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 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 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 contributing factor in 60% of all deaths worldwide. (1)
Chronic brain inflammation shuts down energy production in brain cells, leading to mental fatigue, brain fog, and memory loss.
Chronic brain inflammation has been linked to numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. (5, 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 model of depression.
However, these drugs work for less than half of those who take them, making them no more effective than a placebo.
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This is called the cytokine model of depression.
This theory is not new, but it’s been overshadowed by the neurotransmitter imbalance theory of depression.
Cytokines are immune system messengers.
Some down-regulate 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. (10)
They contribute to severe lethargy, impaired memory and attention, slowed responses, anorexia, lack of interest, irritability, depression, anxiety, memory loss, lack of focus, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and increased risk of suicide. (11, 12)
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.
How the Brain’s Immune System Triggers Inflammation
It’s a little-known fact that the brain 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.
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.
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At least 50% of 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 on-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 which makes it permeable or “leaky.”
This allows toxins and pathogens to enter the brain, in turn activating 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 your microglia to produce brain inflammation:
- chronic stress
- compromised blood-brain barrier
- digestive disorders
- 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 flavonols, anti-inflammatory compounds found in plants.
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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 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 conquer chronic inflammation.
If you aren’t ready to completely upgrade your diet, here are a few of the first steps to start reducing inflammation today.
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 which have more omega-3 fats than farm-raised. (17)
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. (18)
The primary source of omega-6s in the diet are vegetable oils such as canola, soy, corn, and safflower oil. (19)
You may not think you consume much vegetable oil, but when you start reading package labels you may be surprised.
These oils are ubiquitous in processed foods, baked goods, and snack items, even those from the health food store.
Minimize Processed Carbohydrates
The naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not a problem and contain many compounds known to be anti-inflammatory. (22)
But the same can’t be said of white sugar and white 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 diabetes of the brain. (24)
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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.
It may surprise you to know that 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
Teas of all kinds are anti-inflammatory, but green tea is a standout because it’s highest in a unique anti-inflammatory compound known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). (27)
EGCG readily passes through the blood-brain barrier to protect brain cells from damage.
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.
9 Supplements That Reduce Brain Inflammation
You may be able to turn the tide of chronic inflammation with diet alone, but there are several excellent natural anti-inflammatory supplements that can help jumpstart your efforts.
Here’s a list of dual-purpose supplements: they are both anti-inflammatory and offer significant brain-boosting properties as well.
Fish oil is one of the most popular supplements for reducing inflammation due to its high omega-3 fat content.
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Fish Oil for Depression and Mood: A Case for Omega-3 Fats
Curcumin is a compound mainly found in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).
It’s a natural antidepressant and 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 is an amino acid that 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. (33)
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. (34)
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. (35)
It’s also useful for treating both anxiety and depression. (36)
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 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. (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 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: Getting adequate amounts of restorative sleep can help control inflammation. (42)
Less artificial light: Reducing your exposure to artificial light in the evening will help you sleep better by enabling your body to produce melatonin.
Melatonin: Best known as the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin is also a potent anti-inflammatory that is especially protective of the brain.
Exercise: Getting 20-30 minutes per day of physical exercise 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)
Meditation: Of all the stress reduction techniques, mindfulness meditation has substantial evidence for its anti-inflammatory effects.
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.
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Cultivate awe (really!): And finally, get more awe into your life.Be amazed by the beauty of nature, the creation of art, or whatever else inspires a feeling of connection and wonder within you.
Experiencing awe reduces levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (47)
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 a factor in or cause of a long list of brain-related problems, including depression.
Adopting a healthy, anti-inflammatory lifestyle — making positive changes in nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress levels — will help turn off the inflammation response in your brain.