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You may have heard of leaky gut, but have you heard of leaky brain?
Sometimes the immune barriers in the body break down, letting in pollutants, toxins, and other irritants that would normally be kept out.
This often happens in the gut or the lungs, which you might have heard referred to as leaky gut or leaky lung syndrome.
But there’s another, lesser-known kind of barrier breakdown that can happen in the brain.
While thousands of papers have been published on intestinal permeability and how it causes dysfunction throughout the body, the blood-brain barrier model is just now starting to receive widespread recognition.
Commonly called leaky brain, the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier can let through infections, pathogens, and other environmental triggers, leading to inflammation and neurodegeneration.
People who suffer from leaky brain often experience neurological symptoms including brain fog, memory loss, and depression.
So what causes the blood-brain barrier to break down, and what can you do to improve it?
The blood-brain barrier
Before we talk about the symptoms of leaky brain, what causes it, and what you can do about it, we first need to go over what the blood-brain barrier is and what it normally does.
The blood-brain barrier is made of blood vessels and cells called astrocytes. Together, they create a barrier that keeps pollutants, toxins, circulating antibodies, and dietary proteins out.
When this barrier becomes overly permeable, chemicals in the bloodstream, pathogens, and circulating antibodies can cross over and cause inflammation in the brain.
Symptoms of leaky brain
- Brain fog
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of motor coordination
- Brain fatigue
- Cognitive delays
- Lowered mental endurance
- Decreased nerve conduction speed
All of these symptoms are associated with inflammation and neurodegeneration.
Brain inflammation interferes with regular synaptic activity, slowing nerve conduction and making everything the brain needs to do less efficient. Motor skills, mental endurance, and memory are all impacted.
All of a sudden, a practiced tennis player might have difficulty serving the ball, or an avid reader may be unable to finish a single page.
How to diagnose leaky brain
So how do we determine if a patient has blood brain barrier permeability?
The most well-known test measures a marker called S100B, as elevated levels of the marker are a common sign of increased permeability.
Doctors can also test for leaky brain by looking at different protein antibodies. These kinds of circulating antibodies can’t cross the brain unless the barrier has been broken down, so their presence also indicates increased permeability.
While always an issue, this is especially concerning for those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
Gluten’s amino acid sequence is very similar to the protein structure of certain regions in the brain, specifically neurofilament proteins and astrocytes in the cerebellum. Due to this similarity, gluten is often able to mimic these protein structures, causing gluten antibodies to bind to the brain.
This concept is called molecular mimicry and it causes the immune system to attack and destroy brain tissue every time the gluten sensitive person (experiencing this mechanism, which is not everyone) eats gluten.
In fact, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease affect primarily nerve and brain tissue. No other food is more of a trigger for neurological dysfunction and neurological autoimmunity than gluten.
What causes the blood-brain barrier to break down?
Anything that impacts healthy blood vessel function or creates persistent inflammation can cause the blood-brain barrier to break down. Unless managed through dietary and lifestyle strategies, chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders such as lupus, Hashimoto’s, or rheumatoid arthritis have the potential to break down the barriers in the body, including the gut, lung, and brain barriers.
We also know that inflammatory bowel diseases and chronic gut inflammation can contribute to the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. It’s been proven that inflammation in the gut often means inflammation in the brain, and research I’ve published with Dr. Vojdani have shown that patients with inflammatory bowel diseases have a significantly higher risk of blood-brain barrier breakdown.
Traumatic brain injuries are another common cause of leaky brain. When the brain is injured, the blood-brain barrier intentionally opens to allow the passage of immune cells. After the immune cells enter in order to help the injured brain, the barrier is supposed to close back up – but this doesn’t always occur.
Patients with traumatic brain injuries often notice their brain function declines over time because their blood-brain barrier has never truly healed.
Factors that increase your risk of leaky brain
- Alcohol abuse
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Decreased blood flow
- Lack of exercise
- Chronic sleep disruption
- Long-term use of corticosteroids
Treatments for leaky brain
So how do you treat a leaky blood-brain barrier?
The first step is to examine your lifestyle factors. This means looking at alcohol use, making sure you’re on an anti-inflammatory diet, and identifying any other underlying issues that may be contributing factors.
Whether you suffer from a chronic inflammatory disease or autoimmune disorder, you can implement different strategies to help reduce the accompanying inflammation and improve metabolic health.
Some nutraceuticals have been shown to help support the blood-brain barrier, including fish oil, ginkgo biloba, vinpocetine, alpha lipoic acid, glutathione, and resveratrol.
To learn more about how to improve and support your brain health, check out my popular course Save Your Brain: The Six-Week Brain Rescue Program.