By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.
While we've all heard of or experienced a colon or liver detox, we rarely hear about detoxifying the brain. A decline in brain function is a common complaint many people have and the multitude of related symptoms can be due to both brain weakness and brain toxicity.
Abnormal brain function symptoms can vary between hyper and hypo-activity. Both conditions can be rooted in the accumulation of excess toxicity in the brain or a deficiency of adequate nutrition to properly feed the brain's neurons. When the brain’s neurons are overstimulated, symptoms such as epileptic seizures or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can develop. When the brain is under active, symptoms such as brain fog, brain fatigue, poor memory and weakness in critical thinking can develop.
Brain dysfunction can arise from the condition of systemic inflammation and systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. In addition, poor brain nutrition is not just the result of a poor diet but also due to poor digestion and poor assimilation of nutrients.
Anything that involves the function of the gut and digestion in Chinese Medicine relates to the Earth element organs, the Spleen and Stomach. Restoring balance in our Earth organs is always going to be a fundamental issue to restore function in our brain.
From the point of view of Western medicine, as we age, the production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes declines significantly, making it more difficult to properly break down and assimilate the nutrients we consume. Furthermore, the combination of toxic food, toxic medications and toxic thoughts all contribute to inflammation of the gut.
Toxicity that brews in the gut due to imbalances in the microbiome, or gut flora, can lead to 'leaky gut syndrome.' A 'leaky gut' causes improperly digested proteins and unwanted microbial agents to pass through the intestinal wall and enter the blood stream. This dysfunctional process can then trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses throughout the body. This is one of the main causes underlying the degenerative process of systemic inflammation which can create a "brain on fire" and lead to many of the brain disorders we commonly see today.
Treatment of degenerative brain disorders therefore requires the restoration of healthy digestion and elimination so the brain can be properly nourished and detoxified.
A Classical Chinese Perspective on the Brain
In Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM), the brain is considered one of the six Extraordinary Organs and also called the “Sea of Marrow.” The Jing, or Essence, corresponds to the body’s constitution and relates to our genetic material. The Kidney system stores the Jing which supports the brain, so maintaining the health of our Kidneys is fundamental in Chinese Medicine to establishing a healthy, long life. It is the Marrow that comes from the transmutation of Jing Essence which creates the substance to form the brain, the spinal cord, as well as the bone marrow.
As we age, Jing declines, so there is naturally a decline in brain function with aging resulting in shrinkage of brain mass and decline of memory and other mental functions as well as sensory decline such as hearing, taste and vision. This process relates to our cells dying off with aging and the decline of our genes' ability to replicate and rebuild tissue as efficiently as they did in youth. In Chinese Medicine, this reflects the natural decline of our Water element.
The brain needs blood to function properly as blood brings oxygen and nutrients to support its structure and function. Some of the nutrients transported from blood comes from water. As we seeing clearly in the elderly, a lack of proper hydration through water consumption has a dramatic impact on reducing brain function.
According to Chinese Medicine, building and storing blood in the body is a function of the Spleen, Heart, Lung and Liver. Supporting the brain is therefore a function of all five primary organ systems found in the Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine. The Spleen and Heart combine to produce the substance of blood, the Lung’s provide the Qi or oxygenation to complete the blood production, and the Liver stores the blood and helps send it up into the brain to support proper neurological function.
The Brain's Built-in Detoxification System
We learned only five years ago through a major medical discovery that the brain’s waste disposal system is far greater than what had ever been known.
It was discovered that the brain has an independent and unique drainage system, called the Glymphatic System that's far more efficient and powerful than the cerebrospinal fluid system we had previously thought was the only drainage system in the brain. The reason for such a late discovery of the Glymphatic System is that technology just recently developed the capacity to study the living brain in action. Prior research was done on dead brains and the Glymphatic System works through live cellular action and not through a structure of its own.
The glymphatic drainage system was actually discovered in the process of researching amyloid protein circulation and its abnormal accumulation in the brain in the form of brain plaques thought to be associated with Alzheimer's disease.
The Glymphatic System is, in fact, much more proficient in moving nutrients and waste in and out of the brain than the cerebrospinal fluid system. It is like comparing a system that works on a drip process versus a system that is activated by the powerful pumping force under the pressure of blood flow.
To make a theoretical correspondence to Chinese Medicine, I would say the Glymphatic System is under the functional domain of the Liver and Gallbladder systems.
The Liver meridian ascends blood into the brain for nourishment and the Gallbladder meridian is the main drainage system of the brain to support detoxification.
Both the Liver and Gallbladder are Wood element organs established in Five Element Theory. According to Five Element Theory, the Wood energy is strengthened by the Water element and this makes the connection how the Kidneys (Water) support the Liver (Wood) for healthy brain function, especially in memory retrieval.
More specifically, long term memory is supported by the Liver and short term memory is supported by the Spleen which brings us back to the Earth element and gut health. If you find yourself having difficulty with memorization, than this is a weakness of the Spleen often due to dampness from excessive sugar in the diet. Dampness or a fungal terrain can also be attributed to excessive use of antibiotics, birth control pills or corticosteroid medications. So any of these medications can impact one's brain health in a negative way.
You may notice that your brain gets fuzzy, lazy and tired after eating too many sweets. This is often due to blood sugar quickly dropping with the consumption of simple sugars and the resulting dampness that impedes brain function. A damp terrain is a fungal terrain. Just as chronic sinusitis is now recognized to be associated with fungus, the same fungal pathology can seep into the brain to down-regulate brain neuron function.
Sugar in any form feeds fungus in the body so it's easy to see why the condition of dampness is a very sticky, stubborn pathology to clear up.
Dampness therefore, according to Chinese Medicine, essentially needs to be dried up or drained out of the brain to support proper function and impede the disease process that leads to brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
It is imperative for those suffering from these disorders to eat a very low carbohydrate and low sugar diet. If you've known anyone with these disorders, their diet is usually heavy on carbs, sugar and dairy -- the exact foods that feed the fungus in their brain.
Inflammation, Inflammation, Inflammation
You may find you can't recall things as well as before, or perhaps you easily get tired while reading. These everyday occurrences that people brush off as aging can be early stage signs of a brain inflamed with toxicity.
Inflammation is associated with most chronic degenerative conditions and what we have now realized in modern medicine is that systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. The problem is that Western medicine protocols are not addressing this fundamental issue and rely on toxic drugs to try and ameliorate symptoms without addressing the underlying problems. All the while, the medications are tearing apart the very system that is already inflamed and deteriorating.
Chinese Medicine Offers Clues to Evaluate Subtle Indications of a "Brain on Fire"
Based on the associations of the organ systems and brain function as outlined above, we can make some direct correlations you may find helpful to evaluate your own brain health.
If you're suffering from inflamed joints not due to an injury, then it’s time to consider healing your digestive system in order to cool down inflammation that's likely also occurring in your brain. Hip inflammatory problems relate to the Gallbladder system and knee inflammation relates to the Kidneys. Since these systems are directly related to healthy brain function, if you are suffering from any systemic inflammation or, specifically, these large joints are chronically painful and stiff, your brain is also likely inflamed.
Beginning the Process of Brain Detoxification
Chinese Medicine offers some of the most potent medicine available today to restore brain function which has been damaged.
Chinese Medicine is a comprehensive medical system that looks to restore healthy brain function in a holistic way by addressing the other supporting organ systems involved in the brain's function.
The brain can be directly targeted therapeutically through Acupuncture and herbal medicine, which can provide nutrition and support the flow of nutrients into the brain. In addition, these modalities can stimulate the dissolution of brain plaque and the clearance of toxic debris.
Acupuncture can stimulate the Gallbladder Meridian to detoxify the brain.
The Gallbladder Meridian system offers direct access to drain toxicity from the brain and support the removal of debris such as denatured amyloid proteins that cause plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Acupuncture can essentially stimulate the Gallbladder system to flush the brain and help reduce toxicity leading to brain inflammation. Acupuncture as a form of manual therapy is a critical part of detoxification because it is very common for the body to form blockages internally which impair detoxification and interfere with the recovery process. These blockages can be efficiently released through Acupuncture, Cupping and Gua Sha (a type of scraping therapy).
It is imperative to note: for acupuncture and herbal medicine to work optimally, a person's diet must support the healing process that is being instigated by these modalities. Otherwise, you may be disappointed with your progress and blame the medicine for failing. You must clean up your habits for healing to take place, there is no way around this fact. We cannot continue the same lifestyle habits that created our problems. We must change in order for change to occur.
Chinese Herbal Medicine: An Important Component for Restoring Brain Function
Some Chinese herbs target the Gallbladder system to decongest and move the lymphatic circulation for detoxification. Some herbs are specific to break up amyloid tissue and plaques that block the brain neurons from functioning optimally. Other herbs support the nutritional aspect and provide nutrients for the brain to work better as well as the different organs involved in its function. There are herbs to strengthen the Qi energy of the Spleen to improve overall energy and others provide nourishment to help the Spleen build up the blood. These benefits support healthy brain function.
Other herbs specifically nourish the blood of the Liver to improve memory retrieval and vision. In addition, there are Chinese herbs used specifically to increase the Qi of the Lungs which improve oxygenation of the brain in order to quicken brain function and reduce brain fatigue. Perhaps most importantly, there are herbs to strengthen the energy of the Kidneys which as we now know has a direct correlation with the brain and is fundamental to maintaining the health of one's hearing and brain function overall.
What is most exciting, is that many herbs have been shown to reduce brain inflammation and amyloid plaque deposition which interfere with brain circulation and neuron function. And perhaps most importantly, herbs such as Turmeric, Gotu Kola and Bacopa Monnieri have been found to stimulate the regrowth of brain neurons to restore lost function as well. In fact, these three herbs support all of these critical actions for restoring brain health. There are a number of studies to support these claims, mostly international studies from China, Japan, Korea and India.
Healing the Brain Takes Time
Keep in mind, when working on the level of the constitution which includes anything related to the brain, it takes a minimum of three months of treatment before one can evaluate the progress of one's condition. Usually results are noticed right along, sometimes quickly, but studies show it takes a few months to regrow brain neurons to improve brain function. Older, weaker individuals and those with more serious brain dysfunction will require longer periods of time to restore brain health.
Healthy brain function allows us the awareness to experience a more full and meaningful life. Awareness is important to put us on the path of healing. My hope is that this information brings you awareness that there is always opportunity to heal and improve your health. Depending on your situation, the path may be easy or challenging, but if you persevere, you may find yourself living in greater health with an active, lively brain for many years ahead.
Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.