A healthy, properly-functioning blood-brain barrier is critical for optimal brain and mental health.
The blood-brain barrier is a protective shield that surrounds your brain. It acts as a gatekeeper and filter, allowing beneficial nutrients to cross over into your brain, and keeping unwanted molecules out of your brain.
But in his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working, Dr. Datis Kharrazian explains that the blood-brain barrier can break down and become “leaky”. This allows harmful substances to enter your brain, contributing to brain inflammation, which has been shown to cause cognitive problems and mental illness (92, 110-111).
Hyper-permeability of the blood-brain barrier and neuroinflammation have been linked to a number of different brain and mental health problems and symptoms, including depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, brain fog, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson’s disease, headaches, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia (101-109).
A number of factors contribute to “leaky brain”, including (93-100):
- Systemic inflammation
- Oxidative stress
- Autoimmune disease
- Chronic psychological stress
- Head trauma
- Poor diet and food additives
- Disrupted circadian rhythm
- Intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome)
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Environmental toxins and heavy metal
Needless to say, these things are very common today, so a lot of people likely have a leaky blood-brain barrier.
The good news is that even though the blood-brain barrier can break down and become leaky, it can also be fixed!
You can repair it if you give it what it needs to heal.
After living in a moldy home and suffering multiple concussions, my brain and its barrier were in rough shape.
Since then, I’ve searched far and wide for solutions that could strengthen it.
Here are 19 strategies that have helped me.
They've been proven to help repair and support the blood brain barrier
Together, they can help you reduce neuroinflammation, heal your “leaky brain,” and overcome your brain and mental health challenges.
1. Avoid Gluten
Avoiding gluten is necessary for optimal brain and mental health.
I’m convinced that if you struggle with a chronic brain or mental illness, you should follow a strict gluten-free diet for at least 30 days and see how you feel. You'll likely feel better.
One main reason I recommend this is because gluten has been shown to disrupt the blood-brain barrier by elevating “zonulin”.
Zonulin is a protein in your body that increases the permeability of the intestinal barrier and blood-brain barrier (48).
In 2006, researchers found that gluten clearly increases zonulin and contributes to “leaky gut” and “leaky brain”, resulting in neuroinflammation and altered cognitive function (49, 50).
Gluten sensitivity can also create visible changes to the white matter in your brain, according to research in the journal The Lancet Neurology (51).
Yet unfortunately, the myth continues to spread that only people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten-containing food. That’s simply not true.
You should also determine other food sensitivities and remove those foods from your diet as well. A lot of people are sensitive to dairy, along with gluten. I can't tolerate gluten, dairy and egg whites and unfortunately have to avoid them completely.
2. Heal Your Gut
As I’ve discussed before, there is a clear connection between your brain and digestive system.
Whatever happens in your gut has a direct impact on your brain function.
Because of this connection, it’s critical to address gut issues in order to treat a leaky brain.
In 2014, researchers found that mice that were “germ free” (meaning they didn’t have any bacteria in their intestines) had very leaky blood-brain barriers (56).
But then these unhealthy mice received a fecal transfer. Researchers introduced bacteria into their intestines, and the permeability of the blood-brain barrier significantly decreased (57).
So it’s becoming increasing clear that our gut bacteria directly affect the health of our blood-brain barrier.
And manipulating your gut bacteria, and increasing the amount of good bacteria in your digestive system, can help improve the integrity of your blood-brain barrier and heal your leaky brain.
In my experience, this is true, as my brain functions much better when I take care of my gut health.
You should check out my previous article about gut health to learn more.
3. Drink Coffee
One possible explanation for this is that caffeine supports the blood-brain barrier.
Studies show that caffeine protects against Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s disease by keeping the blood-brain barrier intact, and protecting against blood-brain barrier dysfunction and leakage (32).
Researchers have also found that caffeine blocks disruption of the blood-brain barrier, concluding that caffeine is “useful in the treatment Alzheimer's disease” (33, 34).
Another study shows that caffeine can protect against Parkinson’s disease and neurodegeneration by stabilizing the blood-brain barrier (35).
I used to not be able to handle any coffee and caffeine at all. But now that I'm healthy, I can handle it just fine. I drink one cup of this coffee most mornings.
Coffee and caffeine can disrupt sleep though, so make sure you don’t drink it later in the day. I have my last cup sometime between 10 in the morning and noon. If I have it any later than that, it disrupts my sleep. You should download the Sleep Cycle app and track how coffee affects your sleep.
It's also important to note that some people simply can’t tolerate coffee. This is because most coffee contains low levels of mycotoxins (toxic metabolites produced by mold).
After living in a moldy home for over one year, I’m extremely sensitive to mold and mycotoxins. Kicking Horse Kickass coffee and Bulletproof coffee are the only two coffees I have found so far that don’t make me feel sick. I can also tolerate pure caffeine tablets.
Most people can tolerate regular coffee just fine. But if coffee makes you feel terrible and jittery, it might be the quality of the coffee. Consider trying one of the two coffees above, or simply take pure caffeine, and see how you feel. You’ll likely feel better than if you consumed low-quality coffee.
Lastly, there are additional brain health benefits when you consume the whole coffee fruit, instead of just the coffee bean or pure caffeine.
Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted from the coffee fruit for roasting. And the surrounding fruit is discarded.
But that’s a huge problem.
Because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.
And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function.
It has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, similar to curcumin.
Numerous studies have shown that it can prevent breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, reduce permeability of the blood-brain barrier, and improve cognitive function after stroke and traumatic brain injuries (87-91).
You can take sulforaphane in supplement form.
If you decide to take it in supplement form, make sure you get the "myrosinase-activated" form.
Myrosinase is the enzyme in broccoli that helps metabolize sulforaphane.
I once bought a supplement that didn't contain myrosinase and had to return it, and then ended up buying this one instead.
5. Avoid Alcohol
Not surprisingly, alcohol and acetaldehyde – a byproduct of alcohol metabolism – can contribute to leaky brain.
Research shows that they can weaken and damage the blood-brain barrier, and the oxidative stress that results from excess alcohol consumption can result in blood-brain barrier dysfunction (58, 59).
And then this can then lead to neuro-inflammatory disorders (60).
As I’ve discussed before, there are ways to protect yourself from alcohol, but you’re better off avoiding it completely or significantly reducing your consumption if you’re trying to heal.
Some types of alcohol are better than others. You can learn more about that here.
6. Resveratrol or Pterostilbene
Resveratrol is known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
And science is starting to understand why.
And according to cutting-edge research, it can also protect and support your blood-brain barrier.
This year, researchers gave resveratrol to Alzheimer’s patients and it restored the integrity of their blood-brain barrier. Because of this, there was a reduction in brain inflammation, which slowed down the cognitive decline of the patients (38, 39).
Numerous other studies have found that resveratrol:
- Significantly reduces the breakage, damage and dysfunction of the blood-brain barrier;
- Defends and protects the blood-brain barrier; and
- Improves and maintains the overall integrity of the blood-brain barrier (36-37, 40-43).
Because of resveratrol’s ability to stabilize the blood-brain barrier and protect against neuroinflammation, researchers believe it may reduce the clinical severity of multiple sclerosis (44).
Lastly, resveratrol has been shown to protects against oxidized LDL-induced breakage of the blood–brain barrier (45, 46).
So clearly it's good for us. If resveratrol was a pharaceutical drug, we would definitely be hearing more about it. But natural compounds cannot be patented, so we don't.
Pterostilbene, a compound found in blueberries, is very similar to resveratrol, and it has also been shown to protect the blood-brain barrier by reducing oxidative stress. It is also better absorbed and commonly referred to as a “better resveratrol” (47).
I tried this pterostilbene and it was beneficial, but I didn’t find it any more helpful than resveratrol, so I’ve decided to just stick with resveratrol considering it has significantly more research to back it up.
7. Reduce Stress
I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress.
Research suggests that acute stress damages the blood-brain barrier (52).
And extreme stress has been shown to increase inflammation and the permeability of the blood-brain barrier (53-55).
Luckily, normalizing stress can allow you to repair the blood-brain barrier.
If you can’t access neurofeedback, taking up a daily meditation practice is an excellent idea.
I’m a big fan of the Muse headband. It can guide your meditation. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback while you meditate. I wrote an entire review about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.
Regular massage, acupuncture, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional freedom techniques (EFT), heart-rate variability (HRV) training, and this acupressure mat have helped me a lot as well.
This anti-anxiety supplement also includes a number of natural compounds that have helped me manage my stress over the years (Use the the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount).
8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
As I’ve discussed before, omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.
They can also support your blood-brain barrier.
Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids can:
- Diminish damage to the blood-brain barrier after stoke;
- Limit blood-brain barrier disruption after traumatic brain injury; and
- Benefit people with multiple sclerosis by indirectly reducing disruption of their blood-brain barriers (76-78).
Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet. That’s why I recommend people supplement with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids. I take this one.
9. Sleep and Melatonin
Deep sleep is necessary for optimal functioning of your blood-brain barrier.
My sleep used to be terrible and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health. And then my poor mental health would make my sleep worse. So it was a vicious cycle.
Sleep restriction has been shown to impair the functioning of the blood-brain barrier and increase its permeability (84).
So make sure you get at least 7 hours of high-quality, restorative sleep.
Supplementing with melatonin can also help.
Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain. Melatonin helps control your sleep and wake cycles (circadian rhythm), and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.
Research also shows that it can stabilize the blood-brain barrier and prevent damage caused by traumatic brain injury (85, 86).
Other than taking melatonin, here are some other things you can do to maintain your circadian rhythm and maximize the quality of your sleep:
- Supplement with magnesium, zinc and collagen before bed. This pre-made bone broth is a really good source of collagen.
- Lie on this acupressure mat for 10 minutes before bed
- Turn off household lights, install f.lux on your computer and wear blue blocking glasses for 2 hours before bed. These glasses block out blue light from your environment. Blue light suppresses your body’s production of melatonin. You can learn more about the problem with blue light here.
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Don’t eat for 3 hours before bed
- Completely black out room with curtains and wear sleep mask.
You can also take this sleep supplement, which contains magnesium and a number of other natural compounds that I’ve used over the years to promote the production of melatonin. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.
Berberine is an alkaloid extracted from various plants.
It has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and possibly antidepressant effects. It can also improve intestinal health and lower cholesterol.
Several studies have shown that it can also decrease the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and reduce brain damage after traumatic brain injury. It does this by suppressing inflammation (23-26).
I’ve experimented with varying dosages of this berberine. I personally didn’t notice any profound brain and mental health benefits, but I have heard good things from other people.
11. Avoid Environmental Mold and Mycotoxins
Environmental mold can be a serious problem for some people.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t even aware that mold is in their house or workplace and affecting their brain function.
In water-damaged buildings, mycotoxins (toxic metabolites produced by mold) are released into the air.
If you’re genetically susceptible, they can wreak havoc on your brain, and your cognitive function and mental health can deteriorate for no apparent reason.
One way mold and mycotoxins can disrupt brain function is by causing “leaky brain.”
Last year, researchers discovered that mycotoxins can clearly reduce the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (62).
And in 2010, researchers concluded that exposure to mycotoxins in an indoor environment can cause neurological damage. One way it does this is by breaking down the blood-brain barrier (61).
Several other studies have found that mycotoxins increase the permeability of blood-brain barrier and disrupt the functioning of the nervous system (63-66).
I lived in a moldy house for more than a year, and my blood-brain barrier likely became significantly leaky during that time as my brain and mental health deteriorated. I also suffered a terrible concussion while living in that house, making my brain even more permeable. It took a while to get it back to normal.
Today I use this air filter in my apartment to protect myself from any mold. It removes any mold spores and smoke that may be in the air.
Mycotoxins aren’t just in your environment though. Low amounts of mycotoxins are also often found in some seemingly healthy foods, such as tea, nuts, coffee and chocolate. I recommend finding the freshest, highest-quality, organic versions of these foods.
If I'm exposed to mold or their toxins, I supplement with activated charcoal or bentonite clay. Activated charcoal and bentonite clay are potent natural treatments that can trap toxins and chemicals, allowing them to be flushed out of your body.
12. B Vitamins
Several B vitamins have been shown to support the blood-brain barrier and help heal leaky brain.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency disrupts the blood-brain barrier, and supplementation restores its integrity (80-81).
Researchers have also found that vitamins B12, B6, and B9 (folate) can restore the integrity of the blood-brain barrier in adults with mild cognitive impairment and elevated homocysteine. Homocysteine is an inflammatory compound that can contribute to blood-brain barrier breakdown at high levels, and the B vitamins normalized homocysteine levels (82-83).
I take this B complex regularly. It contains the bioactive forms of all the B vitamins, including methyl-B12, methylfolate and P-5-P.
Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body. This includes neurotransmitter, enzyme, and hormonal activity, all of which can have a huge effect on your mood and brain function.
It’s one of the three nutrients that I think everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient.
And there is also plenty of research showing that it can protect and support your blood-brain barrier.
Multiple studies found that magnesium protects the blood-brain barrier, prevents its disruption, and significantly reduces hyperpermeability (27, 28, 31).
One study found that it decreases blood-brain barrier permeability by 41% (29).
Magnesium’s protective effect against blood-brain barrier hyperpermeability has also been seen after traumatic brain injury (30).
Foods that contain magnesium include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas.
I take this magnesium.
14. R-Lipoic Acid (RLA) and Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR)
R-Lipoic Acid (RLA) is the most stable and bioavailable form of lipoic acid, an antioxidant produced by your body. It is fat soluble and can easily cross the blood-brain barrier to protect your brain (1-3).
But not only can it cross your blood-brain barrier and support your brain; it can also support your blood-brain barrier itself.
Studies show that RLA has neuroprotective effects, and maintains the integrity of the blood-brain barrier by reducing oxidative stress (4-5)
Researchers also point out that it’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects can stabilize the blood-brain barrier, making it an “attractive therapeutic agent for the treatment” of multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury (6-8).
I used to take this RLA supplement and it helped me, but I no longer need it.
Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.
It’s not too surprising to me that it can also:
- Reduce the disruption and hyperpermeability of the blood-brain barrier;
- Reverse blood-brain barrier dysfunction; and
- Improve the overall integrity of the blood-brain barrier (13-18).
Studies have also found curcumin can prevent blood-brain barrier damage and reduce the permeability of the blood-brain barrier caused by oxygen and glucose deprivation (20-22).
Researchers believe it can do all of this because it significantly reduces inflammation and oxidative stress (19).
There are several different forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them. My favourite is the "Longvida" form of curcumin.
16. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun.
Every tissue in your body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, muscles, and immune system. This means your entire body needs it to function properly and a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences.
Researchers have found that Vitamin D can prevent disruption of the blood-brain barrier, mainly by reducing inflammation (72, 73).
In patients with multiple sclerosis, Vitamin D has been shown to protect endothelial cells and reduce blood-brain barrier disruption (74).
And one study found that intranasal administration of vitamin D reduces blood–brain barrier disruption (75).
If you decide to supplement, Vitamin D3 is included in this supplement.
17. Citicoline or Alpha GPC
Citicoline (also known as CDP-Choline) is the most bioavailable form of choline, an essential B vitamin that most people don’t consume enough of, because very few foods in the Western diet contain it.
But it’s also been shown to significantly decrease the disruption and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier after traumatic brain injury (11-12).
After brain ischemia, Citicoline significantly reduces blood-brain barrier dysfunction (10).
I personally take Citicoline every day, and it helps me a lot since I’ve had multiple concussions.
Alpha GPC is another form of choline that has been shown to support the blood-brain barrier.
Researchers have found that it can reverse changes to the blood-brain barrier after brain injury, which improves cognitive function (9).
18. Reduce Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs)
“I have no doubt in my mind that, at the present time, the greatest polluting element in the Earth’s environment is the proliferation of electromagnetic fields.” - Dr. Robert Becker, Nobel Prize nominee and author of The Body Electric: Electromagnetism And The Foundation Of Life
An increasing amount of research is showing that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields emitted from Wi-Fi, laptops, and cellphones can negatively affect the brain and produce widespread neuropsychiatric effects including depression.
It’s an inconvenient truth that needs to be talked about, rather than downplayed, ignored and dismissed.
One way that radiofrequency EMFs may be causing neuropsychiatric effects is by contributing to a "leaky brain".
Several studies have found that EMFs emitted from cellphones increase the permeability of the brain-blood barrier, and this increased permeability may lead to the accumulation of brain tissue damage and cognitive impairment (112-114).
I encourage you to check out my other post about EMFs here.
I'm still learning about how to manage and combat them, but here are some initial steps you can take:
- Get an EMF meter to determine your exposure. I use the Cornet ED88T. It's the best option that is currently available. It measures electric, magnetic and radiofrequency fields. It's like having three meters in one. You can get it here.
- Put your phone on airplane mode when you’re not using it. Or use a radiation-blocking phone case such as Safe Sleeve. I did a lot of research into radiation-blocking cases and Safe Sleeve is the best on the market. They are manufactured with materials that have been 3rd-party tested to block 99.9% of radiation coming off a cell phone.
- Turn off Wi-Fi at night while you’re sleeping.
- If you have a laptop, don’t touch it. Use a wired keyboard and wired mouse instead.
- Supplement with the herb Rhodiola. It has radioprotective effects (60-62). I take this one, and previously wrote about it here.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other steps you can take, and I plan on writing more about this soon because it isn’t discussed enough.
This may seem like “woo-woo” but it’s a real issue. And I suspect it will eventually become one of the biggest issues of our time.
19. Other Nutrients, Antioxidants and Herbs
Here are several other nutrients, antioxidants and herbs that have been demonstrated to support the blood-brain barrier.
I’ve decided to not write about these in-depth because there isn’t as much research to back them up.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful though. They have still helped me:
- High dose Vitamin C (67)
- Iodine (68) – I take it as part of this multi-mineral
- Selenium (69) – I take it as part of this multi-mineral
- Vitamin E (69)
- N-Acetyl-Cysteine (70)
- Ginseng (71)
- Inositol (79) – I used to buy bulk powder and take high doses, but now take it as part of this B complex.
The brain has a remarkable ability to heal itself, and this includes the barrier that protects it.
The above 18 steps have been proven to help repair and support the blood brain barrier, and I’ve noticed the benefits of implementing them into my own life.
I hope they help you too!
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Reviewed by Dr. Richard Nahas, MD CCFP DCAPM ABIM