What is a "Leaky" Blood Brain Barrier & What can you do about it?
We now know that not only can someone have a "leaky" gut, but they can also have a "leaky" brain. The inflammation that results from a leaky brain can cause various symptoms due to slowed brain function and, over time, can lead to brain degeneration. Learn what it is and what you can do about it.
Last updated Aug 13, 2020
The brain is the essential powerhouse in regulating body function, so it is designed to guard against anything that may damage it. Just like a castle with it's protected walls, guards and drawbridge, the brain has what's called the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) that regulates what may go in or out.
What is the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB)?
It's a protective barrier composed of blood vessels and cells that prevents certain things circulating in the blood from entering the brain. The barrier has special transporters on it that regulate what chemicals, proteins and messages can cross between the blood and the brain.
What is Leaky Brain?
Leaky brain is when this BBB opens up, and this can set the stage for different triggers to compromise the health of the brain. When the barrier becomes permeable, this allows proteins and chemicals to enter that can activate immune cells in the brain, and this leads to brain inflammation (AKA neuroinflammation). The proteins can come from foods, pathogens, antibodies (like in autoimmune conditions), and inflammatory signalling molecules.
This basically creates an inflammatory "soup" around the neurons in the brain, and this is what causes the symptoms people experience. The inflammation interferes with the normal connections (synapses) between the neurons and slows down the rate at which they connect with each other. The inflammation also damages the mitochondria, which are the source of energy production in cells, so there isn't as much energy available for the brain to function optimally.
If neuroinflammation continues on for too long, this can lead to neurodegeneration.
What are the symptoms of neuroinflammation?
Reduced motor coordination
Reduced task efficiency (ie: taking longer to get things done)
Easily brain fatigued (ie: not being able to read as long as you use)
Decreased mental endurance (ie: unable to focus on a task as long as you use to)
Symptoms come and go - some days it's better and some days it's worse
Can we test for leakybrain?
Yes, there are two ways to test for it: Using a blood marker called S100B or testing for Blood Brain Barrier Antibodies.
Knowing if there is permeability can be particularly important in certain health conditions. For example, people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can have significant brain effects if antibodies gain access to the brain; if they do, they can bind to neurons in the cerebellum, damage the cells, and result in movement and balance issues (ataxia), along with the other symptoms of neuroinflammation.
What can cause the BBB to break down? Anything that impacts healthy blood vessel function to the brain or anything that causes chronic inflammation will cause it to break down:
Traumatic brain injury (the neurons get sheered and the BBB intentionally opens to bring in immune support to heal, but sometimes it never really heals up again
Chronic gut inflammation - especially inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohns, Ulcerative Colitis or Celiac disease (these increase production of a protein called zonulin that not only causes leaky gut, but also leaky brain)
Gut Dysbiosis - too many bad gut bugs (including yeast, fungus and certain bacteria) produce toxins which circulate in the blood stream and compromise the BBB
Chronic infections - these include viruses, bacteria, spirochetes like Lyme and Borellia, mold; sometimes they are covert like bacteria hiding in root canals or cavitations from implants or wisdom teeth extractions
Low antioxidant levels - chemical exposures, smoking, mold, chronic infections, poor nutrition - various things can cause this
Elevated homocysteine - a blood marker that is directly correlated with leaky brain (and increased risk of heart disease) - the higher the number, the higher the risk (thankfully this can be reversed)
Alcohol abuse - alcohol is directly a neurotoxin, and elevated amounts will deplete vitamins and antioxidants
Sedentary lifestyle - because of decreased blood flow and a decreased release of important growth factors that are necessary in maintaining a healthy BBB
Inflammatory diet - processed and packaged foods, sugar, pesticides/herbicides on food, etc
Obesity - Adipose tissue (fat) produces inflammatory molecules that causes systemic inflammation
Chronic sleep deprivation - believed to be due to chronic low-grade systemic inflammation
Elevated blood sugar - sugar sticks to various proteins (which is what HbA1c measures), and it will stick to and damage the BBB
Heavy metals - such as lead, cadmium, mercury bind with and disrupt the structure of the BBB; this is where mercury ("silver") fillings play an important role - not only by having them present, but also with the incorrect removal of them that permits the release of large amounts of mercury into the body
What can you do to improve BBB health?
Eat a clean, organic, anti-inflammatory diet
Keep your blood sugar low and consistent (not fluctuating) - check out the book Grain Brain for more info on this
Get active and move every day
Eliminate excessive fat mass
Heal an unhealthy gut
Treat chronic infections
Detox chemicals, toxins, and heavy metals from the body
Optimize homocysteine (should be under 10 but ideally around 5 or 6)
Replete antioxidants in the body
Supplementation that benefits the BBB; arguably there are many, but the most supported include:
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
Erickson MA, Banks WA. Neuroimmune Axes of the Blood-Brain Barriers and Blood-Brain Interfaces: Bases for Physiological Regulation, Disease States, and Pharmacological Interventions. Pharmacol Rev. 2018;70(2):278-314.
Zheng W, Aschner M, Ghersi-Egea JF. Brain barrier systems: a new frontier in metal neurotoxicological research. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2003;192(1):1-11.