No longer is there any shred of doubt that “chemo brain” (also known as post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment, chemotherapy-induced cognitive dysfunction/impairment, chemo fog) is a real medical condition.
Chemo Brain Symptoms:
Unfortunately, every day I hear from cancer survivors who tell me that their brain just isn’t the same as it was before treatment.
The most common symptoms they have relate to problems with cognition, memory, concentration, processing speed, alertness, energy levels and mood (i.e. increased stress, anxiety and depression.) These effects can impair a survivor’s ability to understand and make decisions regarding treatment, difficulty with multitasking, reading comprehension, following the thread of a conversation and retrieving words.
Chemo Brain Is The Result Of Real Pathologic Changes:
Biologically, survivors with chemo brain are not the same after treatment.
- Brain imaging studies clearly demonstrate that anticancer drug therapies cause both acute and chronic changes in brain structure (gray-matter density and white-matter integrity) and function.
- Cell studies indicate that chemo brain is likely due to drug-induced neurotoxicity of critical cell populations within the brain.
- Chemotherapy drugs have been shown to significantly increase the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines which can cause detrimental effects across the entire body.
- Other studies have found that chemotherapy causes glucose metabolism changes in brain tissues causing impairments in neurologic function.
The list of culprit drugs keeps getting longer and longer each month, and many of the most common anticancer drugs are on this list (i.e. 5-fluorouracil, adriamycin, taxanes, cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, testosterone lowering drugs, etc.)
Although it is convenient to place all the blame on these drugs for causing chemo brain symptoms there are some data that suggest there may be other factors at play.
- One study discovered that nearly a quarter of the cancer patients they studied had evidence of cognitive impairment before starting chemotherapy. It is hypothesized that increased levels of inflammatory proteins, which are commonly associated with cancer, may be causing this effect independent of the chemotherapy.
- Another study found that many of the effects associated with chemo brain could in fact be due to the stress and anxiety that comes from receiving the diagnosis of cancer and fears of the impending treatment.
The vast majority of cancer survivors eventually either fully or partially recover from “chemo brain” or or they simply find ways to live it.
If you are ‘living with it’ give these recommendations a try.
Unlock Chemo Brain With These Tips:
- Reduce systemic (and brain) inflammation:
- Start an anti-inflammatory diet (The Mediterranean diet is best. Conner’s book is the best one out there to get you started.) Read more about anti-inflammatory nutrition in our post.
- Load up on extra antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients (Juice and blend lots of organic produce and supplementing with green drinks. Read my post on this.)
- Exercise (Get at least 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity exercise.)
- Stress reduction (Meditation using brainwave entrainment is my favorite technique. I use Brain Evolution Systems and I recommend this product to anyone who wants to easily and quickly get into a deep meditative state without years of training.)
- Anti-inflammatory supplements (Such as: omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, low-dose aspirin, etc. Read about numerous other anti-inflammatory supplements here.)
- Getting adequate and quality sleep (Meditation and brainwave entrainment can help with this too if you are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Sleep Salon is one of my favorite products to help you fall asleep more quickly and get less interrupted sleep.)
- Reduce exposure to environmental toxins (pay attention to your personal care products, household cleaning products, food, limit alcohol, avoid tobacco, drink purified water, etc.)
- Mind Body Therapies:
- In many ancient medicine systems (i.e. traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine) it is believed that the flow of energy in the body (i.e. qi, prana, etc.) promotes wellness and health, whereas imbalances (too much or too little) or disruptions in the flow of this energy can manifest with untoward symptoms or illness. The following are some of the more commonly recommended therapies which may be used to help optimize the flow and balance of this energy:
- Brain Stimulation:
- Ginseng (2,000 mg per day) has shown positive effects on cancer-related fatigue. Here’s one of my favorite high-quality Panax (American) Ginseng supplements:
- Brain games (crossword puzzles, Sudoku, mahjong, etc.)
- Brainwave entrainment stimulation (when you listen to certain sound frequencies your brain becomes more alert and focused. One of my favorite products is called Nitrofocus which uses an embedded sound technology called brainwave entrainment to stimulate your brain so it can focus more sharply. This stuff works!)
- When Self-Help Isn’t Working:
- If after you have truly dedicated yourself to trying these self-help techniques and you are still troubled by your chemo brain symptoms, I highly recommend you seek out a professional evaluation from a specialist called a “neuropsychologist.” These doctors will determine if there are any treatable problems such as depression, anxiety, medication and fatigue. They also identify the areas in which you need assistance, as well as your areas of strength. They may suggest brain/cognitive rehabilitation (often using a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy or “CBT”) which are approaches that have been shown to improve cognition, memory and other executive brain functions.
- Psychostimulants (i.e. modafinil, methylphenidate, dexmethylphenidate, caffeine, etc.) have been shown to be effective in improving memory, attention and reducing fatigue. I’m not a fan of these drugs (…but, coffee gets a thumbs up.)