Brain Inflammation: 7 Signs Your Brain Is On Fire (Science-Backed)

brain inflammation

Brain Inflammation: 7 Signs Your Brain Is On Fire (Science-Backed)

Chances are, you’ve heard of inflammation before. You may even know that there is more than one type. But, do you know what causes it and how to heal it? If not, this science-backed article is for you. We’re going to talk all about brain inflammation. This includes going over the different types of inflammation, what causes them, signs of having inflammation and how you can stop it. Read on to find out more.

Contents:

Defining Inflammation
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Inflammation
Understanding How Brain Inflammation Happens
7 Signs You Could Have Brain Inflammation

  1. Elevated Blood Tests Showing Inflammation
  2. Gut Dysbiosis and Gut Symptoms
  3. Depression
  4. Anxiety
  5. Other Mental Illnesses
  6. Neurodegenerative Disease
  7. Brain Fog

Stopping Inflammation In Its Tracks

  1. Find Out the Inflammation’s Source
  2. Remove Sugar, Gluten, Dairy and Processed Foods
  3. Exercise Everyday
  4. Get A Little Added Help

Bottom Line 

Defining Inflammation

In a broad sense, inflammation is your body’s reaction to a stimulus. Your immune system plays a key role in inflammation because this is the system that reacts when you have a cut, trauma or some form of infection. (1) When people hear inflammation, they typically think of a wound site that swells or gets red. This is one form of inflammation, but we did mention that inflammation can come in two different forms.

The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Inflammation

The two types of inflammation that a person can have are acute inflammation or chronic inflammation. They are both a result of your immune system’s response to a stimulus, and they both come with the same general symptoms. However, this is where the similarities end.

  • Acute Inflammation- Acute inflammation is an inflammatory response that happens directly after a tissue injury or virus, and it usually appears within minutes or hours. This is a short-term response that will eventually fade away as the infection or wound heals. It’s marked by heat, pain, swelling, loss of mobility and redness. Think of a bug bite or sprained ankle. (2)
  • Chronic Inflammation- On the other side of the spectrum you have chronic inflammation. This is a long-term type of inflammation that is slow to develop but it can last for months or even years. Chronic inflammation is something you may never consider as it is often silent until it causes an issue. When inflammation is chronic it can lead to a number of things like autoimmunity. (3)

Understanding How Brain Inflammation Happens

Now that you know what chronic and acute inflammation are, we’re going to talk about inflammation of your brain and why it happens. You can’t see your brain, and it doesn’t hurt like an inflamed cut would given it lacks pain receptors. This can make it more difficult to diagnose brain inflammation or realise that something is wrong.

The mechanism for brain inflammation can often be summed up into two categories which are direct and indirect.

  • Direct Brain Inflammation – The most obvious caused of brain inflammation has to do with head injury. If you suffer through a brain injury, your brain’s immune cells can cause inflammation. This inflammation can start the healing process as well as the removal of dying or dead cells. However, this injury-induced inflammation can last for months or even years after the initial injury. (4) Since the immune cells in your brain have no “off” switch, it can cause inflammatory problems for a long time. 
  • Indirect Brain Inflammation – This type of brain inflammation is often low grade and is caused by things which have their origins from outside the brain. For example, one of the major sources of inflammation can be our guts. So how does inflammation from our bodies get into our brains? This is through pro-inflammatory cytokines. Your immune system secretes these cytokines to signal your body’s inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation happens when your immune system doesn’t stop producing these cytokines or it’s overactive. (5)(6) Science now shows that these cytokines can cross the blood brain barrier and can trigger an inflammatory response that spreads throughout your brain. The inflammation can last as long as the cytokines and source of inflammation is present. (7)(8)(9) Various types of imaging have now shown areas of the brain being inflamed in patients with fibromyalgia, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease + much more.

Some of the potential causes of brain inflammation include but are not limited to:

  • Poor Diet- Eating a poor diet that is high in sugar, artificial fats, refined carbohydrates and oils can cause inflammation. Additionally, drinking a lot of alcohol can also contribute to your higher inflammation levels. (10)(11)(12)(13)(14)
  • Pathogenic Bacteria/Parasites- Pathogenic bacteria are the types of bacteria that are responsible for causing diseases. Your body usually can’t break down these types of bacteria, and this means that they thrive and cause inflammation throughout your body via their metabolism byproducts. For example, gram-negative bacteria in our guts contain lipopolysaccharide (or endotoxin) which has been shown to induce depressive symptoms when release into the bloodstream. Overall, these bacteria can cause your system to be off balance, and this can contribute to chronic inflammatory responses. (15)(16)
  • Environmental Factors- Things in your immediate environment like mould exposure can cause chronic inflammation [17]. Also, exposure to something that you have an allergic reaction to can prompt an inflammatory response that spreads throughout your body. (18) Heavy metal toxicity/pollution/EMFs can also cause inflammation.
  • Leaky Gut Syndrome- Having a bacterial imbalance in your gut can cause small cracks or fissures to form. The bacteria in your gut can spread into your system through these small cracks and cause system-wide inflammation that reaches your brain. Leaky Gut is the main mechanism for causing chronic inflammation and brain inflammation(19)(20
  • Other Digestive Abnormalities- Problems with your digestive tract like ulcers or problems with your stomach acid levels can cause inflammation. Your body will identify these areas as something that it has to fix, and it’ll cause inflammation in and around the area as a response. (21)(22)

7 Signs You Have Brain Inflammation

It’s important that you know what the most common signs of brain inflammation are, so we’re going to talk about the most common ones. This way, you’ll be able to potentially recognise if you have an issue with chronic inflammation/brain inflammation. 

1. Elevated Blood Tests For Inflammation

One of the easiest ways to test for inflammation, in general, is through a blood test. Your physician will be able to look at the results of the blood tests and see if any of your results are elevated because this elevation means that you have some type of infection or inflammation somewhere in your body.

Important Note: a-lot of these tests below are indirect and are general measures of inflammation. They will tell you if your body is inflamed generally but are not specific to your brain unless you get special imaging. If your blood tests do show inflammation and you display other signs mentioned below this could point to a low grade inflamed brain.

Some tests these three things include:

  • hsCRP- hsCRP stands for High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein test. This blood test measures the amounts of C-Reactive proteins present in your body. The liver releases these proteins in response to inflammation in your body. Your physician will look for any level of C-Reactive Protein at or above 10.0mg/L. Once they find it, they may require more testing to find out what is the root cause of the inflammation. (23)(24) However, levels below 10.0mg/L can also suggest inflammation so finding the right Dr who knows how to read lab tests is paramount.
  • ESR- ESR stands for Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. This test measures how quickly your red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube. This rate is usually very slow and steady, and rapid settling usually indicates inflammation in the body. (25)
  • Pro-inflammatory Cytokines- Your physician can draw your blood and perform a cytokine panel to help rule out or pinpoint inflammation. Your immune system releases these cytokines in response to inflammation, and these elevated levels show up on your blood test. (26)
  • Ferritin – Serum ferritin is a good inflammatory marker and is a leakage product from damaged cells. Typically, Ferritin is a good marker for iron levels. However, when you are inflamed it reflect immune response rather than iron levels. (27)
2. Gut Dysbiosis and Gut Symptoms

Gut Dysbiosis is a medical term for having an imbalance in the bacteria levels in your body. Your “good” bacteria should balance your “bad” bacteria levels to help keep the “bad” bacteria from taking over and causing issues. However, several things can cause your natural bacteria levels to get off balanced, and this is where you start to see problems with inflammation. (28)

Your doctor can test your stool to measure the levels of yeast, fungi and bacteria in your gut. There are two main gut issue things that can cause an inflammation stemming from the gut, and they include:

  • Leaky Gut- Leaky Gut Syndrome is a condition where small cracks or fissures appear in your intestinal walls. Bacteria can get into your body through these small holes, and your immune system will see this as an infection. In response, it’ll send out an inflammatory signal that tells your body to fight the infection. This can lead to system-wide inflammation that gets worse as more bacteria get through. (29
  • SIBO- Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO) is where the normal levels of bacteria in your small intestine start to grow rapidly. The number of bacteria species also multiplies, and this results in too many bacteria. In response, your immune system will trigger an inflammatory response to fight what it thinks is a bacterial infection. (30)
3. Depression

Depression is a very common mood disorder that can range from mild to severe. This disorder can have a large impact on how you feel, think, act and handle common daily activities like sleeping, eating and going to work. There are several different types of depressive disorder, and a physician will diagnose it. (31)

As we mentioned earlier, inflammation can cause a variety of medical conditions. This includes depression, and psychologists have done extensive studies on the links between increased inflammation and depression or the worsening of depressive symptoms. (32)

It is important to note that not every person with depression has inflammation or not every person who has inflammation has depression. However, there are links between inflammation and influencing our mood because your central nervous system will be one of the most impacted areas by systemwide inflammation. (33)

Your frontal cortex is the area of your brain that controls your emotions and how you think and feel. It also controls certain areas of speech and motor functions. Scans show that people with depression typically have inflammation in this area of their brains, and this can alter their moods as well as how they handle social interaction and their day-to-day activities. (34)

Inflammation in this area of your brain can lead to mood swings. It can also lead to feeling like you have no energy or you’re lethargic. You may also get things like aches and pains or you may find it difficult to concentrate or interact with other people. The severity of these feelings can change as your inflammation levels change. (35)

Even still, cytokines have been shown to disrupt the neurotransmitters in the brain leading to an over abundance of certain neurotransmitters like glutamate.

4. Anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect millions of people all around the world. The symptoms can range from mild to debilitating, and the anxious feeling can come and go seemingly without warning. People with anxiety usually report things like excessive worry, racing thoughts and a feeling of panic. These feelings can revolve around everyday activities like interacting with people, going to work, driving, leaving the house or performing new tasks. (36)

It is widely thought that anxiety comes from the amygdala region of your brain because this is the area of your brain that deals with intense emotional responses. Your neurotransmitters take this signal from the amygdala and carry it to other areas of your central nervous system. In turn, your body gets ready for fight or flight by elevating your heart rate, tensing your muscles and diverting blood flow to your brain. (37)

If you have inflammation in this region of your brain, it could potentially put your amygdala region into overdrive. This means that it sends these fight-or-flight responses to your central nervous system in situations where it doesn’t necessarily need it. For example, if you go out of your home, your brain could prompt this anxious response because you’re uncomfortable. There isn’t any immediate danger. (38)(39)

People who have chronic anxiety could have chronic inflammation, and this inflammation can flare up in response to stress. This is why some people tend to feel generally anxious all of the time while other people seem to have symptoms that come and go as the inflammation levels increase or decrease. Additionally, a study showed that as soon any inflammation levels went down in the brain, people reported feeling less anxious. (40)(41)(42)

5. Other Mental Illnesses

Did you know that inflammation has links to several different mental illnesses? Other mental illnesses that have links inflammation include:

  • OCD- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness where people experience intrusive or obsessive thoughts. It can produce anxiety if they don’t give in to their compulsions. Studies link brain inflammation to OCD. One breakthrough study took 40 participants and split them into two groups. 20 participants had OCD and 20 didn’t. They found that the 20 people with OCD showed higher inflammation counts on scans of their brains. (43)(44)
  • Anorexia- Anorexia is a condition where the afflicted person does not eat in an effort to lose weight. They often get to unhealthy weight levels because they see a distorted view of their bodies. Studies show that pro-inflammatory cytokines can help to regulate your appetite. Having higher levels of these cytokines in your blood can contribute to anorexia because the people don’t feel the urge to eat. (45)(46)(47)
  • Schizophrenia- For people with schizophrenia, auditory and visual hallucinations are extremely commonly. They may also experience mood disorders. Studies show that schizophrenics typically have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in their blood than people without schizophrenia. (48)(49)
  • Bipolar- Bipolar disorder can be a severe mood disorder characterised by periods of depression or lethargy and mania. The mood swings can be severe, and people can rapidly cycle from one mood to the next. There are studies that link higher levels of brain inflammation to bipolar disorder, especially when the amygdala region shows inflammation. (50)(51)
6. Early Signs of a Neurodegenerative Disease

Neurodegenerative diseases include a class of medical conditions where the person slowly loses their neurons. As these neurons die, the person can start to lose function. This means that the symptoms of the disease can get worse as the disease progresses. For many of these diseases, there is no way to stop the progression of them, and they’re usually fatal. Common Neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington’s and Batten disease. (52)

For the past two decades, scientists have started to link inflammation with these Neurodegenerative diseases. Particularly, they’ve noticed that chronic inflammation can be a warning sign that the person is in the early stages of developing their Neurodegenerative disease. There are also links to aging and these types of diseases since most people with Alzheimer’s disease are elderly. (53)

However, studies show that brain inflammation can be a key warning sign that you’re starting to develop a Neurodegenerative disease. Since your central nervous system controls your physical and emotional responses, inflammation here could cause shifts in mood, personality, cognitive function and on your motor skills. (54)

Additionally, inflammation can have a negative impact on your body’s ability to heal any neurological damage. In turn, this could potentially allow a Neurodegenerative disease to show more symptoms because the damage isn’t healing because your immune system is overstimulated. Brain inflammation can also block critical receptors in your central nervous system that are responsible for cell repair and maintenance. (55)

7. Brain Fog

Brain fog is a blanket term for having trouble focusing, learning new things or remembering where you put things. For example, have you ever gone into a room to get your glasses or keys and found them on your head or in your pocket but you have no memory of putting them there? This is a short episode of brain fog. Almost everyone has been through this at one time or another, and your brain fog tends to come and go in short bursts. (56)

But, did you know that brain inflammation can cause more episodes of brain fog? This is because inflammation can slow down the rate your brain’s neurons fire. When this happens, your brain processes as a whole slow down. This slow down can leave you feeling foggy, slow or dull as you go about your daily activities. (57)

Additionally, inflammation can cause damage to your neurons due to oxidative stress. This damage can also slow down your brain’s function. It can delay your brain’s healing process from inflammation as well. (58)

All of these small things can result in you having difficulty concentrating or remembering when you put items like your keys. If the inflammation gets severe enough, it can cause fluctuations with your mood, wandering thoughts, poor memory, confusion and disorientation. (59)(60)

Stopping Inflammation in Its Tracks

There are several ways that you can stop inflammation in its tracks. Once you identify that inflammation is causing your problem, you can work on treating it.

1. Find Out the Inflammation’s Cause

The first step in treating any inflammation or infection involves finding out what the exact cause is. Your doctor can help by performing routine blood tests, but the most common cause of inflammation is poor gut health. To reduce the inflammation levels, you want to start healing your gut. The other way to know your source is to get some blood tests done (e.g. heavy metals, mould exposure, lymes disease).

2. Remove Sugar, Gluten, Dairy and Processed Foods

Processed foods are naturally harder on your body than natural foods because there are more artificial ingredients that your body has to concentrate on breaking down. You can start healing your gut by removing sugar and gluten from your diet. Gluten can cause inflammation throughout your digestive tract, and sugar can also contribute to inflammation. (61)(62)

Processed food is another thing that isn’t good for your body because your body has a hard time breaking down some of the components. Dairy is considered to be one of the most inflammatory foods in today’s diets. This is due to dairy’s protein and sugar content. (63)(64)

3. Exercise Everyday

Exercising for as few as 20 minutes a day is enough to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, and this is the system that is responsible for increasing your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. When this happens, your body releases epinephrine and norepinephrine. These homes activate your immune cells, and this stops the release of cytokines. This reduces inflammatory markers in your blood. (65)(66)

4. Get a Little Added Help

You can also add a few supplements and nutrients to your diet to help reduce inflammation naturally. These key things include:

  • L-glutathione- Your liver produces this substance, and you can find it in vegetables, fruits and meat. It helps to build tissue and repair damage, and it can also help to heal inflammation and inflammatory damage to your cells. (67)(68)
  • NAC- N-acetyl cysteine is a form of the amino acid called cysteine. You can find it in high protein foods like turkey, eggs, cheese and beans. Its key role comes with helping your body replenish levels of Glutathione. (69)
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids- Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to amino acid production, and they come in fish, seafood and plant oils. Adding these fatty acids to your diet can help to reduce your body’s production of inflammatory cytokines. (70)(71)
  • Curcumin- You can find Curcumin as the main active ingredient in the spice Turmeric. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory compound, and you can add it to your food. This compound works to stop the production of inflammatory agents. (72)(73)
  • Broccoli Sprouts- Broccoli is a dark green, leafy, cruciferous vegetable. It comes packed with high levels of antioxidants that can help to reduce the levels of inflammation present in your body. (74)(75)
  • Bone Broth- You can make your own bone broth by simmering soup bones for hours, or you can buy it already made. Bone broth comes with high levels of glycine and proline, and these are essential for fighting inflammation. (76)(77)
  • Collagen Peptides- Collagen peptides help your cells repair and rebuild after damage due to trauma, inflammation or oxidative stress. You can find this protein naturally in your body, or you can take supplements to help with inflammation. (78)(79)

Bottom Line

Brain inflammation can be a serious condition that can affect different systems throughout your body. We’ve outlined several possible causes of brain inflammation, how to test for it and how you can treat it. As always, you want to talk to your doctor before you make any large lifestyle or diet changes.

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