A dummy’s guide to the new science on body-brain health and why it changes everything
Buckle in and hold on tight, it’s a fast and unfamiliar ride this week. As the driver, I’m attempting to take you places and explain stuff that even the field’s top experts don’t yet fully understand, and I realise this is very much a work in progress for us. But it seems so significant we at least want to share the headlines so you have a sense of what’s upstream and can start to tune into this rapidly developing field.
Truly, in less than three years we think this is going to be mainstream and revolutionary in wellbeing.
Here are the key words to hold in mind this week:
The scientific community’s understanding of what these mean and how they are connected is incomplete but developing fast, and it’s exciting.
One thing’s for sure: they hold potentially important and practical implications for those of us who are leaders, or coaches of leaders, or indeed for anyone who is interested in acquiring some more key pieces in the amazingly complex jigsaw puzzle of what it takes and means to be mentally and physically well.
He Got Schizophrenia. He Got Cancer. And Then He Got Cured.
So ran the heading of a bizarre story published in September 2018 by the NY Times about a man diagnosed, age 23, with treatment-resistant-schizophrenia, whose symptoms were accidentally ‘cured’ upon receiving a bone marrow treatment for leukaemia at age 24. To doctors’ astonishment, the cancer treatment succeeded where a series of antipsychotic drugs had previously failed: his mental health and delusional symptoms totally vanished.
Then there’s story of another man for whom the outcome was tragically reversed: he suddenly developed schizophrenia after receiving a bone marrow transplant from his schizophrenic brother.
How about the fact that a common antibiotic prescribed for acne has been found to inadvertently also reverse psychotic symptoms? Or that a six-month course of simple probiotics, when prescribed to patients with mania, triggers a 75% reduction in hospital admissions?
What’s going on?
These jaw-dropping stories represent the merest tip of the iceberg that is our radically-developing understanding of the causes (and therefore the potential treatments) of mental health problems and general wellbeing.
(Spoiler alert: It seems that some mental health problems may not be mental health problems at all, but rather the symptoms from underlying inflammation and the resulting out-of-whack immune system).
Whilst the explanatory science is complex (at least for my poor brain), for the purposes of this blog I undertook a crash course. With apologies to the esteemed professors and preeminent psychiatrists whose work I may be grossly oversimplifying, what I can gather goes something like this:
The dummy’s guide to the science on why brain and mental health is linked to INFLAMMATION & IMMUNE SYSTEM
- A growing body of research suggests a relationship between inflammation, mood symptoms and a range of mental health symptoms.
- It has long been understood that our immune system affects the level of inflammation in our bodies. However, recent studies now point to inflammation having far more impact on our brain functioning than has been previously understood.
- Systemic inflammation and immune dysregulation (such as that occurs with autoimmune issues) can have a negative impact on our brains and therefore our moods.
- Important caveat: Not everyone who has a mental health issue will benefit from reduced inflammation, because the general consensus is that mental health issues are not inflammatory conditions. Similarly, not everyone with inflammation is grappling with a mood or mental health disorder.
- The belief is that by rebooting our immune system we can (sometimes) drive our mental health in a different direction. Why?
- Our immune system secretes antibodies, to help fight infection – doh, everyone knows that.
- What most probably don’t know about is cytokines – our immune system’s natural response to disease and infection. Cytokines are slippery suckers.
The good, the bad and the ugly of CYTOKINES
So far so good. But it gets (even) trickier now, so bear with me while I take a quick detour down the road of cytokines. I promise it’s leading somewhere!
- Cytokines are generally ‘good’ when communicating with other cells in our body to stimulate our immune system to fight virus or attack a tumour. They also play a key role in the communication between our immune system and our central nervous system.
- They’re ‘bad’ when their dysfunctional expression causes inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and Crohn’s, which have a detrimental impact on our central nervous system.
- The ‘ugly’ comes from revelatory research demonstrating that when our ‘brain-blood-barrier’ (BBB) is breached, it permits the direct and rapid passage of cytokines through to our brains, effectively wreaking havoc. (BBB is the protective layer around our brain that usually provides a defence against any disease-causing pathogens and toxins present in our blood.)
In this ‘ugly’ scenario, cytokines interfere with – and can considerably damage – the brain’s ability to function as it normally would.
Those of us with autoimmune conditions have an increased likelihood of the BBB being too permeable, and a higher chance of allowing more cytokines to cross. Treatments for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases commonly aim to reduce inflammation, thereby reducing circulating levels of cytokines. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis serve as classic examples of conditions in which blocking or dampening of cytokine levels is desired.
Where there are higher levels of inflammation, it is believed to especially affect the region in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala (as you may recall from some of our previous blogs) plays a key role in processing emotion: It’s well-known and well-documented as being responsible for creating OCD, anxiety and fearful thoughts.
The theory is that too many of the wrong type of cytokines damage our capacity for neuroplasticity: Our central nervous system’s ability to perceive, respond and adapt to external or internal irritations.
The long and the short of CYTOKINES
Depending on the amount and rate at which cytokines cross our blood-brain-barrier, a myriad of neuropsychiatric symptoms can emerge as a result, such as low or depressed mood, sleep interference, appetite dysregulation, anxiety or full-blown psychosis. The impact of cytokines on the brain can have lasting implications if left unchecked.
More positively, scientists now know how to help the ‘good’ cytokines – to generate or quench the immune system – and block the ‘bad’ cytokines – to prevent damaging inflammatory events.
Whether it’s for your own wellbeing or that of your team or clients, we feel there are some practical takeaways from this complex science that we could all be applying to our everyday lives. But before I get to them, I’m going to expand briefly on neuroplasticity and especially – this thing we’re all going to hear so much about in the coming months – BDNF. For the more technically oriented among you that will be “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor”.
Phew! Now I’ve got that straight, I hope you’re still with me.
BDNF in a nutshell
One of the most interesting hypotheses is that BDNF has a major influence on our brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our nervous system to respond and adapt to environmental challenges to develop new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
It is believed that higher levels of inflammation negatively impact BDNF, which in turn reduce our neuroplasticity. (Or something like that!)
The punchline – five strategies to lower inflammation, boost wellbeing and support your brain
Where were we? That’s right – the link between inflammation, immune system, cytokines, neuroplasticity and BDNF.
It’s simplistic but safe to say the bottom line is that reducing inflammation is a good thing for your brain, body, and longevity. This is true whether you’re dealing with mood disorder symptoms or you simply want to take a more active role in improving health, wellbeing and vitality more broadly.
Thankfully, we don’t all need a bone marrow transplant to reset our immune system.
Simple yet effective treatment strategies to reduce inflammation, boost your immune system, minimise pro-inflammatory cytokines and stimulate BDNF production include:
1. See a functional or integrative GP
It’s vital to identify any systemic inflammation and its source.
A number of triggers can increase inflammation, including obesity, age, medical illness, genetics, trauma, and diet. Inflammation may be decoded as ‘being in a state of imbalance’. Issues such as digestive problems, eczema, asthma, chronic sinus issues, frequent headaches, joint issues, skin issues, or thyroid symptoms like feeling hot or cold and hormone imbalances are all worthy clues to be further investigated. Integrative (or sometimes called functional) GPs specialise in this holistic analysis: Depending on your symptoms, they will check hormones, vitamins, autoimmune, endocrine and microbiome levels.
2. Stop eating inflammatory foods
Certain foods have been proven, scientifically and biochemically, to trigger inflammation in the body, and that inflammation impacts the brain. For many, gluten and grains have a negative impact. Dairy and sugar can also be culprits.
Your gut and brain are in constant contact thanks to the gut-brain axis: Bacteria can make neurotransmitters that influence your brain activity, which contributes to your mental performance. If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, mood swings and fatigue, there’s a chance your gut is out of balance.
3. Stop eating too much food
Sustaining high levels of performance in a food-deprived (fasted) state can induce the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which thereby promotes neuroplasticity and stress resistance.
We’ll make this the subject of a fuller blog in its own right another week, but for today’s purposes – the headline is that sensible fasting is not only good for our waistlines but also our brains.
4. Do high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts
Mixing up short, intense bursts of activity with less hardcore moves or complete rest in between has been shown to change brain function, increase blood flow, and regulate neurotransmission. It’s also one of the best ways to fit a workout into your routine without spending hours in the gym.
5. Get seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night
From our GLWS research, fewer than 50% of us are regularly getting the perquisite amount of sleep, and more than 50% report experiencing sleep difficulties – many of us on a regular basis. Sleep is our restorative function, and without enough of it we cause a physiological and psychological systemic inflammation. Even just a lack of two hours increases the inflammatory response in the body.
So, if you do nothing else – sort your sleep out.
6. Reduce contamination and toxins
I might be getting a bit too hippy for some of you here, but I’m increasingly convinced that contamination and inflammation can arise not only from what we put into and onto our bodies, but also what we’re being exposed to in the environment around us. You may have seen the news coverage of a Sydney-based selective high school with mouldy classrooms that made headlines recently? Environmental toxins such as mould can also contribute to inflammation and symptoms that mirror complaints associated with mental illness, including fatigue, anxiety and mood swings.
Think organic: Eliminate chemicals and toxins that are harmful to our immune system.
The way people think about what causes mental illness is changing. That means that treatment options are changing, too. And that’s a good thing for everyone.
Sorry it’s a bit long this week folks. In pulling it together, every paper I read unearthed a new factoid and angle to share and it was hard to know where to stop. I’m personally fascinated and will be following up many of these angles in relation to a recently diagnosed autoimmune disorder.
There are many spin-off posts that we have in mind coming off the back of this week’s – we want to take a deeper look at the new data emerging on the benefits of intermittent fasting and Mediterranean diet, not just for weight loss but for the BDNF and inflammation advantages. We’re also working on a piece about Integrative (Functional) GPs and their growing importance as holistic practitioners who may hold an important key for our wellbeing.
To that end, we’d love to hear from you. If you have any experience with these emerging megatrends or if you can shed any light or new angles on the above, please get in touch!
Audrey (& Karen)
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