Brain fog or leaky brain is exhausting and frustrating, especially with a compromised gut and autoimmune condition. Your gut and brain were connected from day 1 as you were growing in your mother’s womb. This is why science is often referring to your gut as your “second brain”.
I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of leaky gut before and maybe even have it yourself. Leaky gut occurs when the lining of your gut is damaged and leads to gaps in the tissues along the digestive tract. This process, also known as intestinal permeability, leads to elevated antibodies from proteins called zonulin and occludin which cause damage to your gut and brain.
This is where the gut brain connection becomes a problem and can lead to “leaky brain”. I see so many clients who come to me with autoimmune conditions and gut imbalances that are linked to their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and brain fog. In almost every client I test who presents with these symptoms, I see that they do in fact have leaky gut. This is often a consequence of dealing with triggers that lead to intestinal permeability and the reason that if your gut suffers, so does your brain.
There is a “little brain” located in your gut labeled the “enteric nervous system” (ENS). Unlike the brain in your skull, this little brain regulates digestion and gut health. The ENS is directly tied to your central nervous system (CNS), which explains the gut-brain connection.
Thanks to this direct connection, leaky brain occurs during advanced stages of leaky gut. This is due to rising systemic inflammation, increased anti-LPS antibodies, poor microbiome balance, and more. These conditions are favorable to opportunistic pathogens in the gut, which take advantage of their time in the body and slowly but surely wreck havoc. Eventually, this leads to leaky brain.
Leaky brain is a result of leaky gut and can lead to difficulty focusing, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and debilitating fatigue.
The most common symptoms linked to leaky brain include:
Despite the external manifestation of these symptoms, they’re usually caused by an internal culprit. When dealing with one or more of these symptoms, it’s time to look deeper inside the body to see why your brain is “leaky”.
10 Common triggers of brain fog as it relates to the gut include:
Since leaky brain isn’t a tangible or noticeable disease, you might be told by friends, or even doctors, that it’s “all in your head.” Just know that if these symptoms are present in your day-to-day life, you’re probably onto something.
There are 5 steps you can take to start naturally reversing your brain fog (AKA: Leaky Brain).
Nutrient deficiencies are extremely common in America, today, due to poor soil composition, processed foods, stress, and chronic disease. One of the most important first steps you can take to improve brain health is restoring nutrient levels. A few of the most common deficiencies include zinc, vitamin D, B vitamins, fatty acids, and magnesium.
Even a single micronutrient deficiency can contribute to nervous system imbalances and disorders. Your vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids perform hundreds of processes each day and are a requirement for life. Deficiencies often lead to a cascade of symptoms and events that impair your body’s ability to functional optimally.
Food, first. Always! Your brain is the result of what you put into your body. You want to give it more nutrient dense whole foods, antioxidants, and functional foods that drive mental focus, mood, and endurance. Feeding your brain well with healthy foods also results in a calm and relaxed state and helps reduce anxiety.Your brain is the result of what you put into your body. You want to give it more nutrient dense whole foods, antioxidants, and functional foods that drive mental focus, mood, and endurance. #leakybrain Click To Tweet
Aim to eat a nutrient-rich diet as often as possible and implement these diet changes:
7 specific nutrients to support your brain:
Choline reduces gray matter in the brain and is necessary to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which plays a role in memory. High concentrations of choline are found in pasture-raised egg yolks, chicken, turkey, asparagus, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
Dietary fat makes up half our brain and is a requirement for fuel. Don’t be afraid of it! I suggest adding medium-chain triglyceride fats to your routine that your brain can use for energy. Some examples include coconut oil, MCT oil, and ghee butter. Grass-fed animal products also contain healthy fats that our brain needs to support nerves and the formation of myelin sheath. These types of fats improve cognitive function almost immediately after ingestion making them all fast-acting brain foods.
Anthocyanins are the antioxidants in blueberries that give them their purple pigment. This pigment is known to help heal the blood brain barrier and shown to have a neuroprotective and antioxidant effect. Wild blueberries specifically have the highest concentration of this pigment. In addition, blueberries are known to help with oxidative stress which ages the brain. Other foods high in anthocyanins include acai, blackberries, blackcurrants, and raspberries.
Organ meats are a nutritional powerhouse if you can tolerate them. Consuming grass-fed beef liver or pasture-raised organic chicken hearts once a week naturally increases your fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E, and K) along with minerals that help with absorption. If you have a hard time eating organ meats, try making a liver pate or using the ground meat to make meatballs. You can find high quality liver and chicken hearts from US Wellness Meats.
Microgreens such as watercress help the brain and body naturally detox which is essential for optimal brain health. Other vegetables that aid in natural detoxification include deep dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts. I also recommend adding cilantro to your diet which helps specifically detox heavy metals from the body.
The Nrf2 gene (our master regulator and thermostat) plays a role in our body’s response to stress. By incorporating more foods that activate this gene, we are able to reduce oxidative stress and free radical damage as a result of leaky brain. Include foods such as turmeric, broccoli, and broccoli sprouts. Another excellent Nrf2 activator is green tea. Not all green tea (or tea in general) is created equal. Make sure your teas are tripped screened and free of the common molds, metals, and contaminants that do more harm than good. I highly recommend Pique teas and specifically their Matcha green tea which is one of the strongest natural Nrf2 activators. You can check out my favorite collagen matcha recipe here.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
DHA is essential for optimal brain health and reducing inflammation. Consuming more wild caught salmon and sardines at least 2-3 days per week can really boost your brain and EPA/DHA. If you can’t eat these omega-3 rich fish sources, consider a high quality molecularly distilled pure fish oil.
To feed your brain in the morning, I recommend starting your day with a nourishing smoothie that is rich in anthocyanins, medium-chain triglyceride fats, vegetables that support your nrf2 gene, and superfoods. A smoothie is a practical way to incorporate all these nutrients above into a brain-health routine.
Brain Boost Smoothie
Additional boosters: Try adding spices like clove, cardamom or cinnamon, prebiotic resistant starch such as half a green banana, microgreens to support detoxification, and extra leucine in combination with your protein powder to get about 2.5 grams total.
Foods to consider limiting or avoiding to support a leaky brain include:
Gluten and Dairy
If you have an autoimmune condition, gluten and dairy can cause an autoimmune response due to certain triggers where the immune system attacks the blood brain barrier and tissues. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triciale, but is also hidden in many other packaged foods and condiments. Dairy includes anything coming from a cow.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Processed foods like fried foods, chips, trans-fat pastries, crackers, and browned animal proteins contain a neurotoxin called acrylamide that inflames the body and brain. In addition, processed foods trigger the formation of Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that may end up damaging the blood brain barrier. Many of these foods also contain MSG and artificial chemicals like aspartame which can lead to toxicity and neuron damage.
It’s really important to reduce heavy metal exposure through food as much as possible to support your brain. Heavy metals are found in so many things around us–mediations, household items, pollutants, and so much more. Food sources include shellfish, large fish such as tuna, chocolate, coffee, plant-based protein powder and teas. These foods often contain increased levels of mercury and lead, which are neurotoxins. It’s really important that if you do drink coffee and tea or eat healthy foods like dark chocolate and protein powder that you choose the right brands that are tested for metals. My resource page lists a ton of options that you can swap out to reduce and limit your exposure to these harmful metals that can accumulate in your body.
Our brain can easily become addicted to sugar. The problem with sugar is that the dopamine boost we get from it often drops suddenly, leaving us wanting and craving more. In addition, gut infections like candida love sugar! Consuming excess sugar frequently, regardless of its source contributes to more inflammation in the body, and brain. Reducing your intake of foods high in sugar and having them only on occasion will help improve brain function.
Lastly, work with a practitioner who can help you include foods that improve cognitive function, reduce anxiety, and balance your mood.
Inflammation is a main antagonist in leaky gut and brain. You can naturally decrease inflammation by incorporating more anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric and ginger. I also suggest reducing heavy workouts and finding gentle movements that also help with stress reduction, such as walking and/or yoga. Reduce inflammation by also eliminating or limiting sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods. These are just a few quick tips to start reducing inflammation and healing your body quickly. Work with your practitioner to start an anti-inflammatory diet. If you need a place to start, you might like my meal plan subscription specifically for those with gut imbalances and/or autoimmune conditions.
Additionally, look to steps 4 and 5 to further reduce chronic inflammation.
Food sensitivities are a common cause of chronic health conditions and they play a huge role in intestinal permeability. It’s essential to identify and eliminate all food sensitivities from your diet in order to properly heal your gut. I prefer to use the Leap MRT test to accurately detect food sensitivities.
The Mediator Release Test (MRT) is the only test offering 94% accuracy using ribbon technology that accurately measures mediator release in the blood by identifying changes in the ratio of liquids to solids in your blood after it has been exposed and incubated with the test substance to identify all reactions by your immune cells. This response will show that your immune cells release chemical mediators such as histamines, cytokines, or prostaglandins. The positive reactions are broken into either reactive or moderately reactive categories and no/low-reactive foods are also categorized.
This can help you understand even the most mysterious food sensitivity related problems. This is why the LEAP MRT test has helped hundreds of my clients turn years of suffering with symptoms create an energetic, happy, healthy future that is free of the symptoms that once seemed part of a normal life. The key is to remove them the right way with a system so that you can eventually bring more foods back.
As you heal your gut, your food sensitivities improve and often reverse. If you have difficulties tolerating foods that are healthy, it is often due to a histamine response from an imbalanced gut. Removing food sensitivities is one of the most important beginning stages of the gut healing process that is often overlooked. If you’ve never identified your food sensitivities, my functional medicine programs are specifically geared to help you with the best testing and an action plan to identify and remove key triggers that might be inflaming your body.
Healing your gut is obviously the most important step in also healing leaky brain. The process of healing your gut can take at least a year and often several years. An underlying gut infection is a frequent culprit of poor gut and brain function. Using the GI Map DNA stool test to rule out or identify any pathogenic bacteria and/or infections keeps us from playing the guessing game. You know how the saying goes: test, don’t guess!
To jumpstart your gut healing journey, check out my Gut Health Starter Kit where I outline the top 8 foods to nourish your microbiome. I also include 3 simple daily shifts to your routine that will improve your gut health and give you recipes to start taking action.
I suggest incorporating a food as medicine approach and consuming gut healing foods, such as bone broth and probiotic-rich fermented foods, you can begin to soothe the lining of your gut and support your microbiome with more good bacteria.
While supplements should focus primarily on healing your gut to improve leaky brain, certain amino acids, herbs, and fatty acids can also help enhance brain function while working on healing the gut. Everyone is different and should work with their practitioner to customize a gut-brain based nutritional regimen based on their needs.
As with all conditions, you should always choose high quality supplements. Not all supplements are created equal and most individuals are doing MORE harm than good by taking them. Many products that you can get from your supermarket or vitamin shop contain reactive fillers and poor forms of the nutrients which can actually increase inflammation in the body.
9 Supplements that support leaky brain:
Omega-3 essential fatty acids help reduce inflammation in the brain which activates the Nrf2 gene. EPA/DHA omega 3-fatty acids help regulate your mood, metabolism, and inflammatory pathways. It can be difficult to get all the EPA and DHA from food, so I suggest talking to your practitioner about starting a high quality fish oil. Omega-3 fish oil should be molecularly distilled, pure, and heavy metal tested.
This particular form of curcumin is able to cross the blood brain barrier and helps decrease inflammation in the brain.
Glutathione is our body’s master antioxidant that is responsible for reducing free radicals and helping open detoxification pathways. Supplementing with glutathione and/or glutathione precursors prevents the build up of harmful free radicals that destroy brain cells. Besides liposomal glutathione which is more bioavailable to the body, I also recommend N-Acetyl-Cystine as a glutathione precursor for leaky brain.
Beneficial bacteria is essential for your gut, and therefore helps communication with your brain so that you don’t experience brain fog as an example. Since the health of our gut plays such an important role in our brain health, we need to make sure we have enough diversity in the microbiome. Choosing the right probiotic for you is essential to improving leaky brain!
Our brain is 60% fat! We need fat to fuel our brain more than any other macronutrient. Consuming an MCT oil or adding it to your smoothies can improve cognitive function almost immediately after ingestion because it’s fast acting and the preferred energy source.
TRS: TRS is a toxin removal system made of zeolite. It is one of the most effective approaches for reducing heavy metal accumulation in the body and can therefore improve mental clarity, focus, anxiety, depression, and brain inflammation.
Vitamin D is the most common vitamin deficiency among Americans because most of us spend our day indoors and don’t get a lot of sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to an increased risk of developing early dementia and Altziemers. I always suggest testing your levels first and then going from there to determine the right amount for you. Most people fall below the optimal range and do well with 5,000IU with K2 to help absorption until they can get their levels optimized. For more information on where your vitamin D levels should be and how to support your vitamin D levels naturally, check out this post where I dive into more details.
Due to genetics, many individuals have a difficult time converting inactive vitamins to active vitamins. As an example, your body needs to convert inactive B-12, called cyanocobalamin, to active B-12, called methyl-cyanocobalamin. Many people have a difficult time doing this, which is why testing genetics is so important.
Making sure you are methylating properly is key for the brain (and all systems in the body). Methylation includes biochemical processes that repairs our DNS, helps us detox, controls homocysteine levels, and keeps inflammation at a healthy level. It’s also crucial for mood and helping to reduce anxiety and depression. Supplementing with methylated B-vitamins helps optimize these biochemical processes in the methylation. Adding extra folate, pantothenic acid (B6), and B-12) can help support methylation.
More than 75 percent of Americans are deficient in this calming mineral that is essential to over 300 enzymatic reactions in our body. I typically recommend magnesium supplementation at night for optimal sleep and brain support. Magnesium helps to support the central nervous system so that you feel relaxed. It calms the muscles of your body and even the brain as you prepare for sleep.
For best results, talk to your practitioner about taking a combination of two forms of magnesium, glycinate and citrate. Most individuals do well with taking 200-400 mg of magnesium in addition to what they are already getting through food and other supplements, such as a multivitamin.
Typically I find individuals with leaky brain have low levels of CoQ10, L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, and arginine. These are known to support the mitochondria which gives your brain energy. Having long lasting stress, gut infections, nutrient and antioxidant deficiencies, and ongoing toxic accumulation can damage the mitochondria causing a lot of the fatigue and cognitive delice people experience. I suggest working with a practitioner who can test these specific levels to see if any additional key players can support your brain.
Another area to consider in regards to supplementation includes herbs and amino acids that help support anxiety, depression, and overstimulation. Consider talking to your practitioner about incorporating calming nutrients to your routine such as healing adaptogens, herbs like Rhodiola rosea, and nutrients that support neurotransmitters like L-theanine and GABA that can help with relaxation and sleep.
Other helpful practices that you can start implementing today to support your brain health include incorporating stress management and meditation techniques, optimizing sleep, adding plants to your home, using a sauna or infrared light therapy, getting adequate hydration from filtered water, starting an elimination diet or cleanse, cutting back on alcohol and other brain zappers like sugar, and moving your body.
The National Institute for Mental Health estimates that close to 20% of American adults suffer from a mental disorder. The use of antidepressants are increasing tenfold each year and are now the most prescribed drug on the market. My mission as a functional medicine practitioner is to support leaky brain and imbalances by investigating the underlying root causes of symptoms.
Besides the regular gut testing such as intestinal permeability and a DNA stool analysis to look at specific strains of bacteria and rule out gut infections, I recommend these specific labs for optimizing brain health as you heal your gut.
By implementing these gut healthy tips, you’ll be on your way to a focused, sharp, and thriving brain! With that said, everyone is different and there is no one-fits-all-approach. Individualized diet and supplementation is extremely effective for optimizing brain health and improving leaky brain.
If you experience brain fog or the classic “leaky brain” symptoms and you’re ready to experience a health breakthrough, my team and I would love to connect with you! Apply here for a free Discovery Call where we can discuss a personalized approach that is best for you!
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Disclaimer: Please consult with your doctor and/or practitioner before starting any of the supplements listed above. These statements are not approved by the FDA. Personalized supplementation protocols are the best way to ensure regimens are the right fit for you. The results presented here are individual and are not promised to be the exact results you’ll get.
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-Nikki Yelton, RD
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