The first step in addressing brain health is to know whether you are at risk for a brain disorder or actually have one because of suggestive symptoms such memory loss, lack of focus, weakness, incoordination, pain and lightheadedness. While our genetic blueprint presumably maps an unchangeable path to illnesses that may cluster in your family, epigenetics shows that risk-conferring genes may be silenced by a healthy approach to brain health.
Systemic inflammation accompanies a variety of allergic, autoimmune, infectious, toxic, and metabolic brain processes, traumatic brain injury, and neurological hereditary disorders. Even low-grade inflammation promotes disturbance of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). When this occurs, brain cells secrete inflammatory molecules called cytokines that disturb normal functioning leading to a range of cognitive and neuropsychiatric manifestations. With frank disruption of the BBB, there is entry of plasma components, immune molecules and cellular elements, and autoantibodies. These initiate varying degrees of reversible brain dysfunction. Preempting this process would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but medical science has paved the way for holistic anti-inflammatory brain health programs focusing on optimal body and brain nutrition, and integrating exercise, conscious mental health, and effective immunomodulation.
There are a variety of ways to assess the presence of an autoimmune disorder and its effect on the brain. If you have already been diagnosed with connective tissue or rheumatologic disease, especially one associated with an antibody measured in the blood, the likelihood is quite high that the nervous system is affected by collateral damage. Abnormalities in magnetic resonance (MRI) scans that examine structure, and radiotracer scans that examine the BBB and brain metabolism (SPECT and PET) complete the picture. There are sensitive blood tests for antibodies associated with childhood and adult autoimmune encephalitis, while common blood studies will be able to screen for metabolic, toxic exposures, vitamin deficiencies, and allergic systemic illness, notably those with a genetic basis, like Celiac disease caused by sensitivity to gluten in wheat products.
The road to recovery starts with taking personal charge, acting like a detective, being on the lookout for brain dysfunction resulting from gluten sensitivity, excessive carbohydrate and dietary sugar ingestion. So states neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain and The Better Brain Book, while incorporating healthy fatty acids and mono-saturated fats to reduce body and brain inflammation. The anti-oxidant action of dietary cholesterol, the precursor of endogenous steroid hormones and fat soluble vitamins, protects the brain from the damaging effects of free radicals. Discovering hidden brain toxins in your medicine cabinet, household products, and ingested foods, and shifting body metabolism away from carbohydrates to heathy fats, remediates circulating leptin and insulin levels, while adding 7 brain-boosting dietary supplements: omega-3 fatty acid, reservatrol, turmeric, probiotics, coconut oil, alpha-lipoic acid, and vitamin D.
Optimal brain and body health can only truly be restored by achieving one’s ideal weight. Psychologist and diet expert, Dr. Stephen Gullo, author of Thin Tastes Better and The Thin Commandments Diet, notes that caloric intake is only half the success story, the other half being able to uncover the individual’s unique food history. With the right strategy, you can expect to shift from being a dieter to a food strategist in implementing a way of eating that is livable, thereby avoiding harmful weight fluctuations. Gullo’s ABC Eating Plan and tasteful recipes list the best foods to lose weight, eliminate any sense of deprivation and incorporates the ideal components of weight control through consumption of satisfying seafood and fiber sources, smart carbohydrates, healthy fats and calcium-rich foods. His book, which incorporates useful tips for preparing vegetables, seafood, and meats for healthier consumption, assures an initial 10 pound weight loss signaling the shift in body metabolism, while keeping you on-course for lifelong changes in the way you relate to food.
The path to optimal brain health begins in childhood with good food habits and sensible nutrition. It should not surprise you for example, that whole milk is healthier than low-fat milk in providing better nutrition, weight management and immune competence. After correcting for age, sex, outdoor play, and other factors that affected vitamin D levels and weight, 1 cup of whole milk per day led to vitamin D levels comparable to that of adolescents who ingested up to 3 cups of 1% milk associated with a likelier lean body mass. Why this happens is not known, but it may be influenced by improved absorption of vitamin D in higher fat milk that leaves children hungrier for more calorie-dense food. It also turns out that a handful of nuts a day, reduces the risk of death from heart disease, while attenuating the risk for respiratory and infectious illness, and diabetes. Small dietary changes may be more feasible in some individuals who wish to glean the beneficial effects of its high fiber, antioxidant, and polyunsaturated fat content. But beware of excesses and allergies.
Researchers have known that mastering certain activities demands considerable thought and consequently can alter workings of the brain. So it seems that playing a musical instrument which requires motor skills, while also engaging in memory, attention, forward planning and many other cognitive and executive functions, also enhance brain health; as do sports that stress hand-eye coordination, strategizing and mental attention. Running or jogging for enjoyment and exercise, while not generally not considered cerebral, activates parts of the brain affecting intellectual function and thinking powers, even after the run is over. Runners have been found to display certain cognitive skills, including multitasking and concentration that were more finely honed than inactive individuals emphasizing the role of physical activity in optimizing brain health.
An optimistic outlook benefits an individual’s overall health, decreasing death from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and infectious illness. Individuals harbor low optimism for a variety of reasons, and it can be inherited in up to a quarter of patients. It makes it even more encouraging that the other three-quarters of optimism are under our own personal control. Undue worrying, like generalized anxiety disorder and depression, which affects all social strata, can be more common in autoimmune brain disorders. There is no easy antidote to spiraling worries, but formulating concrete plans and actions that keep you in the daily pace of your life and others are two good remedies. When symptoms of generalized anxiety and depression occur whether due to life-long behaviors, or an associated neuropsychiatric illness, it makes brain sense to seek professional help because of the need for possible pharmacologic and psychotherapy.
Controlled breathing reduces stress, increases alertness, and boosts your immune system. Practiced for centuries by yogis, it may also lead to enlightenment. One theory of its salutary action is the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which involuntary controls heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and other vital functions. It appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the autonomic nervous system outflow causing a sense of calm which controls the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Controlled breathing also influences the immune system, reducing levels of salivary cytokines at various intervals during breathing exercises. Simply sit upright and place your hands on your belly. Slowly breathe in, expanding your abdomen to the count of five, pause, and breathe out to the count of six. Work your way up to repeating it for 10 to 20 minutes a day for maximal gains.
When there is evidence of a progressive autoimmune nervous system or brain disorder, there is available immune-modulatory therapy. Intravenous (IV) and subcutaneous (SC) immune globulin (Ig) resets the immune system by down-regulating T-cell and B-cell activation, interfering with complement protein activation, and usurping the inflammatory cascade, while restoring the integrity of normal antibody production. High-dose IV Ig treatment is warranted in a variety of autoimmune neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders including autoimmune encephalitis (AE). SC Ig is employed for patients with endogenous immune deficiency as supplemental or replacement therapy for children with recurrent bacterial infections, and others with intestinal disease who deplete their stores due to inflammation and leaky gut. Some individuals are given preceding plasma exchange (PE) to potentiate the effect of therapy.
Potent and potentially toxic Immune therapies may be indicated for short times. They include oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDS) for symptomatic relief of pain, and the anti-malarial drug plaquenil, for low-grade inflammation. Injectable biologic agents that treat connective tissue disorders and arthritis do so by inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines, interleukins and tumor necrosis factor. The strongest class of immunosuppressive agents which may be given for short or long periods in the setting of more serious illness, include corticosteroids that nonspecifically suppress the immune response, followed by injectable monoclonal antibodies that target B-cells like rituximab.
Now look ahead to a long healthy life with family, friends and colleagues confident in masterminding your brain and body health, undaunted by fear, hesitation, and procrastination