Brain Inflammation: Symptoms, Causes, How to Reduce It

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Chronic brain inflammation is 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 is complete.

But trouble starts 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 stops being helpful.

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.”

Chronic inflammation is not innocuous — it’s been dubbed “a silent killer” since it’s a major cause of death and disease. (1)

Inflammation plays a role in at least 8 of the top 10 leading causes of death. 

If chronic inflammation establishes itself in the brain, it leads to measurable brain shrinkage, especially in the areas associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the 6th leading cause of death. (2, 3, 4)

Chronic brain inflammation shuts down energy production in brain cells, leading to mental fatigue, brain fog, and memory loss. (5)

" There’s a growing body of evidence that chronic brain inflammation is an underlying cause of depression.

Chronic brain inflammation has been linked to numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. (6, 7)

Encephalitis: Acute Inflammation of the Brain

Encephalitis is a rare form of acute brain inflammation that is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

Symptoms come on suddenly and can include fever, headache, seizures, stiff neck and back, and mental confusion.

Encephalitis can be quite serious and, in extreme cases, can cause brain damage and even death.

If you experience the symptoms of acute brain inflammation, contact your health care provider immediately!

(Note that, throughout the rest of this article, we discuss chronic rather than acute brain inflammation.)

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Brain Inflammation: A Surprising Cause of Depression

The medical community largely presumes that depression is caused by low levels of so-called feel-good brain chemicals, usually serotonin and sometimes dopamine.

But this is only a theory — albeit a very widely held one.

Millions of people have been prescribed antidepressants based on this brain chemical deficiency (or neurotransmitter imbalance) model of depression.

However, these drugs work for less than half of those who take them, making them no more effective than a placebo.

And now, there’s a growing body of evidence that chronic brain inflammation is an underlying cause of depression. (8, 9)

This is called the cytokine model of depression.

This theory is not new, but it’s been overshadowed by the brain chemical deficiency theory of depression.

Cytokines are immune system messengers.

Some down-regulate inflammation, while others fuel it.

It’s been known for years that inflammatory cytokines activate inflammation in the brain, destroying tissue and altering brain function. (10)

Cytokine activity contributes to: (11, 12)

  • severe lethargy
  • impaired memory and attention
  • slowed responses
  • anorexia
  • lack of interest
  • irritability
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • memory loss
  • lack of focus
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • increased risk of suicide

It’s always been assumed that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most popular antidepressant medications, work by increasing serotonin levels.

But now there’s evidence that they may be anti-inflammatory.

Ironically, it may be their anti-inflammatory properties — and not their ability to increase serotonin — that’s the real reason these drugs work. (13, 14)

How the Brain’s Immune System Triggers Inflammation

It’s a little-known fact that the brain has its own immune system.

Microglia, immune cells in the brain, are the central nervous system’s first and main line of defense.

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.

At least 50% of the cells in the brain are microglia cells, indicating how important they are. (15)

Once a microglia cell is activated, it creates inflammation for the rest of its lifespan.

These cells have no off switch.

Additionally, they cause a domino effect of further inflammation by stimulating other microglia to become active.

Root Causes of Brain Inflammation

According to Harvard researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, 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 seek to keep foreign substances out of the brain.

But this barrier can become damaged, making it permeable or “leaky.”

This allows toxins and pathogens to enter the brain, 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.

According to Dr. Kharrazian, here are some of the risk factors that can activate microglia to produce brain inflammation:

  • asthma
  • chronic stress
  • compromised blood-brain barrier
  • diabetes
  • digestive disorders
  • dysbiosis
  • environmental toxins
  • gluten intolerance
  • head trauma
  • heart disease
  • high carbohydrate diet
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • substance abuse
  • systemic inflammation
  • vitamin B deficiency
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How to Control Brain Inflammation With Food

Chronic 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.

The foods you eat can either increase or decrease inflammation.

Here’s how to eat more anti-inflammatory foods and minimize pro-inflammatory ones.

Follow the Anti-Inflammatory Mediterranean Diet

If you want to reduce chronic inflammation, you can’t go wrong following a Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean way of eating is widely considered the healthiest of all, in part because it’s high in flavonoids, anti-inflammatory compounds found in plants.

Fortunately, adding more flavonoids to your diet is not a hardship.

They are found in abundance in some of the world’s favorite foods and beverages, such as chocolate, berries, tea, coffee, and red wine. (16)

Dr. Andrew Weil, world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, has created this anti-inflammatory food pyramid to visualize what to eat to reduce chronic inflammation.

anti-inflammatory food pyramid
The anti-inflammatory food diet pyramid. (Image courtesy of DrWeil.com)

Emphasize Anti-Inflammatory Oils

One of the simplest dietary changes you can make is to:

  • increase foods that contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) and
  • reduce foods that contain pro-inflammatory omega-6 EFAs

The best sources of omega-3s are cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.

Omega-3s are the main reason that fish are considered a top “brain food.”

Stick with eating wild-caught fish rather than farm-raised.

Farm-raised fish contain more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats and more contaminants. (17)

Also choose grass-fed and pasture-fed meat, poultry, and eggs over grain-fed since these contain more omega-3 fats and fewer inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than their mass-produced counterparts. (18, 19)

The primary source of omega-6s in the diet are vegetable oils such as canola, soy, corn, and safflower oil. 

These oils are ubiquitous in processed foods, baked goods, and snack items, even those from health food stores.

When preparing food at home, use extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil which contain anti-inflammatory components. (20, 21)

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Minimize Processed Carbohydrates

The naturally occurring carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables are not a problem and these foods contain many compounds known to be anti-inflammatory. (22)

But the same can’t be said of white sugar and wheat flour which have been stripped of nutrients.

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. (23)

Chronic high blood glucose levels are linked to Alzheimer’s disease which some experts believe is a third form of diabetes, ie, diabetes of the brain. (24)

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.

Surprisingly, the glycemic index score of wheat, even whole wheat, is as high as that of white sugar. (25)

Two slices of whole wheat toast can raise your blood sugar as much as eating a Snickers candy bar! (26)

Drink Green Tea and Red Wine

All true teas (Camellia sinensis) are anti-inflammatory, but green tea is a standout because it’s highest in a unique anti-inflammatory compound known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). (27)

Additionally, EGCG readily passes through the blood-brain barrier to protect brain cells from damage and stimulate the formation of new brain cells.  

Red wine consumed in moderation is an important part of the Mediterranean diet.

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. (28)

Uses Herbs and Spices Liberally

Virtually all herbs and spices are anti-inflammatory, so be sure to include plenty of them in your diet. (29)

Ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, and rosemary are among the best for improving brain health and function.

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9 Supplements That Reduce Brain Inflammation

You may be able to turn the tide of chronic inflammation with diet alone, but there are some excellent natural anti-inflammatory supplements that can help jumpstart and speed up your efforts.

All supplements mentioned here have a dual purpose: they are both anti-inflammatory and offer significant brain-boosting properties as well.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is one of the most popular supplements for reducing inflammation due to its high omega-3 fat content.

Fish oil supplementation has an impressive record for improving brain health and functions of all kinds — mood, cognition, and mental well-being. (30, 31)

Curcumin

Curcumin is a compound mainly found in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

It’s a natural antidepressant that has been found to work as well as Prozac. (32)

Besides being anti-inflammatory, curcumin has natural antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer properties.

Acetyl l-Carnitine

Acetyl l-carnitine is an anti-inflammatory amino acid supplement that is a more bioavailable form of l-carnitine. (33)

It has strong anti-aging effects on the brain and can improve mental clarity, alertness, processing speed, focus, mood, and memory. (34)

Vinpocetine

Vinpocetine is an anti-inflammatory 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. (35)

Asian Ginseng

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is an ancient herb that’s been used for thousands of years to increase physical stamina, improve mood, enhance libido, and promote longevity.

It’s also useful for treating both anxiety and depression. (36)

One of the ways it works is by reducing inflammatory cytokines. 

Bacopa

Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is a foundational herbal remedy in the ancient healing traditions of both China and India.

It’s highly prized as a brain tonic that reduces stress and anxiety, boosts mental energy and clarity, and protects the brain from aging by calming chronic inflammation. (37)

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral required in over 600 metabolic functions, but it’s often lacking, even in healthy diets. (38)

It’s well-regarded as a natural anti-anxiety and antidepressant supplement.

Low magnesium is linked to high levels of pro-inflammatory markers in humans. (39)

Lion’s Mane Mushroom

You can eat lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) if you can find it, but most often it’s taken as a supplement.

Of the 70 bioactive compounds found in lion’s mane, one in particular, amycenone, is an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. (40)

A single dose of amycenone significantly reduces pro-inflammatory proteins.

It’s thought that amycenone is also responsible for lion’s mane’s antidepressant properties.

Magnolia Bark

Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a traditional Chinese herb that’s helpful for stress relief, anxiety, and depression. (41)

It protects the brain from inflammation and oxidation.

Magnolia bark is a supplement to consider if you have reason to believe you are low in the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Lessen Brain Inflammation With a Healthy Lifestyle

Besides food and supplements, there are many healthy lifestyle habits that can reduce inflammation.

Sleep

Aim for getting 8 hours of restorative sleep every night.

Less than this can increase inflammation. (42)

Less Artificial Light

Reduce your exposure to artificial light in the evening.

This will help you sleep better by enabling your body to produce melatonin.

Melatonin

Melatonin is best known as the body’s natural sleep hormone.

But it is also potently anti-inflammatory and is especially protective for the brain.

Exercise

Getting 20-30 minutes of physical exercise per day reduces inflammation. (43)

Interestingly, moderate exercise is preferable, since strenuous exercise can increase inflammation.

Stress Reduction

Take active measures to reduce stress which increases inflammatory cytokines. (44)

Starting a yoga practice has been found to reduce stress and inflammation in as little as 10 days. (45)

Meditation

Of all the stress reduction techniques, mindfulness meditation has substantial evidence for its anti-inflammatory effects.

It has even been shown to alter the expression of genes, further reducing inflammatory activity. (46, 47)

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in your body.

One of its many functions is to act as an on-off switch for inflammation.

You can strengthen the function of your vagus nerve with various mind-body activities such as singing, meditation, yoga, prayer, and cold showers.

Cultivate Awe (really!)

And finally, bring more awe into your life.

Experiencing awe reduces levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (48)

Be amazed by the beauty of nature, the creation of art, or whatever else inspires a feeling of connection and wonder within you.

Brain Inflammation: Take the Next Step

Inflammation is a necessary response to injury and pathogens, but it can get out of control and become chronic.

Chronic inflammation can occur anywhere in the body, including the brain.

Chronic brain inflammation may be a factor in, or cause of, a long list of brain-related health problems, including depression.

Adopting anti-inflammatory lifestyle habits, such as making positive changes in your nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress level, will help turn off the inflammation response in your brain.

Another step, taking specific supplements, can also help.

Experiment with various combinations of the anti-inflammatory supplements discussed above.

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