Having a healthy brain is crucial to living a healthy life. A healthy brain allows us to remember things, learn, play, concentrate and maintain a clear and active mind. Our brain provides us with the ability to manage information we take in, be logical, use judgement, and have perspective and wisdom. No matter what your age is, steps need to be taken to maintain the health of the brain and to reduce the natural risks of disease that occur as we age (4).
We all know that prevention is the best medicine. This rings true for brain health as well. The field of Functional Neurology works to protect the function and efficiency of the brain whether the brain is healthy or diseased (5). When signs of a neurological imbalance are present, functional neurology aims to intervene with nutritional interventions, sensory based therapies, and other lifestyle modifications. The focus of this discussion will be on the importance of having a balanced biochemistry within the brain and the role it plays on activation of the neurons within the brain and ultimately whether we see neuroplasticity or neurodegeneration. When the neurons in the brain are frequently firing that leads to neuroplasticity. Neurodegeneration on the other hand occurs when the neurons don’t fire and ultimately die. Neuroplasticity is a good thing and it means that body’s nervous system is able to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimulation by changing or adjusting its structure, function and connections (1).
There are some "deal breakers" to neurological health including anemias, dysglycemia, and inflammation and oxidative stress. These “deal breakers” can all impact the production of ATP and ATP is needed for the firing of an impulse between neurons. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a small molecule that is needed by all living cells for fuel. ATP is a source of energy that “drives the biological reactions that allow cells to function and life to flourish” (2). Over time, a lack of ATP production can lead to neurodegeneration and as a result a decrease in brain function. Now, let's look a little closer at the impact that anemia, dysglycemia, and inflammation and oxidative stress can have on the brain by compromising ATP.
Simply stated, anemia causes a decrease in oxygen carrying capacity of red blood cells (5). There are three main types of anemia including iron deficiency anemia (IDA), anemia of inflammation, and Megaloblastic/B12 anemia.
The most common cause of IDA is menstruation in women, blood loss, lack of iron in diet, pregnancy, and the inability to absorb iron (4). IDA can be diagnosed by a Medical Doctor with lab low values of MCV, MCH, MCHC, RBC, HGB, HCT, and lab low ferritin. It is the lab low ferritin that is the most important component of IDA.
Anemia of inflammation is caused by a chronic source of inflammation in the body. Anemia of inflammation present much like IDA, with the exception that ferritin is elevated.
Megaloblastic anemia is caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, which is generally the result of a vegan diet, gut malabsorption, and intrinsic factor blocking antibodies. Diagnosing a B12 deficiency is a bit more challenging. Serum B12 tests are not that reliable for testing B12 sufficiency. More sensitive markers are methylmalonic acid and homocysteine (5)
The brain can be negatively impacted by either too much or too little glucose circulating throughout the body. The brain only makes up about 2% of our total body weight, yet it consumes about 30% of the glucose in the body. It was once thought that we all needed 125 grams of glucose per day. Today, we know that is no longer true and that each person is different in the amount of glucose they need to maintain ATP function and to be neuroprotective. Glycemic control is needed each and every day because the neurons in the brain can’t store glycogen. Fortunately, we do have a back up system, our glial cells also store glycogen, in case our stores get depleted. There are two types of dysglycemia that can impact ATP production including reactive hypoglycemia and insulin resistance. Both types lead to low levels of intracellular glucose.
The key takeaway is that our brains need glucose for ATP production and to protect neuroplasticity. Glycemic control is very important because over time, if dysglycemia is present our brains will need more and more fuel to function and to help us with doing simple tasks. The eventual result will be neurodegeneration if dysglycemia becomes chronic.
Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
Inflammation and oxidative stress can have serious negative consequences on the brain. Inflammation an occur both centrally (within the brain) and peripherally (within the body). It is the peripherally generated inflammation (also known as cytokines) that can break through the blood brain barrier and attack the brain’s microglial cells (5). The blood brain barrier can be compromised by toxins, chronic stress, increase reactive oxygen species, neuro-inflammation, injury, and infections. When the functionality of the glial cells become impaired due to inflammation and/or oxidative stress, the result is an unfavorable environment that ultimately impairs the functionality of neuronal cells. This leads to neural death.
Talk to your health care provider or qualified nutritionist if you suffer from symptoms like brain fog, poor focus and concentration, balance and coordination issues, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, poor management of thoughts and emotions, poor short-term memory, and depression to name a few (5). You may be suffering from one of the imbalances discussed, anemia, dysglycemia, and/or inflammation, that is impacting your brain health.
About the Author: Leanne DiMaio earned her Master’s degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition from New York Chiropractic College in December 2017. She is currently working on her Doctorate degree in Clinical Nutrition at Maryland University of Integrative Health. Leanne is passionate about helping others achieve their optimal state of health and wellness. She is currently earning clinical hours toward the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential under Kim Ross's supervision.
1. Cramer, S. C., Sur, M., Dobkin, B. H., O’Brien, C., Sanger, T. D., Trojanowski, J. Q., … Vinogradov, S. (2011). Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain, 134(6), 1591–1609. http://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr039
2. Khakh, B. S., & Burnstock, G. (2009). THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ATP. Scientific American, 301(6), 84–92.
3. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Iron deficiency anemia - Symptoms and causes. Retrieved October 5, 2018 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034
4. National Institute on Aging (NIA). (2018). What is Brain Health?. Retrieved October 5, 2018 from https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/
5. Noseworthy, S. (n.d.). Functional Neurology and Nutrition: Week 1-5 Lectures. Maryland University of Integrative Health.