Over 2 million concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI), occur each year. They are most often due to falls, slips, motor vehicle accidents, and sports-related injuries. Many veterans develop TBIs as a result of blast exposures related to their military service, and concussions can also be the result of a fight, assault, or domestic violence.
Fortunately, the vast majority of TBIs are mild and don't require hospitalization. Doctors usually tell patients to wait for time to pass and some prescribe psychiatric medications if symptoms are severe. Post-concussion symptoms can include nausea, headaches, light and sound sensitivity, and increased irritability. These symptoms can linger for months or even years, interfering with the ability to function at school, work, and home.
Healing your brain after an injury.
Our knowledge of how, exactly, a TBI contributes to the development of persistent headaches, irritability, and other neurobehavioral symptoms is growing as more research is performed. Right now we know that a blow or blast to the head stretches the axons (or wiring) connecting the brain cells, which damages the axons and causes a release of compounds that markedly increase inflammation in the brain. The insulation in the brain, called myelin, is also damaged. After a TBI, the brain needs more energy to heal, which means the mitochondria (the cells’ power plants) need to produce more energy. Higher levels of inflammation, myelin damage, and greater demands on mitochondria contribute to the development and worsening of post-concussion symptoms.
The current treatment for concussions and TBI is rest and time. These are helpful, but there is more that you can do. For several years I worked in a traumatic brain injury clinic where we treated veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who had persistent neurobehavioral symptoms that got worse for months or even years. Many of these individuals lost their jobs and their families during that time.
Your diet and lifestyle matter.
In my time working with veterans, I saw a lot of suffering from chronic headaches, severe fatigue, brain fog, poor memory, irritability, anger, and rage issues. Many patients thought there was no cure for their symptoms; however, we were often able to help them markedly reduce their pain, improve their energy levels and memory, and stabilize their mood by focusing specifically on what they ate and what they did each day. This treatment program was designed to help patients by:
- giving them the building blocks their brains needed to repair damage to axons and myelin
- reducing inflammation in the brain by focusing on more vegetables and berries in the diet
- improving mitochondrial function using a nutrient-dense diet and targeted vitamins and supplements
- increasing the production of the brain nerve growth factors that tell the brain to repair the damage by increasing physical activity
You post-concussion treatment plan.
We accomplished these treatment goals by instructing our patients to implement the following diet and lifestyle changes:
1. Eliminate sugar and other high-glycemic-index foods.
Foods like white bread, white potatoes, and pasta increase blood sugar levels and inflammation in the brain.
2. Follow a no-grain or low-grain diet.
Eat only gluten-free grains for at least 30 days (preferably 100 days) to see if symptoms are reduced. Gluten sensitivity is common and often undiagnosed, and removing it can reduce inflammation and get you back on track.
3. Eat more vegetables.
A lot more. Adding nonstarchy vegetables and berries reduces inflammation and feeds health-promoting bacteria in the gut, which improve mood and cognitive ability.
4. Be aware of fat intake.
Reduce the intake of omega-6 fats (vegetable oils) and increase intake of omega-3 fats, such as wild fish and grass-fed meat.
5. Adopt a stress-reducing practice.
Many people with concussions or TBI have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the injury, or they simply have a lot of stress because of their continued symptoms. A stress-reducing practice—anything from fishing, hunting, gardening, meditation, prayer, or taking an Epsom salt foot or body soak—can reduce stress hormones and inflammation and lessen symptoms.