When the immune system breaks down, pollutants, toxins and other irritants are allowed into the body. This is more common with the lungs and gut, but such breakdowns happen in the brain too.
“Leaky brain” occurs when the blood-brain barrier breaks down, allowing infections, pathogens and other environmental triggers to enter the brain. Leaky brain patients often experience neurological symptoms such as brain fog, memory loss and depression
The role of the blood-brain barrier in this condition is just now starting to receive widespread recognition amongst the scientific community. The blood-brain barrier is composed of blood vessels and cells called astrocytes.
They work together to prevent pollutants, toxins, antibodies and dietary proteins from entering the brain. This barrier can become overly permeable, allowing chemicals in the bloodstream, pathogens and circulating antibodies to enter the brain and cause inflammation.
The symptoms of leaky brain include the following:
- Brain fog
- Difficulty concentrating
- Brain fatigue
- Lack of motor coordination
- Cognitive delays
- Depression, and
- Lowered mental endurance
Inflammation and neurodegeneration are associated with all of these symptoms. The inflammation of the brain interferes with regular synaptic activity, slowing nerve conduction and degrading brain function. A person’s motor skills, mental endurance and memory are all affected.
All of a sudden, an experienced badminton player might have difficulty making a serve, or an avid writer may be unable to complete one paragraph.
Blood-brain barrier breakdown can be caused by anything that impairs healthy blood vessel function or causes persistent inflammation. Chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Hashimoto’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, can erode the gut, lung and brain barriers if not properly managed.
Inflammatory bowel diseases and chronic gut inflammation can also contribute to blood-brain barrier permeability. Another common cause of leaky brain is traumatic brain injury. Immune cells can pass through the blood-brain barrier when the brain is injured.
The barrier is suppose to close back up after the immune cells enter the injured brain to provide help, but this doesn’t always happen. As the blood-brain barrier never truly heals in some patients with traumatic brain injuries, their brain function often declines over time.
Other factors that increase the risk of leaky brain include:
- Lack of exercise
- Alcohol abuse
- Chronic sleep disruption
- Long-term use of corticosteroids
- A sedentary lifestyle, and
- Decreased blood flow.
Related to gluten
What is the best way to determine if a patient has permeability of the blood-brain barrier?
Typically, elevated levels of a marker called S100B are a sign of increased permeability. The diagnosis of leaky brain can also be made by testing for protein antibodies. The presence of these kinds of antibodies indicates increased permeability, as they cannot cross the blood-brain barrier without the barrier being broken down.
Coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity sufferers are especially at risk. The amino acid sequence of gluten and certain brain proteins, such as neurofilament proteins and astrocytes in the cerebellum, are very similar. Due to this molecular mimicry, gluten antibodies can bind to these brain proteins.
When gluten-sensitive individuals eat gluten, their immune system is triggered to attack the consumed gluten. At the same time, they may also attack and destroy brain tissue as they mistake it for gluten. It has been found that gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease are primarily related to nerve and brain tissue.
There is no food more likely to trigger neurological dysfunction and neurological autoimmunity than gluten. Do note however, that not all gluten-sensitive individuals may undergo this mechanism.
The good news is that there are several ways you can improve a case of leaky brain. Examining your lifestyle factors is the first step. Identify any underlying issues that may be contributing to the problem, such as alcohol use, an anti-inflammatory diet and toxin exposure, for example.
To reduce inflammation and improve your metabolic health, there are different strategies you can use, regardless of whether you have a chronic inflammatory disease or an autoimmune disorder. They include:
There is evidence that gluten elevates a protein called zonulin.
Zonulin, which increases the permeability of the intestinal barrier and disrupts the blood-brain barrier, is produced by our bodies.
According to researchers, gluten increases zonulin, which contributes to a “leaky gut” and “leaky brain”, resulting in neuroinflammation and cognitive dysfunction.
It is possible to see changes in your brain’s white matter as a result of gluten sensitivity.
Studies suggest that alcohol and acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol metabolism, can damage and weaken the blood-brain barrier, resulting in neuroinflammation. While there are ways to protect your brain from alcohol, you’re better off avoiding it completely or reducing your consumption if you’re trying to heal.
Increasing the good bacteria in your gut
Yes, there is a link between your brain and your gut. You can improve your blood-brain barrier and heal your leaky brain by controlling the balance of your gut bacteria and increasing the amount of good bacteria in your digestive system.
The amount of good bacteria in your gut can be increased by eating more prebiotic fibres and resistant starches, taking a high-quality probiotic, and eating fermented foods regularly.
Brain and nerve cells are maintained by aerobic exercise, which increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein has a key role in the survival and growth of neurons, as well as brain plasticity, which are essential for learning and memory.
In order for your blood-brain barrier to function optimally, you should get at least seven hours of high-quality, restorative sleep every night. Melatonin supplements may help in this matter.
This hormone is released by your pineal gland – a small gland in your brain that controls your sleep and wake cycles (circadian rhythm). It may be possible to prevent damage caused by traumatic brain injury through stabilising the blood-brain barrier with melatonin.
Generally speaking, having an anti-inflammatory nutrition plan, using targeted supplementations and supporting natural detoxification pathways are some of the natural solutions for a leaky brain.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 17 Oct 2022