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5 Things That Can Increase Brain Inflammation

Alcohol, diet, and smoke, for starters.

Key points

  • Brain inflammation may damage our mood, cognition, and general brain health.
  • Diet quality plays a major role in our overall inflammatory state, and may significantly influence brain inflammation.
  • Poor metabolic health, exposure to smoke, and excess alcohol may all negatively impact brain inflammation.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

When we experience inflammation in our joints, we may have redness, swelling, and pain. If we have inflammation in our skin, we might get an itchy or otherwise annoying rash. But what happens if there is inflammation in our brains?

In recent years, scientists have shown that inflammation in our brains may be a significant contributor to everything from risk for dementias like Alzheimer’s to mood issues like depression to trouble making healthy decisions. That’s a big deal, because these brain issues are major contributors to our quality of life.

Some factors in our lives that contribute to brain inflammation may be unavoidable, and some may have occurred long ago. But there are still several things that we can do to help keep levels of brain inflammation in check. Here are 5 great examples of things worth paying attention to:

1. A low-quality diet.

The food we eat is likely a major contributor to our overall immune state as well as the immune state of our brains. It’s thought that a diet rich in processed food (think added sugar, refined carbohydrates, seed oils, processed meats) may contribute to inflammation in our brains, while a diet rich in leafy greens, nuts, fruits/berries, whole fish/omega-3s, polyphenols, gut-healthy fiber (consider adding some fermented foods for an extra gut-health bonus) as well as flavorful spices like cloves, cinnamon and turmeric may have the opposite effect. For inspiration, check out the Mediterranean diet, which is especially rich in all of these key healthy nutrients.

2. Poor metabolic health.

Research shows that our metabolic health (our body’s ability to extract nutrients from and generate energy from our food) is tightly linked to our immune health, including levels of inflammation. We now know that most of us are likely to be metabolically unhealthy, and that this may have carryover effects for our risk of brain diseases, in part by way of inflammation. Key variables that influence metabolic health include our diet (especially the way our food influences insulin and blood sugar levels), whether or not we get exercise, and even our levels of psychological stress.

Some basic strategies to help improve metabolic health include paying attention to and limiting your added sugar intake, lowering your daily consumption of simple carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, muffins, cakes cookies, and cereal, and engaging in daily movement practices.

3. Exposure to smoke and substances (especially excess alcohol use).

Research shows that exposure to smoke (either because we smoke cigarettes or smoke in air pollution) may increase levels of inflammation in our brains. Similarly, it’s been proposed that exposure to certain drugs may have a damaging effect on our brains by way of the immune system. Though the use of some of these drugs is less common, we likely need to be careful about drinking too much alcohol which may increase inflammation in the brain. It's still debatable if there really is a “brain safe” level of alcohol consumption.

Some basic steps include getting help quitting smoking (if you smoke), doing your best to reduce exposure to air pollution (check your local AQI) whenever possible—including considering a HEPA filter in your home, and limiting alcohol consumption as viable.

4. Too much weight around our bellies.

Our fat cells are immunologically active cells, and this appears to be especially the case for our belly fat. White fat cells deep in our bellies and around our internal organs are thought to contribute to inflammation in our bodies, which may negatively impact inflammation in our brains. While weight loss is a challenging conversation, some strategies worth considering as it relates to decreasing our belly fat include cutting back on refined carbohydrates and added sugar, as well as limiting alcohol consumption.

5. Chronic stress.

One of the most powerful connections between brain inflammation and what we put into our bodies concerns stress. When we experience chronic stress, which can happen for a wide variety of reasons, it appears to increase inflammatory pathways in the brain. Though some stress may be unavoidable, a few practices worth trying include limiting exposure to stressful news and social media (especially before bed) and trying a stress mitigation technique like mindfulness, time in nature, or breathwork.

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