• Siri DeMarche

Do You Have Leaky Brain? How To Know & What To Do About It

Updated: Jul 29

*As always, scroll to the very bottom for a TLDR synopsis*


You've likely heard of leaky gut (increased gut permeability- impacting how well you digest food, absorb nutrients, how sensitive you are to possible allergens, how much inflammation your food may cause...), because it has been a hot topic over the past several years ( read about it here). Equally as significant (though perhaps lesser known), is the concept of a leaky brain. In the same way that your GI tract has a protective barrier to protect it from its surroundings, your brain also has a protective barrier that protects it from your body and bloodstream. This is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and just like leaky gut, you can also experience leaky brain.


If you've ever had a hangover, you've experienced the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. A hangover is the result of acetaldehyde (the byproduct of the breakdown of alcohol), a strong neurotoxin that crosses the blood-brain barrier and causes a hangover (among other things). Acetaldehyde is 30x more toxic than alcohol and is used in the manufacturing of plastics and adhesives. Its chemical makeup is also closely related to that of formaldehyde (aka embalming fluid🤢).


Although it seems counterproductive that your gut and brain are both permeable, it's necessary that they are. Your gut and brain are both naturally and selectively permeable to allow helpful compounds (like nutrients) to pass into the body and brain, while at the same time keeping out harmful toxins and pathogens. Glucose, amino acids, fat-soluble nutrients, and ketones are shuttled into your brain via semi-permeable blood vessels, while the BBB is keeps out harmful toxins, pathogens, and compromised immune cells. When this selective process fails, your gut and/or brain become more permeable than it should, and the result is a leaky gut and/or leaky brain. When the BBB is compromised, all sorts of dangerous invaders can seep in, causing absolute chaos in the form of depression, brain fog, anxiety, and a host of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. When the blood-brain barrier is loosened, punctured, or ruptured, heavy metals, toxins, molds, fungi, chemicals, and the like can seep in and cause mayhem.


The Mechanics of the Blood-Brain Barrier

At its most basic, the BBB is formed by brain capillary endothelial cells (simple flat cells that line the inside walls of blood and lymphatic vessels). The BBB contains anatomical, physiochemical, and biochemical mechanisms that control the exchange of materials between blood, brain, and cerebrospinal fluid. This makes up the main physical barrier through which nutrients, hormones, and various chemicals pass from your brain to your blood system, and vice versa.


Within the BBB, there are three main defense systems that maintain the extracellular environment of the central nervous system and brain.


They are:

1.The physical barrier itself between blood and brain.

2.Transporters that mediate the flow of compounds from the brain to the blood.

3. An enzymatic barrier that contains neurotransmitter and toxin metabolizing enzymes in the endothelial and epithelial cells of the brain and blood.


Unsurprisingly most research on the blood-brain barrier done in the 20th and 21st century has been focused on the first layer, in order to learn the most effective method of delivering drugs across the central nervous system. This physical barrier is extremely delicate, as the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels are only one layer thick. While the largest vessels (arteries and veins) are surrounded by thick walls of connective tissue and multiple layers of smooth muscle cells, the vessel walls themselves are only lined by a thin, single sheet of cells. This delicately thin sheet determines the passage of every substance from the blood to the rest of the body (including the brain).


Endothelial cells (like every other type of cell in your body) can divide and repair damages in the wall of a blood vessel. Normally, a cell lifetime ranges from a couple months (liver endothelium) to several years (brain endothelium). When these cells are exposed to detrimental compounds and physiological circumstances, they're apt to die prematurely, and consequently will need to rapidly divide to repair the vessel wall. When this happens to the vessel wall, the whole BBB becomes weakened and causes all sorts of serious issues. For example, a weakened BBB can lead to the leakage of plasma proteins into certain regions of the brain, which causes exacerbated chronic brain inflammation that then leads to serious health complications.


How is the BBB Weakened?

  • Sleep Deprivation

Your body needs appropriate amounts of each sleep phase so that it can regulate and maintain the functions and integrity of the blood-brain barrier. In particular, loss of REM (rapid eye movement) is incredibly damaging to the integrity of the BBB. Your brain will suffer if you're sleeping (in most cases) less than the recommended 7-9hrs out of every 24hrs. Studies have demonstrated the detrimental effects of chronic sleep restriction (CSR). Researchers found that CSR decreased endothelial and nitric oxide synthase, endothelin1, and glucose transporter expression in brain microvessels of the BBB, in addition to also decreasing 2-deoxy-glucose uptake by the brain (a sugar needed for proper electrical signaling and membrane potentials). If that wasn't scary enough, researchers also found an increase in paracellular permeability of the BBB, leaving the brain more vulnerable to invasion.


  • Excessive Alcohol Intake

Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to dangerous functional and morphological changes in the CNS (central nervous system). These changes include neurodegeneration, ranging from small synaptic changes to full-on cell death. This is a result of oxidative stress on neural cells. Drinking alcohol is basically ethanol (EtOH), which enhances reactive oxygen species (ROS) that damages brain cells. Chronic alcohol exposure also increases CYPE1 expression (the enzyme that turns EtOH into ROS and acetaldehyde). Both EtOH and its metabolite, acetaldehyde, loosen the blood-brain barrier.

  • High-Blood Pressure

1/3 of adults in the U.S. has high-blood pressure and research shows that BBB dysfunction is correlated with the combined effects of cerebral vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels in the brain) and elevated blood pressure. High-blood pressure is caused by a myriad of things, including stress (from anywhere), poor breathing, poor diet, and lack of sleep.


What can you do?

Here are several ways to combat leaky brain and keep your endothelium tight.

  1. Sleep

Sleep loss impairs the immune system, while also increasing levels of inflammatory mediators. Sleep loss additionally increases sympathetic nervous system activity and encourages endothelial dysfunction. Aim to sleep 7-9hrs out of every 24hrs and consider taking small supplemented amounts of melatonin to undo increases in BBB permeability and to help maintain its integrity.


2. Limit Alchohol Intake

High amounts of alcohol cause large doses of ethanol and acetaldehyde to damage brain neurons. In moderation (think one, maybe two, glasses of wine per day), alcohol can cause low doses of ethanol to migrate across the barrier and stimulate endorphins and relaxing neurotransmitters. Disclaimer: this does not mean drinking zero glasses one day, and then five glasses the next day. If you enjoy your alcohol, keep it to the equivalent of 1-2 glasses of wine per day.


3. Control Blood Pressure


Acute and chronic hypertension increases the permeability of the BBB. Quality dark chocolate, high-dose garlic (allicin), magnesium, potassium, and hand-grip training have all been shown to help lower blood pressure.


4. Diet


Phytonutrient-rich plants and spices (like curcumin from turmeric), astragalus root, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, brussels sprouts, & cabbage), dark leafy greens, and fiber-rich plants all have a healing effect on BBB permeability caused by other dietary factors.


5. Caffeine

Caffeine is a known protector of BBB integrity and shows promise in helping to inhibit BBB disruption as a means of preventing Alzheimer's disease. Caffeine does affect everyone differently, so it's important to consume in moderation and figure out how it specifically affects you. If you're unsure, read this article and this article, and/or let's connect if you have further questions.


6. Supplements


Alpha-GPC (a type of choline that easily crosses the BBB) improves endothelial dysfunction, inositol from egg yolks has been shown to improve BBB integrity, berberine reduces BBB permeability (and increases resistance to brain damage following head trauma), and vitamins B12, B6, and B9 help to restore it to equilibrium.


7. Magnesium

High magnesium intake can reduce BBB permeability. Take it orally or apply it topically (as a lotion or spray on the back of your neck and head).


8. Stimulate the Vagus Nerve


Practices like meditating, singing, chanting, deep breathing, cold showers, electronic stimulation, and various other lifestyle practices can decrease BBB permeability by stimulating the vagus nerve.


9. Decrease Snacking


Ghrelin (a hunger stimulating-hormone, that cues you to eat) can improve BBB integrity by reducing BBB breakdown after a traumatic head injury. Practicing intermittent fasting, not grazing all day, and actually reaching the point of hunger will promote better BBB function.


10. Feed your Gut


Eating more prebiotic fiber, fermented foods, and quality probiotics can all help restore the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. Disclaimer: fermented foods and probiotics are helpful to grow bacteria that is already present in the gut (good & bad), do not load up on fermented foods & probiotics until your gut flora is balanced in favor of the good guys-prebiotic fiber can help you do this.


11. Cryotherapy


Cold showers affect everything from your appetite, to your vagus nerve connection between the gut and brain, to temperature fluctuations that cause a release of blood and nitric oxide in your brain. All these improve BBB integrity by suppressing mechanisms of BBB degeneration. Cold soaks, cold showers, and splashing cold water on your face are all simple things to incorporate.


TLDR

Your gut and brain are both naturally and selectively permeable to allow helpful compounds (like nutrients) to pass into the body and brain, while also keeping out harmful toxins and pathogens. When this process fails, and your gut and/or brain becomes more permeable than it should, the result is leaky gut and/or leaky brain. Leaky brain issues are as common as leaky gut issues, although less talked about. Your brain shuttles necessary things like glucose, amino acids, fat-soluble nutrients, and ketones into the brain via semi-permeable blood vessels. The BBB is needed to keep out harmful toxins, pathogens, and compromised immune cells. Sometimes these harmful guys manage to sneak through (like acetaldehyde). When the BBB is compromised, all sorts of dangerous invaders can seep in, causing absolute chaos in the form of depression, brain fog, anxiety, and a host of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. When the blood-brain barrier is loosened, punctured, or ruptured, heavy metals, toxins, molds, fungi, chemicals, and the like can get in and cause mayhem. Within the BBB, there are three main lines of defense that maintain the extracellular environment of the central nervous system and brain.

They are:

1.The physical barrier itself between blood and brain.

2.Transporters that mediate the flow of compounds from the brain to the blood

3. An enzymatic barrier that contains neurotransmitter and toxin metabolizing enzymes in the endothelial and epithelial cells of the brain and blood.


The physical barrier itself is extremely delicate, as the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels are only one layer thick. This delicately thin sheet determines the passage of every substance from the blood to the rest of the body (including the brain). Normally, a cell lifetime ranges from a couple months (liver endothelium) to several years (brain endothelium). When these cells are exposed to detrimental compounds and physiological circumstances, they're apt to die prematurely, and consequently will need to rapidly divide to repair the vessel wall. When this happens to the vessel wall, the BBB becomes weakened and causes all sorts of serious issues. Sleep deprivation, excessive alcohol intake, and high-blood pressure are all things that weaken the BBB. There are several ways to combat leaky brain including; getting enough sleep, decreasing alcohol intake, managing high-blood pressure, maintaining a diet rich with phytonutrient-rich plants & spices, cruciferous veggies, dark leafy greens,& fiber-rich plants, drinking caffeine in moderation, specific supplementation, decreasing snacking, stimulating the vagus nerve, feeding your gut beneficial prebiotic fiber, and cold showers.



References



Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other medical body. I do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.


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