The brain is the most nutrient-dependent, energy-dependent and stress-vulnerable organ in the body. When it’s damaged by a concussion, providing it immediately with the right nutrients to maintain energy levels and reduce stress is crucial for speedy recovery without lingering symptoms.
The standard medical advice for treating the acute phase of a concussion is rest, with a gradual return to normal activity. For optimal recovery, however, treatment of a concussion should also include nutrition and supplements designed to increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). When the brain is injured, it responds by releasing a lot of natural chemicals to repair the injured neurons. In particular, it releases BDNF, which helps neurons grow, restores communication among them and reduces the risk of neurodegeneration. Often called the brain’s Miracle-Gro, high levels of BDNF are crucial for good recovery from a concussion.
Numerous studies have shown that the best way to raise BDNF levels is with intense exercise. For the first few days after a concussion, however, even mild exercise often isn’t a good idea. At that point, the patient often feels dizzy and nauseous and has severe headaches. Rest and very mild exercise—no more than 10 minutes of walking—are usually all the patient can manage. But the first few days after the injury are also when BDNF is needed the most for healing. Immediate nutritional steps to support BDNF production can be extremely valuable for speeding recovery.
Nutrition to Support BDNF
After a head injury, the body needs extra protein right away for healing and rebuilding damaged tissues. Starting within a day of the injury, I recommend consuming extra protein each day at the rate of about a gram per kilogram of body weight. High-protein foods such as steak and eggs are good choices, but the nausea that often goes along with a concussion may make that option very unattractive. Therefore, I recommend a daily shake made with whey protein or pea and rice protein with added branched chain amino acids, combined with 10 grams of the supplement creatine monohydrate. Creatine is crucial for energy production within the cells. It helps give the brain an intense and immediate hit of energy, which it needs to help the cells start to heal.
Taking vitamin D supplements helps raise BDNF production. We know that serum levels of BDNF tend to rise in the spring and summer and drop in the fall and winter, probably because of reduced exposure to sunlight. Taking vitamin D supplements is a good surrogate for the effects of sunlight on BDNF production. Vitamin D is neuroprotective in other ways as well. I recommend a daily dose of 5,000 IU.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are very helpful for reducing inflammation from a concussion. The DHA in fish oil helps build strong, flexible cell membranes in neurons. The EPA suppresses the production of prostaglandins and other inflammatory chemicals. DHA has also been shown to increase BDNF levels in people with traumatic brain injuries. During the first few weeks of the concussion recovery period, I suggest supplements of a high-quality fish oil up to 4,000 mg daily. After that, continue with 2,000 to 4,000 mg a day for 3 months.
Studies have recently shown that administering glutathione after a concussion reduces brain tissue damage by an average of 70 percent. In a clinical setting, glutathione can be given intravenously. Oral supplements of glutathione are destroyed by stomach acid, however. For home treatment, the best approach is to nutritionally support the body’s natural pathway for producing glutathione by providing plenty of the building blocks: vitamin C, selenium, niacinamide (vitamin B3), N-acetyl-L-cysteine (750 to 1,000 mg) and broccoli extract.
Magnesium is one the best nutrients for speeding recovery from concussion and preventing delayed brain injury and post-concussion syndrome. It reduces inflammation and raises glutathione in cells. We know from studies that after a concussion the levels of magnesium in the brain drop by 50 percent and stay at that low level for 5 days before slowly returning to preconcussion levels. Because magnesium is crucial for repairing and regrowing neurons, low levels in the brain will slow recovery; raising the level can help shorten recovery time. To raise magnesium levels, I recommend daily supplements containing up to 600 mg of magnesium.
Just as magnesium levels in the brain drop sharply after a concussion, so do zinc levels. Supplemental zinc during the recovery period can help improve cognition and mood. To raise zinc levels, I recommend daily supplements containing 40 mg of zinc.
Curcumin (the active ingredient in the spice turmeric) is an extremely valuable supplement for treating concussion. After a traumatic brain injury, curcumin supplements can help reduce cognitive impairment, help stabilize energy use in the brain and reduce membrane damage in the neurons. In animal studies and in human trials, the supplement raises BDNF production. This supplement is so helpful due to its multiple anti-inflammatory mechanisms for a damaged brain that I recommend it to all my concussion patients.
Taking the right nutritional supplements as soon as concussion is diagnosed can play an important role in healing the damage quickly and completely. The supplements are particularly valuable for helping to avoid post-concussion syndrome and preventing future injury. The tree of health can only bloom if the roots—the brain—and the branches and leaves—the body—are nourished together.