How to Protect Your Brain From Neurotoxicity

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

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There is plenty you can do to safeguard yourself against neurotoxicity by minimizing and offsetting your exposure to toxins that can harm your brain.

Neurotoxicity is the poisoning of the brain and nervous system.

It’s linked to a wide range of neurological symptoms and disorders.

The list of substances, both naturally occurring and man-made, that cause neurotoxicity is a staggeringly long one.

Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to protect your brain by minimizing and offsetting your exposure to toxins that can potentially harm it.

What Is Neurotoxicity?

Toxins that act specifically on nerve cells are known as neurotoxins. (1)

Neurotoxicity refers to the damage that occurs to the brain and central nervous system from toxins.

Some people are more susceptible to neurotoxins than others depending on their general health, the status of their blood-brain barrier, and even their genes.

Neurotoxicity can be chronic, caused by repeated low-level exposure over long periods of time.

It can also be acute — severe and sudden in onset — usually from one exposure over a short period of time.

While neurotoxicity is largely a modern problem, it’s not new.

The Romans were aware that too much lead could cause madness, paralysis, and even death, and yet continued to use it for cookware, drinking cups, and lining aqueducts anyway. (2)

Symptoms of Neurotoxicity

The symptoms of neurotoxicity fall along a continuum that range from temporary, minor, and reversible to chronic, quite serious, and potentially fatal. (3)

Typical physical symptoms of neurotoxicity include:

  • fatigue
  • flu-like symptoms
  • headache
  • impaired motor skills
  • impaired vision
  • memory loss
  • sexual dysfunction
  • tingling, numbness, or weakness of the limbs

Neurotoxicity can also manifest as psychological problems, including:

  • anxiety
  • changes in personality
  • compulsive behaviors
  • depression
  • hallucinations
  • mental confusion

Researchers believe that there may be a link between neurotoxicity and progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as: (4)

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • dementia
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease

Forensic toxicologist Raymond Singer, PhD, reports that other symptoms of neurotoxicity can include: (5)

  • balance and hearing problems
  • migraines
  • panic attacks
  • sleep disorders
  • other psychiatric or neurological symptoms

Note: If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or suspect you have neurotoxicity, contact your doctor immediately.

Causes of Neurotoxicity

Over 80,000 man-made chemicals have been introduced into our environment and less than 20% of them have been tested for safety. (6)

Of those that have been tested, over 1,000 are known to have neurotoxic effects. (7)

Not all neurotoxins are man-made, some are naturally occurring.

Here’s a list of neurotoxins that you may encounter, by category: (8, 9, 1011, 12)

  • Naturally occurring (mineral): aluminum, manganese, mercury, lead, arsenic, fluoride
  • Naturally occurring (biological): mycotoxins, seafood toxins, botox, snake venom
  • Recreational drugs: heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine, alcohol
  • Pharmaceutical drugs: chemotherapy, antipsychotic medications
  • Food additives: MSG, artificial sweeteners
  • Environmental: water and air pollution
  • Cosmetics: nail polish, lipstick, hair dye, artificial fragrances
  • Other man-made chemicals: pesticides, solvents, plastics, cleaners, paints, adhesives, flame retardants, building materials

You may get exposed to neurotoxins at work.

Neurotoxicity is one of the top 10 occupational disorders in the United States. (13)

Some experts believe we are facing a “silent pandemic” of brain damage in children caused by neurotoxins. (14)

They point the finger at this “dirty dozen” of neurotoxins which they suspect contribute to attention disorders, autism, and significant loss of IQ points:

  • arsenic
  • chlorpyrifos
  • DDT/DDE
  • ethanol
  • fluoride
  • lead
  • manganese
  • mercury
  • polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene or “perc”)
  • toluene
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Some Neurotoxins Are Dose-Dependent

Sometimes the dose determines whether or not a substance is a neurotoxin.

For example, vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but too much can be neurotoxic. (15)

In moderation, alcohol provides many health benefits, but, in excess, can cause severe neurotoxicity. (16)

And ironically, even your own brain chemicals can be neurotoxic.

The neurotransmitter glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system and is considered the most important for brain health and function.

But, in excess, glutamate becomes a potent excitotoxin that can overstimulate brain cells to death. (17)

How to Protect Your Brain From Neurotoxicity

There’s no doubt that we are living in a sea of neurotoxins, and it’s not possible to avoid them all.

But what you can do instead is reduce your total load — the total number of neurotoxic “burdens.”

Dr. William J. Rea of the Environmental Health Center in Dallas, Texas, recommends massive avoidance of neurotoxic pollutants found in air, food, and water as the first line of defense against neurotoxicity. (18)

While that might sound daunting, there are steps you can take to minimize neurotoxin exposure without dramatically altering your lifestyle.

Avoiding Neurotoxins in Foods

The best and most simple advice for avoiding neurotoxins in food is to stick with “real food” rather than processed food.

Any food that comes in a package, can, or box is suspect and you should read labels carefully.

Neurotoxins in foods can be intentionally added or can be an inadvertent contaminant.

Here are some neurotoxins found in foods that you should try to avoid as much as is reasonable:

MSG and Aspartame

Both the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the artificial sweetener aspartame are excitotoxins — substances that, in excess, can stimulate brain cells to death. (19)

When your body processes aspartame, it ultimately gets broken down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin. (20)

By avoiding sugar-free and diet products you can easily avoid aspartame, but avoiding MSG is not so easy because it’s not always clearly labeled.

A good rule of thumb is that salty processed foods such as chips, ramen noodles, canned soups, and soy products are most likely to be high in MSG.

You’ll find a list of food additives that often contain MSG here.

Aluminum

Aluminum is one of the most common minerals, but it’s also a known neurotoxin.

It is found in foods that contain baking powder and is sometimes added to foods as an anti-caking additive.

It can leach from aluminum cookware into your food, especially when you cook acidic foods like lemon, vinegar, or tomato sauce.

Aluminum is also found in antacids and even in drinking water.

Hexane

If you buy seed-based vegetable oils like soy oil and canola oil, be aware that they are processed with and contain traces of hexane, a chemical which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider a neurotoxin. (21)

(This is one of the many reasons we prefer extra virgin olive oil to other vegetable oils.)

Mercury

Fish is a top brain food for its high omega-3 essential fatty acid content, but contamination by mercury is a genuine concern.

Alaskan salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel are the only fish that meet the criteria of being both high in omega-3s and low in neurotoxic mercury.

fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury

Avoid farmed salmon.

It’s one of the most contaminated protein sources you can buy.

It contains high concentrations of mercury, dioxin, pesticides, and PCBs. (22, 23)

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Removing Neurotoxins in Your Air and Water

Neurotoxins are present in your home, in the water you drink, and in the air you breathe.

The water you drink, cook with, and bathe in can contain neurotoxins, both naturally occurring and man-made. (24)

Fluoride

One neurotoxin that is controversially added to tap water in some parts of the world is fluoride.

If you live in a pro-fluoride country like the US, Canada, or Australia, you might be surprised to learn that only 5.7% of the world’s population drinks artificially fluoridated water. (25)

More than 60 human studies have linked fluoride to reduced IQ in both children and adults. (26)

A study in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious and highly regarded medical journals, recommends that fluoride should be classified as a developmental neurotoxin. (27)

If you don’t know whether your water is fluoridated, you can check with your local water department to find out for sure.

If it is, consider buying a water filter that removes fluoride.

Be aware that few water filters do.

You can further reduce your fluoride exposure by switching to fluoride-free toothpaste.

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Indoor Air Pollution

It’s well documented that outdoor pollution can cause cognitive problems.

But worryingly, indoor air pollution is often many times higher and equally detrimental. (2829)

Your carpet, furniture, and mattress release neurotoxins like formaldehyde and PCBs in a process called outgassing.

Toxic fumes from artificial fragrances and household cleaners get trapped inside your home.

You can clean up your air with a two-pronged approach.

How to Clean Your Indoor Air

Reduce Toxic Outputs Into Your Home’s Air

Switch to natural cleaning products and personal care products.

Eliminate your use of commercial air fresheners, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners.

They might smell nice but they contain neurotoxic chloroform. (30)

Clean Your Air

Invest in a good HEPA air purifier.

If you can’t filter your whole house, at least filter the air in your bedroom (you spend one-third of your life there).

Generously fill your home with houseplants.

They do a surprisingly good job of filtering out toxins.

NASA conducted a study to see which plants would be best at keeping the air in a space station clean of toxins. (31)

Here’s a look at NASA’s top plants for removing toxins, including neurotoxins like formaldehyde and toluene, from the air.

plants that remove neurotoxins
The best plants for removing neurotoxins from the air. (Image courtesy of LoveTheGarden.com)

Avoid Nail Salons

Nail salons are one completely avoidable source of neurotoxins.

They simply reek with toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde and toluene.

If you simply must paint your nails, do it at home in a well-ventilated area or outdoors, or use a low toxicity nail polish.

Many companies, including OPI Products, have gotten on the bandwagon and make nail polish that is free of some of the worst chemicals.

There are even a few brands of water-based nail polish like Honeybee Gardens or Suncoat that claim to be toxin-free.

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Supplements That Protect Against Neurotoxicity

Now that you know how to clean up your diet and your environment, you may want to take your brain protection one step further.

This step may be especially important if you are not in a position to clean up your environment, regularly face unavoidable neurotoxin exposure in your workplace, take neurotoxic medicines, or use recreational drugs.

Here are some herbal remedies and other supplements that help protect the brain from toxins:

Curcumin

Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

It’s been found to protect against the neurotoxicity caused by chemotherapy drugs. (32)

Ginger

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is one of the oldest and most widely used culinary spices.

You can use it in cooking or take it as a supplement.

Ginger protects the brain against neurotoxic levels of glutamate. (33)

Gotu Kola

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a traditional relaxing herbal remedy used as a brain tonic.

It has been found to protect the brain from lead, arsenic, aluminum, and excess glutamate. (34, 35, 36, 37)

L-Theanine

L-theanine is a relaxing amino acid that naturally occurs in tea.

It can protect the brain from environmental neurotoxins, especially those thought to play a role in Parkinson’s disease. (38)

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine.

It offers neuroprotection against excess glutamate. (39)

Vinpocetine

Vinpocetine is a compound based on vincamine, a chemical found in the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor).

It’s been found to protect the brain from the neurotoxic effects of glutamate, alcohol, and some drugs. (40)

Folate

Folate is an essential B complex vitamin that protects the brain from environmental neurotoxins. (41)

Since children deficient in folate are more susceptible to lead poisoning, folate may help offset those effects.

MSG Protection

If you accidentally ingest MSG, immediately take vitamin C, ginger, or the amino acid taurine.

All provide substantial protection from the neurotoxic effects of MSG. (4243, 44)

Protecting Your Brain From Neurotoxicity: Take the Next Step

Your brain is your most important asset, and it’s under assault.

We live in a sea of chemicals both naturally occurring and man-made that are neurotoxic — poisonous to the brain and nervous system.

While you can’t completely avoid neurotoxins, you can protect your brain by minimizing your exposure.

Avoid neurotoxic food additives, clean up your indoor air, and filter your water.

And if you want to further safeguard your brain against neurotoxicity, consider taking supplements known to be neuroprotective.

READ NEXT: 5 Neurotoxins Found in Popular Foods