Brain on Fire - Shelley Cavezza, PhD

Brain on Fire

Have you ever experienced that feeling of being unable to focus and think clearly?  What about other symptoms like unexplained anxiety, irritability, memory loss, or low energy? These symptoms are often caused by inflammation in the brain. Often these symptoms are more noticeable during a cold or infection, or after eating certain foods, such as wheat or dairy.  This blog discusses how inflammation in the brain can occur and what can we do about it naturally.

How does brain inflammation occur?

One obvious cause of brain inflammation is a head injury resulting in localised tissue damage and activating the microglia, immune cells in the brain.  Small distress signals from damaged cells activate the microglia to remove the dead and damaged neurons and begin the healing process.  Other causes of brain inflammation include chronic inflammation elsewhere in the body such as infections, leaky gut, high blood sugar and diabetes, food intolerances, and of course chronic stress. Again, distress signals known as Inflammatory cytokines, key signalling molecules of the immune system, accumulate at the site of infection, move into the bloodstream, and travel around the body.  They can also be carried across the blood-brain barrier into the brain by active transport. In the brain they act on the microglia, causing them to produce and secrete further inflammatory cytokines.

Why does inflammation lead to brain fog and depression?

Inflammation in the brain can slow down the overall functionality of the brain by interfering with the firing between neurons, leading to foggy, dull, and slow thinking.  Inflammatory cytokines also affect the activity of many other cells, including hampering the activity of serotonin, a brain chemical needed to feel joy and well-being. We all know how low in mood we feel when we are unwell with a cold.  Depression is a common side effect of inflammatory cytokines (1).

Brain inflammation and accelerated aging

Inflammation in the brain is not to be ignored, as long term chronic inflammation can lead to the damage and destruction of brain cells and risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

Five ways to combat brain fog.
  1. Take flavonoids. One of the reasons fruits and vegetables are so good for you is due to their naturally occurring plant pigments, flavonoids. Quercetin, kaempferol, and epigallocatechin are three of over 4,000 compounds classified as flavonoids. Like other antioxidants, flavonoids do their work in the body by reducing the effect of cell-damaging free radicals. Free radicals damage cells from the inside out, causing oxidative stress and DNA damage, and activating the inflammatory response. Flavonoids have also been shown to have antihistamine, antimicrobial, memory- and even mood-enhancing properties. Examples include apples, green tea, chocolate, red wine, and pomegranates.
  2. Balance blood sugar by reducing refined carbohydrates and sugar in your diet. When too much sugar (glucose) reaches the cells all at once, the chemical pathways in the mitochondria that use glucose to create energy become overloaded. This results in the increased production of free radicals, and downstream inflammation.
  3. Remove food sensitivities. Gluten and dairy are foods commonly known to be inflammatory in the gut. Soy, eggs, and other grains can also cause inflammation in some people. When we don’t know the cause of inflammation in our body, an elimination diet can help. This involves removing one or several food groups from our diet for 3-4 weeks and observing for any symptom changes during this time or when the food is reintroduced.
  4. Heal your gut and promote good gut bacteria. The brain and the gut, including resident gut bacteria, are closely connected. Recent research reveals a connection between the intestinal bacterial flora, or microbiome and the regulatory pathways of the immune system. Short-chain fatty acids or metabolites produced by certain bacteria in the large intestine help regulate the immune system and inhibit inflammatory activity (2). Microbial imbalance and inflammation of the gut have been linked to anxiety and depression. Diets high in prebiotics or undigestible fibre can help restore normal microbial balance, and potentially have a role in the treatment and/or prevention of anxiety and depression. Foods like garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, and onions remain undigested in the upper gastrointestinal tract, until they reach the colon, where they’re fermented by the gut microflora.
  5. Anti-inflammatory nutrients. Glutathione, is a powerful antioxidant, and helps quench the free radicals released by the mitochondrial in our cells. Fruits and vegetables containing the most glutathione per serve include: asparagus, potatoes, peppers, carrots, onion, broccoli, avocados, squash, spinach, garlic, tomatoes, grapefruit, apples, oranges, peaches bananas and melon. However dietary glutathione does not always correlate with overall glutathione activity in the body. Supplementation with glutathione or its precursors (sulforaphane or N-Acetylcysteine) is the best way to achieve levels optimised to regulate inflammatory and oxidative processes in the cells.  Other foods with anti-inflammatory activity include essential fatty acids such as a good quality fish oil, and turmeric.

If you’d like to learn more about the effects of inflammation on the brain and how to combat this through personalised nutrition and lifestyle interventions please contact me at



  1. Bauer, M. E. and Teixeira, A. L. (2018), Inflammation in psychiatric disorders: what comes first? Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. doi:10.1111/nyas.13712
  2. Clapp, Megan et al. “Gut Microbiota’s Effect on Mental Health: The Gut-Brain Axis.” Clinics and Practice4 (2017): 987. PMC. Web. 23 May 2018.