Brain basics 101 & 102
Let’s go over some of the basics of the brain. Because it is so so amazing it’s important to understand some basic functions and anatomy before we drive in deeper. Information about the brain is constantly being upgraded but some of these fundamentals haven’t changed too much in recent years.
The brain is made up of billions of neurones/ brain cells. These neurones are not chemically and electrically charged- meaning they have to hit a certain threshold before they fire and send their message out (also known as action potentials). That message/signal goes down the axon of the neurone across the synapse (which is the space or gap) where neurotransmitters are released into for the dendrite of another neurone to pick up it up.
So no electrical signal means no neurotransmitter released.
The neurotransmitters float across this synapse and bind to the other side. This can then create the other neurone to fire, or not fire depending if its excitatory ( like glutamate) or inhibitory (think GABA).
If you loose neurones in an area of the brain from toxins, inflammation, infections, head trauma, poor blood flow etc. then you start to loose functions in the associated area of the brain.
The Brains Anatomy
Your entire brain that contains these things called neurones- is made up of fat and water. This is why healthy fat intake and hydration is so important. Your 7 senses (smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing, proprioception & vestibular) are constantly sending messages to the brain- specifically to the hypothalamus when it involves the endocrine system.
Your right and left hemispheres are known as your cerebrum. Any fans of X-men will know Professor Charles Xaviers room called Cerebro- things to do with the brain often have the work “cereb”in it . Your cerebellum is part of your brain under your cerebrum that mostly has to do with balance and muscle movements. Then your brain stem connects both of these parts to the spinal cord so you can do the automatic things you do without thinking such as breathing, digesting, heart beating etc.
They “say” left brain people are the more analytical and critical thinkers and right brain people are more creative. Remember your high school biology class- your right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. Which is opposite to what you would think intuitively think.
You also have a very complex network of blood vessels in your brain because oxygen is kind of important up there. So blood flow is critical. You also have other cells like filial cells - they provide support to neurones like making myelin (the protective sheath around your neurones), getting rid of debris or dead cells and supply nutrients.
Frontal Cortex and Prefrontal cortex
For example the frontal cortex has the motor cortex - which directs movement, the premotor cortex- which helps plan movement and the prefrontal cortex- the “executive” part of the brain The prefrontal cortex has a lot to do with decision making, handling social situations, impulse control, forethought, judgement, planning, empathy, learning from mistakes, keeping attention, being organised, your mood, your motivation, sex drive, emotional impulses, language production and motor control. It affects your motivation, focus, planing, concentration and drive. It makes up 30% of the human brain where as a chimpanzee its only 11%, 7% for a dog and 3% for cats.
Deep in these frontal lobes sits the anterior singular gyrus (ACG) a structure involved in error detection and shifting attention.
The temporal lobe contains your hippocampus which is also important for memory- especially short term. The temporal lobes however have most to do with hearing. This lobe is about recognising/remembering sounds, faces and language. Have hearing loss?, Hearing issues with a lot of background noise? Tinnitus? Forgetting things? That has to do with this part of the brain. They are also involved in mood stability, emotional reactions, temper control, learning, moving memories to long term storage. It can be thought of as the “what” pathway as it wants to know what things are.
Help you process information coming in from your senses like touch or temperature. It helps you figure out where your limbs are in space. Are you always stubbing your toes? Tripping over steps? It helps give you a sense of direction and can be thought of as the “where” pathway, because it want to know where things are in space. Its also involved in manipulating numbers, dressing and grooming.
Is as the name suggests, all about vision. Issues here mean issues seeing, depth perception (with parietal lobe) and recognising colours and words.
Or emotional system is part of the brain that colours our emotions and is involved with binding, feeding, sexuality and emotions. It sits under the cerebral cortex.
Sit also underneath the cortex and is involved with motivation, pleasure and smoothing motor movements.
As touched on earlier it has everything to do with balance. Plus posture and making sure your movements are smooth. Do you have balance issues? Need a hand rail? Not smooth in your movements? Vertigo? Car sick? It is also the part involved with thought coordination and dealing with complex thoughts.
Now in saying all this, these activities tend to occur more in these areas. But we now know that different areas take over and there are maps everywhere through the brain and there isn’t really specialised areas. The brain is plastic enough to pick up additional functions as needed in different areas.
Information enters your brain through the limbic system where it tags the information as meaningful, safe or dangerous. It is then sent to the section of the brain most appropriate to be processed and compared with past experiences i.e. temporal, occipital, parietal etc. and then sent to the front part of the brain for you to consider and then act on it.
Blood flow for your brain
You need oxygen and nutrient for your brain to function. You get this through your circularity system that circulates blood carrying these things up into your head. Your main pathways there are our vertebral and carotid arteries. You need them to be open and healthy and pumped full of blood otherwise oxygen and nutrients can’t get up there. Once in your brain you have a huge network of smaller vessels that go all over to nourish every section.
How is the blood flow in your body? Do you already know it’s not great for your fingers and toes? Feet? Men, what about your erection ability? If it is not working there then it is probably not going to be good in terms of your brains circulation. In fact at 40 years of age 40% of men have erection problems and 70% of 70year olds,- the ability to get an erection has to do with circulation and cardiovascular disease.
Common causes of slow blood flow are high cholesterol/atherosclerosis, higher blood sugar (acts like glue in the tiny capillaries) and smoking. What about tight muscles? Or bone misalignment issues? Issues with your fascia? They can all affect blood flow. How many of you have tight shoulders? A stiff neck? Hold your stress in your upper body?
What can you do to increase blood flow to the brain?
Time to get some body work done- i’m giving you an excuse/permission to get a massage, acupuncture, see an osteopath etc. Exercise regularly to increase circulation. If you do yoga, do some inversion postures.
Alternate hot and cold water in your shower for some hydrotherapy.
Sauna to sweat but also open your blood vessels (then rinse in cool water after) .
Supplements: Fish oil (EPA/DHA) ginkgo, green and black tea, B vitamins, Vitamin C and Cordyceps can help blood flow and support arteries.
Deep sleep is really important for your lymphatic system to essentially detox and clean up the brain but also circulate around nutrients. Go to bed earlier, get off your phone at night, sleep in a cool room and get that deep sleep! I’ll write another post all about how important sleep is.
Hydrate- go and drink your water, we often don’t get any way near the amount of water we need in a day. And the funny thing is the more dehydrated you are the less thirsty you will be especially if it has been chronic. Get those kidneys flushing and blood volume pumping and drink more water. As in right now while you are reading this.
Glucose and your brain
Your brain requires lots and lots of energy. In fact your brain uses 20% of your glucose derived energy according to research. Tight regulation of glucose metabolism is critical for brain physiology and disturbed glucose metabolism in the brain underlies several diseases affecting both the brain itself as well as the entire organism (PMID:23968694)
How many of you have brain symptoms? How many of you have sugar problems? High or low sugar levels cause issues. Are you having computation issues? Feel like you can’t process that well? Brain fog? Memory issues? No attention span? Low motivation? Addiction? Depression? Anxiety? Sleep issues? Balance or muscular issues?
Now that you have thought about all that how is your blood glucose balance?
Are you diabetic or pre-diabetic? More sugar is not better! In fact excess sugar actually causes a lot of problems in your tiny blood vessels and increases inflammation. Both of which are not good for brain health.
Do you skip meals and feel like you are prone to hypoglycaemia? Get Hangry? That isn’t good for your brain either. Do you get high sugar foods to increase blood glucose?
Go for balance. Eat your plants, protein, fats and carbs as it fits your health. Thinking of going kept? Low carb? Pro-carb? Anything? Try to do it correctly and pay attention to your symptoms. You want to feel balanced not swinging from high toe low and back gain all the time. Your brain doesn’t like that. not every diet is suitable for every person, you need to find what works for your particular body. Interested in Keto & the brain? Check out my article on stimulating BDNF where I touch on this. Or read about blood glucose regulation in my previous post.
Infections and your brain
Did you know the infections that affect your body can also affect your brain health? Makes sense right?! Viruses, bacteria and mold are tricky to deal with.
Herpes type 1 or 2 affects not only your genital or oral tissue but also your brain.
Encephalitis is the worst outcome but the virus can simply affect places like your temporal lobe. This can alter memory, hearing, & recognizing sounds, faces and language.
Epstein Barr virus is strongly implicated in some Multiple sclerosis pathophysiology. EBV has also been associated with cerebellar ataxia (coordination, balance & gait issues). Gluten can do this too to the cerebellum for many.
Mycotoxins that are commonly inhaled via mold in your house or work (as examples) can negatively affect many systems in your body. In the brain it increases oxidative stress, inflammation, and neuron death.
Got parasites? Some of them can cross into the brain. Just like a parasite in your intestines or liver causes problems, it also impacts your brain.
The Merk manual states “Sometimes a brain infection, a vaccine, cancer, or another disorder triggers a misguided immune reaction, causing the immune system to attack normal cells in the brain.” This results in brain autoimmune disease, inflammation and cell death.
DHEA and your brain
DHEA gets a bad reputation. DHEA is made in your adrenal glands (primarily) and in the ovaries, testicles and brain. DHEA can increase with stress = this means as cortisol, norepinephrine or epinephrine increase, your DHEA might too. In the brain, DHEA can be anti-anxiety and anti-depressive. However, in some sensitive people, especially if you favor the 5a pathway, taking too much DHEA makes you more anxious. Because of its positive effect in the amygdala (fear) and hippocampus (memory), DHEA can help reduce negative emotions. When something bad or stressful happens to you over and over again, your amygdala (your gland that helps you sense and feel fear) gets over-reactive.
How many of you “USED“ to handle stress or bad things well and now one little thing completely sets off your fear, anxiety or negative thinking? That’s your amygdala talking. Your hippocampus has A LOT to do with memory. So when you are in stress, your DHEA is possibly going up to try to protect you. It’s trying to lower the activity in the fear based and memory based centers in your brain. It’s also countering the negative effects of cortisol in your brain.
DHEA too low? You might be more at risk for excess stress, anxiety, depression, fear and negative emotions in general. So, instead of freaking out over a high DHEA on lab work, ask yourself if it’s actually trying to protect you. Maybe consider finding healthy ways to reduce stress, anxiety and fear triggers in your life to give your DHEA production, amygdala and hippocampus a break.
Let’s talk about DHEA and DHEA-S basics!
The Adrenal glands make 80% of your DHEA and 100% of your DHEA-S.
DHEA-S is not active. It’s the sulfated form (hence the S).
Your enzyme, Sulfotransferase (via your SULT snps) and PAPS (your universal sulfate donor) put the S on.
When the S is taken off by steroid sulfatase (STS), it becomes DHEA and this is biologically active!
Only DHEA (not DHEA-S) does things in your body.
DHEA can go on to be your other androgens like androstenedione and then testosterone.
DHEA can become androstenedione and then Estrone (E1). This is one of your oestrogens.
DHEA is made in high amounts in your brain because up there it’s a neurosteroid. It’s protective to your brain tissue from things like high cortisol, NMDA/glutamate and other neuronal damage (as discussed above).
🧠DHEA helps mood, energy, hormone creation, bone health and more.
However, DHEA-S is the most abundant steroid floating around your body and it does not have a circadian rhythm. That’s why it’s tested whenever and not just in the morning. It’s so prevalent because you regularly use so much of it. You just take the S off and go its that easy!
DHEA supplements are primarily converted into DHEA-S in your liver and intestines.
Head Trauma and your brain
Ever hit your head? Stood next to a very loud thumping speaker? Been in an accident or played sports where a knock to the head occurred? Slipped/fell and hit your head? Passed out and hit your head? Military?
Now have you done one of those things more than once? Three times? Four times times?
Head trauma or traumatic brain injury (TBI) REALLY affects your brain.
“Individuals with (mild)TBI tend to show considerable variation in post-concussive symptoms, which may include headache, fatigue, vestibular (balance), and vision dysfunctions, increased sensitivity to light, noise, and pain, vertigo, sleep disturbances, cognitive deficits such as reduced concentration and poor memory, or mental health issues (ie. depression/anxiety).” PMID: 30846964.
As highlighted in this article mild TBI symptoms can resolve in weeks to a few months, but you can have symptoms that can persist for YEARS.
What’s the cause? Your brain got injured so there is a MASSIVE inflammatory event that takes place which can lead to:.
Brain tissue can getting damaged or dying
ATP (energy) getting depleted
Blood vessels getting damaged so they can’t deliver oxygen, glucose and nutrients properly,
Neurotransmitters can get messed up and healing can be slow.
Read below if you want the more detailed “science” reason.
“Traumatic brain injury has a complex pathophysiology & produces mechanical injury within seconds to neurons, glia, and vessels. This primary injury rapidly triggers a secondary injury that evolves for weeks to months. Both primary and secondary injury damages both gray and white matter. Within minutes after primary injury, neurons lose the ability to control ion homeostasis, which results in accumulation of intracellular calcium, cell depolarization, excitotoxic release of glutamate and additional disruptions of ionic gradients. Impaired mitochondrial function leads to energy failure; calcium accumulation and elevated reactive oxygen species are additional early events in secondary injury. Damage to vessels reduces cerebral blood flow resulting in hypoxia, hypoglycemia, and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Inflammation rapidly follows TBI and persists for weeks to months after injury. “ PMID: 30728762.
“ Acute inflammation is initiated by release by necrotic (dead) cells of damage associated molecular patterns (DAMPS) that activate astrocytes and microglia. Release of proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines lead to further breakdown of the blood brain barrier and recruitment of peripheral inflammatory cells. Microglia and astrocyte activation occurs rapidly in both gray and white matter; neuroinflammation may become chronic and continue to injure brain for months or years after injury. Later events in secondary injury include induction of cytogenic and vasogenic oedema, increased intracerebral pressure, oxidative damage and necrotic and apoptotic cell loss. Early events in white matter include damage to axons, impaired transport and swelling. Damage to oligodendrocytes leads to demyelination and oligodendrocyte loss. White matter damage evolves for weeks resulting in Wallerian axonal degeneration. The pathophysiological events of secondary injury are highly interconnected. “ PMID: 30728762.
The majority of TBI are mild and as a result people brush it off. They don’t get evaluated or help until the symptoms they thought would go away...persist. So, if you’re connecting the dots between your head injury and your symptoms, please seek help. TBI is a huge topic all to itself!
Gut conversations and your brain
Did you ever think the brain and gut communicated with one another? Seems strange right?! They are physically isolated from one another. But believe me they do talk and they talk a whole lot!
Your gastrointestinal tract and your brain communicate several ways but the main way is via your Vagus nerve. This cranial nerve is involved in things like swallowing, heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate and more. It has a primarily “rest and digest” or parasympathetic function. Most of the signals it sends goes from the lower organs up to the brain. Signals also travel back down.but not as much.
The vagus nerve also represents an important link between nutrition and psychiatric, neurological and inflammatory diseases.
To improve this communication highway that is the vagus nerve it is therefore important to have a health gut. There is growing evidence that nutritional components, such as probiotics, gluten, as well as drugs, such as anti-oxidative agents and antibiotics have a high impact on vagus nerve activity as well as gut infections (SIBO).
What else can help vagus communication:
Meditate or be positive: “...self-generated positive emotions via loving-kindness meditation lead to an increase in positive emotions” thus improving baseline vagal tone.
Yoga: “Some yoga practices can directly stimulate the vagus nerve, by increasing the vagal tone leading to an improvement of autonomic regulation, cognitive functions, and mood and stress coping.”
Loud singing (also good for the lymphatic system), chanting, humming, putting your face (or body) in cold water (finish your shower in cold), do heartmath, deep rhythmic breathing, gargle , laugh often with good friends/family.
Lay on your right side- that’s right you have two vagus nerves that run down each side of your body. Heart rate variability (HRV) one of the best markers for vagus nerve tone and function is linked to increased HSV. Sleeping on your side esp. your right, has been shown to be better at increasing HSV than sleeping on your belly or back.
Look left and right - put your hands on the occipital bone (bones sticking out the back of your head) and look right for 30-60sec or until you feel saliva in your mouth or need to take a breathe, then repeat on the left and continue to repeat 4 times.
There is so much more we are finding out about this nerve and its role in hunger and satiety as well. Often in gastric sleeve procedures it is cut and this therefore means that this communication channel is blocked. The repercussions for mental health etc need to be explored in more detail as this nerve does so much more than people realise. Again i think this deserves an article all to itself.
Fiber and your brain
i was talking about the vagus nerve and gut health earlier and you know what helps the gut? Fibre! Especially Butyrate which is a short chain fatty acid that the cells in your colon love! It keeps things moving and helps it stay healthy and strong.
Some foods like potato starch, chicory root, raw onion/garlic, green bananas and organic butter/ghee have butyrate or contain prebiotics that help your gut bacteria make it to feed cells.
Butyrate is a histone deacetylase inhibitor - this is important to increase the interaction between your DNA and the histone it’s wrapped around. A decrease in acetylation increases neurodegenerative disease. Research is also linking positive benefits with butyrate in Parkinson’s, stroke patients, and dementia.
Cells of the colon adapted and primarily use butyrate for energy production = more ATP! As the brain ages and if there is reduced glucose utilisation you increase your risk for memory problems and brain fog. (see above RE glucose and the brain) Research is looking at how butyrate is used as an alternative for more brain energy.
Gut inflammation resulting in increased zonulin and poorly functioning tight junctions (“leaky gut”) greatly increases the risk for autoimmune disease, cancer and even a “leaky” blood brain barrier. Leaky gut= leaky brain! Plus an inflamed gut communicates to the brain via the vagus nerve telling it to react. and this can inflame the brain more. In many rat studies, butyrate rich diets greatly helped improved pretty much everything that the brain needs. So if you are experiencing neurological symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, memory problems etc. make sure you are getting enough of this prebiotic butyrate as your fibre form.
Sleep and your brain
To help your brain the kind of sleep you are getting and the brain wave patterns stimulated/occuring is important. DEEP sleep (not REM or light) is the type that helps heal your brain. Deep or slow wave sleep occurs in the first half of your sleep and is crucial because you repair, do maintenance and restore yourself during this time. If you don’t sleep well & lose deep sleep, you don’t repair, maintain and restore yourself.
This is also the time men make testosterone- see above RE: DHEA.
In deep sleep, our brain cells shrink to allow more space in between them so the glymphatic system can then activate and remove debris, waste, proteins, excess cholesterol and plaques (think Alzheimer’s) but good stuff can get to brain cells easier. Think of it like the cleaning system for the brain. Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is a potent OFF SWITCH to the glymphatic system. So the more nighttime noradrenaline you have (stress, infection, or inflammation) the less brain rejuvenation you get.
Improve DEEP by:
Calming tea, bath, sauna, red light therapy, laughing, loving, snuggling, meditation, light reading, avoid your phone/computer or wear blue light blocking glasses etc.- aka. stress reduction at night
Avoid alcohol, exercise & heavy meals before bed.
Consider cutting way back or eliminate caffeine all together. It blocks adenosine and you need this for sleep drive.
🧠Ensure you have a good pillow - it might cause pain or poor neck angles affecting blood and lymphatic flow.
Have a supportive mattress and opt for organic cotton bedding. 🧠
Consider supplements/herbs like: valerian, l-theanine, magnolia, magnesium, kava, skullcap, phos. serine, GABA (and derivatives) etc. before bed. 🧠
Turn your wifi off and don’t sleep with your phone, tablet or computer by your head! 🧠
Do you snore? Even softly? That will affect deep sleep- get it evaluated and consider mouth taping.
Because sleep is critical!
I haven’t forgotten the Neurotransmitters
I will cover in a seperate post about the different neurotransmitters: Adenosine, Acetylcholine, Noradrenalin, Adrenaline, Phenylethylalamine, Endogenous Opioids, Serotonin, Melatonin, Dopamine, GABA, Glutamate and Histamine. Because I fell they are special enough to deserve their own post :)
As well as more on sleep zzz
Take care of you brain now you can see how much it does for you!