The unique thing about the brain is that it is one of the tissues in the body that does not go through cell division. Your liver is always regenerating, so are your gut, your kidneys, and all your organs. But with the brain, whatever set amount of neurons (nerve cells that send and receive electric signals throughout the body) you were born with is what you have for the rest of your life.
So if the brain is incapable of regenerating itself, is degeneration an inevitable outcome as we get older?
Fortunately, the answer is, not necessarily. Here is why.
Neurons connect with each other and develop plasticity. Neural plasticity is the ability of neurons and its networks to change itself both structurally and functionally in response to development, new information, sensory stimulation, damage, or dysfunction. Neural plasticity is, hence, crucial to development, cognition, memory, and mobility.
It was once believed that neural plasticity only existed in very young individuals and that once neural pathways were formed, they were set and could not be altered. Modern brain research has now revealed that neurons continually rearrange themselves throughout the course of life. In fact, new connections can form at any stage in life, enabling people to gain knowledge and pick up new skills even at an advanced age.
However, as you age, your brain is still likely to degenerate unless you do something to alter the process.
Reasons For Brain Degeneration
1. Poor neurodevelopment in certain areas of the brain
Each person has different regions of the brain which have greater connectivity or plasticity than other regions. The more plasticity you have in a certain area, the better you are at that particular function represented by the area. The less plasticity, the less capable.
For example, when you were a kid and you tried to play sports. You were not coordinated and other kids made fun of you. So you stopped playing sports and you avoided sports as you grew up. Then the area that represents your vestibular motor system never got a chance to develop. As you get older, neurodegneration tends to show up first in areas that have less plasticity. If you are someone who did not have a very developed motor coordinated muscular system because you never played sports, you are more likely to have instability, vertigo, or dizziness as you age.
Or maybe you were bad at math when you were in school, so you avoided all math while growing up. As a result, the parietal, prefrontal, and inferior temporal regions in the brain will have less plasticity. As you get older, you may find that you are no longer as good in remembering things or your grocery list.
That is why when it comes to the brain, the saying that “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” is indeed very true.
2. Brain inflammation
Inflammation in the brain is totally different from inflammation in the rest of the body. In the systemic immune system, there are suppressor cells that can shut down the immune response to tame down the inflammatory process, the brain does not.
In the brain, there are mainly neurons and glial cells. Glial cells support, protect, and nurture the neurons; they clear away metabolic debris such as the beta-amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. They are also the resident immune cells in the brain, but they do not have an off switch. Without intervention, once activated, they stay on, become hyper, and cause chronic inflammation in the brain. (Please read on to see ways to reduce brain inflammation.)
Factors like traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, ischemia stroke, infections, toxins, and autoimmunity activate the glial cells. This condition is often associated with a compromised blood-brain barrier, which is a finely woven mesh of specialized cells and blood vessels that keep foreign substances out of the brain. When this barrier is damaged, it becomes permeable or “leaky”. This allows toxins and pathogens to enter the brain. It also allows inflammation that originates elsewhere in the body to get into the brain and start the inflammation response there.
Chronic brain inflammation reduces neuron plasticity and leads to degeneration. It shuts down energy production in the brain cells, resulting in mental fatigue, brain fog, and memory loss. It is also linked to numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Top 5 Ways To Control Brain Degeneration
1. Blood sugar stability
Without doubt, blood sugar dysfunction is the number one risk factor that devastates the brain. This includes being prediabetic, diabetic, or hypoglycemic (low blood sugar).
When a person eats too much carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in the blood, the body puts out more insulin to bring the blood sugar down. Too much insulin activates the glial cells in the brain and causes significant inflammation and promotes the neurodegenerative process.
In hypoglycemics, there is an insulin surge too as the body attempts to bring down the blood sugar after a high carbohydrate meal. When the blood sugar drops too low, the brain cannot get enough fuel. They become spacey, lightheaded, shaky, and irritable. Hypoglycemics cannot go too long without eating.
If you want to determine whether you have a blood sugar issue, simply ask yourself how you feel after you eat. The normal response would be, I am not hungry anymore. There should be no change in energy and function.
However, hypoglycemics will typically say, I feel so much better, I feel I can function again. I can think. I am not hungry anymore. That is a sign that they are dealing with a low blood sugar rollercoaster ride.
Those who eat a meal and need to take a nap, crave sugar, or need to have a coffee immediately are insulin resistant people. They are on the prediabetic or diabetic side.
Scientists now believe that chronic blood sugar imbalances play a huge role in the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, enough to the point that some researchers are calling Alzheimer’s “Type 3 diabetes” due to the inflammatory blood sugar connection. Hence, blood sugar balance is irrefutably the most important factor to address when working to improve brain function.
Apart from managing your blood sugar through diet, many studies have shown that intermittent fasting has a significant impact on brain inflammation. It turns on an important process called autophagy, in which you get rid of the metabolic debris in the brain and you turn off the glial cells. The most common intermittent fasting schedule is the 16/8 method which involves fasting for 16 hours and restricting your daily eating period to 8 hours, say noon to 8 pm.
2. Activation of the brain
The areas of the brain that you do not use will have less plasticity. Therefore, you have to challenge your brain to prevent it from degenerating.
If you always have a hard time with math, get a math app and start doing multiplication tables or play math games that elementary school children do.
If you are often challenged with people’s faces or shapes, do games like Tetris where you look at shapes and try to fit them into different spots.
If you sway or lose your balance when you close your eyes while standing with your feet together or on one foot, you get to do more balance exercises.
The key is to keep all areas of your brain active and stimulated. Watching TV is passive and does nothing to help the brain. Instead, do cognitive things like learn a new language, play Sudoku, or do word puzzles. Be an athlete, be a scholar, that is the way to preserve your brain.
3. Physical activity
Exercise benefits your brain in two ways. One is biochemistry and the other is plasticity.
The types of exercise that raise your heart rate change the neurochemistry in the brain. Higher heart rate equals more blood flow, more circulation, more growth factors, and more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Exercise also causes neuronal branching, creates an opioid response, and calms down inflammation. In short, exercise simply keeps your neurons healthy.
Physical activities that require more coordination increase neuronal plasticity in those areas of the brain.
For example, if you ask a patient that has brain injury in the vestibular system (balance center) to do bicep curls while standing on a BOSU (unstable surface), he/she is likely to feel totally exhausted before the muscles get tired. The patient may think that he/she is so out of shape, but in reality, it is that part of the brain that has an issue.
Therefore, if you are someone who only runs, bikes, or swims, adding exercises that involve multiple plains will help develop the areas of the brain that are responsible for coordination and balance, which is essential as you age.
Your brain cannot function in a sleep-deprived state. Your brain cannot branch. It cannot develop plasticity and it cannot get rid of debris when it is in a sleep-deprived state. Studies clearly show that when people do not get enough sleep, over time, the brain volume decreases in size.
So for whatever reason you are not getting enough quality sleep, be it frequent nighttime urination, too much stimulation from the blue light generated by electronic devices, hormonal imbalances, or low blood sugar causing you to wake up, you need to address the problem. Otherwise, without good sleep, there is no chance that your brain can function well.
5. Nutrients and supplements
The number one nutrient for turning down neuroinflammation is short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The three primary SCFAs critical to health are butyrate, propionate, and acetate.
SCFAs are produced by gut bacteria from the digestion and fermentation of dietary fibers.
SCFAs can modulate neuroinflammation as the gut and the brain are intimately connected by the vagus nerve, which is the highway through which signals from hormones, neuropeptides, and bacteria travel back and forth.
In studies, SCFAs have been implicated in several neuropsychiatric disorders, from Parkinson’s to autism. These patients were found to have a lower abundance of SCFA-producing bacteria in their gut than healthy individuals.
Types of fiber that promote the production of SCFAs in the gut
- found in green bananas, rye, barley, sprouted wheat, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, and onions.
- found in peaches, apples, oranges, grapefruit, apricots, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, and peas.
- found in Jerusalem artichoke, green bananas, garlic, asparagus, leeks, onions, and chicory root.
- found in green bananas, plantains, cooked and cooled rice, potatoes, and legumes.
- found in wheat bran.
Apart from eating foods that are rich in these fibers, you can also use fiber supplements. They are called prebiotics or prebiotic fibers because the good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut feed on them to produce SCFAs.
Foods that contain SCFAs
Butter and ghee.
There are also butyrate (or butyr acid) supplements available. Individuals with serious brain inflammation should consider using both prebiotics and butyrate.
Supplements that reduce brain inflammation
Omega-3 fish oil
- a polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes. It can cross the blood-brain barrier to help reduce brain inflammation.
- a spice commonly found in curry powder. It can also cross the blood-brain barrier. Liposomal liquid curcumin has 4-8 times more absorption than the powder form, which is harder to absorb.
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