How to Reduce Brain Inflammation: 4 Actions You Can Take Today - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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How to Reduce Brain Inflammation: 4 Actions You Can Take Today

Natural Ways to Reduce Brain Inflammation for Better Mood and Cognition

Key Takeaways:

  • A low-inflammatory diet that eliminates refined starches, refined sugar, artificial trans-fats, and high amounts of carbohydrates is an evidence-based approach to reducing brain inflammation.
  • Exercise, specifically both strength training and cardiovascular training, decreases systemic inflammation. 
  • Stress reduction and quality sleep are essential for reducing brain inflammation, as chronic stress and too little sleep can increase your inflammatory burden. 
  • Chronic brain inflammation contributes to brain fog, irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Poor gut health, most often from leaky, allows toxins to cross the blood-brain barrier and is a contributing cause of brain inflammation for many people.

Our nervous system controls not only our physical body, but our emotions, pain, mood, cognition, and memory. If you are struggling with symptoms like irritability, forgetfulness, anxiety, clumsiness, or headaches, brain inflammation may be a contributing factor. 

Fortunately, knowing how to reduce brain inflammation does not have to be complicated, and there are four simple changes you can make at home to address your symptoms. The most effective and natural ways to reduce brain inflammation are exercise, diet, stress management, and sleep. 

But, how does the brain become inflamed in the first place, what does it look like, and what are the simplest ways to improve these four lifestyle areas for the best results? We answer all of that in this article and help you get to the bottom of how to reduce brain inflammation. 

Understanding Brain Inflammation

Severe brain inflammation is known as encephalitis and is a medical emergency. It’s most often caused by a brain injury, autoimmunity, or pathogens such as a virus. Thankfully, true encephalitis is very rare — but low-grade inflammation of the brain can still be debilitating and is often not as obvious.    

Chronic inflammation of the brain (neuroinflammation) can lead to symptoms such as confusion, irritability, inability to focus, brain fog, mood instability, poor motor control, and balance issues. When it continues to go unchecked, it may progress to illnesses such as dementia later in life. 

Inflammation, anywhere in the body, is the immune system’s natural response to protect your body from harmful toxins, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Inflammation of the brain is your body’s way of protecting your brain, which actually has its own, separate immune system and safeguards to protect itself.

There are many ways in which the body protects the brain against inflammation, but the following structures are key when it comes to combating neuroinflammation:

  • Blood-brain barrier (BBB): The BBB is regulated by the central nervous system, and reduces brain inflammation by filtering out toxins from the blood and preventing them from entering the brain [1].
  • Microglia: These immune cells are unique to the central nervous system, and activate in the presence of harmful substances. However, microglia can become over-activated, causing excessive inflammation in the brain [1].
  • Astrocytes: These brain cells regulate specific functions, like neurogenesis (production of neurons), synaptogenesis (production of synapses), BBB permeability, and fluid balance in the brain. Decreased astrocytes can contribute to brain inflammation [2].

Supporting the brain’s protective system and reducing your exposure to immune-triggering substances is the best way to decrease brain inflammation — and healthy lifestyle changes can help us do that. We will cover the “how-tos” in a moment, but first, let’s briefly talk about the symptoms of brain inflammation and why you should prevent it.

Consequences of Brain Inflammation

As we mentioned earlier, there are many possible symptoms of chronic brain inflammation that we may see in our everyday life. Sadly, many of us have been taught that these things are “normal” as we age, such as forgetting where we put our keys or parked the car. Below are other common manifestations of brain inflammation:

  • Chronic pain or headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Inability to focus on a task
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Being “clumsy” and decreased balance

Brain inflammation is also present in many illnesses such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis [3]. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that inflammation causes these symptoms and conditions, or vice versa. 

All we know is that there’s a strong link between them, making treatments targeted at lowering inflammation a great tool for improving brain health.

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Causes of Brain Inflammation

There are many proposed contributors to brain inflammation. Mainly, anything that disrupts the body’s immune system and causes systemic inflammation and/or anything that disrupts the protective mechanisms of the brain — the blood-brain barrier, microglia, and astrocytes.  

When your brain is constantly exposed to perceived pathogens, toxins, and harmful antibodies, specialized immune cells (like microglia) jump into overdrive and cause chronic neuroinflammation.

Early childhood trauma, poor sleep, an unhealthy diet, psychosocial stress, concussions, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and infections may also set the brain up for chronic inflammation later on.

Now that we understand chronic brain inflammation, let’s look at the four most evidence-based natural ways to reduce it. 

How to Reduce Brain Inflammation

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While brain inflammation can sound scary, treating it isn’t. Fortunately, the best ways to reduce brain inflammation are things you can do every day, at home. Improving diet, exercise, stress reduction, and sleep will all help support healthy brain function. 

Chronic inflammation most often occurs over time, from lifestyle habits that are pro-inflammatory such as eating a diet high in sugar, processed foods, and other inflammatory foods. Not getting enough exercise through a combination of strength and cardio work, chronic stress, and poor sleep hygiene can also contribute. 

It can seem overwhelming to think about changing all four of these at once, so generally, I have patients start with their diet first. If you already have your diet dialed in and it lines up with the brain health diet principles mentioned in the next section, then look at the three other areas and decide which one is the biggest issue for you right now, and start there. 

If you have symptoms of brain inflammation, it can be helpful to write down what they are and how bad they are before you start the below lifestyle changes. Try to keep track of them at least weekly to see how they improve. We provide a tracking template as the last page of our Brain Fog Guide, and you’re welcome to print several of those out to use for this if you’d like. 

Let’s take a look at each of these areas a bit closer. 

Diet and Brain Inflammation

Here at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine we start with the gut first — and diet is among the most evidence-based approaches to limiting brain inflammation. 

A 2018 literature review explained that diet is among one of the top four non-drug treatments for reducing systemic inflammation and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease [4]. This review found that:

  • High-carbohydrate, high-calorie meals are related to high C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) (markers of inflammation).
  • The foods most likely to lead to inflammation are refined starches, refined artificial trans-fats, and saturated fats eaten with lots of carbs.

Why might diet be so important in reducing brain inflammation? Let’s look at the gut-brain axis.

The Gut-Brain Connection

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The gut and brain are linked and communicate with each other through signals sent along the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that goes from the brain all the way down into the stomach and intestines [5]. The brain communicates with the gut, telling it when to digest food, and the gut communicates with the brain, even making neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin and sending them to the brain [6]. 

So if the gut is inflamed, the brain can be inflamed, and vice versa. In fact, markers of gut inflammation are higher in people with severe mental illness, Parkinson’s disease, and cognitive decline than they are in healthy people [7, 8]. 

You have probably heard of leaky gut, where the lining of the gut wall starts to weaken, and antigens get into the body causing systemic inflammation. These toxins can also cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain, contributing to neuroinflammation. 

One of the biggest contributors to a leaky gut is eating inflammatory foods that cause gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of the healthy mix of bacteria and microbes in the gut) which weakens the gut lining.

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Gut dysbiosis leads to leaky gut and an opening in the blood-brain barrier which may trigger microglia and astrocytes and increase inflammation in the brain tissue [9]. Thankfully, an anti-inflammatory diet can seal up a leaky gut, correct a bacterial imbalance, and limit toxic exposure to food particles and other antigens. To sum it up — a healthy gut equals a healthy brain.  

4 Dietary Principles to Reduce Brain Inflammation

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That’s a lot of dietary options, but these diets do have a few things in common. They meet the four principles of a brain-healthy diet:

  1. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods.
  2. Eat to control and balance blood sugar.
  3. Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics.
  4. Identify your food allergies and intolerances (which will further decrease inflammation).

Diets that follow these principles are lower in carbohydrates to avoid high blood sugar, are high in brain-supportive fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, and help improve leaky gut. As an added bonus, they also reduce the risk of heart disease and support a healthy weight. Both heart disease and obesity are risk factors for cognitive decline and memory loss [10, 11].

For most people, starting with a low-inflammatory Paleo diet which removes common inflammatory foods including gluten and grains [12, 13] and moderates carbohydrate intake to stabilize blood sugar [14, 15] is a good place to start. It is not too complicated to follow, is not overly restrictive, and helps you start to discover any food intolerances you might have. 

The Paleo diet removes inflammatory foods that can provoke an immune response such as grains, legumes (beans), processed foods, and sugar. This makes it overall lower in carbohydrates and higher in fats and protein. You eat protein (meat and fish), lots of green vegetables, a few starchy vegetables, and brain-healthy fats. Try this diet for four weeks and see how your brain and body feel.

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Benefits of a Low-Inflammatory Diet 

Paleo isn’t the only diet that follows these principles, and quite a few different diets can reduce brain-related and general inflammation, such as ketogenic and other low-carb diets [4, 16, 17], anti-inflammatory diets (including gluten-free) [4, 9, 11, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23], and the low FODMAP diet [24, 25]. 

Let’s take a quick look at the research on how these diets can help improve brain health and reduce brain inflammation:

DietDiet DetailsBrain Benefits
Ketogenic & Low-CarbHigher fat, low-carb, and moderate protein.Ketones have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain [16].

Can improve memory and general cognition in people with dementia and is one of the most effective dietary treatments for slowing brain damage and disease progression in people with Parkinson’s [4, 16, 17].
Anti-Inflammatory (e.g. Mediterranean and Paleo)Low in processed foods and sugars, and high in brain-healthy fats like olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids.May protect against cognitive decline in older adults [18], and reduce overall inflammation [19].
Low FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols)FODMAPs are types of fermentable starches and sugars that can cause inflammation in those with FODMAP intolerances and feed bacterial overgrowths.Can reduce leaky gut, inflammation, and digestive symptoms [24, 25].

As you can see, there’s no one diet to reduce brain inflammation and support brain health. Diets are rarely (if ever) one-size-fits-all, and what’s more important is finding a diet that suits your specific needs, resolves your symptoms, and is something you can be consistent with.

For help with following one of these diets, check out one of our diet guides for brain health

Don’t Forget Healthy Fats

The Paleo and Mediterranean diets include lots of fatty fish, which is a great source of essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which we often hear is important for brain health. DHA is important for normal brain function in adults and it affects the growth of the hippocampus in the brain. The hippocampus is very important in learning and memory [20, 26].

A 2020 randomized control trial found that people with mild Alzheimer’s disease who carried the APOE4 genotype had less DHA in their blood than people who were not carriers [26]. They also had a smaller hippocampus. This suggests that APOE4 carriers cleared DHA from their blood so quickly that not enough reached their brains, negatively affecting cognition and other important aspects of brain health. 

While there’s no research to see if increasing dietary DHA through omega-3 consumption prevents Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, we do know that DHA may decrease neuroinflammation and improve cognitive function [26]. 

Fish oil has also been shown to have numerous other health benefits and is safe (unless you have a bleeding disorder) so adding in a few more servings of oily fish weekly or taking a DHA supplement is a great tool for better brain health.  

Beneficial Bacteria for Brain Health

While a whole-foods diet should provide you with all the nutrition that you need for brain health (like B vitamins), you may want to consider adding in beneficial bacteria. 

Probiotics are helpful in improving leaky gut and preventing inflammation [27, 28, 29]. One study showed that participants taking probiotics experienced reduced stress, anxiety, and pro-inflammatory cytokines than placebo after 12 weeks. The probiotic group also had improved memory, social-emotional cognition, verbal learning, and memory [30].

If you are looking for more detailed information about other supplements that can help improve brain health, you can read our article, Your Guide to the Best Supplements for Brain Health.

Exercise Is Anti-Inflammatory

Regular exercise is essential to general brain health and reducing brain inflammation. 

One literature review noted that exercise, particularly a combination of strength and cardio at least three times a week, is the best intervention for reducing systemic inflammation and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s [4, 31, 32].

This combination of aerobic and resistance can reduce proinflammatory markers, especially CRP and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) [31, 32]. Additionally, exercise increases blood flow to the brain and consistent resistance training for at least 5 weeks can increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) [4]. BDNF is a protein that is needed for the growth of neurons and for supporting the communication between neurons. 

Exercise also suppresses inflammation related to leaky gut and improves sleep [33, 34]. Sleep hygiene is a pillar of the four lifestyle interventions that help reduce brain inflammation.

A general guide for exercise is 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week, which should be a combination of cardio and strength training. For many people, doing moderate-intensity cardio for 30 minutes three times a week and 30 minutes of strength training two times a week is a good mix. 

Reducing Chronic Stress

Many of us do not think we are stressed at all, because we live in an environment that has normalized being slightly stressed all the time. Additionally, past psychological trauma can lead to chronic stress [3]. This daily stress is a contributing factor to things like brain fog, inability to focus at work, and general feelings of overwhelm, as well as poor cognitive function. 

Chronic stress is a common cause of inflammation and leaky gut, which can lead to brain inflammation and have a negative impact on cognitive function [35, 36]. 

Stress-relieving interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness may increase neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to regain lost function and learn new information), BDNF, and neuron survival in the hippocampus — all of which may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s [4]. 

Practicing mindfulness meditation and reducing stress levels in other ways may help to calm inflammation and reduce brain fog [37]. Meditation can improve stress markers (blood pressure, cortisol, heart rate, CRP, triglycerides, and TNF-α) across a wide population [38].

Meditation helps calm the nervous system, including the vagus nerve, which we mentioned as being vitally important to the gut-brain connection [39]. It also improves sleep, which decreases brain inflammation [40, 41].

How to Start Meditating

Meditation is not simply sitting and breathing. It’s about staying in the present moment, noticing emotions and thoughts, not judging them, and letting them pass. For some, it can feel overwhelming at first, or your mind may wander a lot. 

To help get through this when first starting out, aim for just five minutes a day. You can keep your eyes open or closed but have a soft gaze on the floor if your eyes are open. Breathe in and out slowly, and when thoughts or emotions come up, notice them, and imagine them as a wave — coming up and then going back down.

It can help to visualize a cloud passing or to create representations of thoughts and visualize them floating away down a river, pushing the thoughts out of mind. It may take experimenting on your own or with a guided app (like Insight Timer or Healthy Minds Program) to find what works best for you. 

Meditation is one of the most accessible interventions for reducing stress and making it a daily practice can be a vital technique to reduce brain inflammation. 

Sleep for Brain Health

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Sleep is when the brain repairs and clears inflammation, and too little, or even too much sleep, can contribute to brain inflammation. Here are a few key points concerning poor sleep hygiene and brain inflammation:  

  • Disturbed sleep and short sleep (less than 7 hours) was associated with high markers of inflammation such as CRP [42].
  • Sleeping too long (over 8 hours) was also associated with higher levels of inflammation [42], though oversleeping is often a symptom of a deeper inflammatory condition (like depression).
  • An observational study of elderly people found that sleeping too long (consistently over 9-10 hours a day) was a marker of higher inflammation and a possible increased risk of cognitive decline [43]. 

A literature review showed that losing 4-8 hours of sleep increases the inflammatory cytokines IL-6 and TNF-α [4], so maintaining a regular schedule of 7-8 hours of sleep each night for adults is important for lowering Alzheimer’s risk.

We want to rest when needed, but sleeping excessively may mean something else is going on. Inflammation, in itself, may be causing you to sleep longer, and (in this case) sleep restriction is probably not the answer. If you’re consistently sleeping over 9 hours per night and have persistent health symptoms, you should seek medical advice form a healthcare provider to explore any underlying conditions.

If you are having trouble sleeping, meditating before bed can help calm the brain for sleep and also helps decrease stress. Having a consistent bedtime routine to prime the brain for sleep is helpful, as is being sure to get some sunlight early in the day to set your sleep and wake cycle (circadian rhythm) so you produce melatonin in the evening (the hormone for sleep). 

For more tips to improve your sleep hygiene, read our article How to Improve Sleep Efficiency for More Restful Nights.

How to Test for Brain Inflammation

But how do we know if we have brain inflammation? This is difficult to assess. MRI and CT scans are used to diagnose acute encephalitis from an illness or injury. While some specialized antibodies can be used to detect neuroinflammation, we do not have an accessible test to check levels of chronic inflammation only in the brain. 

However, there are a few inflammatory markers doctors may look at to check for general inflammation levels in the body that can indicate brain inflammation. CRP is the most common and easiest to check as it is a simple blood test. 

In research and very specific illnesses, other pro-inflammatory markers, such as TNF-α and IL-6, may be tracked to assess overall inflammatory levels. Brain inflammation is also tracked via anti-inflammatory markers, such as BDNF and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) [44].

Testing for general inflammation may be helpful if you’re struggling with symptoms of neuroinflammation. However, brain inflammation doesn’t always correlate with body inflammation — meaning your labs may come back normal, even if your brain is inflamed. 

It’s probably best to reserve the expensive and specialized inflammatory tests for those with a serious medical condition and to focus on healing your gut and adjusting your lifestyle first.

Lifestyle Changes to Decrease Brain Inflammation

I hope this article helped break down for you how to reduce brain inflammation. While it can seem overwhelming, these are all changes you can incorporate into your daily life to help you fight inflammation.

The biggest bang for your buck to reduce neuroinflammation is by starting with diet first, if you have not done so already. Just after diet is incorporating exercise, with a combination of strength and cardio. Adding in just five minutes of meditation a day, preferably before bed, is a great way to decrease chronic stress and improve sleep to reduce brain inflammation. 

Reducing brain inflammation will take some time, so incorporate these changes for at least a month to six weeks. 

It is encouraging that these daily lifestyle changes can have such a huge impact on your brain health, helping to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, improving memory and learning, and decreasing brain fog. 

At the same time, lifestyle changes can be a lot to take in and handle. If you would like support, we have health coaches on our team at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, and they can help you make these changes in a way that fits your life.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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