• Brain on Fire

    by Dr. Susan Sklar
    on Aug 14th, 2017

Hello. It’s Dr. Sklar, again, with the thought of the week on the topic of inflammation, and particularly as inflammation relates to brain function. Some people are confused about what inflammation means, so I want to first explain what we mean by inflammation, and then go into some specifics regarding inflammation in the brain. This is a very hot topic, in terms of mood problems, like depression, and also cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s, memory problems, and brain fog.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a reactive process in our body that occurs when we are exposed to something that our body perceives a dangerous or harmful. It is a natural healing, helpful process. Think of what happens when you get a splinter, and you don’t remove it right away. That area around the splinter starts to hurt and becomes a little reddened. The tissue around the splinter may become swollen. Eventually, it may form a little pus pocket from the inflammatory response and it really requires getting the splinter out to resolve that inflammation.

Symptoms of Brain Inflammation

That same process goes on inside your body, where you’re not able to see it, and maybe even not able to feel it. The brain, in particular, does not have pain sensations that would allow you to know that your brain is inflamed. So, how would you know if you had an inflamed brain? There are some symptoms that are very characteristic of brain inflammation. One of them is brain fog, feeling like you’re kind of swimming through molasses all the time, trying to get your brain to work. Another symptom of brain inflammation is slow brain function–you can do things, but it takes a long time. A third symptom is brain fatigue. Maybe you used to be able to read for two hours before your brain felt tired and you put your book down. Now, you can only read a few pages, and you feel a lot of brain fatigue and decide you can’t continue.

There are other things that can be signs of brain inflammation. One of the major causes of depression may be brain inflammation. We frequently see depression in conjunction with Alzheimer’s disease. Another sign of brain inflammation is memory impairment. These symptoms make me think of brain inflammation when I hear them as part of a patient’s history.

Risk Factors for Brain Inflammation

Some of the things that will predispose patients to brain inflammation are certain past or current medical problems. Diabetes and poor blood sugar control is one cause for brain inflammation. A history of brain trauma is another cause. After a traumatic event, the brain becomes very inflamed, and that inflammation can continue on for years. Another risk factor for brain inflammation is autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis. We know that people with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, probably connected to the inflammation that occurs in the joints. The inflammatory chemicals that are produced in the joints then travel across what we call the blood-brain barrier into the brain and inflame the brain. Other autoimmune disorders, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune process attacking your thyroid gland or inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease, are other risk factors for brain inflammation.

Microglia and Brain Inflammation

Brain inflammation is mediated by a couple of things. One are the chemicals we have already discussed that travel across from your blood stream into your brain. The other are what are called microglial cells. These are cells that surround your normal neurons in the brain. They are important for the normal health of your brain. One of their important roles is as the brain garbage collectors. They collect debris that accumulates during the day from your brain function, beta-amyloid, which can accumulate and seems to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other cellular debris, and dead neurons, or nerve cells. The microglia play a very important role in normal brain function, but if they are activated abnormally, they will continue to carry on these processes to a degree that’s then harmful for your brain.

Initially, with microglial activation, you’ll see slower brain speed, so it takes longer to accomplish tasks. Eventually, there will be decreased brain energy. That’s when you start to notice that your brain fatigues more easily. Eventually, the microglia will start killing your brain cells–the neurons. That is the furthest extreme in microglial activation.

What Causes Brain Inflammation?

What are some of the predisposing factors to having this happen? I already mentioned one of them – diabetes. Also, I mentioned head trauma which sets off a cascade of inflammatory chemicals. There can be inflammation due to dietary factors such as gluten in people who are gluten intolerant and airy products, which are inflammatory components of our diet. Alcohol and drug abuse are toxic influences on the brain that due damage partly because of inflammation. Also, environmental pollutants are causes of brain inflammation—harmful chemicals in our health and beauty aids, pesticides in food, environmental toxins from gasoline and dry cleaning fluids as well as flame retardants in our furniture. Stress will also cause activation of the brain’s immune system.

The Solution

So, what is the solution? For one thing, you want to remove as many environmental toxins as possible. Eat organic whenever possible. Be sure that your health and beauty aids are natural and don’t contain a lot of toxic chemicals. Eat a variety of vegetables which have antioxidants and play a really important role in reducing brain and body inflammation. Remove the foods that are inflammatory producing, whether it’s gluten or dairy, and we recommend, if you’re having a brain problem, that you remove both of those.

There are supplements that are helpful for quenching the fires of inflammation. Certainly, curcumin, which is derived from turmeric, is well-known. It has been shown in scientific studies that people in India who use a lot of tumeric in cooking have much lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease than those of us in western societies. Other beneficial supplements are Vitamin D and also fish oil. Stress reduction strategies such as meditation, prayer, massage and yoga help to reset your stressed-out body chemistry and reduce inflammation.

Until next time—make a plan and try to implement some of these suggestions everyday. Your brain will thank you for it.

Author Dr. Susan Sklar

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