Unfortunately, increased inflammation seems to be part of the aging pattern. Whether in your knee or your gut, things tip more quickly out of balance and take longer to recover.
We’ve already discussed several regular changes to the aging brain. Low-level neuroinflammation is another significant factor of cognitive aging. This inflammation directly affects neurons in the brain and is responsible for slower processing speed and fuzzy memory.
Left unchecked, inflammation in the brain can cause depression and eventually lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Dementia and Parkinson’s. (1) We can do so much to minimize inflammatory processes; it’s certainly a subject worthy of this final chapter.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is an immune response. It is designed to heal our organs, tissues and bones after trauma and to fight infection from outside invaders – bacteria, viruses, parasites, bee venom, etc.
The familiar symptoms of inflammation are redness, heat, swelling, and pain. Each of these has a purpose as part of the healing and protective mechanisms. When the threat diminishes, and the tissue heals, the immune response calms down, and symptoms resolve.
In cases of chronic inflammation, the immune response does not resolve. The immune system continues to send antibodies, proteins and additional blood to the compromised area. This can happen if there is some continuous irritant (a food, a chemical), an ongoing infection or injury, or an underlying autoimmune disorder.
Regardless of the source of the problem, the hyperactive immune system becomes a problem in itself as the immune proteins and white blood cells begin to cause more irritation in the body rather than help it resolve. Symptoms of chronic inflammation include fatigue, generalized pain, depression, and gastrointestinal symptoms (bloating, constipation and diarrhea). (2) Low-level inflammation may go unrecognized for years as its symptoms could have many other causes. Meanwhile, damage is occurring under the surface as time goes by.
Finally, the fire of chronic inflammation is fueled by stress. When we are in stress mode, and the sympathetic nervous system is stuck “on,” we’re in perpetual fight or flight. It’s no wonder the immune system perceives a continual threat.
Microglia – the brain’s immune system
Microglia are resident macrophages of the central nervous system. When the brain is in balance, the microglia support and strengthen appropriate neuronal connections. They also dispose of dead cells and other debris that interfere with healthy communication between neurons. And, like macrophages in the rest of the body, they destroy outside invaders.
When something triggers inflammation in the brain, the glial cells switch into attack mode. They actually change shape and become primed to attack perceived invaders. Receptors on their surfaces recognize distress signals from other cells. These signals attract the microglia to the site of the problem, and then they go to work. When the threat is eliminated, and inflammation resolves, the microglia resume their former shape. They return to their regular support and waste removal activities.
However, as we age, the glial cells often remain sensitized and primed to attack, so chronic low-level inflammation becomes the norm (3). This hinders communication between neurons, so they fire more slowly, creating symptoms such as brain fog, slower mental speed, slower recall, and slower reflexes.
Brain inflammation also shuts down energy production in the neurons. Brain endurance drops, making it harder to read, work, or concentrate for any length of time. Such diminished cognitive function can easily lead to depression.
In the long run, chronic neuroinflammation leads to death of healthy neurons and disintegration of nerve pathways… the disease process of degenerative disorders like Dementia, Alzheimers and Parkinson’s. (4)
How can you Minimize Inflammation in the Brain?
Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working, states emphatically that there is nothing more damaging to the brain than stress. Furthermore, studies have shown a direct link between stress and dementia. (5) Chronic stress actually shrinks the entire brain over time, decreases blood flow to the brain and has a particularly damaging effect on the hippocampus – the part of our brains involved with memory.
Whether you do this by making lifestyle or job changes, practicing yoga or meditation, walking the dog or digging in the garden…. find ways to decrease stress and bring more joy into your life. Your brain will thank you for it!
A recent review found exercise directly affects microglia. It shifts them out of their sensitized and hyper-vigilant form, back to a relaxed and maintenance-oriented one. Exercising the brain has also been shown to help microglia resist Alzheimer’s disease. (6)
Refer to the first article in this series for information on the best types of exercise to keep aging brains healthy.
Stabilize Blood Sugar
Chronic insulin surges agitate the microglia and cause additional inflammatory reactions in the brain. A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates has been directly correlated with the development of dementia. (7) To optimize health and longevity for your brain, avoid these carbs and eat regular meals.
Know your Food Sensitivities
Anything inflammatory to the body is inflammatory to the brain. (8) The gut in particular has a close relationship to the brain. The same protein that causes leaky gut causes breaches in the blood-brain barrier. Inflammation ensues as the microglial cells attempt to destroy substances from the intestines that should never have found their way into the brain.
If you are unaware of any food sensitivities but are trying to maximize brain health as you age, it’s worth getting some testing done.
Gluten may be the most insidious offender. It causes a “severe and significant inflammatory response” in the brains of sensitive individuals.
And you may be unaware of gluten sensitivity. One test showed in a healthy and symptom-free population of 400 people, about 15 percent had markers for gluten sensitivity. (9)
Other common inflammatory proteins are found in dairy products, eggs and soy… It’s easy to test for sensitivity to these ubiquitous substances.
For brain health, this means regular meals with little or no gluten, dairy, sugars or simple carbohydrates.
Eat several servings a day of different vegetables. Diversity of vegetables means diversity in the gut microbiome. A healthy microbiome minimizes intestinal inflammation and permeability and can protect the blood-brain barrier from compromise.
Eat plenty of healthy fats and get your essential fatty acids (EFAs) from flax or fish oil, nuts and seeds. Fish oil is especially beneficial; EPA acts as an anti-inflammatory, and DHEA supports the brain’s neuron cell membranes.
Limit Alcohol and Don’t Smoke!
Alcohol causes brain damage and a host of other health problems. A recent study found that even small amounts of alcohol activate the microglia’s inflammatory response. Research shows this same activation is also induced by a specific compound found in cigarette smoke.
Hydration is essential for cognitive function. Even mild dehydration can impair mood, memory and concentration. (10)
Microglia never sleep; they clean and repair the brain and improve memory while you do. However, lack of sleep has been shown to keep the microglia primed, causing inflammation and making them unavailable for restorative tasks. (11)
All the things you know to do to support general health support brain health. Isn’t it great that it comes down to these few simple prescriptions? Remember, exercise your body, exercise your brain, and do what you can to minimize inflammation to give your aging brain a long, healthy life.
Dr. Austin can support you in maximizing brain health as you age. In addition to the tools and tests mentioned in part 2 of this series, he tests for food sensitivities and environmental toxins like parabens and mold. Dr. Austin can test for leaky gut and leaky brain and determine where inflammation may be disrupting the brain. He is also able to detect early signs of autoimmune disease. These, in combination with a comprehensive history and survey of lifestyle choices, will help uncover the problems and point toward solutions. You can build a better brain starting now!