Your liver and kidneys might normally get all the credit when it comes to detoxification, but did you know that your body also has another extensive system in place that helps detoxify your brain? If you’re wondering what a “brain detox” is all about — or “how can I clean my brain?” — you’ve come to the right place.
Below we cover what exactly a brain detox entails, whether or not you really require one to maintain normal brain activity, and tips for boosting your mental health even if you don’t want to actually do a “cleanse.”
What Is the Glymphatic System?
The glymphatic system refers to the system of blood vessels in the body that removes waste products from the brain and central nervous system. The glymphatic system is most active while you sleep, which is why getting a good night’s rest is imperative for feeling mentally sharp.
How does the glymphatic system work?
- This system depends on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which enters spaces next to smaller blood vessels that lead to the brain.
- CSF interchanges with interstitial fluid, the fluid surrounding the brain cells. This helps form a glymphatic vasculature that “detoxifies” the brain by collecting waste, such as proteins (including the protein called beta-amyloid, which may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease), metabolites, toxins, etc.
- This system then carries this waste away from your brain and through your body so it can be dispelled.
- While we’re sleeping, there is increased glymphatic activity due to greater availability of space between interstitial and cerebrospinal fluid. Exercise can also boost glymphatic activity, according to some studies.
When the glymphatic system becomes disrupted, it’s thought that this can contribute to some diseases of the brain, as well as symptoms like brain fog and poor memory. Researchers now believe that a well-functioning “clearance system” in the nervous system is critical for prevention of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and ALS.
Many experts believe that your brain’s glymphatic system may need to work harder if you’re exposed to many toxins, especially over a long period of time. Toxin exposure that affects the brain can be caused by:
- Eating a highly processed diet with inflammatory foods
- High intake of alcohol
- Drug and tobacco use
- Use of some medications
- Exposure to foreign substances, such as heavy metals and environmental pollutants
While not a toxin, sleep deprivation is also linked to impaired mental capabilities. Aging also disrupts glymphatic function, such as by decreasing CSF and blood flow to the brain/pulsing of the arteries, although healthy habits can help slow this down.
What Is a Brain Detox/Brain Cleanse?
A brain detox, or brain cleanse, is intended to help protect against neurodegenerative diseases and decrease symptoms related to poor brain function.
Why do people try brain cleanses? Usually to help manage symptoms such as:
- Brain fog
- Memory loss
- Brain injury and stroke
This type of cleanse usually involves steps such as prioritizing sleep, taking certain supplements that may help support brain function, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising and fasting if appropriate.
While all of these habits can be beneficial for overall mental and physical well-being, most experts don’t believe that a strict “brain cleanse” is actually necessary to support healthy cognitive function. Instead, consistently leading a healthy lifestyle seems to offer the most benefits and protection against mental/cognitive health issues.
How to Detox Your Brain
How do you do a mental detox? Here’s how to detox your brain according to research regarding mental health:
1. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep each night is one of the best ways to support your brain’s natural detoxification processes.
Most adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep per night to operate at their best. Here are tips for helping you get the best sleep you can:
- Go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day, including on the weekends/your days off. This helps regulate your circadian rhythm, which controls your energy, motivation, appetite and more.
- Sleep in a very dark and cool room.
- Try white noise to help drown out disturbances.
- Read something relaxing to calm your mind. If racing thoughts keep you up, try journaling before bed.
- Establish a bedtime routine that is calming, such as by taking a warm shower, stretching, lighting candles, etc.
- Exercise during the day to help you sleep better at night. Close to bedtime, try gentler activities that won’t keep you awake, such as light yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises.
- Spend time outdoors each day in the sun and in nature, which is beneficial for boosting vitamin D levels, relaxation and controlling stress.
- Consider trying supplements, such as melatonin (which should be used short term), 5HTP, and herbs like valerian root, kava and ashwagandha.
2. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Due to the gut-brain connection, your diet plays a pivotal role in managing your cognitive health. Gut-related and intestinal problems, such as leaky gut syndrome, can increase inflammation, which can alter how well your organs work, including the brain, and can contribute to issues such as depression, fatigue, anxiety and lack of concentration/focus.
Your brain needs a steady supply of nutrients — including protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential vitamins and minerals — for you to feel your best. Emphasize these “brain foods” in your diet in order to fight free radical damage and boost your nutrient intake:
- Vegetables, such as leafy greens, beets, broccoli, bell peppers, carrots, etc. (fruits and veggies are both high in bioflavonoids, carotenes, polyphenols, thiols, anthocyanins, and other vitamins and minerals that fight free radical damage)
- Fresh fruits, including berries, oranges, etc.
- Herbs and spices, such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, rosemary, etc.
- Fermented, probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes and beans
- Complex carbs like whole grains and sweet potatoes
- Grass-fed meats
- Wild-caught fish, including salmon, sardines and mackerel
- Pastured poultry and free-range eggs
- Foods high in copper, vitamin C and manganese, which are all important for their roles in detoxification, such as citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, mushrooms, organ meats, spirulina and algae
- Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and grass-fed butter
- You also want to drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, which is important for supporting your lymphatic system and keeping your energy up, in addition to green tea, herbal tea and and coffee
In addition to eating a diet that includes lots of foods with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic effects, you want to avoid foods that can aggravate inflammation, autoimmune reactions and oxidative stress. These include processed meats, foods with processed vegetable oils and trans fats, added sugar, and highly processed foods in general.
You may want to consider trying an elimination diet if you deal with digestive issues, brain fog or acid reflux/heartburn. If this sounds like you, it may help to avoid these aggravating foods:
- Large and heavy meals, especially close to bedtime
- Spicy and acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, vinegars and peppers
- Caffeine from coffee and chocolate
There’s some evidence suggesting that exercise may increase glymphatic activity and also improve brain plasticity, which plays a role in learning and memory. Additionally, exercise can help you cope with stress, sleep more deeply and have more energy in general.
Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, which can be divided into shorter sessions. High intensity exercise (HIIT workouts) can also benefit brain health in various ways, such as by increasing blood flow to the brain, supporting mitochondrial function and potentially staving off dementia.
Ideally try mixing up your workouts to keep things interesting and to challenge your body, such as by running, lighting weights, walking, hiking, cycling, doing tai chi or yoga, dancing, etc.
4. Intermittent Fast
Fasting seems to help protect the brain against neurological diseases by influencing certain proteins involved in brain aging and by decreasing oxidative stress/inflammation.
According to BrainFacts.org:
In lab animals, fasting, as well as exercise, stimulates the production of a protein in nerve cells called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This protein plays critical roles in learning, memory, and the generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus.
Its effect on mitochondrial activity also positively affects the brain. Some research, mostly from animal studies, has demonstrated that fasting may help boost working memory, alertness, learning, and can also improve physical performance and energy.
5. Minimize Toxin Exposure
While avoiding all chemicals and toxins may not realistic, try to reduce exposure as much as your can, such as by avoiding smoking, drug use and unnecessary medications.
Cut back on exposure to contaminants by choosing natural/organic beauty and household products and buying organic food whenever possible. This limits the amount of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals you ingest.
If you suspect you’ve been exposed to heavy metals (such as due to eating farmed fish, contaminated water, dental fillings and household products), consider visiting a naturopathic doctor for testing and possible chelation therapy. Your doctor may also recommend detoxifying treatments, such as infrared sauna sessions.
6. Consider Supplements
You can help support your body’s natural ability to detox by taking certain nootropics, adaptogenic herbs and supplements that nourish the liver, kidneys, gut and brain. Consider some of the following, based on your goals and current health:
- Milk thistle for liver support
- Medicinal mushrooms for general immune support
- NAD+ for mitochondrial support
- L-glutamine for gastrointestinal support
- Vitamin C for antioxidant support
- Green tea extract for a boost in energy and antioxidant effects
- Probiotics for gut support and maintaining a healthy microbiome
Risks and Side Effects
If most of the interventions above are new to you, take things slowly to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed. Too much too soon may even wind up making you feel worse before you start feeling better.
What are the signs of your body detoxing? While these side effects may not necessarily be caused by a brain detox, generally speaking when you start a new diet, supplement routine or exercise program, you may temporarily deal with side effects such as:
Fatigue and poor sleep
- Frequent urination
- Loose stools and digestive upset
- Cravings for sugary foods and carbs
- Muscle aches
These should go away within one to two weeks — however, if they worsen or persist, it’s a good idea to scale back and speak with a doctor. You should also seek your doctor’s advice before beginning a brain detox/cleanse if you have existing health issues, such as liver or kidney disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease.
- A brain detox, or brain cleanse, is intended to help protect against neurodegenerative diseases and decrease symptoms such as fatigue, moodiness and lack of concentration/focus.
- A brain detox can help support the glymphatic system, which refers to the system of blood vessels in the body that removes waste products from the brain and central nervous system. Getting enough sleep each night is one of the best ways to support your brain’s natural detoxification process.
- Other interventions that are included in a brain cleanse/brain detox include eating an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising, fasting, sauna therapy, and taking nootropic and herbal supplements.