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?
Neurotoxicity refers to the damage that occurs to the brain and central nervous system from toxins.
Toxins that act specifically on nerve cells are known as neurotoxins. (1)
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 leading to permanent brain or nervous system damage. (3)
Typical symptoms include headache, memory loss, impaired vision, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, sexual dysfunction, impaired motor skills, and tingling, numbness, or weakness of the limbs.
Neurotoxicity can also manifest as psychological problems including anxiety, depression, mental confusion, compulsive behaviors, hallucinations, and changes in personality.
Researchers believe that there may be a link between neurotoxicity and progressive neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis. (4)
Forensic toxicologist Raymond Singer, PhD, reports that other symptoms of neurotoxicity can include multiple sclerosis, migraines, sleep disorders, balance and hearing problems, panic attacks, and other psychiatric or neurological symptoms. (5)
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.
- 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
- miscellaneous 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 that is caused by neurotoxins.
They point the finger at this “dirty dozen” of neurotoxins which they suspect contribute to attention disorders, autism, and significant loss of IQ points:
- polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
- polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
- tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene or “perc”)
- toluene (14)
Sometimes the Dose Makes the Poison
Some neurotoxins are dose-dependent.
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 the 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.
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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:
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.
Learn more —
5 Neurotoxins Found in Popular Foods
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 with acidic foods like lemon, vinegar, or tomato sauce.
Aluminum is also found in antacids and even in drinking water.
(This is one of the many reasons we prefer extra virgin olive oil to canola oil.)
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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.
Avoid farmed salmon at all costs.
Removing Neurotoxins in Your Air and Water
Neurotoxins are lurking in your home, in the water you drink, and the air you breathe.
The water you drink, cook with, and bathe in can contain neurotoxins, both naturally occurring and man-made. (24)
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 50 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.
You can further reduce your fluoride exposure by switching to a toothpaste that is fluoride-free.
Learn more —
Fluoride As a Neurotoxin: 9 Ways It Harms Your Brain
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.
First, reduce the toxic output into your home’s air.
Switch to natural cleaning products and personal care products.
Eliminate your use of commercial air fresheners and fabric sheets and softeners.
They might smell nice but contain neurotoxic chloroform. (30)
Second, you want to clean your air.
Invest in a good HEPA air filtration system.
If you can’t filter your whole house, at least filter the air in your bedroom where you spend one-third of your life.
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.
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 relatively low toxicity nail polish.
Many companies, including OPI Products, have gotten on the bandwagon and make nail polish that is free of the worst chemicals.
There are even a few brands of water-based nail polish like Honeybee Gardens or Suncoat that are toxin-free.
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 the workplace, or must take neurotoxic medicines or use recreational drugs.
Here are some herbal remedies and other supplements that help protect the brain from toxins.
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)
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Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is one of the oldest and most widely used culinary spices in the world.
You can use it in cooking or take it as a supplement.
Ginger protects the brain against neurotoxic levels of excess glutamate. (33)
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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. (37)
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Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine that offers neuroprotection against excess glutamate. (38)
So does vinpocetine, a compound based on vincamine, a chemical found in the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor). (39)
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Folate is an essential B complex vitamin that protects the brain from environmental neurotoxins. (40)
Since children deficient in folate are more susceptible to lead poisoning, folate may help offset those effects.
If you accidentally ingest MSG, immediately take vitamin C, ginger, or the amino acid taurine.
Protecting Your Brain From Neurotoxicity: The Bottom Line
Your brain is your most important asset, but 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 specific supplements shown to be neuroprotective for the brain.