A healthy, properly-functioning blood-brain barrier is absolutely 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):
Chronic psychological stress
Poor diet and food additives
Disrupted circadian rhythm
Intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome)
Excess alcohol consumption
Environmental toxins and heavy metals
High blood sugar
Poor brain blood flow
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 23 strategies that have been shown to support and repair the blood brain barrier.
Many of them have helped me.
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.
There’s one main reason I recommend this…
Gluten has been shown to elevate “zonulin”.
Zonulin is a protein in your body that increases the permeability of the intestinal barrier and disrupts the blood-brain barrier (48).
Researchers have 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 Lancet Neurology (51).
Yet unfortunately, the myth continues to spread that only people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten-containing food.
2. Heal Your Gut (and Increase the Good Bacteria Within It)
There is a clear connection between your brain and digestive system.
Whatever happens in your gut directly impacts your brain function.
Because of this connection, it’s critical to address gut issues in order to heal a leaky brain.
Researchers have studied mice that are “germ free”.
“Germ-free” mice means that the mice don’t have any bacteria in their intestines.
And what did the researchers find?
They found that these germ-free mice had very leaky blood-brain barriers (56).
But when these germ-free mice received a fecal transfer, where researchers introduced bacteria into their intestines, the permeability of their blood-brain barriers decreased significantly (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.
I take Optimal Biotics every day.
You should check out my previous article about gut health to learn more.
And if you have depression or anxiety, taking these probiotics can help.
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).
In one study, researchers found that caffeine blocks the disruption of the blood-brain barrier, concluding that caffeine is “useful in the treatment Alzheimer's disease” (33, 34).
Another study showed 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.
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 more than 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 coffee or pure caffeine.
Usually, coffee beans are extracted from the whole coffee fruit for roasting. And then the surrounding coffee fruit is then thrown away.
But this is a problem because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.
And researchers have now discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function.
That’s why I included coffee fruit concentrate in the Optimal Brain supplement.
It has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions.
It’s quite similar to curcumin.
Numerous studies have shown that sulforaphane can prevent the 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 as a supplement, 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 weaken and damage the blood-brain barrier, and contribute to leaky brain.
Researchers have found that the oxidative stress that results from excess alcohol consumption leads to blood-brain barrier dysfunction (58, 59).
And this can then lead to neuro-inflammation (60).
There are ways to protect your brain from alcohol, but you’re better off avoiding it completely or significantly reducing your consumption if you’re trying to heal.
6. Resveratrol or Pterostilbene
It’s known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
And scientists are starting to understand why.
And according to cutting-edge research, it can also protect and support your blood-brain barrier.
Because of this, there was a reduction in brain inflammation, which slowed down cognitive decline in 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 also 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 resveratrol is great for our blood-brain barriers.
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.
It’s also been shown to protect the blood-brain barrier by reducing oxidative stress, and it’s apparently better absorbed than resveratrol. In fact, it’s 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 and reduce your stress.
Research suggests that acute stress damages the blood-brain barrier (52).
And extreme stress has been shown to increase inflammation and increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier (53-55).
But normalizing your stress levels can help the blood-brain barrier repair itself.
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’s a device that guides you while you 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 the device 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.
But they can also support your blood-brain barrier.
Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids can:
Reduce 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).
Wild fish is the best food source of omega-3 fatty acids, but unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet.
Krill oil also contains astaxanthin, a powerful, naturally occurring carotenoid.
Astaxanthin has also been shown to decreases inflammation and protect the blood-brain barrier (118-119).
9. Sleep and Melatonin
Deep sleep is necessary for the 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 brain and mental health. And then my poor brain and 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 you should really try to get at least 7 hours of high-quality, restorative sleep every night.
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).
Adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.
Research also shows that melatonin can stabilize the blood-brain barrier and prevent damage caused by traumatic brain injury (85, 86).
Besides taking melatonin, here are some other steps you can take to maintain your circadian rhythm and maximize the quality of your sleep:
Lie on this acupressure mat for 10 minutes before bed.
Turn off household lights, install Iris on your computer and wear blue blocking glasses for at least 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.
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.
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.
And several studies have shown that it can 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 about berberine 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 home 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.”
Researchers have discovered that mycotoxins can clearly reduce the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (62).
They’ve also 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 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 supplementing with Vitamin B1 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 that have elevated homocysteine levels and mild cognitive impairment. Homocysteine is an inflammatory compound that can contribute to blood-brain barrier breakdown at high levels, and the B vitamins normalize homocysteine levels (82-83).
I take this B complex regularly. It contains the bioactive forms of all the B vitamins, including methyl-B12 and methylfolate.
Magnesium is a vital mineral that plays a key role in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body.
It impacts your neurotransmitters and hormones, both of which can significantly impact your mood and brain function.
Magnesium is one of the three nutrients that I think everyone should be taking for their brain, because most people are deficient nowadays.
And there is plenty of research showing that it can protect and support your blood-brain barrier as well.
Multiple studies have found that magnesium protects the blood-brain barrier, prevents its disruption, and significantly reduces hyperpermeability of the blood-brain barrier (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 supplement.
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 ALA has neuroprotective effects, and it maintains the integrity of the blood-brain barrier by reducing oxidative stress (4-5)
Researchers also point out that its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects can stabilize the blood-brain barrier. This makes it an “attractive therapeutic agent for the treatment” of multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury (6-8).
ALA is included in the Optimal Antiox supplement.
15. Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR)
It’s been shown to have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects. It’s often used as a natural brain booster because it increases alertness and provides support to brain cells.
I find that ALCAR personally gives me a big boost in mental energy and cognitive function.
That’s why it’s included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
But 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 shown that 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.
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 the 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).
I personally use this Vitamin D lamp to make sure my Vitamin D levels are optimal.
18. Citicoline or Alpha GPC
Choline is an essential nutrient that most people don’t consume enough of because very few foods in the Western diet contain it.
Citicoline (also known as CDP-Choline) is the most bioavailable supplemental form of choline.
But it’s also been shown to significantly decrease the disruption and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier after traumatic brain injury (11-12).
And after brain ischemia, Citicoline significantly reduces blood-brain barrier dysfunction (10).
I personally take Citicoline every day.
It helps me a lot because I’ve had multiple concussions.
Alpha GPC is another excellent form of choline that has been shown to support the blood-brain barrier.
Researchers have found that it improves cognitive function by reversing the changes to the blood-brain barrier after a brain injury (9).
Both citicoline and Alpha GPC are included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
19. 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 and/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.
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.
20. Lower Homocysteine
Homocysteine is an amino acid that is produced in the body as a result of methylation.
In healthy people, it’s properly metabolized and normal levels are maintained.
But when homocysteine isn’t properly metabolized, it can build up inside the body and levels can become too high.
And that’s when homocysteine becomes dangerous and unhealthy.
At high levels, homocysteine is inflammatory, and research shows it increases permeability of the blood-brain barrier (115).
If you test and find out your levels are high, check out this article for 16 ways to lower your homocysteine levels.
Progesterone is a natural steroid and sex hormone involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
It has a variety of important functions in the body, and even plays an important role in brain function.
And one study shows that it reduces inflammation and can support the blood-brain barrier after brain injury (120).
In addition to its role as a natural hormone, progesterone can be taken as a medication, usually by women during menopause as part of their hormone replacement therapy.
22. Increase Brain Blood Flow
Brain blood flow, or cerebral blood flow, refers to the blood supply that reaches your brain during a given period of time.
Your brain needs almost 20% of the blood supply provided by each heartbeat.
But when blood flow to the brain is impaired, problems can arise, including a leaky blood-brain barrier.
Research shows that lack of brain blood flow increases oxidative stress, damages the blood-brain barrier, and increases blood-brain barrier permeability (116-117).
Be sure to check out this post for 21 ways to increase blood flow to the brain.
23. Other Nutrients, Antioxidants and Herbs
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
Vitamin E (69)
Ursolic Acid (121)
The brain has a remarkable ability to heal itself, and this includes the barrier that protects it.
The above 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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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC