it’s too high.
- 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.
Want to know more? Schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.
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.
If you would like help understanding Chronic Fatigue, you can schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya
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.
Want to know more? Schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting more than 16 million people. As such, antidepressant use has jumped by 65 percent in the last 15 years, with one in eight Americans over the age of 12 taking antidepressants.
These statistics are alarming considering the root causes of depression are going unaddressed. Like pain or injury anywhere in the body, depression is a warning flag from the body that the system is out of balance. Stamping out the root causes of depression is like removing the engine light in your car instead of investigating what’s wrong with the car.
In functional medicine we look at the body as an integrated whole, with all parts working together and influencing one another. If you understand human physiology, it doesn’t make sense to isolate and treat one part of the body — such as the brain in depression — without including the overall health of the body.
Many factors can play into depression, including blood sugar imbalances, hormonal imbalances, immune dysregulation, gut health, and gut microbiome dysfunctions.
All of these factors can lead to brain inflammation, which scientists are increasingly finding is the most common cause of major depressive disorder. This type of depression does not respond to antidepressants.
Antidepressants target brain chemicals. called neurotransmitters, that govern mood, motivation, behavior, and mental activity. Some natural remedies, such as 5-HTP or Saint John’s Wort, also target neurotransmitters.
However, this model does not take into account newer research that shows depression is usually due to inflammation. Inflammation in the brain disrupts brain function in several ways that leads to depression.
If you would like help understanding Brain health and Inflammation, you can schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.
Brain inflammation slows firing between neurons
Your brain operates through communication, or firing, between neurons. However, when the brain becomes inflamed, the inflammation slows down conduction between neurons. Slowed firing between neurons in the frontal and limbic lobes of the brain leads to depression.
Brain inflammation prevents the production of neurotransmitters
Feeling happy and content instead of depressed depends on proper neurotransmitter production and activity in the brain. Brain inflammation has been shown to sabotage the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, the two neurotransmitters most associated with depression.
Dopamine is called the “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter. Symptoms of low dopamine include:
- Inability to handle stress
- Inability to self-motivate
- Inability to start or finish tasks
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Short temper over minor upsets
- Isolating oneself from others
- Unexplained lack of concern for family and friends
Serotonin is the “joy and well-being” neurotransmitter. Symptoms of low serotonin include:
- Feelings of depression
- Feelings of inner rage and anger
- Difficulty finding joy from life’s pleasures and favorite activities
- Depression when it is cloudy or when there is lack of sunlight
- Not enjoying friendships and relationships
- Not enjoying favorite foods
- Unable to fall into deep restful sleep
As dopamine levels drop, you lose your motivation and drive. As serotonin drops, you lose your mood, sense of happiness, and satisfaction with things you used to love.
While this may look like a neurotransmitter problem, antidepressants typically have no effect because they do not address the brain inflammation causing it.
Brain inflammation prevents neurotransmitter receptor sites from working well
Brain inflammation also inhibits the function of receptor sites on neurons for neurotransmitters. Even if there is enough dopamine or serotonin in the brain, brain inflammation will prevent receptors from responding to them appropriately. This prevents neurons from communicating with one another efficiently and depression results.
Brain inflammation and depression are signs the brain is degenerating too fast
The brain is made up of two types of cells: neurons and microglia cells. Microglia cells are the brain’s immune cells and facilitate healthy neuron function, respond to foreign invaders, and clean up plaque and debris.
However, the brain’s immune cells don’t have an off-switch like the body’s. When they are triggered by a brain injury, an inflammatory food, unstable blood sugar, a chronic infection, poor gut health, infectious bacteria in the gut, chronic stress, alcohol abuse, and other insults, they become over-activated in an effort to protect the brain. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily turn off afterward and can stay in a “primed” over active state indefinitely if constantly triggered by poor dietary and lifestyle choices. This is what causes brain inflammation and depression.
I hope you can see now why so many people don’t respond to antidepressants and why it’s so important to address the root causes of depression. Failing to do so allows brain inflammation to continue unchecked, raising the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain degeneration diseases. Ask my office how functional medicine can help you tame brain inflammation and overcome depression.
Want to know more? Schedule a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with Dr. Celaya.