How Does Inflammation Affect My Brain?Apr 29, 2023
Acute inflammation plays an important role in healing, but chronic inflammation contributes to cognitive decline. However, we can combat inflammation with our diet.
You’ve probably heard the expression “You are what you eat.” It’s meant to serve as a reminder that we should be conscious about the nutrition we put into our bodies. But have you ever thought about how the food you eat impacts not just your body, but your brain?
Today, we’re looking at one of the biggest unseen threats to cognition: inflammation. We’ll discuss what function inflammation serves to our bodies, how chronic neuroinflammation can lead to cognitive decline, and how you can make anti-inflammatory dietary choices to improve the health and function of your brain.
What does inflammation do to our bodies?
Inflammation is an essential part of the body’s healing process. When we suffer an injury or come into contact with something that could be harmful to us (like viruses or bacteria), our body’s immune system activates. And inflammatory cells are like our body’s first responders. They arrive at the site of trouble and immediately get to work surrounding and protecting the area.
When we talk about inflammation, it’s important to understand the two different types of inflammation our bodies can experience: acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation occurs as your body’s response to direct damage or danger to your cells, like when you cut your finger cooking or twist your ankle running.
Symptoms of acute inflammation include:
- Heat or flushed skin at the site of the injury
- Swelling at the site of the injury
- Pain/tenderness at the site of the injury
In cases like these, inflammatory cells play an important role in our body’s natural healing process; inflammation is the first step, and it disappears over time as the injury heals.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation occurs when your body sends out inflammatory cells even when there isn’t a specific injury or other danger to respond to.
Symptoms of chronic inflammation can include:
- Abdominal or chest pain
- Ongoing fatigue
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Skin rashes
Because chronic inflammation isn’t responding to a real, specific injury, its symptoms can be harder to spot and pinpoint. They also may come and go as the body sends out and recalls inflammatory cells at will.
While acute inflammation is a necessary and essential part of healing, chronic inflammation is related to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and dementia.
Chronic inflammation and the brain
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains can also experience inflammation.
Usually, immune cells in the brain act as “housekeepers.” Microglia take out the trash, consuming dead or infected cells and clearing synaptic pathways to keep our brain circuits running smoothly. Astrocytes work to build up the blood-brain barrier, which provides nutrients to neurons and also helps protect against infection. Together, these cells play a crucial role in sustaining our overall brain health and cognitive function.
But when these immune cells sense a threat to our brains - triggered by neuroinflammation - they go from “housekeeper” to “guard dog.” To protect our brains, they enter “attack mode,” attempting to rid the brain of the perceived threat. In the case of acute inflammation - where there is a specific injury to heal - this once again plays an essential part of our recovery process.
However, in the case of chronic inflammation - where the brain repeatedly experiences inflammation without any actual threat to its health - the aggressive actions of our brain’s immune cells can begin to harm rather than help. They may attack healthy tissue, dispose of functioning cells, and close off synaptic pathways that should remain functioning.
Francisco Quintana, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, even discovered that neuroinflammation in particular can act as its own echo chamber. When our immune system’s T cells secrete a certain protein, it actually shifts the behavior of astrocytes, causing them to turn on genes that trigger inflammation. The microglia become engaged as a result, launching an assault on brain tissue. This back-and-forth between the astrocytes and the microglia can continue even after the T cells retreat. In other words, chronic neuroinflammation can take on a self-perpetuating life of its own.
Cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
Because of this, chronic neuroinflammation can significantly affect our cognitive function. Ongoing inflammation of the brain can contribute to:
- Neuropsychiatric problems and disorders, including depression and anxiety
- Memory decline and associated disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease
- Risk for blood clots and stroke
- General cognitive impairment, including brain fog, concentration problems, and slow mental processing
Research in recent years has especially focused on examining the relationship between inflammation and Alzheimer’s. A 2018 study found that participants with chronic low-level inflammation were nearly twice as likely to develop the disease. Another discovered that inflammatory compounds called cytokines encourage brain cells to produce a protein called IFITM3, which contributes to increased production of the hallmark brain plaques of Alzheimer's.
Food & drinks that contribute to inflammation
Because inflammation can have such a significant impact on our brains, it’s important to find ways to reduce and control chronic inflammation to support our cognitive health. (Here’s where “you are what you eat” comes back into play.)
One of the best ways to control and manage chronic inflammation is through proper nutrition and eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Some food and drinks are known to increase inflammation, while others can work to combat it. Next, let’s take a look at some different types of inflammatory foods, so you know what parts of your diet might contribute to inflammation and how to choose anti-inflammatory alternatives instead.
Sugar, refined carbohydrates, and high-fructose corn syrup
Excessive sugar, refined carbohydrates, and high-fructose corn syrup can be harmful to our health for many reasons. Beyond their link to health conditions like obesity and diabetes, added sugars are known to increase inflammation. And while small amounts of fructose occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, processed foods and sugary snacks contain fructose in much higher levels. Fructose-heavy diets have been shown to increase inflammation in a wide number of studies in both mice and humans.
Foods that are inflammatory due to their sugar content include cookies and cakes, candy, pastries, sugary cereals, soft drinks, and more. Instead, if you’re craving something sweet, try some fresh fruit, or sweeten your drink or bake with alternatives like honey or monk fruit.
Artificial trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats, giving them the stability of a more solid fat. These trans fats are often listed on nutrition labels as “partially hydrogenated oils.” You’ll find them in certain margarines and vegetable shortenings, fried foods like French fries, and packaged cakes and cookies.
While some trans fats occur naturally in dairy products and meats, artificial trans fats are added to some processed foods to extend their shelf life. Consuming these artificial trans fats is linked to high levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP). One study noted CRP levels a massive 78% higher in women who reported a higher level of trans fat intake.
In addition to artificial trans fats, other vegetable oils may also contribute to inflammation. Sunflower, corn, sesame, and soybean oil contain high levels of omega-6 fats, which have been linked to increased inflammation. However, other studies suggest that it’s not the level of omega-6 fats itself that causes inflammation, but that an unbalanced consumption of both omega-3 and omega-6 fats does. If you are working to avoid inflammatory foods as this research develops, olive oil is a good alternative low in omega-6.
Processed meats, like sausage, bacon, and beef jerky, contain higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) than most other meats. AGEs form when meats are cooked at high temperatures, and they can cause inflammation.
To avoid inflammation from your protein, stick with lean poultry or fish as alternatives to processed meats. You can also try non-meat proteins like beans and lentils.
While some argue low alcohol consumption can provide health benefits, higher amounts lead to health problems. One of the ways excessive alcohol can damage the body is by promoting inflammation.
In one study, levels of the inflammatory marker CRP increased the more people consumed alcohol. In addition, heavy drinkers may develop a problem with bacterial toxins moving out of the colon and into the body. As these toxins spread, they can cause widespread inflammation in the body, leading to organ damage in severe cases.
We recommend cutting alcohol entirely for your brain health; it’s a neurotoxin best avoided by anyone worried about cognitive decline. However, if you do want to drink, stick to an organic, sugar-free red wine in small quantities.
Instead of alcohol, consider trying some beverages with anti-inflammatory properties instead. Green tea is an all-around great choice, full of antioxidants. Turmeric and ginger also have anti-inflammatory properties, making them good options for flavored teas.
Other causes of inflammation
While adjusting your diet to consume fewer inflammatory foods is essential for your brain health, it’s important to remember that your nutrition isn’t solely responsible for causing or controlling inflammation. There are several other reasons your body may experience chronic inflammation, from outside influences to lifestyle factors. Here are a few more potential causes of inflammation to keep in mind:
- You exercise too much or too little. Working out at maximum intensity too much can cause inflammation. Similarly, if you don’t get enough physical activity, your body may be more susceptible to inflammation.
- You experience chronic mental and emotional stress, which can both cause and make it more difficult for your body to regulate inflammation.
- You regularly smoke or drink alcohol.
- You have been exposed to environmental toxins or heavy metals, like those in pollution, mold, household cleaners, industrial chemicals, or even certain foods.
- You have an underlying hormonal imbalance or gut imbalance.
- You have untreated acute inflammation caused by an infection or injury.
If you believe any of these environmental factors or lifestyle choices could be affecting how your body experiences inflammation, or if you have an autoimmune disorder, make sure to discuss a course of treatment with your doctor.
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