Nobody knows when they might need a crash course in brain health. Don’t let a head injury catch you unprepared. Eating a healthy diet, encouraging gut health, and taking good foundational supplements for brain health will protect you beforehand. If you recently had a brain injury, or even if you had one a long time ago, nourish your brain cells with these affordable and evidence-based therapies. The brain is capable of healing and reorganizing despite the most devastating injuries, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Harness the power of nutrition and natural therapies to maximize brain function before and after traumatic brain injuries.
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) may be due to a car accident, a fall, or an act of violence. Or it might be a non-traumatic brain injury due to stroke, drowning, or loss of oxygen to the brain. Every year 2.5 million people in the US sustain a traumatic brain injury and 1-2% of Americans live with chronic disorders or disabilities due to a TBI.
There are no medications that treat traumatic brain injuries early on, when it matters most. Immediately after a brain injury is when it’s most important to protect brain cells from further damage. Occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and speech therapy can help to improve brain function– after the fact.
Enter nutrition. After a severe brain injury, recommendations are to start nutrition therapy as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours. Nutritional status after a brain injury significantly predicts death from a brain injury and is “one of the few therapeutic interventions that can directly affect TBI outcome.” It also improves healing and reduces the risk of infections. The brain is naturally rich in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and vitamin E and the levels of certain nutrients plummet immediately after a brain injury.
To understand how natural treatments and nutrition work, let’s first review what happens with a brain injury. When there is damage to brain tissue, a domino effect begins. It includes excitotoxicity, which causes brain cells to be overstimulated and damaged. Another step in the sequence is oxidative stress, which again harms brain cells and proteins, crippling them. Edema, or swelling, ensues. Neuroinflammation- or brain inflammation- happens. Just like a bad injury to your arm or leg, brain tissue can be inflamed (think redness and pain). But because the skull rigidly encases the brain, swelling and pressure increases in the affected area. The sad final outcome is cell death. When brain cells die, we have potentially serious and long-lasting brain damage. Not only a problem for people with brain injury, neuroinflammation is thought to also be a cause of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, depression, and autism. After a concussion, brain inflammation typically peaks one to two weeks later, causing “brain fog,” nausea, difficulty looking at screens, fatigue, and poor memory.
Symptoms of Brain Injury Include:
- Changes in balance and vision
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty speaking clearly
- Poor attention and memory
- Sleep disturbance
- Spontaneous seizures
Natural Treatments and Supplements for Brain Injury
See below for natural ways to minimize the damage after a brain injury and to speed brain healing. And contrary to what we were told years ago, brain cells can reorganize and grow- a term called neuronal plasticity. If you’ve had a brain injury, don’t feel doomed to a life of poor brain function. We have many tools to improve brain function and healing. And these are good ideas when trying to boost overall brain health, too, even without injury.
Anti-Inflammatory or Ketogenic Diet
Transform your diet to halt brain inflammation. Ketogenic diets have been used to treat epileptic children since 1921. The ketogenic diet helps improve brain function in Alzheimer’s disease, possibly reducing oxidative stress, inflammation, and promoting mitochondrial function (or increasing cellular energy). Dr. Chapek explains three ways the keto diet can heal a concussion. It protects brain cells in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), and TBI. Dr. Datis Kharrazian recommends an autoimmune paleo diet that removes lectins, nightshades, wheat, and dairy in brain injuries. But even better, he recommends the ketogenic diet to decrease inflammation in the brain. Dairy is not best after a brain injury, he says, as milk proteins are inflammatory to the brain.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids from Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids are super concentrated in the brain- our fattiest organ. They can do wonders for cognitive function, especially memory, focus, and mood. Omega-3s may help the brain recover after acute TBIs and they help minimize further brain cell damage after a TBI. Omega-3s have been suggested for people with brain injuries because they promote brain cell survival, reduce oxidative stress, support healthy regrowing of brain cells, and help brain cells communicate. Just eating fish every week can improve brain performance and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Some experts think that a diet high in fish is why the human brain is so large and intelligent.
Two fatty acids found in fish oil are particularly great for brain health: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). They help the brain learn new things, with less effort. Omega-3s protect the brain from wear and tear. That means you think more clearly and quickly, no matter your age.
Nicotinamide, or vitamin B3, shows promise for protecting and nourishing the brain after traumatic brain injury. It helps reduce damage to brain cells, minimizes swelling, and rescues cells from death. Vitamin B3 supplies energy to brain cells, which need a lot after sustaining a head injury. Nicotinamide protects brain cells following brain injury and stroke.
Vitamin D may reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and excitotoxicity in brain cells, making it a good choice when preventing or treating brain injury. Low levels of vitamin D were found in 80% of people with traumatic brain injury and it was associated with more severe depressive symptoms. It appears that vitamin D protects the brain from concussions. Low vitamin D levels are seen in people with poor brain function. Vitamin D levels may correlate with the severity of the brain injury: lower vitamin D is found in more severe brain injuries. When patients with acute brain injuries were given vitamin D, their long-term performance and cognition improved.
a-Tocopherol, the most biologically active form of vitamin E, is an antioxidant fat-soluble vitamin that improves cognitive function and reduces mortality after TBI. It seems to work even 90 days after a brain injury. Having good levels of vitamin E before a brain injury mean that brain cells are protected from the damaging effects of oxidative stress. Vitamin E has been used as an adjunctive treatment for seizures, even complex partial seizures, which often don’t respond to drug therapy.
This compound comes from turmeric, an ancient Indian herb used in cooking, as well as traditional Indian medicine and modern medicine. It has strong anti-inflammatory effects and can help improve brain health after injury. Curcumin has been used to treat dementia and traumatic brain injury. It’s an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that improves brain function in patients with Alzheimer’s. Curcumin given to mice prevented brain inflammation in the face of an acute inflammatory trigger. Also, it prevented the memory impairments that often happen after an episode of neuroinflammation, even one month later. Its benefits not just limited to the brain, curcumin has shown “immense potential for treating spinal cord injuries.”
This polyphenol from grapes, mulberries, peanuts, rhubarb, and yes even wine, helps to lower inflammation in the brain. It has been helpful in preventing brain cancer because it calms down oxidative stress and inflammation and rescues brain cells from committing suicide (called apoptosis). Resveratrol protects the brain from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It also lowers inflammation and promotes neuronal cell survival after spinal cord injury.
Progesterone Supplementation for TBI
Progesterone and estrogen seem to protect the brain and spinal cord from damage. Women do better than men after sustaining brain trauma. And many studies show that when people are given progesterone and estrogen after head and spinal cord injuries, they are less likely to die, their brains seem to repair, and fewer brain cells die. Progesterone protects the brain from stroke. While progesterone showed good results in preclinical studies and Phase II clinical trials, it didn’t pan out for Phase III clinical trials treating acute brain injury. Some authors blame the quality of the trials or the poorly selected patient population for the unexpected failure. Progesterone treatment is given through an i.v. or as injections soon after injury. For certain populations, like children, topical progesterone might be preferred. Progesterone and vitamin D work better than just progesterone alone.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Heals the Brain
Starting back in the 1930s, hyperbaric oxygen was used to treat decompression illness in divers. 100% O2 is breathed in while lying in a pressurized chamber. Hyperbaric oxygen “can dramatically and permanently improve symptoms of chronic TBI months or even years after the original head injury,” says the Psychiatric Times. There are 13 FDA-approved uses for hyperbaric oxygen. And speaking from experience, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a painless, peaceful, and strangely fun experience. Giving the body a strong dose of oxygen triggers healing. It lowers inflammation and swelling. It increases blood flow, boosts the immune system, and increases antioxidant enzymes, as well as nerve cell growth.
Cerebral palsy responds significantly to HBOT and improvements are usually permanent. It also appears to improve Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and multiple sclerosis. Children with brain injury who received HBOT had a shorter hospital stay, showed better brain function (on the Glasgow Coma Scale), and had much lower risk of disability than children who didn’t receive oxygen therapy.
Strengthening the Gut Microbiome to Protect the Brain
The gut is considered the second brain. That’s because it is loaded with neurons, or brain cells, and neurotransmitters, which are the brain’s chemical messengers. When you have a brain injury, it can harm the bacteria in your gut and set off an unhealthy immune response. This can set you up for gut and brain inflammation, making it very hard for the brain to heal and leading to a vicious cycle. That’s not all. The blood brain barrier, which protects the brain from all of the stuff that floats around in the blood can become permeable, or leaky, when the brain is damaged.
Nourishing the gut microbiome with probiotics can speed up healing after a brain injury. Other treatments to boost your healthy gut microbiome (and brain health) are: a healthy diet of whole foods and fiber-rich plant foods, prebiotics, fermented foods like plain yogurt, kefir, or kimchee, and digestive enzymes. I bet as time goes on, we will find that a healthy oral microbiome can also help protect and heal brain injury. For example, last year we discovered that Porphyromonas gingivalis, a pathogenic bacteria found in the mouth, may play a significant role in Alzheimer’s disease and neuroinflammation.
Chiropractic Techniques for TBI
Chiropractors see head injury victims on a daily basis, especially from athletic injuries or car accidents. They use a treatment called spinal manipulation in addition to other techniques, which are known to influence pain through complex central nervous system mechanisms. Chiropractic techniques reduce pain in spinal cord injury. And they reduced pain and stiffness in patients with brain injury, spinal cord injury, or stroke in a rehabilitation setting. A 14-year-old male hockey player recovered from post-concussion symptoms after five treatments with chiropractic care. His neurocognitive testing scores improved and he was able to return to play. Chiropractic care resolved vertigo in a patient with spinal injury and mild TBI after she had a serious car accident. However, clinical research studies validating this therapy are still sparse. Make sure you work with a chiropractor who is experienced in the assessment and treatment of head injuries so that you know you’re in good hands.
NeuroMovement® To Wake Up the Brain
This technique for brain healing works by improving brain connectivity using movement. Information doesn’t just flow one way from the brain to the rest of the body. It can also flow from the body to the brain. Anat Baniel, a clinical psychologist and dancer, founded the Anat Baniel Method NeuroMovement®. Her novel rehabilitation method, developed through her studies of neuroscience and close professional association with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, has helped thousands of people move beyond limitations. Anat Baniel uses this technique with stroke, brain injury, pain, and with children who have special needs, autism, brain injury, or cerebral palsy. A clinician told me that it made a huge difference for her child who was born missing a major part of his brain, the corpus collosum. He is now a medical miracle, exceeding everyone’s predictions. The NeuroMovement website shows similar incredible recoveries.
Other Supplements for Traumatic Brain Injury
This is not an exhaustive list of brain injury supplements! Other critical brain health nutrients are: protein, iron, zinc, copper, polyunsaturated fatty acids, iodine, selenium, folate, choline, magnesium, vitamins A and B6. Brain cells need oxygen, blood flow, amino acids, and glucose among other things to function and especially to recover after a devastating blow. Cover your bases with a sugar-free, whole foods, plant-based diet with all of the colors of the rainbow and healthy proteins and fats. Make sure your blood sugar and insulin are normal. Take a high-quality multi-vitamin mineral to help fill the nutritional gaps left from your diet.
It’s Never Too Late to Support Your Brain Health
Whether you want to boost your brain power or if you’ve had a brain injury, take advantage of these affordable, convenient, and evidence-based natural treatments for brain health. Traumatic brain injury supplements include omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B3, D, E. Protein, fat, and glucose may also be needed immediately after a head trauma because the brain desperately needs nutrition to heal. A ketogenic diet, or at least an anti-inflammatory diet, can speed healing and reduce brain damage. Progesterone infusions, oxygen therapy, curcumin, and resveratrol show great promise for protecting and repairing brain cells. Chiropractic care and NeuroMovement may be good adjunctive rehabilitative care for brain injuries.
Thanks to Dr. Maria Belluccio, RN, DOM, and the other consultants at Diagnostic Solutions Laboratory who helped with my research for this blog.
This blog is dedicated to a beloved and inspiring nutritional medicine expert, teacher, friend, and functional lab guru, Terry Arden Pollock, MS.
Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.