Is Your Brain Inflamed? Let's Talk Mental Health
Mental health has become a prevalent topic, both in the media and in doctors’ offices across the nation. Our society is seeing a record number of people, including children, who come forward to seek help with their mental health related imbalances. As a mother and a health practitioner, these rising rates are concerning. And yet, I have hope that we are moving closer to breaking the cultural stigma associated with these conditions and learning more about the underlying root causes of mental health dysregulation.
Recent research has shown that chronic brain inflammation could be a contributing factor to mental health. So what exactly is it? Inflammation is an appropriate short term response by the body that begins the healing process after injury or infection. Rather than an enemy, we should think of short-term, targeted inflammation as a helper, part of our innate ability to heal. Unfortunately, most of the inflammation we see in our practice, is not short-term or acute. It is chronic, low-grade, and mostly invisible. Major triggers for this type of inflammation include:
A poor diet with high levels of processed sugars, refined grains, commercially-raised animal products, pesticides, chemicals, preservatives, amyloids, and inhospitable sulfur compounds. Cleaning and cosmetic products and environmental pollutants may also serve to feed inflammation as the body has to work to detoxify from these things. (1)
Pathogens that are bacterial, fungal or viral in your body can contribute to an inflammatory response. An overgrowth of candida, a fungal species, is something we see quite often. While candida is always present in our bodies, a surplus or overgrowth of this fungus, as well as the presence of arabinose – one of its byproducts – can play a huge role in disrupting mood and focus. Candida can affect the metabolism of dopamine – a key “reward” neurotransmitter. It may also impair serotonin balance, as the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin imbalances can cause depression, anxiety, interrupted sleep, disturbances is sexual drive, and trouble focusing. Dopamine impairment can also disrupt sleep, executive functioning, and can even contribute to mania, anxiety and OCD. (2) Oxalate-containing foods, like almonds, black beans, coconut, and spinach, in the presence of candida can disrupt dopamine metabolism, which can have devastating effects on mental health. Many health professionals, including myself, now believe that mood disorders are often symptomatic of other imbalances resulting from inflammation caused by pathogens, environmental toxins, and a lack of essential nutrients as a result of the Standard American Lifestyle.
Stress is a major inflammatory trigger. It causes the release of inflammatory chemicals and hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (also called epinephrine). This inflammatory cascade disrupts our endocrine system and can even change the physical structure of the brain! This means that hormones created in the body as a response to chronic stress can affect learning, mood and memory. (3) Stress also gives strength to pathogens, which as previously mentioned, can be a contributing factor to dysregulating mental health. For example, PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated With Streptococcal Infections) which is characterized by obsessive-compulsive disorder and tics, has been linked to the streptococcal bacteria.
How do we best support the brain against these dangerous inflammatory patterns?
Often, by making simple changes to our everyday routines.
Choose quality nutrition. Removing oils like Canola (which is rich in sulfur) and vegetable oil (which is primarily corn-based) from the diet has been linked to stronger cognitive function and lower risk of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s and dementia have also been linked to amyloids, which you can read more about in “The Wildatarian Diet: Living as Nature Intended” book. Choosing sugars from natural sources, like fruits will limit the level of inflammatory messengers in the body – those linked with negative neurological and mood symptoms. (4) At our practice, we believe nutrition is bio-individual, meaning that even certain healthy foods may not be right for everyone. For example, if you do not process dietary fats well, then temporarily removing even healthy ones, such as nuts and high-fat fish, may support your brain.
Get some sleep! Proper sleep patterns have been shown to regulate levels of inflammatory cytokines (substances that cause inflammation) in the brain, and modulate the body’s immune response to pathogens. (5)
Take a break. Studies show that play and mindfulness meditation techniques help to control inflammation, immune function, and promote a sense of well-being and mental health. (6)
Get moving! A wealth of clinical data shows that regular exercise promotes positive mood changes and can both treat and prevent depression. Clinical psychology researchers at Duke University demonstrated that patients who had regular exercise responded as well or better than those who were given antidepressant therapy. Those who kept up with their exercise regiment showed more positive long-term effects than those who stopped. (7) It is important to not over-exercise, as this is a common cause of increased inflammation.
Go Wild! The Wildatarian diet looks at “the Big 3”, protein, fat, and sulfur malabsorption, which may be inflammatory to your body. We believe that each person is unique. We invite you to take the Wildatarian Quiz to find out what specific Wildatarian type you are. After you find out your Wild-Type, take a deep dive with the “The Wildatarian Diet: Living as Nature Intended” book to learn more about how you can achieve your optimal health, including mental health.
I am frustrated that many people, including children, are regularly being placed on medications to help with mood, focus, or anxiety without first testing their genetic predispositions. These drugs may be very supportive, but when given to those with the wrong genes, it can prove to be devastating. Patients are given one drug after another in hopes of finding one that fits. This is an experiment without our permission. A more responsible approach is to test individualized pharmacogenomics – the ways a person metabolizes and uses drugs. Tests such as GeneSight and Genomind, can analyze DNA and help you and your doctor get a better sense of how your body may respond to a particular class of medications. I highly recommend this type of testing if you or your child are on or considering mental health related prescriptions.
Remember that the brain is neuroplastic, meaning that it is capable of change at any age or stage of wellness or disease. Each day, we have a choice to support our bodies and our brains. Even simple changes can create positive results. It’s never too late to seek help and transform your life.
As always, please follow the advice of your doctor or medical professional. If you or a loved one needs to reach out for help immediately, please visit https://www.sprc.org/ or contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
To The Tru Of You,
- Selhub, Eva. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- Edwards, Michael. The Candida depression connection. Natural News. https://www.naturalnews.com/047184_candida_depression_gut_microbes.html. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- Tsafrir, Judy. Mold Toxicity: A Common Cause of Psychiatric Symptoms. Psychology Today.
- Ede, Georgia. “Cooling Brain Inflammation Naturally with Food.” Psychology Today. December 27, 2017. Accessed June 07, 2018.
- Zielinski, Mark R. “The Fascinating Link Between Inflammation and Sleep.” Medium. May 16, 2017. https://medium.com/thrive-global/the-fascinating-link-between-inflammation-and-sleep-9d57c2eca013. Accessed June 7, 2018
- Buric, Ivana, Farias, Miguel, Jong, Jonathan, Mee, Christopher, and Brazil, Inti. “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” Frontiers in Immunology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670/full. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- Weir, Kristen. “The Exercise Effect.” American Psychology Association. December, 2011.http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.aspx. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- Smith, Ronald. Cytokines and Depression: Immunological Evidence. Cytokines and Depression. http://www.cytokines-and-depression.com/chapter7.html. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- Schnabel, Jim. The Brain Inflamed. Brain Facts. http://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-and-disorders/mental-health/2015/the-brain-inflamed. Accessed June 7, 2018.
- O’donovan, Aoife, Gavin Rush, Gerard Hoatam, Brian M. Hughes, AnnMaria McCrohan, Cecily Kelleher, Cliona O’farrelly, and Kevin M. Malone. “Suicidal ideation is associated with elevated inflammation in patients with major depressive disorder.” Depression and anxiety 30, no. 4 (2013): 307-314.
- Bergland, Christopher. Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. Psychology Today.