Chronic brain inflammation may be linked to depression and other cognitive and mental health problems. Specific anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes can help.
Inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against infection and injury.
This process normally shuts down after healing occurs.
But trouble can arise when the inflammation process gets stuck “on” and doesn’t know when to stop.
Then inflammation can turn on your body, attacking healthy cells, blood vessels, and tissues instead of protecting them.
This is called chronic or systemic inflammation.
You can develop chronic inflammation anywhere in the body — including the brain.
Unlike the inflammation of an injury or arthritis, brain inflammation doesn’t cause pain since the brain has no pain receptors.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not there, causing hidden damage to your most vital organ.
Symptoms of Chronic Brain Inflammation
While acute inflammation is triggered by injury or pathogens, chronic inflammation is largely caused by unhealthy lifestyle habits that continue to fuel the inflammation response long after it stopped being helpful in healing.
Chronic inflammation can lead to all sorts of seemingly unrelated problems including allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, chronic infections, colitis, dermatitis, sinusitis, arthritis, and any other health condition that ends in “itis.”
It’s been dubbed a silent killer since it contributes to seven of the top ten leading causes of death. (1)
Inflammation shuts down energy production in brain cells, causing mental fatigue and slowing down the firing of neurons.
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This can lead to symptoms such as brain fog, lack of mental clarity, ADHD, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and slow mental processing as well as serious neurological diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s. (2)
There’s a growing body of evidence that it also causes depression.
Some experts believe depression may not be a disease, but rather a symptom of inflammation.
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Chronic Inflammation: A Surprising Cause of Depression
The medical community largely believes that depression is caused by low levels of “feel good” brain chemicals, usually serotonin and sometimes dopamine.
But this is only a theory — albeit a very widely held one!
Millions of people are prescribed antidepressants based on this brain chemical model of depression.
However, they work in less than half of those who take them making them no more effective than a placebo.
There’s another theory that purports that brain inflammation is the root cause of depression.
This is called the cytokine model of depression.
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This theory is not new but it’s been overshadowed by the neurotransmitter imbalance theory of depression.
Cytokines are immune system messengers.
Some damp down inflammation while others fuel it.
It’s been known since the 1980s that inflammatory cytokines activate inflammation in the brain, destroying tissue and altering brain function. (3)
They contribute to severe lethargy, impaired memory and attention, slowed responses, anorexia, lack of interest, irritability, depression, anxiety, memory loss, inability to focus, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and increased risk of suicide. (4, 5, 6)
The most popular antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are thought to work by increasing serotonin levels, but there’s evidence that they may be anti-inflammatory.
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Your Brain’s Immune System
A little-known fact about the brain is that it has its own immune system.
Microglia are immune cells in the brain that are your central nervous system’s first and main line of defense. (9)
Their job is to protect the brain and spinal cord from pathogens and to clear away metabolic debris, such as the beta amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
By weight, the brain is comprised of 50% microglia cells.
Once a microglia cell is activated, it creates inflammation for the rest of its lifespan.
These cells have no “on” or “off” switch.
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Additionally, they cause a domino effect of further inflammation by stimulating other microglia to become active.
There are many health and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of activating your microglia to produce brain inflammation:
- high carbohydrate diet
- lack of exercise
- chronic stress
- heart disease
- head trauma
- gluten (for those with gluten sensitivity)
- substance abuse
- exposure to environmental toxins
- exposure to perfumes and other inhalant chemicals
- digestive disorders
- vitamin B deficiency
- systemic inflammation
- compromised blood-brain barrier
According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, a compromised blood-brain barrier is one of the greatest risk factors for brain inflammation.
The blood-brain barrier is a finely woven mesh of specialized cells and blood vessels that’s there to keep foreign substances out of the brain.
But it can become damaged which makes it “leaky.”
This allows toxins and pathogens to enter which in turn activates the microglia to produce inflammation.
This barrier permeability also allows inflammation that originates elsewhere in the body to enter the brain and start the inflammation response there.
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Natural Ways to Control Brain Inflammation
Inflammation is not an all-or-nothing state, but a continuum.
You won’t be able to get rid of all inflammation nor should you even try since some inflammatory activity is essential.
But you do want to minimize inflammation once it’s gotten out of control and its effects have become counterproductive.
Here are the best natural ways to get chronic inflammation under control.
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The foods you eat can either increase or decrease inflammation.
Here’s how to eat more anti-inflammatory foods and minimize pro-inflammatory ones.
Give Your Brain an Oil Change
One of the simplest dietary changes you can make is cutting back on pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils such as canola, soy, corn, and safflower oil. (10)
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Increase anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids by eating cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.
Stick with wild-caught fish which have more omega-3 fats than farm-raised. (13)
Also choose grass-fed and pasture-fed meat, poultry, and eggs over grain-fed as these contain more omega-3 fats and fewer inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than their mass-produced counterparts. (14)
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Eliminate Processed Carbohydrates That Contain Sugar and Wheat
White sugar consumption not only increases brain inflammation, it interferes with brain cell communication, slows thinking, and eventually causes damage and death to brain cells. (15)
Chronic high blood glucose levels are linked to Alzheimer’s which some experts believe is a type of diabetes of the brain. (16)
Instead of sugar, use honey in moderation since it is anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral, and antiseptic.
And unlike white sugar, it contains some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (17)
Wheat products in your diet may harm your brain in a couple of ways.
If you are among the millions with a gluten sensitivity, eliminating wheat is essential to reduce inflammation in both your gut and your brain.
But even if you think you have no problem with gluten, you should still minimize wheat consumption.
Here’s why. It may surprise you to know that the glycemic index score of wheat, even whole wheat, is as high as that of white sugar. (18)
Two slices of whole wheat toast raise your blood sugar levels as much as eating a Snickers candy bar. (19)
Remember that there is nothing “whole grain” about whole wheat unless you are eating unprocessed wheat berries.
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Eat and Drink Anti-Inflammatory Flavonols
Flavonols are a group of anti-inflammatory compounds found in plants.
Fortunately, adding more flavonols to your diet will not be a hardship!
They are found in abundance in some of the world’s favorite foods and beverages — chocolate, berries, tea, coffee, beer, and wine. (20)
Teas of all kinds are anti-inflammatory but green tea is a standout since it’s high in a unique anti-inflammatory compound known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). (21)
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EGCG readily passes through the blood-brain barrier to protect brain cells from damage.
An even better source of EGCG is green tea’s “cousin,” matcha tea.
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Red wine is an important part of the Mediterranean diet which may be the healthiest diet of all.
Red wine is protective against chronic inflammation, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Its health benefits are largely attributed to resveratrol, a polyphenol that shows promise for promoting heart health, brain health, and longevity. (22)
Virtually all spices and herbs are anti-inflammatory so be sure to include plenty of them in your diet. (23)
Ginger, turmeric, and rosemary are among the best for improving brain health and function.
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Take Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
You may not be able to turn the tide of inflammation with diet alone, but fortunately there are several excellent natural anti-inflammatory supplements that can help.
Here are a few that have significant brain-boosting properties as well.
Due to its omega-3 content, fish oil is one of the most popular supplements for calming the fire of inflammation.
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Krill oil may be a superior option to fish oil.
It comes from small crustaceans that also contain astaxanthin, one of the most potent known antioxidants. (26)
Curcumin is a compound mainly found in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).
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Besides being anti-inflammatory, curcumin has natural antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer properties. (27)
Acetyl l-carnitine is a more bioavailable form of the amino acid l-carnitine.
It has strong anti-aging effects on the brain and can improve mental clarity, alertness, processing speed, focus, mood, and memory. (28)
Vinpocetine is a synthetic compound derived from the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor).
It increases blood flow to the brain and balances neurotransmitters to improve memory, overcome brain fog, increase mental clarity, and protect the brain against aging. (29)
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It’s also useful for treating both anxiety and depression. (31)
Other Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Adjustments
Besides food and supplements, there are many aspects of a healthy lifestyle that can reduce inflammation.
Getting adequate sleep can keep chronic inflammation at bay. (32)
Reducing exposure to artificial light in the evening will help you sleep better by enabling your body to produce melatonin.
Melatonin is best known as the body’s natural sleep hormone, but it’s also a potent anti-inflammatory that is especially protective of the brain.
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Getting 20-30 minutes per day of physical exercise reduces inflammation. (33)
Interestingly, moderate exercise is actually better than strenuous exercise which can increase inflammation.
Stress increases inflammatory cytokines. (34)
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Of all the stress reduction techniques, mindfulness meditation has science to back up its anti-inflammatory effects.
Brain Inflammation: The Bottom Line
Inflammation is a necessary response to injury and pathogens but can get out of control, becoming chronic.
Chronic inflammation can occur anywhere in the body including the brain.
Chronic brain inflammation may be responsible for a host of brain-related problems including depression.
Adopting a healthy anti-inflammatory lifestyle — making positive changes in diet and supplementation, sleep, exercise, and stress levels — will help turn off the inflammation response in the brain.