If you’ve ever bumped your elbow or rolled your ankle before, then you know that it will swell up pretty soon. Swelling, typically caused by inflammation, occurs when your body has been injured in some shape or form and your immune system sends immune cells to the area to begin repair, which typically causes redness and swelling.
Another type of swelling is known medically as edema, and occurs whenever the blood vessels in your body (capillaries) leak fluid. The excessive fluid is trapped in your tissues and pushes them outwards, which causes a noticeable change in the area.
Swelling most commonly affects the skin. It’s especially common in the body's extremities, such as the hands, arms, feet, ankles, and legs. However, swelling is possible anywhere in your body that has blood vessels. That means the muscles, joints, organs, eyes, and brain are also at risk for swelling.
You probably already know how to treat external swelling. Putting ice on the affected area is one of the most effective ways to reduce swelling. But what do you do about internal swelling?
You can’t just press a bag of frozen peas against your brain to reduce puffiness. You’ll need to get a little more creative to support your brain health.
What Is Brain Swelling?
Brain swelling has many names, including brain edema, cerebral edema, and elevated intracranial pressure. Each of these names means close to the same thing: your brain has excessive fluid trapped in its tissues and cells. The trapped fluids can cause your brain to puff up and push outward, like a bump on the elbow or a twisted ankle.
Swelling in the brain can be very dangerous and potentially fatal if left untreated. The swelling of your brain can increase the pressure inside your skull. As a result, it can be more difficult for your brain to maintain a healthy supply of blood flow.
A steady blood flow is essential to proper brain health and wellness because it carries oxygen to your brain and helps transport waste away from it. A lack of oxygen and an increase in waste buildup can lead to brain cells being severely damaged or killed.
There’s also much milder brain swelling — the type that feels like pressure pushing against your skull and causes a headache, and while inconvenient, is generally not a medical emergency like the above cases.
What Causes Brain Swelling?
The primary culprit of brain swelling is neuroinflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response when it experiences an injury or disease.
Chemicals from your white blood cells (immune cells) go into your bloodstream, and blood flow increases to the affected area. The chemicals enter the cells and tissues of the area to protect them from further harm. The problem is this well-meaning immune system response can cause excess fluid to enter the tissue, often resulting in swelling.
Here is a list of the most common causes of brain swelling that need medical attention:
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). During a TBI, a sudden event will physically damage the brain. The combination of physical contact and the rapid deceleration of the skull causes tremendous physical trauma to the brain. These types of injuries are often the result of a car crash, severe fall, being struck with an object, or a physical assault. TBIs are especially at high risk for brain swelling because broken pieces of bones can rupture blood vessels which might result in additional swelling and damage to the brain.
- Stroke. Two types of stroke can result in brain swelling: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes result from blood clots or blockages near or inside the brain. The blockage prevents the brain from receiving sufficient blood and oxygen, and brain cells start to die. The brain responds by trying to send more fluids to the area, which results in swelling. Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. The blood leaks into the brain, and the body responds by sending more blood, causing pressure and swelling inside the brain.
- Infection. Several viruses, fungi, parasites, and bacteria can infect the brain and lead to severe swelling. Meningitis is an infection that causes the covering of the brain to become inflamed, while encephalitis is an infection that causes the brain itself to become inflamed. Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite. It can result in the brain developing hydrocephalus that floods the brain with excess fluid. Subdural abscesses can develop in parts of the brain resulting from a sinus infection and fill with pus, leading to swelling.
- Tumor. Brain tumors can cause swelling in a few different ways. The growth of a tumor can cause parts of the brain to be pressed against other areas of the brain or skull, leading to injury and inflammation. Another potential issue with tumors is their growth can prevent blood flow or spinal fluid from flowing out of the brain. The blockage could quickly lead to swelling and other types of brain damage. Lastly, the blood vessels surrounding the tumor are more likely to rupture, leading to swelling or a hemorrhagic stroke.
- High Altitude. Sustained exposure to high altitudes can result in brain swelling via excessive fluids. It’s not exactly clear why this occurs, but it’s especially prevalent in patients with acute mountain sickness. This type of brain swelling is fairly rare as it typically only occurs when a person spends more than six hours at an altitude of 2,500 meters (roughly 8,200 feet) above sea level or higher.
- Poison. The inhalation of dangerous chemicals can interfere with delivering oxygen to the brain. The absence of oxygen in the brain can result in the death of brain cells and increased blood flow, leading to brain swelling. Carbon monoxide inhalation is especially dangerous for the brain, but smoke inhalation and certain narcotics can also contribute to brain swelling and damage.
What Are the Symptoms of Brain Swelling?
The symptoms of brain swelling can significantly vary depending on the severity of the swelling and the root cause of it.
It’s common for the following symptoms to suddenly appear after the inciting incident:
- Brain fog
- Decreased brain function
- Difficulty speaking
- Inability to walk
- Intestinal obstruction
- Irregular breathing
- Lack of coordination
- Mood swings/mental health imbalances
- Memory loss
- Neck pain
- Vision impairment
How Is Brain Swelling Diagnosed?
Brain swelling is a notoriously difficult condition to diagnose without proper testing. The symptoms are generally vague and can be the result of a variety of inflictions.
These are a few of the most common tests that can help determine if someone is experiencing inflammation of the brain:
- Physical examinations can help detect abnormalities, pain, or discomfort in the head and neck.
- CT (computed tomography) scans create noninvasive X-ray images that can help to identify the location and extent of any swelling.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans use magnetic fields, gradations, and radio waves to identify the location and extent of any swelling.
- Blood tests can measure irregularities in blood chemistry such as blood count, coagulation, high blood sugar, carbon monoxide levels, cytokine levels, and other potential causes of brain swelling. They can also detect brain swelling caused by autoimmune diseases, especially central nervous system-specific diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) tests involve using electrodes to measure the brain's electrical activity in the presence of seizures.
- Lumbar punctures are used whenever meningitis is the suspected culprit of brain swelling and other symptoms.
How Can You Naturally Reduce Brain Swelling?
In some minor cases of brain swelling (such as the effects of altitude sickness or a mild concussion), you can help reduce brain swelling by changing your diet. Certain vitamins and supplements contain properties that are capable of supporting brain health and cognitive function.
These are eight ways that you can naturally help to reduce the severity of headaches, brain fog, and general discomfort that often comes from mild brain swelling:
- Keto Diet. The primary energy source for your brain is glucose produced from eating carbohydrates. On a keto diet, you won’t be eating many carbs, so your body will produce ketones to power the brain instead. Ketones are made from stored fat in your body and are especially effective at reducing brain inflammation due to their inclusion of anti-inflammatory foods (like avocados and olive oil).
- Cut Out Gluten. Food allergies can contribute to all kinds of various issues with your cognitive function. Gluten is especially tied to brain inflammation and is a fairly common food allergy. If you’re unsure whether you have a sensitivity to gluten or not, avoid it for a week or two to see if your symptoms improve.
- Balance Your Blood Sugar. Having low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or high blood sugar (insulin resistance) can severely disrupt your overall brain function. Blood sugar levels can fluctuate naturally depending on the foods that you eat. In order to help balance your blood sugar levels, you should avoid sugar and carbohydrates while eating more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, magnesium, and alpha lipoic acid.
- Eat More Flavonoids. Flavonoids are chemical compounds found in plants that can help reduce the damage caused by free radicals in your body. Increasing the number of flavonoids in your diet might be able to help soothe inflammation in your body and brain. Vegetables such as broccoli, onions, kale, spinach, and tomatoes are high in flavonoids as is green tea, berries, and chocolate.
- Improve Your Gut Bacteria. The brain and stomach have a much stronger relationship than most people realize. A problem in your stomach can very quickly turn into a problem in your brain. There are trillions of bacteria in your gut that can be heavily influenced by your diet, exercise, and general wellbeing. Eating more vegetables, whole grains, and probiotic-enhanced foods can help improve your gut bacteria which could support positive brain health.
- Balance Your Hormones. Most hormones are produced by the brain and a hormonal imbalance can disrupt the overall function of it. A natural way to try to balance your hormonal levels is to make sure you’re getting enough protein, exercising regularly, keeping your weight at a healthy level, and limiting your intake of sugar. If your brain can get its hormone production under control, then it might be able to help clear up some of the symptoms you’ve been experiencing.
- Eat More Anti-Inflammatory Foods. Brain swelling and inflammation are very closely linked. Therefore, it stands to reason that eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties can help reduce inflammation and positively affect brain swelling. Some of the foods with the highest anti-inflammatory attributes include fatty fish, leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, coffee, and avocados.
- Cut Out Refined Carbs. Most experts agree that there is practically no nutritional value to consuming refined carbohydrates. These carbs have essentially been stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals which makes them “empty” calories. For this reason, your body can digest them extremely quickly which can severely spike your blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal. Blood sugar imbalances are a major factor for cognitive impairment. Eliminating refined carbs from your diet can help keep your blood sugar stabilized, prevent your waistline from expanding, and possibly soothe the effects of brain swelling.
Increase Your Brain Power To Decrease Brain Swelling
Brain swelling isn’t a common occurrence, but it can be deadly. Generally, brain swelling is the result of a serious medical condition or injury. There are a lot of different causes of brain swelling, but all of them have one thing in common: neuroinflammation.
Trying to prevent brain swelling will only get you so far. Preventing traumatic brain injuries, infections, tumors, and strokes is virtually impossible. That’s why it’s so important to fight inflammation instead.
The easiest way to combat brain swelling is to follow a healthy diet full of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients that support brain health. You may already be eating brain-healthy nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, naturally soothing curcumin from turmeric, or antioxidants that come from fruits, veggies, and even dark chocolate!
You might not be able to prevent brain swelling, but having stronger neurons and brain cells might help limit the severity and improve your overall wellbeing.
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