Have you ever asked yourself, what the hell is wrong with my brain, and why is it not working at this critical moment when I really need it? Brain fog, a complete lack of focus and mental clarity, is just one example of what can happen when your brain is not working the way it should. If you have ever experienced any of the following symptoms, chances are they are caused by your brain not working right.
Over the years I had quite a few of these symptoms and they affected my performance at work and the quality of my life. And I had no idea why. I would see my general practitioner and he chalked it up to getting older and working too hard. That didn’t seem right to me. I was eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease and this explained my symptoms. But you don’t need to have Lyme disease to have any of these symptoms.
What I learned later from working with Functional medicine doctors is that Lyme disease compromised my immune system and my body accumulated many toxins over the years. This put my body in a constant state of stress causing me to be chronically inflamed. This inflammation affected my hormones, which affected my brain’s neurotransmitters and caused these symptoms.
What I’m going to tell you today is what I learned from working with Functional medicine doctors. I specifically chose to use Functional medicine to get better because it addresses the underlying cause of a symptom as opposed to just treating the symptom itself, which is the approach of modern medicine today.
And for the record, I’m not against modern medicine. There have been amazing advances in medicine and there are some amazing life saving drugs available today. I just didn’t want to be on meds for the rest of my life. If I ever break a bone again (I’ve broken 5), I will certainly let modern medicine deal with that.
What causes brain inflammation? The three main causes are:
- Stress – from your job, a bad relationship, going through a divorce, a death in the family, or having a new baby
- Diet – processed foods and sugar, blood sugar imbalances (causes hormonal imbalances), nutrient deficiencies, allergies (gluten and dairy are the main culprits)
- Toxins – Neurotoxins – heavy metals (mercury, aluminum, lead), MSG, pesticides, chemicals, EMFs
When we are stressed our body produces chemical messengers called cytokines to stimulate the release of cortisol, a stress hormone produced in the adrenal glands. This is a good thing in small amounts like if we cut our finger and are exposed to harmful bacteria. Our immune system creates just enough inflammation to deal with the bacterial invader and we don’t get an infection.
When our body is chronically stressed we get too much inflammation and this is a bad thing. Too much stress leads to too much cortisol, which can actually damage neurons in the hippocampus in our brain. Our body also uses the same precursors to make cytokines that it uses to make neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters transmit signals across our brain and body. So the more inflammation you have the less chemicals you have to make neurotransmitters for your brain and this is the cause of depression, fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, etc.
The more stressed you are the more you need these chemicals and now your capacity to produce them is diminished.
When we have an imbalance in our neurotransmitters we run into problems.
- Dopamine: this is a hormone and neurotransmitter that triggers our pleasure pathways and is responsible for inspiration, motivation, intuition, enthusiasm, and joy. It’s highly addictive. For example, checking your facebook to see if you have any new ‘likes’ or hearing the ding of a new text message, causes the release of dopamine. Not enough dopamine can destroy our motivation, sex drive, cause depression, poor circulation, addictions, and ADD/ADHD. It is the chemical of reward and without it we lose our drive for accomplishment. Too much dopamine can cause aggression, anxiety, paranoia, and withdrawal from social situations.
- Serotonin: this is a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize our mood. Too little can cause moodiness, cravings for sugar and starch, sleep/fatigue issues, depression, anxiety, migraines, GI problems, sex hormone imbalance, memory problems, and cognitive issues. Serotonin is depleted from too much cortisol. Antidepressants act to boost serotonin in the brain. Too much serotonin can cause nausea, agitation, restlessness, and increased blood pressure.
- Epinephrine (Adrenaline): this is a hormone and neurotransmitter that relaxes airway muscles, constricts blood vessels, and increases heart rate in response to stress. When elevated this can cause anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and ADD/ADHD and when low can cause depression, fatigue, poor concentration, and difficulty losing weight.
- Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline): this is a hormone and neurotransmitter that relaxes airway muscles, constricts blood vessels, and increases heart rate in response to stress(the main difference is epinephrine acts in the body and norepinephrine acts in the brain). When elevated this can cause anxiety, insomnia, and ADD/ADHD and when low this can cause depression, low energy and poor focus.
So stress causes cortisol to rise, this gives us a surge in catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine), and then our levels of serotonin drop. Then our sex hormones start to drop, and our brain gets totally fried. The end result of all of this is we’re exhausted, we don’t have a great sex drive, our memory is not as great as it should be, we have brain fog, and we end up with depression and anxiety.
So here are 4 steps that you can take to fix your brain. Each step includes herbal and nutrient recommendations to support these areas. You can take supplements to augment the nutrients however make sure you eat the food source as well. Nutrients are better assimilated from food so I have included foods that are high in the specified nutrients. When you first start doing these steps it’s not a bad idea to use supplements kick start the process and once you are feeling better you can rely on food more.
Step 1: Reduce Stress – this will be the biggest step for most of us. Reducing and managing stress does wonders for your health.
What Too Much Cortisol Does
- Lowers serotonin
- Raises catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine)
- Damages the hippocampus, affecting memory and focus
- Depletes sex hormones leading to low libido
- Exercise – walking is best and try for 30 minutes a day, outside when possible
- Try meditation and/or yoga
- Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals can affect blood sugar leading to hormonal imbalance
- Don’t eat after 7 for a better nights rest
- End unhealthy relationships (romantic, career, friends)
- Good sleep – this is really important to help heal your brain
Herbs and Nutrients to Support Neurotransmitter Development and Healthy Cortisol Levels
Adaptogenic herbs: ginseng, ashwaganda, rhodiola, eleuthero, and licorice. These are named for their ability to adapt their function to our body’s specific needs. Adaptogenic herbs support our body’s response to stress and enhance its ability to deal with anxiety and fatigue sans the crash that we get from coffee and sugar.
Nutrients and Supporting Foods:
- Vitamin C (foods – bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, oranges, lemons, limes, and cauliflower)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) (foods – shiitake mushrooms, avocado, sweet potato, and lentils)
- Vitamin B6 (pyroxidine) (foods – tuna, turkey, beef, salmon, sweet potato, and spinach)
- Tyrosine (foods – spirulina, soy protein, egg whites, salmon, turkey, shrimp, and mustard greens)
- Magnesium (foods – pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard, soybeans, sesame seeds, quinoa, and cashews)
- B-Supreme – a great supplement to cover all of your B vitamin needs
- Adrenotone – has Vitamin C, B2, B5, B6, and the adaptogenic herbs listed above
Step 2: Heal the Gut
Leaky Gut – Many of us have Leaky Gut and do not even know it. Leaky Gut causes permeability in our gut allowing bacteria and other toxins to enter our bloodstream
- Gluten and dairy – these are very addictive! When we digest gluten from wheat and dairy, gluteomorphins and casomorphins are formed which are morphine like substances. These opiates from wheat and dairy are absorbed in the gut causing inflammation and find their way to the brain causing inflammation. Wheat and dairy make up 75% of the average American’s diet. Many people have trouble digesting wheat and dairy and both are major contributors to the dreaded food coma.
- Medications – Antibiotics, NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – ibuprofen, celebrex, diclofenac, naproxen, aspirin)
- Lifestyle – chronic stress, excessive alcohol, environmental toxins
- Gastrointestinal (GI) bugs – these include disbiosis, parasites, candida, and h-pylori. These are trickier to deal with and may require the support of a doctor to remove.
Your Gut Is Your Second Brain! It has its own nervous system (enteric nervous system) and 80% of our immune system is located in our gut. The gut makes dopamine and serotonin just like our brain so when our gut is off our health is off and we get an inflamed brain.
To heal the gut:
- Remove: processed food, sugar, allergens – gluten, dairy, soy, and corn; GMOs (glyphosate destroys the gut); stress, and environmental toxins. Learn to manage stress. You may need to remove bad bugs – disbiosis, parasites, h. pylori, and candida.
- Replace: if you are having trouble breaking down food add digestive enzymes or herbal bitters to your diet. For low stomach acid try Betaine HCL or add some apple cider vinegar to your food
- Re-introduce: add fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, kefir, kimchi, Kevita, kombucha, and miso soup to your diet. Avoid most yogurts because they are high in sugar, negating the positive effects. You can also take probiotics. These will populate your gut with good bacteria that allow you to break down food and utilize nutrients to make serotonin and dopamine.
- Repair: use the gut healthy nutrients and supporting foods mentioned below.
Nutrients and Supporting Foods:
- Fish oil – seafood is best – wild fish like salmon and sardines and shellfish like oysters and shrimp
- Curcumin is probably the top herb to help heal your gut. You can also cook with turmeric (curcumin is a derivative of turmeric). To increase efficacy of turmeric/curcumin consume with healthy fat and black pepper.
- Glutamine – an amino acid and is critical to our gut lining (foods – grass fed beef, pastured eggs, grass-fed butter, and red cabbage)
- Onions and garlic – both high in inulin and fructans and these help re-establish your gut flora
- Herbs – use plenty oregano, rosemary, and basil, which are anti-inflammatory and are high in polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants and reduce oxidative stress.
- Bone broth, collagen, coconut oil, and grass fed butter (I use Kerry Gold, available at most grocery tores) are all good to heal the gut lining as well
Supplement: Probiophage DF by Designs for Health is an excellent probiotic
Step three: Get Rid of Toxins
Where do these toxins come from?
- Breathing polluted air (highways, factories)
- Drinking chlorinated and/or fluorinated water
- Eating food sprayed with pesticides & herbicides, GMOs
- Fake fats – corn oil, vegetable oil, soy oil, canola oil, hydrogenated fats
- Personal care products – many contain phthalates and other endocrine (hormone) disruptors
- In your home – VOCs in carpets and from laser printer chemicals, BPA from plastics, mothballs, (paradichlorobenzene), pressed wood products (urea-formaldehyde resin), lead paint in older homes; air fresheners and cleaning solutions ( ethylene-based glycol ethers, terpenes), flame retardants – we can’t smell or see many of these
- Heavy metals – mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic
- EMFs – we are all inundated with EMFs from electric fields (electric wiring, appliances, power outlets), magnetic fields (your power meter, imbalances in electrical wiring, electric clock radios), power lines, wireless communications (cell phones, tablets, cell towers, wifi, cordless phones, bluetooth devices, smart meters), and Blue Light (smart phones, tablets, computers, TVs, e-readers, energy efficient lights). I get it…this is a very inconvenient truth but the very same technology that makes our lives so much better does have a big impact on our health in a negative way.
We are all exposed to toxins so we need to do our best to minimize our exposure.
Simple Detox Steps
- Avoid when possible by: Drink filtered water; eat organic food (check out the dirty dozen and clean 15 on EWG); choose natural, chemical free personal care and cleaning products
- The best and cheapest way to detox is to sweat it out. 80% of the toxins that we are exposed to are flushed out of our body in 3 weeks. So spend some time outside when it’s hot doing some physical activity or hit the sauna after your workout at the gym and then hydrate well with good water. This will improve functioning of your main organs (digestion, liver, skin)
- Eat Antioxidants Rich Food – vitamin C, greens, beets, turmeric/Curcumin, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables all support detoxification
- Mercury – Neurologically, this can make you depressed, cause anxiety, make you hyperactive, or give you chronic fatigue. If you have been exposed I recommend working with a professional to get it out of your body
- EMF’s – turn off your wifi at night, remove electronics from your bedroom, don’t sleep with your phone by your head and better yet put in airplane mode at night, wear blue blocker glasses at night to reduce blue light exposure and get a better night’s sleep
Step four: Reduce Brain Inflammation
Now that we have reduced stress, healed our gut, and detoxed, let’s take a few additional actions to reduce brain inflammation.
Herbs and Nutrients to Reduce Brain Inflammation
- Curcumin in addition to helping heal the gut and aid detoxification, curcumin reduces inflammation in the brain
- Vitamin D (food – salmon, sardines), 15 minutes of sun a day in shorts and t-shirt
- Fish oil (seafood is best – wild fish, oysters, shrimp) is very supportive of reducing inflammation in the brain.
- Other healthy fats to eat in addition to fish: avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, grass fed butter, ghee
- Vitamin B6 (pyroxidine) (foods – tuna, turkey, beef, salmon, sweet potato, and spinach) is very important for detox, brain chemical production, and hormone production
So there you have it. Four steps to take to fix your brain. If you haven’t done any of these recommendations don’t try to take them all on at once. You don’t want to get overwhelmed and end up not doing anything. Do a step or two, get comfortable with it, and move to additional steps. Just learning how to manage stress on a consistent basis will make a big difference to your health.
Many people will see a huge improvement just from following these four steps. If you make these changes and don’t see improvement after 3-4 months you may need the help of a functional medicine doctor. They can run some tests and get to the bottom of it. Possible factors that would require the support of a doctor are mercury toxicity or a GI infection like candida, parasites, or h. pylori.
These four steps are the main things I support my clients with. I teach them to make these a part of their lives and eventually they become habits. If you would like support in implementing any of these steps schedule a time to speak with me on how I can help you on your journey to optimal health.