Brain disorders are on the rise. One in 8 seniors get Alzheimers and one in 8 children get brain development disorders like ADHD or autism. Worldwide there are about 24 million people with dementia which is expected to double in 20 years. Too commonplace are brain issues like anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and learning disabilities along with even more common brain fog, sleep problems, mild depression and moodiness.
Anti depressants are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US. Often it develops when the frontal lobes do not fire as they should. Of course there are many cases where emotional trauma can trigger depression. But in many cases there is a brain issue.
The brain is the most complex tissue in our bodies. It weighs 3 pounds and uses up to 30% of the body’s glucose supply.This grey and white mass has the texture of tofu.
Lets look at the main brain areas. The frontal lobe behind our forehead is what makes us different from animals, much of our personality is based here. It helps us to function in society, to reason and suppress impulses, like kissing a stranger who is attractive or hitting someone how makes us angry. ADHD kids are delayed in this area, so punishing bad behavior doesn’t help. I had a patient who stuck his head out of a car window at around age 10 and hit a pole, and got stuck there at age 10. He can’t keep a job because he will say inappropriate things but can’t control himself. Depression is considered a frontal cortex issue. But antidepressants to help neurotransmitters here is short lived and don’t address the real health issues. The frontal cortex controls fine motor movements as well, so a worsening of handwriting, or smaller writing can be an early warning sign.
Temporal lobes are on both sides of brain above the ears. They have to do with hearing, speech, memory, emotional responses and distinguishing smells. Sometimes an early sign of neurodegeneration here is hearing tinnitus or ringing in the ears, but not always.The hippocampus is located in this region, so degeneration here can lead to poor memory and Alzheimers disease. You need this area to convert short to long term memory. It also has to do with spacial orientation, so getting lost on well travelled routes is a sign of issues here. Why did I come into the room, where did I park the car, where did I put the keys? can be early Alzheimers warning signs.
The parietal lobes are behind your ears. They perceive sensations, like touch or pressure and interpret sensation like texture, weight, size or shape. It helps your body be aware of where your body is in the environment. So if you can’t maintain your balance in the dark that is a sign of this brain area.
The cerebellum is at the back of your head above the neck. It has to do with muscle coordination for basic actions like putting the spoon in your mouth.Alcohol suppresses the cerebellum, that is why police have you close your eyes and try to touch your nose. Tremors at the end of a movement can mean problems here, like in Parkinsons. The inner ear communicates with the cerebellum, so car or sea sickness is from this area.
The occipital lobe is in the back of the brain. It processes visual information like recognizing shape, colors, motion and distinguishing between colors. Hallucinations happen here, and sometimes visual floaters or the persistence of an image after it has been removed.
Our brains control our body without or conscious awareness. So many problems like digestive issues, high blood pressure, dry eyes, incontinence, erectile dysfunction are actually brain issues.
Fundamental to brain health, are the neurons receiving:
enough oxygen, the right amount of glucose and proper stimulation
The brain can be affected by liver function, inflammation , hormonal imbalances and
Brain cells are neurons with a body or soma with a nucleus , dendrites are like a tree branch that receives inputs from other neurons and axons that transmits signals to other neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters are released into the synapses or spaces between neurons. These decline and degenerate over time, so it is harder to learn. To prevent this neurons must be stimulated in a positive way through intellectual challenges, social support, good diet and physical activity. Neurotransmitter activity can be sabotaged by inflammation, hormone imbalances and poor blood sugar balance. Neurons need oxygen, glucose and stimulation.
Is plasticity (learning and adapting to change) going in a positive direction?
We start out life with many more neurons and synapses, which get pruned as we age. As neurons are stimulated they create more branches so they can communicate more efficiently, and you get more function. You also have to have a chemical environment for your neurons so they can function well.
We can get negative plasticity like in PTSD or chronic pain disorders. We build more neurons and pathways to wire for more fear or more pain. Positive plasticity builds, like when you learn a skill or sport. I recently started reading Shakespeare sonnets before bed. At the beginning I only understood like 20% of the meaning and couldn’t get the rhymes in rhythm, but after I did 2.5 months, I could understand 80% of the meaning and could enjoy the rhyming meter. Like a muscle I built up that part of my brain for complex language.
Blood sugar: Glucose is the brain’s primary fuel source, so stable blood sugar is vital to balanced brain chemistry and prevention of degeneration. Sugar or insulin imbalances can lead to altered mood. Sometimes people with blood sugar issues can be given anti depressants, anti anxiety or sleep medication or labeled bipolar. To prevent blood sugar swings have a lower carb diet with sufficient fat and protein and avoid food intolerances.
The most damaging thing to the brain is stress. Stress can be from physical things like a high carb, high sugar diet, smoking, food allergies, anemia, gut infections and parasites, autoimmune issues, pain, poor digestion and more. 90% of our brain output should be through the parasympathetic system often called stay and play or rest and digest. But if due to stress the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, the fight or flight response it will affect our health. Neurons that fire together wire together, so we can get habits of stress that keep firing like in PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. Reducing inflammation and supporting the adrenals can help thestress response calm down. Some symptoms of stress is never having time for yourself or always feeling that you need to get things done, not getting enough sleep or rest or exercise, and feeling you are not accomplishing your life purpose.
Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen, if it goes even just 5 minutes without it there will be permanent damage. The neuron uses oxygen to make energy. Stress reduces oxygen by shunting blood to the limbs as if ready to flee or fight plus we breath shallowly. If you have cold limbs then it is even harder to push blood upwards to the brain, so you probably also have a cold brain. Low blood pressure makes it also hard to push the blood upwards to the head. But high blood pressure damages arteries, decreasing blood flow to the brain.
The main protein that triggers neurological conditions the most is gluten. Wheat has been hybridized over the last fifty years which has made it more reactive. It is amazing how the nervous system can improve when one is off gluten. When your immune system attacks gluten, it can mistake parts of your nervous system as being similar and it attack your own nerves. Some food can cross react as if it is like gluten like milk protein or casein, corn and oats. If you are sensitive to gluten, it is really worth the inconvenience to avoid it.
There is an intimate relationship between the gut and the brain often called the gut-brain axis. Symptoms that this axis is impaired are poor digestion, constipation or irregular bowel movements, bloating, gas, food intolerances or gut symptoms after eating. There is a long nerve, called the Vagus nerve that goes from the brain to thegut. So if you have brain problems and get constipation, the brain could be at the root of it. Poor gut health can lead to depression, mood disorder, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and memory loss.
One sign of gut inflammation is bloating and brain inflammation is brain fog. Leaky gut, where the junctions between cells in the small intestine break down can lead to a strong immune response, where your body attacks your own tissues such as the brain. Probiotics and other nutritional products can help heal a leaky gut.
One reason for poor brain function is inflammation. When there is inflammation in the body like joint pain, or bowel inflammation or autoimmune issues then molecules called cytokines can cross the blood brain barrier altering brain function. But the other way around is possible where brain inflammation causes issues in the body. Braininflammation can cause depression and slower brain function. Lifestyle and diet can help, by stabilizing blood sugar and cortisol levels, reducing inflammatory triggers like gluten, clearing gut infections, boosting antioxidants and eating an anti inflammatory diet, and reduce alcohol. Flavonoid like those in resveratrol and curcumin can help.
Autoimmunity rates are exploding worldwide. This is where the immune system can’t distinguish body tissue from infectious organisms, so the body attacks tissue it was designed to protect as if it were a pathogen. A common area to attack is the brain and nervous system. In the early stages the immune system attacks body tissue and can be detected in blood tests but there are no symptoms. The second stage or reactivity phase is that enough tissue has been damaged that there are symptoms or loss of function but not yet labels as autoimmune. The last stage is autoimmune disease, now tests and scans can see the damage. Most medicine waits for the final stage to start treating, when it is really late, best to start in the reactivity stage. Some symptoms of neurological autoimmunity are cognitive dysfunction, nerve pain and weakness, numbness or double vision. The bad news is that when brain cells die, it is permanent but there is still plasticity where new nerve connections can be formed. For these condition you have to reduce stress and feel positive feeling and attitudes. It is important to keep a steady blood sugar as well. Usually one should avoid gluten. Some supplements that may help are vitamin D, Glutathione, curcumin and resveratrol.
So I hope you have a greater understanding of how your most precious possession, your brain, functions and what it needs to stay healthy. Next week I will speak on how neurons communicate, which is via the neurotransmitters.