We all know that having inflammation is bad news. Inflammation in our joints due to injuries or of any other kind is all considered a big problem and there are many illnesses that can cause this response too. But did you know it can also impact on your brain? And it’s pretty much as bad as it sounds…
Inflammation appears to have a profound effect on the brain and is something many people may be struggling with and which might actually lie at the root of some types of depression as well as brain fog. Read on and we’ll take an in-depth look at inflammation’s effect in the brain and how it can negatively affect our mental health.
What Is Inflammation in the Brain?
If you have ever had a cold, then you will likely have noticed that it can affect you psychologically as well as physically. Chances are that you will find yourself feeling listless, easily distracted, miserable and quite possibly depressed.
Of course this is partly because you’re likely bored and frustrated with being ill. At the same time though, it will also be a result of the immune system’s effects on your brain directly.
Whenever the body comes under attack from illness, it will respond by generating an ‘inflammatory response’. This is regulated by the release of cytokines – messengers that can be either pro- or anti-inflammatory.
These cytokines can then have a number of impacts on the brain. For instance, they have been shown to alter the levels of certain neurotransmitters including dopamine, tryptophan and serotonin (1). Cytokines activate the enzyme indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) which degrades serotonin – a ‘happiness hormone’. This may well be one mechanism through which inflammation may lead to depression.
It also appears that inflammation in the brain can increase ‘excitability’ by ‘upregulating’ glutamatergic activity (glutamine being the main excitatory neurotransmitter) and by ‘downregulating’ GABAergic synapses (GABA being the main inhibitory neurotransmitter) (2).
Inflammation in the brain also seems to lead to mitochondrial break down. Your mitochondria are the ‘energy plants’ of your cells (including the neurons) and this means that inflammation may lead to less mental energy (3). All these factors contribute to depression and brain fog and to what is known as ‘sickness behavior’.
As well as being a response to infection, inflammation in the brain can also be caused by oxidative stress or by psychological stress. It’s also possible that inflammation and thus ‘brain fog and depression’ could be compounded by allergies – some claim that a ‘lectin sensitivity’ is one of the most common allergies leading to brain inflammation. A lack of good sleep could also lead to inflammation and thus brain fog (4).
Evidence and Research
The connection between inflammation, brain fog and depression is something that researchers only just starting to explore. Preliminary studies suggest there may be a strong link in many cases though.
In one study, researchers used Zoloft to treat depression. They found that this could decrease their pro-inflammatory cytokines and increase their anti-inflammatory cytokines and that this was effective in treating the depression to an extent (5). Meanwhile, the use of blood thinners such as aspirin have also been found to be effective in treating depression (6).
One treatment for hepatitis C is the administration of interferons. These interferons however also trigger inflammatory responses and this could explain why 20-30% of patients using this treatment are at risk of depression (7).
Taking Action Against Inflammation
All these studies suggest a strong link between inflammation and depression and this could well be an interesting angle to explore further. If you are suffering with depression or brain fog of your own, then you might consider trying to reduce that inflammation yourself – either through the use of aspirins and ibuprofen, or perhaps through vasodilators likes garlic which can have a similar effect by widening the blood vessels. Vanilla may also be a helpful home remedy to try as it contains vanilloids which, like capsaicin, can reduce inflammation.
But let’s not get carried away here. Just because some cases of depression and brain fog seem to be triggered/controlled by inflammation, that does not mean that all cases are. Inflammation is a normal response to infection but it does not generally occur on its own unless something has gone wrong. Case in point: your knee gets inflamed when you bang it, but rarely will it be inflamed for no reason at all!
Many websites are jumping on this bandwagon and recommending that people consume vast quantities of vanilla and capsaicin and aspirin to enjoy ‘optimum performance’. In reality though, most of us probably have no need for such treatments as our brains probably aren’t inflamed.
How do you know if your brain is inflamed? You don’t! But if you aren’t experiencing severe brain fog or depression, then chances are it’s not and so you don’t need to start treating it. On the other hand though, if you are suffering with these types of mental health complaints, then this is one more avenue to consider pursuing in your treatment of them. It certainly can’t hurt to try using some anti-inflammatory treatments if you are suffering with depression. And it is certainly an interesting topic to watch develop!