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Is Your Brain on Fire? (Part 3)

The Causes of Neuroinflammation

As much as I wish I could tell you there was only one cause of neuroinflammation, that is simply not the case. If you’ve been following along in this series of blogs about “brain on fire” symptoms and causes, you’ve learned that neuroinflammation can be caused by fluoroquinolones or other drugs breaking down the blood brain barrier. However common this may be, other causes of neuroinflammation do exist and I’ll break those down for you here. It is important to know which is the cause of your specific case of neuroinflammation so that it can be addressed in a treatment plan for your recovery.

What else can cause “brain on fire” symptoms?

Some causes of neuroinflammation include head trauma, concussions, micro strokes, and stress. These causes are even more significant when you consider that the damage they do is irreversible. Remember the glial cells we discussed in Part 2 of this blog series, which make up 90 percent of brain cells and act as the immune system for the brain? Think of those microglia as being an egg. Once an egg has been boiled, it can never return to its raw form. That’s why it is imperative to identify and stop neuroinflammation as quickly as possible: to preserve as many of the microglia as possible. This can be done through functional medicine, and is something I do in my practice on a regular basis.

The importance of barriers

The above graphic shows a cross-section of your bloodstream. Looking at the sections marked as “Early” and “Late” in the image, you can see ruptures in the artery surrounded by blood clotting proteins. As the figure demonstrates, the broken arteries can act like a garden hose that has been punctured. The pressure of the water inside the hose causes streams to shoot out through the punctures with some force. The same happens in your bloodstream, which can push unwanted substances through the blood brain barrier and into your brain. The attached astrocytes along with the inflammatory process in your brain will begin to cause damage, resulting in a range of symptoms.

Leaky gut can cause leaky brain

Like the blood brain barrier, the gut also contains a one-cell-thick membrane separating the stomach contents from the bloodstream. The above graphic shows a comparison between a healthy, impermeable gut membrane (left) and an unhealthy, leaky gut (right). Because of inflammation caused by a number of sources, the gut on the right has had its one-cell lining broken down, creating gaps large enough for a variety of unwanted material to breach into the blood. Once in the blood, these unrecognizable intruders trigger the immune system, which brings on symptoms such as negative reactions to certain foods. This inflammation can also cause malabsorption, meaning the essential nutrients in your food are not absorbed by the body.

How do you know if you’ve got a leaky gut?

For the majority of people, having two to three bowel movements per day without gas, diarrhea, bloating, or heartburn are signs of a healthy gut. Many people have leaky gut even if no gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are present. This leaky gut allows trillions of bacteria in the intestines to leak into the bloodstream, making their way eventually to the brain through the blood brain barrier. The end result is always inflammation.

As the blood brain barrier begins to break down due to this leaky gut, a whole host of symptoms may appear. To make things even more frustrating, you may struggle to find someone who makes the connection between these new symptoms and GI or leaky gut issues. New research shows, though, how these issues relate, and it has to do with the vagus nerve.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve extends up from the lower intestines to the back of the human head. You may recall famed Superman actor Christopher Reeve experiencing severe damage to his neck after falling from his horse. This fall considerably damaged his vagus nerve and, as a result, his gut was no longer able to function. For the remainder of his life he required tube feeding to stay properly nourished. This is just one example of how severely injuring the head and neck can affect the digestive system due to the connection of the vagus nerve.

Blog on how to strengthen your Vagus nerve

Research now suggests that in the reverse fashion, harmful bacteria from the gut can make its way to the brain through the vagus nerve. This happens in a similar way to how the shingles virus affects the skin. The shingles virus travels through the nerves to the skin causing discomfort in the same way bacteria and other microbes can travel up your vagus nerve and right to your brain. This direct access to your brain is what causes brain inflammation, and it’s the reason why 98 percent of people I treat for neuroinflammation are also experiencing GI issues.

Why aren’t doctors discussing this connection?

Now that we’ve seen the established link between GI issues and brain inflammation, you may be wondering why more healthcare professionals aren’t making this connection. In my experience, it’s because many of them aren’t continually taking time outside of their practice to read the new research and continue to learn. As a functional medicine practitioner, I can and do take the time to connect the dots with my patie