Everything that we see, think and feel is a result of the functioning of our brain. If you’ve ever had a day where nothing seems to go well, or a day where you just aren’t able to do the things that you otherwise accomplish, this is a day when you are living with impaired brain function.
What if those days are becoming the norm? What if there are more of those “off-days” than there are crisp, clear, productive days? And what if you are starting to develop actual physical symptoms as a result of something that happened in your day? Perhaps you ate something that left you extra foggy or having to rush to the restroom. Or perhaps you walked through the perfume department at the mall only to end up with a migraine later in the day, or realized that you have lost some of the feeling in your face!
Believe me when I tell you that these are not at all uncommon. These are the people who slip through the cracks of the medical system. These are the difficult, or “strange” patients that many doctors don’t know how to help, so they go home and suffer in solitude.
My interest in writing this article is to tell you that you are not strange, nor are you crazy. It could just be that you have neuroinflammation, or to be more picturesque, a brain on fire. Please read on and I will explain four possible different scenarios that might just ring true for what you could be experiencing every day.
An Introduction to Your Brain
Before I get into the conditions of brain inflammation, I feel it is necessary to first explain a few brain-based concepts. To start, we can all appreciate that our brains are made up of billions of neurons (nerve cells) that all fire in a wonderful orchestration to make literally every process in our bodies run smoothly. Believe it or not there are other cells, called glial cells, that outnumber our neurons by around 10 to 1 (Allen N. & Barres B., 2009). It was previously believed that glial cells only acted as glue for the neurons. Hence the name “glia” which is the Latin word for glue. But these cells do much more than just glue other cells together.
Glial cells help the neurons fire correctly, they protect the neurons, they establish a healthy blood brain barrier, and they help eliminate waste in the brain that can otherwise lead to things like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and other nasty neurological conditions. (Barres, 2008) The glial cells act as the immune system of the brain, and without them we would have no brain function.
These cells can also cause us great harm. One of my instructors, Dr. Datis Kharrazian, describes them as “chihuahuas with bazookas!” Because like a chihuahua they trigger easily and don’t tend to stop… And they have bazookas. So a lot of collateral damage can occur if they become activated. The focus of this article is in regard to the status of glial cells specifically. How loud are our little chihuahuas barking and just how much ammo do they have for those bazookas?!?
The earliest stage of a compromised brain is one that has mild intermittent inflammation. These are the people that notice transient or random episodes of brain fog, or variations in mental speed. They might also notice that they fatigue more easily certain days even if the tasks for that day remain unchanged. (Katarina V., Gordana T., Svetlana M., Milica B., 2018) These people may also notice that certain foods cause symptoms where they never have before. (Vojdani A., Kharrazian D., Mukherjee ., 2013) Generally speaking, rest and distance from offending factors can get these people back on track. The good days still are the most common and the bad days tend to come at random. But bad days are something this population quickly accepts as the new normal.
The people in this category have progressed and find that more days than not they are experiencing the symptoms listed above. They literally have more bad days than good. This category might also include depression, chronic pain, inability to concentrate for long periods of time (as might be seen in ADD/ADHD). There could be low motivation, low appetite, and/or fatigue (as might be seen in chronic fatigue… Hint hint…). (Ji R., Nackley A, Huh Y, Terrando N, Maixner W., 2018) Both of these first two categories are still totally reversible if the triggers are removed, and some specific therapy provided. They are concerning and considerable, but manageable.
This stage is the one that gets missed more times than not in both the mainstream and alternative clinic alike. This is the stage where the little chihuahuas (microglia – brain immune cells) are barking and firing off their bazookas and just won’t stop, causing actual damage to the brain tissue by accident. These microglia cells became “primed” due to some significant impact to the brain at some time in the past. This could be due to a head trauma for example. Anyone who has had a concussion most likely has primed glial cells. Anyone who has been knocked unconscious definitely has primed glial cells. (Corps K., Roth T., McGavern D., 2015) This could also be from an infection to the brain. So knowing a person’s medical history can tell a lot about the status of their brain.
The glial cells actually change their shape and function once primed and they stay this way. Unlike the immune cells of the rest of the body which come and go quickly, these immune cells are with us for life. So once primed these cells are easily triggered by any number of “second hits,” that might come a person’s way. These are the people who experience actual physical symptoms, or loss of function as a result of a trigger. They no longer experience only brain fog, but on top of that might get a migraine, or suffer vertigo and feel the need to isolate themselves and sleep as a result of the loud noise and flashing lights of a music concert for example. These people are the “chemical sensitive” population who make special efforts to avoid potential triggers in their environment. Failure to do so can often lead to something debilitating. A glial-primed brain can be global for the entire brain, or local, only effecting certain areas of the brain and therefore producing only very specific symptoms. Neurologically literate practitioners can help determine the difference.
This is the most extreme of the four categories. Neurological autoimmunity is when the immune system no longer knows the difference between the body’s own neurological tissue, and something like a bacteria or virus that needs to be destroyed. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is one common example of this kind of condition. In MS the cells that insulate the neurons (myelin) are targeted and destroyed causing neurological “misfires” throughout the entire body that tend to come and go. Think of a frayed electrical wire. This is a progressive and deteriorating condition if left untreated. The people with neurological autoimmunity can end up suffering irreversible injury to the brain or other nerves in the body as a result of seemingly mild and unrelated triggers. Gluten and dairy sensitivity for example happen to be highly linked to this type of person. (Vojdani A., Kharrazian D., Mukherjee ., 2013) We must think, “eat gluten & dairy, kill brain,” in many of these cases. Unfortunately this is not something people are told in the typical medical experience. Proper testing and evaluation are the only ways to know if something a person is doing every day is literally destroying their brain.
How Do I Put Out a Brain on Fire?
To start, I want to reinforce the necessity of evaluation from a properly trained practitioner. As I stated above, many of these symptoms tend to get overlooked, or may just be not fully understood. So I encourage you to reach out with your questions. I am here for you. But there are plenty of things a person can do on their own to help moderate all of these four stages. Just understand, that as they progress to the more serious stages, more effort and intervention is required. And in some cases it is important to understand that enough damage may have already occurred that a successful intervention is simply not allowing it to progress further. This could be the difference between having trouble remembering where you put your car keys, and full-blown Alzheimer’s.
To begin we need to bring it back to basics. There is perhaps nothing better for brain health than proper sleep. (Zhu B., Dong Y., Xu Z., Gompf H., Ward S., Xue Z., …, Xie Z., 2012) This is the time when the brain attempts to repair damage incurred from the day. If a person is waking up all night long, or not getting to sleep until very late they are impairing vital brain repair. Sleep is essential, and without it, expensive therapies, supplements, etc. might be like fighting an uphill struggle with little reward.
Stress management is another commonly talked about endeavor but one which is not taken as seriously as it should. Many people “de-stress” by sitting on the couch for hours watching high drama or high action shows. Even though they are seated and comfy, they are activating stress responses in the brain. Try meditation for 20-minutes a day to start. Try sitting under a tree and watching the blossoms blow in the wind. Make acupuncture or massage a regular thing. Seek out a good therapist if necessary. The impacts of stress activate the inflammatory response and must be moderated. It has been demonstrated in the medical literature that acupuncture can have a powerful impact on stress physiology. (Zhang H., Tao J., Lu S., Xu L., Gu Y., 2016) It has also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and increase protective compounds such as brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which quite literally helps the neurons to stay alive and active. (Xia W., Zheng C., Zhang X., Wang J., 2017)
Find a functional blood chemistry literate practitioner such as myself and have your blood chemistry evaluated. Very small shifts in things like blood sugar, anemia patterns, liver health, etc. can all be triggers for an inflamed brain. Fine tune the system and the brain will reap the benefits. It is important to understand that the brain is very sensitive to inflammatory stress. It happens to lack the anti-oxidant protection that the rest of the body enjoys. So moderate inflammatory stress systemically throughout the body and protect the delicate structures in the brain as well. There are of course a small truck load of nutritional supplements, vitamins, minerals and herbs that can offer support as well. However, I must be careful here because some of these are strong and not always the same for everyone. It is best left to the practitioner to help you decide what might be best in this category.
To conclude I want to reiterate just how commonly conditions like these are missed in the medical world today. People in this situation often find themselves going from doctor to doctor without success. Conditions like this often make the person seem strange, or even crazy to the doctor they are seeking out for help. These people are getting let down by the very establishment put in place to provide them with care. There is a small but growing community of practitioners who understand the delicate mechanisms at play in neuroinflammatory conditions. I am honored to have a hand in helping those people in this category who simply don’t know where else to turn. The people I work with are motivated to create change in their lives so that the tangled web of imbalance can finally be unraveled. Those people who can embrace a diet and lifestyle shift, are willing to look deeper into the various contributing factors hidden within their condition, and who are willing to comply with the necessary nutraceutical and herbal protocols, tend to experience a positive shift in their health that many haven’t felt in years. I look forward to becoming a powerful resource for you or your friends and loved ones. You are not strange nor are you crazy. It just may be that your brain is on fire.
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