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3 powerful ways to help protect your brain against inflammation

You can apply these steps today!


By Austin Perlmutter, MD

 


KEY POINTS

  • Inflammation is a major threat to brain health (mental and cognitive)

  • Choosing a minimally processed, whole food-based diet may help lower inflammation risk and protect the brain

  • Regular exercise is linked to lower inflammation and better brain health.

  • Mitigating unhealthy stress may lower inflammation and help keep the brain sharp.

Inflammation in our bodies is linked to everything from heart disease to diabetes to certain cancers. We also know that inflammation may play a major role in brain health issues. For example...


  • A recent study of 500,000 people looked at the link between inflammation and dementia. They found that higher levels of inflammation predicted worse memory, lower fluid intelligence and worse reaction time. They also found that those with the highest inflammation score were at higher risk for developing dementia over the coming years.

  • Research shows that inflammation is linked to symptoms of depression

  • A 2019 study shows that inflammation may lead to more impulsive decision making.


All this is to say that we really don’t want to expose our brains to the effects of long-lasting inflammation. So, what are some steps all of us can take to help mitigate this risk?


1. Eat a diet rich in whole, colorful, diverse foods (and avoid the processed junk!)


When it comes to the effects of diet on health, everyone has an opinion. Some people are concerned about lectins, while others are convinced that celery juice will reverse aging. When it comes to the impact of diet on inflammation, it’s true that every person’s body is unique, and that certain dietary components (for example, gluten) may have a dramatic effect on increasing inflammation in some and be much better tolerated by others. There is still variability on the best overall diet to lower inflammation, but here are some consistent trends:


· Avoid added sugar

· Avoid too much processed meat

· Avoid highly processed snack food

· Eat more whole foods

· Eat more colorful vegetables

· Prioritize foods that are rich in micronutrients, fiber and omega-3 fats


2. Move your body regularly


Research here is consistent: people who move their bodies more tend to have better health. Exercising regularly is linked to longer life, less mental health issues and even Alzheimer’s prevention. It turns out one of the major ways that exercise may help is by regulating excess inflammation. Fascinating new research suggests that molecules produced during exercise may have an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain. But be warned: too much intense exercise may have the opposite effect. For the biggest brain benefits, research seems to support consistent commitment to moderate intensity exercise.



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3. Target and mitigate unnecessary stress


One of the best-established pathways between environmental exposure and inflammation relates to psychological stress. The exact mechanisms are technical, but in general it’s though that excess exposure to stress may throw our immune system out of whack, leading to inflammation in our bodies and brains. Stress is an entire subject in and of itself (see this article for more). Here are a few practical stress-reduction strategies:


  • Get out in nature for a 20-minute walk

  • Carve out 10 minutes each morning for breathwork or meditation

  • Write down your concerns before bed (if you wind up thinking about them at night)

  • Limit excess consumption of news (especially before bed)

  • Limit excess consumption of social media (social comparison in particular can be stressful)

  • Practice gratitude


There are obviously many other things that contribute to inflammatory state, and lots more nuance to each of the topics described above. If you’re interested to learn more, don’t miss my blog on how inflammation alters our thinking!


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