Repair brain damage from severe infections naturally

man with fever
October 9, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

We’ve all been sick at one point or another. And after a few days of misery, plenty of rest, and maybe some medicine, we’ve gotten better…as good as new. However, in cases of more serious illnesses that require hospitalization, even if the infection is cured, research has found that we may not actually leave “as good as new.”

Let me explain.

All types of viral and bacterial infections—from pneumonia and flu to hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV—place a lot of stress on the immune system. As part of the body’s response to these invaders, inflammation develops. But it’s a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the inflammation helps in healing. It allows blood vessels to dilate, and forces infection-fighting white blood cells to flood the area to attack the source of the problem.

On the other hand, some research suggests that post-infection, some unwelcome effects may linger as a result of the inflammation—in the form of impaired cognition. And this is especially true of serious infections that are treated at hospitals.

Danish researchers enlisted more than 161,000 men over a six-year span, and tested their cognitive ability using different tests and methods. They also took note of those who were hospitalized for severe infections over that time.

They found that prior infections that required hospitalization were associated with significantly lower cognitive ability. Those who had five or more infections or 10 or more hospitalizations/hospital contacts fared the worst.

Not surprisingly, infections of the central nervous system hurt cognitive ability the most, but any severe illness in which hospitalization was needed—gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin, etc.—seemed to have lasting effects on the brain.

What could be the reasons behind this?

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

For one, inflammation affects the production of various neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are critical for cognition and proper brain function.

Additionally, infections, especially severe ones, can result in some degree of sepsis (blood infection), which can hurt the brain. Not surprisingly, sepsis is quite common in patients who’ve been hospitalized for prolonged periods of time.

Reduce Inflammation

So the good news: If you have a severe infection, getting treatment at a hospital can potentially save your life. The not-so-good news: You could leave the hospital physically healthier, but cognitively a little less “sharp.”

Fortunately, this drop in cognitive function is not necessarily permanent. The inflammation that lingers post-infection can be minimized.

Furthermore, you can also prevent chronic, low-grade inflammation in your body while you’re healthy so that if you do come down with an infection that requires hospitalization, the long-term effects on the brain may be lessened.

Some of the top contributors to chronic inflammation are poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, long-term uncontrolled stress, and lack of sleep.

Lifestyle changes to protect your brain

  • Quit smoking.
  • Find ways to better control the stress in your life—whether it’s delegating tasks that overcomplicate your life, seeking the advice of a counselor or therapist, deep breathing, meditating, or doing yoga.
  • Also strive to go to bed the same time every night and get plenty of shut-eye (anywhere between seven and nine hours).
  • Most importantly, cut out highly processed foods that are high in inflammatory white flour, sugar, and trans fats. (If you’re not ready to drop them altogether, reduce your intake.) If a food label has a list of ingredients that’s a mile long, avoid that product!
  • And finally, take anti-inflammatory supplements like omega-3s and curcumin, the medicinal compound found in the Indian spice turmeric. Curcumin has an amazing centuries-long reputation in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a powerhouse anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Both of these compounds fight inflammation at its source, providing protection from a long list of problems associated with inflammation.

Reference

Benros ME, et al. The association between infections and general cognitive ability in young men—a nationwide study. PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0124005.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124005

 

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