Your skin provides incredible protection for your body. Your organs are specifically protected by fat. Your bones are protected by muscles and tendons. And you may think that your brain is only protected by your skull, when in fact, it has one of the most qualified defense systems in the entire body, called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).
This barrier has an important job of keeping harmful substances from getting to your brain cells while letting good nutrients pass through. When the barrier’s integrity is disrupted, it is linked to a condition called “leaky brain syndrome.”
If you’ve heard of leaky gut syndrome, this health concern is similar and just as disruptive to your overall well-being and longevity. The good news is that you can do things to protect and strengthen your blood-brain barrier. Below is everything you need to know about caring for those very important brain cells of yours!
The Blood-Brain Barrier 101
The blood-brain barrier is a semi-permeable barrier that separates the blood from the brain. It is made up of a layer of endothelial cells that are tightly joined together. This barrier prevents harmful substances from entering your brain, while allowing essential nutrients and oxygen to pass through.
Microglia are the resident immune cells of the brain. They play a role in maintaining the blood-brain barrier by producing molecules that promote the formation of the tight junctions between endothelial cells. Interestingly, they can also produce molecules that degrade those tight junctions, potentially leading to BBB breakdown. In aging and age-associated diseases, microglia become activated and produce more of the molecules that promote BBB breakdown.
Just like the rest of our bodies, it can be damaged by epigenetic occurrences and certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. The more damage that is inflicted, the less resilient your blood-brain barrier is to harmful substances entering the brain and doing damage to your brain cells.
Here are a few things that can damage and weaken the BBB:
Interestingly, the BBB becomes more permeable with age. This happens due to changes in the structure of endothelial cells that make up the barrier, and the expression of certain proteins. We’ve already discussed how neurodegenerative diseases can weaken the tightness of the endothelial cells, but a study has shown that this weakening actually leads to the development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease as well. Scientists are working to prove that certain drugs (such as minocycline and atorvastatin) can improve the function of the BBB as a new approach to treating neurodegenerative diseases.
Harmful Substances That Can Cross The BBB
Several substances can damage brain cells and impair cognitive function when they cross the blood-brain barrier. These substances can also increase the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases:
- Tobacco smoke
- Heavy metals (such as lead, mercury, and arsenic)
- Air pollution
- Certain parasites – When parasites cross the BBB, they can cause a number of neurological problems, including meningitis, encephalitis, and brain abscesses. This includes Toxoplasma gondii which is found in cat feces. There are plenty of cases relating people who have cats and litter boxes to those who suffer from brain disorders, such as bipolar disorder.
- Certain medications – Some vaccine ingredients, medications, such as steroids and chemotherapy drugs, can damage brain cells and impair cognitive function and increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
Microplastics & Nanoplastics
A recent study on the blood-brain barrier found microplastics in the brains of mice just 2 hours after they ingested them. It’s known that microplastics can cause harm to brain cells, but these sort of scary results suggest that microplastics can not only pass through the blood-brain barrier, but they do it extremely quickly.
There is a growing body of evidence that links microplastics to neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Here are a few things that you can do to reduce your exposure:
- Avoid using single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles, straws, and bags.
- Choose products that are made from recycled materials.
- Wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- Avoid eating seafood that is high in mercury, as mercury can bind to microplastics.
Signs & Symptoms of a “Leaky Brain”
A leaky brain, also known as a leaky blood-brain barrier, is a condition that occurs when the BBB becomes damaged or weakened. This allows harmful substances to enter the brain, which can damage brain cells and lead to a variety of symptoms. The symptoms of a leaky brain can vary depending on the severity of the damage, but some common symptoms include:
- Headaches: are a common symptom of a leaky brain. They can be mild or severe, and they may be worse in the morning or with exertion.
- Fatigue: is another common symptom of a leaky brain. It can be difficult to get enough energy to do everyday activities.
- Memory problems: such as difficulty concentrating, remembering names, or learning new information, can also be a sign of a leaky brain.
- Mood changes: such as anxiety, depression, or irritability, can be a sign of a leaky brain.
- Sensory problems: such as sensitivity to light or sound, can also be a sign of a leaky brain.
- Seizures: In some cases, a leaky brain can lead to seizures.
You can also have lab work done to test the permeability of your blood-brain barrier. Here are a few that could give you some answers:
- Blood-brain barrier proteins: This test measures antibodies against proteins that are involved in maintaining the BBB. High levels of these antibodies can indicate that the BBB is damaged.
- Occludin and zonulin: These are two proteins that help to keep the BBB tight. Blood tests can measure antibodies against these proteins to see if they are leaking into the brain.
- Homocysteine: This is an amino acid that can damage the BBB. High levels of homocysteine can increase your risk of BBB damage.
- Brain Agers: This is a test that measures a number of different factors that can contribute to BBB damage, including inflammation, high blood sugar, and oxidative stress.
Beneficial Substances That Can Cross The BBB
You might be wondering what good things your body will allow to pass through and access your brain cells. A number of substances can cross the BBB, including:
- Lipid-soluble molecules: such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hormones
- Small molecules: such as glucose, amino acids, and water
- Transported molecules: Some molecules, such as glucose and amino acids, are transported across by special proteins called transporters.
- Passive diffusion: Some molecules, such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, can cross the BBB by passive diffusion.
Protect & Strengthen The BBB
Keeping your blood-brain barrier healthy is not as much of a complicated process as you may think. In fact, a few simple lifestyle shifts can help you to not only protect the tight junctions of those endothelial cells, but also fight aging in the rest of your body. For example…
- Eat a healthy diet: A healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to protect the BBB.
- Supplement: There are a number of supplements that have been shown to be helpful for people with leaky brain, including omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, CoQ10, and vitamin D.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise can help to improve blood flow to the brain, which can help to protect the BBB.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep is important for brain health. When you don’t get enough sleep, the BBB can become damaged.
- Manage stress: Stress can damage the BBB and actually kill brain cells. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, yoga, and meditation, can help to protect the BBB.
~ In Conclusion ~
Unfortunately, most people’s bodies are outliving their brains. Neurodegenerative disease is one of the biggest health concerns of this time. Being proactive about your brain health and paying attention to your symptoms is so important for your longevity. The more you learn about the blood-brain barrier, the more you can protect your mind from age-related disease and decline, as well as improve your mental well-being.
It is always comforting to know that simple changes can make a big difference. Simply improving sleep quality, being more mindful about nutrition, supplementing, moving your body, and using meditation and mindset techniques to manage stress levels is actually, scientifically, protecting the health and longevity of your brain!
xo – Serena