How Inflammation Can Cause Mental Health Issues + How to Test For & Heal Inflammation According to Leading Functional Medicine Doctor Will Cole

Brain issues are on the rise. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, most of my patients struggle with one or both of these problems - even if it’s not the main symptom they are coming to see me for. 

But the question is, why the rise in these brain problems? According to research it all boils down to one common factor: an inflammatory response in the brain.

The Autoimmune-Inflammation Connection

Inflammation is a normal part of your body’s healing process. However, when triggered by factors like an unhealthy lifestyle, stress, and toxic exposures, it can spin out of control. When inflammation continues indefinitely without subsiding it can produce a cascade of pro-inflammatory cells and molecules, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukins (ILs), nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), prostaglandins, and free radicals. Too many of these can lead to inflammation-related health issues like autoimmune disease.

One of the ways inflammation attacks the brain is by damaging the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier. This neurological autoimmunity causes the brain’s immune microglia cells to be activated against the brain and nervous tissue in response to inflammation.

This can be both the trigger and perpetuating factor to depression and anxiety. Depression has been long associated with increased inflammation activation of the immune system which affects the periphery and central nervous system. In fact, many studies have linked higher rates of chronic inflammation to those with autoimmune disease compared to other health problems. 

It’s also no coincidence that anxiety and depression occur together considering anxiety is linked to higher levels of inflammatory cytokines in the brain. It makes sense then that anxiety-related health problems including PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorders are all associated with inflammation.

Could This Be My Problem?

With anything related to your health, in order to start making steps towards healing, we need to definitively know whether or not something is an issue for you. I often suggest the following labs to my patients to determine the root cause of why someone is experiencing anxiety or depression. Then we can move forward with a comprehensive action plan to address what the labs show.

  • Autoimmune Reactivity Brain Labs: These blood labs can look for raised antibodies, including GAD antibodies, which attack the enzyme used to make the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
  • Microbiome Labs: Your gut is considered in medical literature as your “second brain” due to the fact that 95% of your “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin is produced. Leaky gut syndrome and SIBO, are both associated with depression and anxiety since they can damage the blood-brain barrier.
  • Predictive Autoimmunity Labs: Elevated antibodies against the adrenal glands are another contributing factor to depression and anxiety. This lab looks for this as well as undiagnosed autoimmune thyroid problems like, Hashimoto’s which can also trigger depression or anxiety issues.
  • CRP: This inflammatory protein is high in cases of chronic inflammation. Optimal Range: < 0.5 mg/L
  • Homocysteine: This inflammatory amino acid is linked to destruction of the blood-brain barrier and autoimmune problems. Optimal Range: < 7 Umol/L
  • Ferritin: This is considered to be an acute phase reactant and a sign of inflammation when elevated. Optimal Range: Men: 33-236 ng/mL; Premenopausal women: 10-122 ng/mL; Postmenopausal women: 10-263 ng/mL

What To Do Next

Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to naturally lower inflammation and start alleviating depression and anxiety without medication. While medication is sometimes necessary, oftentimes people can find enough relief with lifestyle changes. However, always talk to your doctor to determine the best course of action for you.

1. Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting has been shown to significantly reduce brain inflammation. There are many ways to fast, but if you are new to intermittent fasting or just want to elevate your practice, check out my upcoming book Intuitive Fasting where I put together a complete 4-week plan to help you find a fasting practice that works best for you.

2. Go keto

The ketogenic shines for its ability to help lower inflammation through reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines while increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines. Another result of being a fat burner is the production of ketones like beta-hydroxybutyrate which inhibit the inflammatory Nf-kB pathway in the body. Research also shows that ketogenic diets have similar effects as antidepressants.

3. Try CBD

CBD oil has become popular for many reasons, one being its ability to help alleviate anxiety through the activation of CB1 receptors that balance GABA and glutamate levels while also lowering overall inflammation levels.

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