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Soothing Inflamed Brains

If you’re experiencing forgetfulness, irritability, clumsiness or trouble focusing, it’s possible that brain inflammation could be playing a role. In this special report, we look at some natural ways to reduce inflammation in your brain and get your brain functioning at its best.

Inflammation can affect the brain, just like any other part of the body. The brain does have its own distinct immune system and protective mechanisms. However, when it comes to brain inflammation, it is your body’s way of protecting your brain from harmful toxins, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. It’s important, however, to recognise the seriousness of chronic ongoing
brain inflammation as it can affect brain health, inhibit brain function and increase the risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms of brain inflammation

Chronic inflammation of the brain can lead to symptoms including brain fog, mood swings, inability to focus, poor memory, chronic pain or headaches, irritability, confusion, poor motor control, clumsiness, balance issues and mental fatigue.

If left unaddressed, this unchecked inflammation may advance to conditions like dementia during later stages of life. Regrettably, many of us have been conditioned to accept these occurrences, such as forgetting where we placed our keys, as a normal part of getting older.

Dietary Support

Dietary principles that reduce brain inflammation include controlling blood sugar levels, identifying food allergies and intolerances, prioritising omega-3 fats that support brain function, eating a plant-based anti-inflammatory diet, choosing antioxidant-rich whole foods over sugary processed foods, promoting gut health with pre- and probiotics, and eating lower
carbohydrates, higher protein and healthy fats.

Specific types of healthy fats, including omega-3 essential fatty acids, serve as antioxidants and precursors to essential brain-supporting compounds and neurotransmitters responsible for controlling functions such as learning, memory, mood and
energy regulation. The brain is predominantly comprised of fatty acids and relies on a consistent supply of these beneficial fats from the diet to maintain proper brain function, along with regulating mood and hormones.

Diet plays a significant role in managing inflammation and consuming foods that promote inflammation can exacerbate neuroinflammation. When managing brain inflammation, it is important to avoid pro-inflammatory foods such as gluten (wheat, barley, rye), refined sugars and processed foods (sugary snacks, cereals and beverages), hydrogenated oils and trans-fats (vegetable oils, fried and takeaway foods), processed deli meats and commercially raised red meat. A diet high in refined sugars will elevate glucose and insulin levels, which can increase inflammation throughout the body.

There are a number of diets that follow these dietary principles and can help reduce brain-related and general inflammation. Some of those diets are:

Low-carb diet

A low-carb diet is a nutritional approach that focuses on reducing the intake of carbohydrates, particularly refined and simple carbohydrates such as sugars, processed grains and starchy vegetables. A well-structured low-carb diet emphasises the consumption of good-quality protein, healthy fats and natural nutrient-dense carbohydrates from certain vegetables, fruits and whole grains, in moderation.

Anti-inflammatory diet

An anti-inflammatory diet that eliminates refined starches (white bread, pasta, rice and cereals, pastries and baked goods) and high amounts of carbohydrates, refined sugars and artificial trans-fats is an evidence-based approach to reducing brain inflammation. It also avoids wheat, rye, barley and other gluten-containing foods, which are pro-inflammatory foods. Look for gluten-free grains such as millet, amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and gluten-free oats (that have been processed in
a gluten-free mill).

Paleo diet

The Paleo diet emphasises whole, unprocessed foods such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruits in moderation, grass-fed lean meats, fish, eggs, healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, avocadoes), nuts and seeds. The diet removes pro-inflammatory foods that can trigger an immune response, such as legumes, grains, processed foods, dairy foods, vegetable oils and sugar. This makes it overall lower in carbohydrates and higher in fats and protein, which is useful for stabilising blood sugar levels.

Choosing grass-fed red meat is a healthier choice, as it contains higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory, compared to commercially raised meats that are higher in inflammatory omega-6 fats.

Low fodmap diet

FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) are types of fermentable starches and sugars that can cause inflammation in those with FODMAP intolerances. Foods that contain FODMAPs can cause wind and bloating in certain people as they’re easily fermented and sometimes difficult to digest and absorb. Following a FODMAP diet can help reduce leaky gut and inflammation and ease digestive symptoms. FODMAP foods include garlic, wheat, dairy, legumes, onions and stone fruit.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet promotes mainly plant-based foods packed with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients from fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), oily fish and red wine in moderation. The Mediterranean diet limits red meat and highly processed foods rich in refined carbohydrates, added sugars and saturated fat, which are pro-inflammatory foods. Eating more fish rich in beneficial omega-3 fats and less red meat is associated with reduced inflammation and oxidative stress and better brain function. Red wine and red grapes contain high levels of polyphenols called resveratrol, which is known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and neuroprotective effects. Numerous studies have shown that foods from the Mediterranean diet are beneficial for avoiding brain disorders and protecting the brain from ageing and the development of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Plant-based diet

A plant-based diet is beneficial for reducing inflammation in the body, which can have positive effects on brain health and neuroinflammation. Plant-based diets are typically based on foods loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals that combat
oxidative stress and reduce inflammation.

Herbs to alleviate brain inflammation

Here are some of the most effective and widely used herbs that have been shown to enhance cognitive function, alleviate neuroinflammation and oxidative stress, and lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is an Ayurvedic herb that has been studied extensively for its impressive health benefits, including its anti inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective properties. Turmeric contains a bioactive compound called curcumin, which
is believed to be responsible for many of its therapeutic properties. Research suggests that turmeric can boost brain health and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by clearing beta-amyloids from the brain. By reducing inflammation, turmeric can help improve the integrity of the blood-brain-barrier and the gut lining. It also has a powerful antioxidant action that helps neutralise harmful free radicals, which may help protect neurons from oxidative stress and damage.

Turmeric can be taken as a herbal extract or tablet form, or as a powder added to curries, stir-fries, rice dishes, roasted veggies, salad dressings, dips, smoothies, raw desserts and baked goods. Add a dash of pepper to improve curcumin’s absorption.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

In Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, ginger is highly regarded for its therapeutic properties. Ginger contains bioactive compounds, namely gingerol and shogaol, which have demonstrated potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. These beneficial compounds can inhibit astrocyte overactivation and reduce the production of pro-inflammatory molecules and oxidative stress, which helps reduce neuroinflammation.

Ginger can be taken as a herbal extract or in tablet form, or consumed in the diet fresh or dried, enjoyed as a herbal tea, in curries, stir-fries, sauces and salad dressings, veggie juices, raw desserts and baked goods.

Ginkgo (Gingko biloba)

Known as the “brain herb”, ginkgo has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine to enhance memory and cognitive function. Ginkgo’s brain-boosting benefits are due to its ability to increase blood flow to the brain, improve the
utilisation of oxygen and glucose by brain cells and reduce amyloid plaque deposition. Gingko also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, which are important factors for maintaining cognitive health. Research shows that ginkgo can help protect
against cognitive decline, particularly in people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary has a long history of being used in many cultures around the world to improve memory and cognitive clarity. Rosemary leaves contain two bioactive compounds, carnosic acid and carnosol, which account for most of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits. These compounds possess neuroprotective effects and can help reduce neuroinflammation. Rosemary also contains caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid, which also demonstrate neuroprotective effects.

In aromatherapy, the inhalation of rosemary essential oil is used to improve concentration and memory. The aroma of rosemary may have a stimulating effect on the brain, enhancing alertness and cognitive function. Rosemary can be consumed as a herbal tea or herbal extract, or the essential oil can be used topically. Fresh and dried rosemary also adds flavour and extra goodness to dishes such as fish, meats, chicken, pasta and roasted vegetables.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Ginseng is often referred to as Asian, Korean or American ginseng, depending on where it is grown. All ginseng species contain unique bioactive compounds called ginsenosides, which are responsible for ginseng’s many health benefits, including improved cognitive function. American ginseng, which was traditionally used by Native Americans as a sacred healing herb, is regarded
as being of superior quality and having a higher concentration of ginsenosides, due to the harsh conditions in which it is grown.

Ginseng is an adaptogenic herb that increases the body’s resilience to mental and physical stress, which can improve mental fatigue and clarity, and lift the mood. Ginseng supports healthy brain function by boosting blood flow to the brain. This increases the delivery of oxygen, glucose and essential nutrients to the brain, while also assisting with the removal of toxins and waste.

Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, ginseng can help protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation, which are key factors in cognitive decline and the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Ginsenosides can
also stimulate the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is important for learning and memory. American ginseng, in particular, has been found to be an effective memory-enhancing herb.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years to support overall health and wellbeing. Ashwagandha is known for its stress-reducing and adaptogenic properties. Chronic stress can have a
detrimental effect on brain health and can contribute to cognitive impairment. Ashwagandha assists with reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has a positive effect on memory and attention. When ashwagandha is taken daily, it has been shown to improve cognitive performance.

Ashwagandha contains bioactive compounds including withaferin A and withanolides, which have antioxidant and anti inflammatory actions. These beneficial compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier. Studies have shown that ashwagandha can help reduce the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, protecting brain cells from inflammation and injury and potentially lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Brahmi (Bacopa monniera)

Brahmi is a well-known adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb that is used to treat chronic stress and enhance memory and cognitive function. Brahmi contains bioactive compounds called bacoside-A and bacoside-B, which are responsible for many of the herb’s memory-enhancing effects. Bacosides have been shown to help repair damaged neurons and improve nerve impulse transmission, which play a vital role in promoting healthy cognitive functions such as learning, focus, concentration and
memory. Bacosides also have neuroprotective and antioxidant properties, which help protect brain cells from oxidative stress. Brahmi has positive effects on brain function and memory by reducing anxiety and enhancing the effects of neurotransmitters
acetylcholine, serotonin and GABA. Brahmi also helps prevent brain inflammation by inhibiting the release of inflammatory cytokines from microglial cells and enzymes associated with inflammation in the brain.

Nutrients that reduce neuroinflammation

Complementing a wholesome well-balanced diet with nutrients and phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and nootropic effects can help reduce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, promote cognitive health and function, and lower the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in high levels in red grape skins and seeds, has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which contribute to its neuroprotective effect. Resveratrol is capable of crossing the blood-brain-barrier and has been found to reduce neuroinflammation. Resveratrol can help modulate microglial activation, preventing excessive activation and the release of inflammatory substances.

Quercetin is a flavonoid that is known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Excellent food sources of quercetin include black grapes, raspberries, broccoli, kale, onions and apples. The recommended dosage of quercetin is 500mg–1000mg per day.

NAC is a precursor to glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that plays a critical role in protecting cells, including brain cells, from oxidative stress and inflammation. The recommended dosage of NAC is 1200mg-2400mg daily.

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in high levels in oily fish, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3s have been shown to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain. These beneficial fats also assist with maintaining the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, preventing the entry of immune cells and inflammatory molecules into the brain. Choose a high-quality fish-oil supplement. Dosages of 2-4g daily are prescribed for depression and neuroinflammatory conditions.

Vitamin D is important for maintaining overall brain health and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders such as depression. Vitamin D has an immunomodulating effect, meaning it can help balance the immune system and regulate the balance between pro-inflammatory and inflammatory responses. Vitamin D has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory action, which can help mitigate neuroinflammation and protect brain cells from damage. This important vitamin also supports
a healthy mood and cognitive function as it influences the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. Your skin can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Spending time outdoors, particularly during peak
sunlight hours, is an effective way to boost your vitamin D levels. Aim for about 10-30 minutes of sun exposure to your arms, legs, abdomen, or back, without sunscreen, several times a week. You can obtain vitamin D from various food sources, including fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), egg yolks, fortified dairy products (milk, yoghurt), fortified cereals and certain types of mushrooms. For people who have limited sun exposure, or who have low vitamin D levels (levels below 30ng/ml), supplementation is recommended. To boost your vitamin D levels (50+ng/ml), choose a vitamin D3 supplement at a dosage of 5000-10,000IU/daily.

B vitamins are crucial for brain health and overall neurological function. Vitamin B5 is necessary for the synthesis of acetylcholine. Vitamin B9 (folate), B6 and B12 are required for the production of several neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine that play key roles in mood regulation, cognitive function and overall brain health. Inadequate intake of B vitamins can lead to a range of neurological symptoms, including cognitive decline, mood disorders and neurological conditions. A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods, green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, dairy and eggs, can help ensure you get an adequate supply of B vitamins. Choose a good-quality activated B complex vitamin. These activated forms of B vitamins are already in a bioavailable and easily usable form.

Lifestyle choices

Three crucial lifestyle interventions that will help reduce brain inflammation and support cognitive health are regular exercise, stress management and good-quality sleep.

Regular exercise

Regular exercise is essential for brain health and can help reduce neuroinflammation. A combination of both strength and cardiovascular training has been shown to decrease systemic inflammation and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain and improves sleep.

Stress management

Stress reduction is vital for reducing inflammation in the body, including the brain, and for improving cognitive function and mental health. Chronic stress can have a profound impact on cognitive function and can lead to brain fog, mental fatigue, impaired memory and poor concentration and focus. Prolonged or chronic stress leads to a continuous release of the stress hormones cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can contribute to oxidative stress and neuroinflammation. Chronic stress can also increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and the gut lining. Chronic stress is a common cause of leaky gut, which can contribute to brain inflammation and poor cognitive function.

Effective stress management and relaxation techniques can help mitigate stress and its cognitive effects. Some of the best stress-relieving interventions include mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, yoga and journaling. Relaxation practices such as massage, reading a book and warm baths can help reduce stress. Utilising calming herbal medicines and homeopathic remedies and seeking help from a psychologist or cognitive behavioural therapist are great ways to help manage your stress levels.

Good-quality sleep

It’s while you sleep that your body rests, restores and revitalises and your immune system strengthens. To support brain function and reduce inflammation, it’s essential to prioritise sleep and maintain a healthy sleep routine.

Good sleep plays a vital role in healthy brain function and can significantly impact inflammation in the body, including the brain. Adults should aim to get around seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Disturbed sleep and short sleep (less than seven hours) are associated with high markers of inflammation such as CRP.

It’s when you sleep that the brain repairs and clears inflammation via the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is a waste-clearance system in the brain that becomes particularly active during sleep, especially during deep or slow-wave sleep. Its function is to clear waste products, including inflammatory markers, by facilitating the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) throughout the brain tissue. The CSF helps carry away these waste products from the brain.

Adequate and high-quality sleep is essential for cognitive processes such as memory, attention, problem-solving and decision-making. When you get a good night’s sleep, your brain can consolidate and organise information from the day, which enhances
learning and cognitive performance.

Sleep is also crucial for emotional regulation and stress reduction. Lack of sleep can lead to mood disturbances, increased irritability and heightened emotional reactivity. Good sleep can help stabilise mood, improve emotional resilience and help the body better manage stress.

Sleep helps regulate hormone production, including those involved in inflammation such as human growth hormone, cortisol and insulin. These hormones are influenced by sleep patterns and can impact inflammation levels.

If you are having trouble falling or staying asleep, it’s important to establish good sleep hygiene practices, including going to bed and waking at the same time each day, limiting screen time at night, wearing blue-blocking glasses and creating a calming pre-sleep routine such as reading a book, having a warm bath, meditating, or enjoying a soothing herbal tea.

References available on request.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209


Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy is a respected Sydney-based naturopath, author and passionate foodie with 16 years of clinical experience. She runs a naturopathic clinic in Rose Bay called Art of Healing and is the founder of Bodhi Organic Tea.

Lisa is a great believer that good wholesome food is one of the greatest pleasures in life and the foundation of good health. Lisa encourages her clients to get back to eating what nature intended: good, clean, wholesome food that’s nutrient-rich and free from high levels of sugars, harmful fats, artificial additives and pesticides. Her aim is to change the way people eat, cook and think about food.

Lisa is an avid health writer, being a regular contributor to The Sunday Telegraph's Body and Soul, and leading magazines including WellBeing. Lisa is an author of five books to date, including My Goodness: all you need to know about children’s health and nutrition , Pregnancy Essentials, Heal Yourself, Listen to your Body and Healthy Skin Diet .

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