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The Causes of “Leaky Brain”

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Who Gets “Leaky Brain” and Why

“Leaky brain” occurs when there is a disruption to the selective filtering or mediation of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) between the bloodstream and the brain. The compromise of the BBB can potentially result in a variety of chronic health conditions and diseases like mental health disorders including depression, bipolar, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia as well as neurodenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.

But, before diving into the different health conditions, it’s first best to understand the potential causes of “leaky brain”.

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Brain Injuries

Not surprisingly,  physical brain injuries, also known as traumatic brain injuries or TBI are a potential source of damage to the blood-brain barrier. This type of physical damage can result in a breach to the blood brain barrier also known as “leaky brain”.

Hypertensive Encephalopathy

Increased brain blood pressure may cause hypertensive encephalopathy. The increased pressure results in reduced blood flow and excess fluid in the brain leading to the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Hypertensive encephalopathy results in widespread BBB dysfunction and can cause brain edema, which is a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the brain.


Strokes result in a lack of glucose and oxygen in the body which can result in a rise in potassium, release of glutamate, and the depletion of ATP. All of this disrupts the blood-brain barrier. The barrier is composed of tight junctions that prevent unwanted substances from entering the brain. During a stroke, the integrity of the junctions is compromised.

After the stroke, blood flow is restored to the brain. This is called reperfusion. Unfortunately, reperfusion can cause additional tissue damage, increasing inflammation, and worsening the condition of the blood-brain barrier.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure along with cerebral vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels in the brain) is linked to blood-brain barrier dysfunction. Around one in every three adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors cause several issues. The tumors affect cell formation, preventing factors necessary for the blood-brain barrier function. The tight junction molecules that help moderate the flow of chemicals through the barrier are also compromised. Brain tumors also allow fluid to leak into the brain past the blood-brain barrier.

Traumatic Brain Injury

The blood-barrier can become dysfunctional after a traumatic brain injury. The damage to the barrier caused by the brain injury can last several days to weeks and in some extreme cases, the barrier can remain dysfunctional for years.

The dysfunctionality leads to proteins leaking into the brain which harms immune cells and brain cells. Blood vessels damaged by the trauma have impaired brain-blood flow, BBB permeability, and metabolic processes. This reduces oxygen levels in the brain leading to further blood-brain breakdown and brain tissue degeneration.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Infections and Inflammation

Infections commonly lead to inflammation which when combined, can cause a host of health issues that can contribute to damage or dysfunction of the blood-brain barrier.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that invades the immune system and often spreads to the brain and nervous system, crossing the blood-brain barrier and disrupting functionality by lowering its permeability, causing excessive inflammation, and ultimately creating damage and disruption of brain tissues and brain chemistry.


Meningitis damages blood vessels increasing blood-brain barrier permeability. Bacteria can also disrupt the tight junctions in the blood-brain barrier causing inflammation and potentially interfere with junction formation, harming the blood-brain barrier function.

Leaky Gut

Similar to “leaky brain”, leaky gut occurs when the permeability of the intestine increases. The blood-brain barrier exchanges information between the brain and the gut as the blood-brain barrier facilitates the transport of proteins and peptides from the gut to the brain and the brain to the gut.

GI imbalances and disorders including leaky gut can affect the blood-barrier function and gut peptides may also increase the release of inflammatory causing substances called cytokines from brain cells. In addition, Leaky gut may also contribute to the onset of inflammation and diabetes which in turn damages the blood-brain barrier.

HIV Infection

The HIV virus infects CD4+ T cells and monocytes. These then cross the blood-brain barrier and spread the infection. The infection can result in high blood-brain barrier permeability, cell death, and abnormal interactions between the blood vessels and the blood-brain barrier.

Increased brain blood pressure may cause hypertensive encephalopathy. The increased pressure results in reduced blood flow and excess fluid in the brain leading to the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Hypertensive encephalopathy results in widespread BBB dysfunction and can cause brain edema, which is a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the brain.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Dietary & Metabolic Factors

Issues with diet, blood sugar imbalances, and patient metabolism can also be contributing factors to “leaky brain”.


Diabetic patients experience an increase in blood-brain barrier permeability as elevated glucose levels increase oxidative stress in the brain. This kills pericytes which are specialty cells that line the blood vessels.  Damage to pericytes can disrupt the blood-brain barrier. Diabetes also increases blood-barrier permeability by causing the loss of tight junction proteins within the barrier.

Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome

Inflammation caused by obesity can cause issues in the blood-brain barrier and often increases systemic (body wide) inflammation (C-reactive proteins) which increases blood-brain barrier permeability, mainly by affecting the function of the tight junctions within the barrier.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Additional Factors

Lifestyle choices and other health issues can also be contributing factors to “leaky brain”.

Sleep Deprivation

Lack of sleep can potentially result in diminished endothelial and inducible nitric oxide synthase, endothelin1, and glucose transporter expression in brain microvessels of the BBB. It can also decrease 2-deoxy-glucose uptake by the brain, a sugar that is needed for proper electrical signaling and membrane potentials. This coincides with an increase in blood-brain barrier permeability, allowing for unwanted substances to enter the brain.

Acute Liver Failure

During acute liver failure, the breakdown products of injured liver cells enter the bloodstream. Pro-inflammatory cytokines cause brain inflammation which makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable and results in fluid accumulation in the brain. MMP9 is also released into the bloodstream during acute liver failure. MMP9 damages the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier increasing its permeability.


Alcohol damages tight junctions in the gut and allows LPS (a bacterial toxin) to enter the bloodstream. These toxins eventually result in proinflammatory cytokines in the blood which cross the blood-brain barrier, making patients more susceptible to infection and inflammation-related diseases. These conditions develop over a period of chronic alcohol consumption rather than individual binges.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Learn More About Leaky Brain

What is Leaky Brain
Causes of Leaky Brain
Health Conditions Linked to Leaky Brain

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