Got brain fog? In this article, we’ll cover the main brain fog causes, and how you can turn things around using (mostly) diet and lifestyle measures.
Trying to think with your head in a fog can be devastating to your productivity and success in life.
When you can’t think clearly or recall information as quickly, the confidence in your abilities can take a tumble.
You feel less sharp and on the ball, which can crush the credibility and dynamism you once oozed – leading you to do less in your business and impact your bottom line.
When The Mighty blog asked their community to describe their experience of brain fog, this person summed it up nicely:
If you forget what you’re saying half-way through a sentence – or your words don’t come out properly…
Or if learning takes longer than it used to because your focus and mental clarity is compromised…
There is hope.
The clouds can part and disappear so you can get your focus and mental acuity back.
First, let’s get clear on what brain fog is.
Symptoms of brain fog may include (1):
Reduced mental clarity
Reduced concentration and focus
Reduced learning ability
Reduced memory creation and recall
So, what causes brain fog?
Brain fog can be a sign of a medical condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome, anaemia, depression, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmune conditions (1).
However, once those are ruled out as causes, you can be left in the dark as to what the cause of your fogginess is.
As Dr Michael Lam, who specialises in nutrition and hormonal health, says about brain fog (2):
“It is a subjective clinical determination based on careful history and exclusion of medical illness that presents with similar symptoms. Generally, a sufferer has a normal physical examination, but realizes that they do not function as well as they should mentally, but they don’t understand why. Most physicians would pass it off as an annoyance or “old age” of no significant clinical concern.”
Yet a growing body of evidence shows that brain fog does have significance in underlying imbalances in the body, and primarily, as a sign of inflammation – a precursor to many chronic diseases, including neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease (3).
It’s believed that brain fog is caused by, as Dr Josh Axe writes (4):
“…High levels of inflammation and changes to three primary hormones that determine your mood, energy and focus: dopamine, serotonin and cortisol. Cortisol is often called the body’s primary “stress hormone,” since it helps keep you awake and alert, while dopamine and serotonin help keep you joyful, motivated and calm.”
There are also other causes of brain fog which I’ll also outline.
As you read through the below causes, and the symptoms that tend to present in each case, you’ll get a sense of what your brain fog triggers could be (it can often be more than one).
Armed with this knowledge, you can then take appropriate steps to treat the root cause.
So, are you chomping at the bit to know what’s causing your brain fog?
Read on to get the clarity you need to clear the fog so you can tackle your to-do list (and life) productively.
The first three are no-brainers, yet I’d be remiss to exclude them as they’re so often the cause.
Your brain is one of the first organs to show signs of dehydration.
In fact, being dehydrated by just 2% can reduce mental function, memory creation and concentration (5).
If your fogginess comes and goes during the day, try drinking water as your first port of call.
Solution: aim for 2 litres of pimped up water each day.
Pimped up water: add some freshly squeezed lemon, sliced cucumber or berries to your water. Not only will it add flavour, the minerals and sugars can help hydrate your cells more effectively than normal water (and you’ll be getting some anti-inflammatory antioxidants too).
Lack of sleep can cause hormonal imbalances that lead to brain fog.
It also causes the stress hormone cortisol to rise, which can suppress the production of neurotransmitter dopamine, making you feel moody and unmotivated.
Prolonged lack of sleep and excessive cortisol can also restrict blood flow to the brain, which can lead to not only brain fog, but a decline in neurological function and emotional intelligence (6) , so if you want to stay sharp and on point, prioritise your sleep.
Solution: aim for 7-9 hours shuteye each night.
Lack of movement or prolonged standing
If you’re inactive most of the time (let’s be honest – most of us are sitting in front of a computer most days) or you’re spending a lot of time standing (7), the circulation to your brain will be reduced, so your brain receives less nutrients and oxygen it needs to function properly.
The removal of toxins that can accumulate in the brain (more on this later) will also be reduced, which can lead to inflammation in the brain – with brain fog being a primary symptom.
Solution: move regularly, get sweaty and breathe.
Whatever kind of movement you can do throughout the day is helpful, although when you sweat, not only will circulation be improved, you’ll be eliminating some of those toxins through the skin, reducing your body’s burden.
You’ll also likely experience a rise in your mood as your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, making you feel brighter, happier and more energetic.
Also, regularly take big deep breaths, to deliver enough oxygen to your brain.
Inhale slowly into your belly until your abdomen is fully expanded. Hold for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat 5 times.
Actually, do that right now and come back with a head of fresh oxygen…
Your menstrual cycle
Do you experience brain fog just before and during menstruation? Low oestrogen levels may be the cause, as oestrogen impacts mental focus (8).
Solution: include phytoestrogen containing foods in your diet
There are several natural strategies you can use to help increase oestrogen and reduce brain fog.
One is to include foods that contain phytoestrogens, compounds that have a mild oestrogenic effect in the body.
By eating these foods a few days before and during your brain fog episode, it’s possible these foods can raise your oestrogen levels, thereby eliminating brain fog.
Foods include: sunflower seeds, linseeds, sesame seeds, mung beans, alfalfa, kidney beans, blacked eye beans and soy (always make sure soy is organic and fermented).
Low thyroid function
Got brain fog as well as unexplained weight gain, fatigue, low mood and intolerance to the cold?
This may indicate that your thyroid hormone levels are low.
Low thyroid hormone levels can also increase the production of stress hormone cortisol, which can suppress thyroid function further.
This can lead to more brain fuzz, weight gain, fatigue – and potentially hypothyroidism.
Solution: get your thyroid tested
If you’re feeling more sluggish than you used to, the first step is to see your GP to get your thyroid tested.
Even if tests show you’re not hypothyroid, you may have sub-clinical hypothyroidism – where the thyroid isn’t able to produce enough thyroid hormones, yet sits outside the parameters of a hypothyroidism diagnosis.
In this instance, you’re best to see a naturopath to get tailored advice.
There are several pathways that can create brain fog when it comes to adrenal dysfunction.
One way is that the liver’s detoxification process slows down, causing toxins to be released into the blood stream, which can travel to the brain and cause inflammation.
If cortisol is constantly elevated, it can suppress thyroid function, block progesterone production and raise oestrogen, while also restricting blood flow to the brain, reducing oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain.
Over the long term, stress can shrink the hippocampus in the brain, leading to a decline in short term memory.
This can be devastating for learning new information, remembering people’s names and all those things on your mental shopping list!
Stress can also cause what’s called ‘leaky brain’, where the protective layer over the brain, the blood brain barrier, becomes leaky, allowing inflammatory compounds to pass through and cause damage to the brain (12).
Solution: reduce your stress, limit alcohol and check your adrenal gland function
Reduce your stress – declutter, relax, meditate, do yoga, chanting, prayer – whatever works for you.
Want to know if you have adrenal dysfunction? Take the quiz to find out in less than 60 seconds.
Poor blood sugar control
Get brain fog 2-3 hours after a meal, alongside feeling tired and irritable, possibly even dizzy?
It’s likely you’re eating too many refined carbohydrates, like bread, baked goods, pasta and other refined flour products.
What happens is the initial spike in blood sugar causes a big spike in insulin, which then triggers the release of cortisol, resulting in low blood sugar.
When this happens, blood flow to the brain is constricted, making you feel tired and foggy.
Solution: replace refined carbs with complex carbs and eat protein with every meal
Complex carbohydrates: fruit, starchy vegetables like sweet potato and whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat and millet as well as beans.
Protein: meat, fish, eggs, yogurt, cheese, beans, chickpeas, peas, nuts and seeds.
This will slow down the delivery of glucose to the body, giving you stable, longer lasting energy.
On the other hand…. as the brain’s main fuel source is glucose, if you’re not getting enough carbohydrates, a low blood sugar state starves the brain of fuel, leading to brain fog.
No doubt you’ve felt foggy when you’re pushing through to meet a deadline and staving off your lunch.
This is likely because of the drop in blood sugar you’re experiencing.
If you have a low mood as well as brain fog and fatigue, it may be that your blood sugar levels are too low.
Another reason for this is that insulin, the hormone that’s released to help glucose be absorbed by cells, helps the amino acids that make serotonin and dopamine cross the blood brain barrier to make these mood enhancing neurotransmitters.
When insulin is low, serotonin and dopamine production is reduced because it can’t get the ingredients needed to be produced in the brain.
Hence you feel foggy, unmotivated and unhappy.
Another tell-tale sign of low serotonin and dopamine is if you regularly experience cravings for sugar.
This is often the brain’s way of trying to raise these happy mood chemicals (15).
Solution: avoid skipping meals and eat regular meals
By regular, I mean breakfast, lunch and dinner – or at the very least, eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re hangry and tired.
Omega 6:3 fatty acid imbalance
Omega 6 oils found in processed vegetable oils can cause inflammation in the body and the brain.
Too much Omega 6 intake, alongside not enough anti-inflammatory Omega 3 intake, can disrupt your omega 6:3 balance (which ideally should be at 2:1), creating a cascade of inflammation in the body.
Fats are critically important for brain health, so it’s important to include them in your diet.
Solution: limit omega 6 oils and increase omega 3 oils
Omega 6 fats: sunflower and olive oil, as well as grain-fed livestock which have higher omega 6 content.
Replace with anti-inflammatory omega 3 oils: hemp, flaxseed, sesame and walnut oil, grass-fed livestock and oily fish like wild caught salmon, mackerel, herrings and sardines.
Neurotoxins are a class of compounds that, as the name suggests, are toxic to the brain.
They cause inflammation and damage to neurons in the brain, as these toxins are ‘lipophilic’ fat-loving molecules.
As the brain is mostly made of fat, it’s a perfect home for neurotoxins to live.
These toxins can get stored in the brain if your detoxification pathways aren’t working well or are under pressure, which is a common phenomenon because of the enormous toxic burden our bodies are under these days e.g. if you live in a big city and live a fast paced/stressful lifestyle… which is most of us!
These toxins can then impact neuron function, leading to brain fog, memory loss, and can lead to a host of neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s (16), Parkinson’s and dementia.
The main neurotoxins are heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, lead, aluminium, copper, antimony, arsenic and nickel) found in our air, food and water supplies and countless household and industrial products.
They’re also considered as ‘xenoestrogens’ – compounds that artificially mimic oestrogen in the body (17), disrupting hormonal function in the body, and have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive issues in both men and women, prostrate cancer, thyroid disorders, obesity, diabetes and more (18, 19, 20, 21, 22).
Not only that – they can also create ‘leaky brain’ – where the barrier that protects the brain becomes leaky, resulting in proteins getting into the brain that shouldn’t be there, causing brain damage and foggy brain.
Other potentially brain fogging xenoestrogens are found in:
- Plastics, including plastic bottles, plastic lined cans, cling film
- Teflon non-stick cookware
- Skincare, cosmetics and nail polish (23)
- Personal care products, air fresheners and householder cleaners
- Bleached feminine hygiene products
- Flame retardants in mattresses, furniture and fabrics
- Pesticides sprayed on fruits, vegetables and grains – some of which are fed to grain fed livestock
- Formaldehyde, found in polluted cities and a surprising amount of building materials such as plyboard, furniture, carpets, as well as household products and nail polish (24). Formaldehyde is a colourless, odourless gas, which can be released by household furniture and materials in your home, polluting your environment and unknowingly exposing you to this toxin.
Yes. YIKES. That’s a LOT of products we’re all exposed to every single day!
Solution: reduce your exposure and support your body’s detox pathways
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure:
- Limit exposure to plastics – replace with glass drink/food containers
- Choose organic produce – meat, fruit and vegetables
- Regularly air your house – leave windows open whenever possible
- Replace household and personal care products with natural, non-toxic versions
- Check cookware – much of it is aluminium lined which can leak into food. Switch to cast iron or aluminium free stainless steel cookware.
- Replace aluminium containing deodorants with an aluminium free one
- Check your skincare products for toxicity here
- Check out this handy guide I found on other ways to reduce your exposure
- Regularly eat foods that support your liver’s detox pathways like lemons, green leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, cabbage, kale etc), coriander, parsley, asparagus, apples, pears, garlic, onions, leeks and berries.
- Eat a high fibre diet as this helps to remove heavy metals, particularly mercury which binds to fibre, from your body (25)
- Undertake a cleansing programme regularly to support your body’s detox pathways to help your body eliminate these nasties from your neurons. The improvement in your brain function and reduction in other niggling symptoms can be profound. (BTW: I don’t mean a juicing cleanse… If you want to know more about a professionally designed, evidence based protocol, ask me).
- You can also eliminate a lot of these toxins from the body through your sweat (26). Exercise until you’re sweaty, often. Far infrared saunas are also fantastic.
- Heavy metal toxicity symptoms vary depending on the heavy metal. Check out this site for an overview of symptoms. An in-depth health assessment alongside a hair analysis test can help determine whether heavy metals are playing a part in your symptoms.
Quite a list… but as you can see, there’s SO much you can do to keep yourself healthy in this toxic soup we live in!
Do you have mould in your house, or do you live in a damp house or climate?
It may surprise you to know that the mould that often grows in homes is another neurotoxin that causes damage to the brain.
Even though mould should really come under the last neurotoxin section, I wanted to give it the attention it deserves, as it deserves a lot more than it gets.
The problem has come about because many of our homes are now made with plasterboard, and paint no longer has fungicides in it, creating a perfect storm under damp conditions for mould to grow.
Mould can live in walls and go undetected for years.
If you live in a damp climate, in damp conditions where mould grows, if your house smells musty, if you’ve been exposed to mould in your workplace, and/or have any of the below symptoms (taken from www.survivingmold.com) mould may be the cause:
- Muscle Cramps
- Unusual Pain or Ice Pick Pain
- Light Sensitivity
- Red Eyes
- Blurred Vision
- Sinus Problems
- Shortness of Breath
- Abdominal Pain
- Joint Pain
- Morning Stiffness
- Memory Issues
- Focus/Concentration Issues
- Word Recollection Issues
- Decreased Learning of New Knowledge
- Confusion / Disorientation
- Skin Sensitivity
- Mood Swings
- Appetite Swings
- Sweats (especially night sweats)
- Temperature Regulation or Dysregulation Problems
- Excessive Thirst
- Increased Urination
- Static Shocks
- Metallic Taste
Yes, that’s a whole lotta symptoms.
Of course not everyone will be affected by mould exposure, yet if you’re showing some of these symptoms, take action now so you can reverse the damage.
Mould illness is a serious condition that’s been linked to a number of ever-growing neurological and autoimmune conditions, as well as cancers.
Solution: there are several laboratory tests to diagnose whether you have mould illness. If you want to learn more, the Surviving Mold website is a gem of information.
Brain fog can also be triggered by foods eaten regularly in our modern world.
You see, an intimate connection exists between your digestive system and your brain.
They share many of the same nerve endings, and many of the neurotransmitters found in the brain are also found in the gut.
Hence, brain health and digestive health are intimately linked.
The main culprits are the gluten containing grains – wheat, barley and rye – although eggs, dairy, corn, soy, nuts and citrus fruits are also common triggers.
Symptoms, in addition to brain fog, can be:
- Feeling tired after eating / general fatigue
- Low mood / depression
- Digestive symptoms like bloating, diarrhoea or constipation
- Skin conditions like eczema, itchy skin, acne
- Joint pain
Although, some people have no obvious symptoms even though they may have inflammation in their body.
Dr David Perlmutter, a neurologist specialising in neurodegenerative diseases, explains how food sensitivities occur, in his book Grain Brain (26):
‘When the body negatively reacts to food, it attempts to control the damage by sending out inflammatory messenger molecules to label the food particles as enemies. This leads the immune system to keep sending out inflammatory chemicals, killer cells among them, in a bid to wipe out the enemies. The process often damages our tissue, leading the walls of our intestine to become compromised, a condition known as ‘leaky gut’. Once you have a leaky gut, you’re highly susceptible to additional food sensitivities in the future. And the onslaught of inflammation can also put you at risk for developing autoimmune disease’.
As Dr Perlmutter notes – having a food intolerance not only causes leaky gut and increases chances of becoming sensitive to other foods – it also increases your chances of developing autoimmune diseases, which are on the rise.
Also, remember I mentioned ‘leaky brain’ earlier (don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t, dear foggy one!)?
Research now shows that leaky gut (the correct term is intestinal permeability) can cause leaky brain (27), leading to further levels of inflammation.
In food sensitivities, the immune system will also release inflammatory compounds called cytokines that attack brain tissue.
High levels of these cytokines have been found in those with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, MS and even autism (26).
Are you wondering – why does your body react negatively to food?
A few ways:
You may not genetically be able to digest the protein in the food. This is the case for at least 40% of the population with regards to gluten found in wheat, rye and barley.
Your body may not be producing enough digestive enzymes to digest the food (this often happens when you’re under a lot of stress).
Or, you may have leaky gut, which can be brought on by stress, excess alcohol, excess sugar, corticosteroids, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs e.g. aspirin, ibuprofen, diclofenac), fasting and nutrient insufficiencies.
Solution: get tested for food sensitivities and leaky gut
If you suspect you have a food intolerance, you can perform a food sensitivity test, or an elimination diet.
An elimination diet is where you remove the suspect foods from your diet and reintroduce them back as you monitor your symptoms, to pinpoint foods you’re intolerant to.
Some tips for prevention:
Rotate what you eat often, as sometimes eating foods too regularly can cause you to become sensitive to them, especially if you’re under a lot of stress.
(When I was at college studying nutrition and naturopathic medicine, I used to snack on Brazil nuts, cashews and almonds every day. Guess what I become sensitive to! )
Avoid eating when you’re in a stressed state (like eating aforementioned nuts while trying to learn biochemistry).
To switch off the stress response so you can eat, take a few deep belly breaths in where your abdomen expands.
Eat when you start to feel relaxed.
Candida Albicans (yeast) overgrowth
The overgrowth of a yeast that lives in the digestive system can produce toxins like alcohol and acetaldehyde and release them into the blood stream, which can damage the nervous system.
Key signs and symptoms are if you feel worse after having starchy foods, carbohydrates, sugars and fats, alongside experiencing persistent fatigue, gas and bloating, thrush, irritability, sugar cravings, menstrual irregularities and intestinal cramps (28).
Solution: follow an anti-candida diet
An anti-candida diet limits refined sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates while introducing anti-fungal foods and natural medicines, as well as probiotics to bring your microbiome back into balance.
If digested food stays in your colon for too long (okay, it’s no longer food.. it’s poo), over fermentation will occur and release toxic compounds that can be recirculated into your bloodstream and travel to your brain, causing brain fog.
If you experience constipation alongside brain fog and headaches, this may be the cause of your brain fog.
Solution: get adequate fibre from fruits and vegetables, drink 2 litres of water per day and exercise daily
If you’ve tried all those without relief, consider getting a naturopathic health assessment to determine the root cause.
Low nutrient status
Are you getting enough of the nutrients your brain needs to function properly?
The main nutrients to consider when it comes to having brain fog are Iron, B12, Omega 3 and Vitamin D.
Some tell-tale signs you may be low on each nutrient are:
B12: memory problems, numbness and tingling or burning in feet, weakness in legs and mouth ulcers
Iron: fatigue, weakness during exercise, pale skin, headaches, poor resistance to cold and brittle nails
Vitamin D: Poor immunity, poor blood sugar control (fluctuations in energy), insomnia, nervousness
Omega 3: Acne, itchy, dry, flaky skin, brittle hair, low immunity, depression (29)
Solution: eat more nutrient dense foods
Electromagnetic frequency pollution
Mobile phone towers (30), Wi-Fi, power plants and electronic devices like phones, computers and TVs all emit electromagnetic fields that research is showing can change brain function and impact memory and focus (31).
EMFs are also emitted in nature, however it’s the overload of EMFs, and the different frequencies from human made technologies that seem to be disrupting the body’s natural electrical field.
In fact, because of this research, all schools in France have reverted back to wired internet connection. (There’s greater concern with the effect on children because their skulls are thinner than an adult’s, so the EMFs can pass through more easily).
If you’re in an environment with a lot of EMF radiation, or you sit in front of a computer or are on your phone all day, this is why it can leave you feeling foggy.
Solution: minimise your exposure
Take these steps:
- Turn off all electrical equipment where you can, including your Wi-Fi modem.
- Switch back to a wired internet connection at home/office.
- Avoid using your mobile phone in areas where there’s poor reception, as your phone will emit more EMFs as it keeps searching for a phone mast.
- Sensitivity to EMFS can result in headaches and insomnia (32). Keeping your bedroom electronic free can help mitigate the effects.
- Try having an electronic free day at least once a month.
- Connecting to the Earth’s natural electromagnetic field (often called ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’) can help to re-calibrate your electric field and can act as a protection against other EMFs. Get your bare feet on the earth as regularly as you can!
- You can also get an earthing mat that you place under your feet when you’re at your computer, or get silver lined bed linen so you’re grounding while you’re sleeping.
It’s impossible to avoid EMFs all the time, yet these steps can go a long way to reducing them!
Many medications can cause brain fog, even the contraceptive pill as it influences oestrogen levels.
Solution: check medication you’re taking for side effects and speak to your doctor about your symptoms.
Sometimes it’s the combination of certain drugs that can cause brain fog.
Viruses can release toxins into the blood stream, causing inflammation and depletion of nutrients needed by the brain.
Hepatitis C, Human Papillomavirus, Cytomegalovirus, Epstein Barr as well as bacterial infections like Helicobacter Pylori and Lyme Disease have all been linked to brain fog.
These infections can be undetected in the body without other symptoms – testing is necessary. If you’ve ruled out a number of the more common causes of brain fog, it may well be worth exploring wth your GP.
Solution: speak to your GP.
Poorly conducted root canal work can also cause brain fog, as a bacterial infection can be harboured in the canal, leaking toxins into the bloodstream that directly affect the brain – as well as infected teeth or gums.
Solution: see a biological dentist who can test and treat infections.
Experienced a stressful or traumatic event recently?
Brain fog could be a way of you dealing with that trauma.
Likewise, if you’re not happy with your situation right now, brain fog might be your brain’s way of disconnecting from your current reality.
This coping mechanism may be fine for a while, although if it tips into an unhealthy pattern where you aren’t dealing with your situation, seek support.
Solution: talk it out. Seek the support of a friend, someone in your network you trust, or if needed, professional help.
Where to from here?
Now for the test.
Joking! There is no test.
So that’s a long list, right?
Enough to boggle the clearest of minds!
Based on the list above, what do you think the cause of your brain fog stems from?
Start with the most obvious one for you, follow the suggested solution and see whether your brain fog improves.
Bookmark this article to come back to if you need to address another possible cause, as often brain fog is caused by a combination of factors.
And perhaps, share this article with some foggy minded friends?
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Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and coach who helps exhausted women get their energy back. She consults with people worldwide via the web from her home in Melbourne, Australia.