You may have heard how important it is to heal a leaky gut, but it's just as important to address permeable blood-brain barrier, or a "leaky brain." Linked to a variety of chronic health issues, leaky brain is a surprisingly common problem that can be addressed with proper anti-inflammatory dietary and lifestyle modifications.
The protective barrier you never knew you had
The blood-brain barrier is a protective layer in the circulatory system of your brain, serving to filter and block harmful substances while allowing beneficial nutrients to pass into the brain and cellular debris to pass out.
However, certain circumstances can break down the blood-brain barrier and cause it to become hyper-permeable, or "leaky."
When unwanted substances enter the brain, they can cause brain inflammation linked to conditions such as:
- Brain fog
- Headaches and migraines
- Cognitive impairment
- Parkinson's disease
Schizophrenia and other psychological disorders
What causes a leaky brain?
More and more functional medicine patients are becoming familiar with leaky gut. If you have leaky gut, chances are you have leaky brain too as similar mechanisms cause it.
Leaky gut and leaky brain frequently occur together as their root causes are similar:
- Chronic stress
- Systemic inflammation
- Poor diet and antioxidant status
- Head trauma
- Elevated glucose and diabetes
- Elevated homocysteine from B vitamin deficiency
- Environmental toxins
- Heavy metals
- Autoimmune disease
- Oxidative stress
- Food additives
- Sleep issues
- Chronic infections
- Excess alcohol consumption
If you have any of the symptoms of leaky brain and this list of causes rings some bells, then it's worth looking into how to support the health of your blood-brain barrier.
How to support a healthy blood-brain barrier
While the number of leaky brain causes and symptoms may seem daunting, the good news is the brain is very receptive to simple healing protocols. There are a number of things you can do to help heal a leaky blood-brain barrier:
Heal your leaky gut. Leaky brain and leaky gut happen for the same reasons. A focused healing protocol for leaky gut often resolves symptoms of leaky brain.
The gut and brain are intimately connected via the "gut-brain axis," a two-way communication pathway along the vagus nerve, which leads from the base of the brain to all the major organs.
When either the brain or gut is out of order, it can affect the function of the other. Therefore, it's important to support your digestive health.
You can help support your gut health through the following:
- Eat plentiful and varied vegetables (and just a bit of fruit) to give healthy bacteria in your gut the fiber they need.
- Supplement with a high-quality probiotic.
- Consume fermented foods such as kimchee, kombucha, and water kefir to support a healthy gut environment.
Avoid gluten. Gluten is highly inflammatory and one of the worst foods for the brain (and the gut):
- It elevates zonulin, the protein your body produces to increase barrier permeability.
- Many studies confirm that gluten leads to the neuroinflammation behind many psychiatric problems.
- Gluten sensitivity can also result in negative changes to white matter in the brain associated with neurologic disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
If you aren't convinced, try following a gluten-free diet for 30 days and see how you feel. Caution: Gluten is hidden in many foods, so make sure you understand everything on food labels.
Avoid reactive foods. The inflammation from food sensitivities can cause leaky blood-brain barrier. To find out if you react to certain foods, ask our office about food sensitivity testing or an elimination-reintroduction diet.
Sleep. Deep sleep is one of the most important factors for brain health. Sleep deprivation is linked with impaired blood-brain barrier function and permeability.
To maximize your sleep, incorporate the following daily habits:
- Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Avoid blue screens in the hour before bed.
- Use blue-blocker glasses later in the evening.
- If you must use a screen at night, install the F.lux app.
- If you suffer from blood sugar instability, have a small high-protein snack just before bed.
Manage stress. Chronic stress is one of the greatest enemies to your brain health. Stress degrades the blood-brain barrier and can cause brain inflammation.
To help manage your stress load:
- Take an honest look at your stress factors, such as a toxic friendship, a negative job, worrying too much, a bad marriage, or over-commitment as a volunteer. Decide what you can eliminate or reduce and take immediate steps.
- Support the adrenal glands with adaptogens such as panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng, ashwagandha, holy basil leaf extract, rhodiola, and boerhaavia (punarnava).
- Adopt a daily stress-reduction practice such as yoga, meditation, qi gong, deep breathing, laughter, and play.
Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can weaken and degrade the blood-brain barrier.
Caffeine. Studies show that caffeine can be protective against dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease by keeping the blood-brain barrier intact.
Because caffeine can disrupt sleep function it's important to moderate caffeine consumption and make sure to consume it early in the day.
Note: Some people can't tolerate coffee because it can contain toxic byproducts made by mold called mycotoxins, so take note of how you feel after drinking it.
Avoid environmental mold. Environmental mold and the mycotoxins it produces can reduce the integrity of the blood-brain barrier and cause neurologic damage.
Toxic mold is not always easy to identify, so If you live, work, or study in a building where you suspect mold toxicity, consult with a mold expert to determine if your space is safe.
To help mitigate the effects of mold exposure:
- Move out of the house or find a new job location
- Use a HEPA-grade air purifier
- Support your liver detox pathways
Ask my office about more functional neurology strategies to support your blood-brain barrier health.