It has been a hundred years since a Nobel Prize winner discovered the thin barrier that surrounds and protects brain. Since then, we've learned this mesh of tightly joined cells, called the blood-brain barrier, is highly selective in a healthy person. It allows the transport of compounds back and forth through an intricate transport system while keeping out most everything else in the blood stream that can damage the brain. This includes heavy metals, toxic proteins, pathogens, and red and white blood cells.
Accelerated aging + Inflammation = Leaky Brain
Now, scientists have discovered that brain degeneration weakens the blood-brain barrier and causes it to "spring leaks." This is especially true in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This discovery adds to the growing evidence that diseases of aging such as dementia and Alzheimer's are sometimes linked to what functional medicine practitioners call a "leaky brain."
Researchers studying the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease have found significant amounts of compounds in the brain that a healthy blood-brain barrier should have kept out. Since not every aging person develops cognitive impairment, scientists theorize that the leaks are more extensive in some people than others. They also believe that some other phenomena, such as inflammation or pathogens, may be involved.
Most research points to inflammation. Recently, biologists in the UK found that a molecule called microRNA-155, which is elevated in inflammation, creates gaps between the cells of the blood-brain barrier. They also found that the same molecule is elevated in inflamed brain areas of patients with multiple sclerosis.
Even brain conditions such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, and various neurological symptoms are linked to body-wide inflammation, which often starts in the gut.
This is Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain
A "leaky gut" allows bacteria and toxic molecules to pass through an overly permeable gut lining into then bloodstream. This causes inflammation throughout the body, and a leaky brain is often one unfortunate consequence.
Other inflammation triggers that contribute to a leaky brain are gluten sensitivity and similar food intolerances, out-of-control blood sugar, and too little thyroid hormone. Injury directly to the brain itself, such as in concussion, can also spark inflammation that damages the blood-brain barrier.
Repairing leaky brain with functional nutrition
You can protect your brain in part through various functional medicine strategies. This includes supporting the metabolic health of the brain by managing blood sugar, supporting gut health, addressing infections and toxicity, and following an anti-inflammatory diet. Nutritional compounds that support repair of leaky gut also help repair leaky brain, as do compounds targeted at quenching brain inflammation.
Brain-saving nutrients include:
If you’re accustomed to zoning out before bed in front of your TV, phone, or computer, you are significantly hindering your brain’s ability to produce sleep hormones.
A recent study found the blue light emitted from digital screens play a major role in sleep disturbances that have become so common. Almost half of Americans report sleep issues negatively affect their lives and the Centers for Disease Control calls sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. Chronic insufficient sleep is linked to obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and other metabolic disorders.
In the study, participants wore blue light blocking glasses for three hours each night before going to bed while continuing their normal nightly screen routines.
Blue-blocking outperforms supplements
After two weeks, the subjects showed an almost 60 percent increase in the production of melatonin, the primary sleep hormone.
This is an even greater increase in melatonin that taking an over-the-counter melatonin supplements can provide.
The subjects also wore activity and sleep monitors during the study. Data from these monitors showed improved sleep quality, falling asleep faster, and sleeping longer.
Other research has shown that subjects using an iPad before bed experienced reduced melatonin and poorer sleep compared to subjects who read a book before bed in dim light.
Healthy melatonin levels are necessary for good immune function and chronically low melatonin is associated with a risk for prostate, colorectal, and breast cancers.
Brain health and function depends on sleep
Although we all feel better when well rested, sufficient sleep is also vital for brain health and function. We need enough sleep to maintain focus, concentration, memory, mood, and coordination. Because the brain regulates the body’s systems, functions such as hormone balance, digestion, and detoxification are also impacted by lack of sleep.
Tips to support sleep hormone production
Blue light isn’t inherently bad; the sun is the largest source of blue light and our bodies depend on sufficient sunlight to regulate our sleep-wake cycle and myriad other functions.
However, digital devices and LED lights emit blue light similar to the sun’s that confuse the body’s internal clock when used at night. Artificial blue light activates photosensitive cells that suppress the production of melatonin.
In addition to wearing blue-blocking orange glasses before bed, people can also use blue-blocking screen filters, use lamps with orange bulbs at night, and wear blue-blocking glasses while out at night and exposed to artificial light. Some devices have night mode settings that lower blue light and computer and phone apps can be downloaded that do the same.