Is nutrition therapy for traumatic brain injury effective?
According to most of the research out there today, yes! Nutrition plays a huge role in reversing the effects of traumatic brain injury.
And a good nutritional therapy regimen can actually help boost cognitive performance.
In this article, we’re covering a few of the best nutrition therapies for traumatic brain injuries, plus a great diet that will help your brain heal.
Let’s get started!
Why Nutrition Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury is Important
Before we jump in to discussing the particular foods that you should eat to promote recovery, we need to discuss why nutrition matters after a brain injury.
A traumatic brain injury initiates a cascade of damaging events inside your brain, which causes a disruption in healthy function.
First, the balance of ions and chemicals in your brain are altered, which impairs nerve cell function.
This imbalance causes the production of free radicals (unstable molecules that damage your cells) which causes inflammation of brain tissue and decreased blood flow.
Because of all this, the brain demands extra energy to heal itself and reduce the inflammation. Unfortunately, the inflammation also impairs the brain’s ability to convert the brain’s main source of fuel, glucose, into energy.
What this all means is that after a brain injury, the brain needs high amounts of energy to repair itself, but it’s not able to effectively use the energy it normally gets.
This is where nutrition therapy comes in. A good nutritional diet can let your brain get extra amounts of the nutrients it has lost and help promote healing.
It can even provide an alternative energy source for your brain that your brain can convert into energy much easier than glucose! (This is called a ketogenic diet, we’ll show you how to follow that later on in this article.)
So what are some of the nutritional needs your brain has after a TBI? Let’s find out.
Nutritional Needs After Traumatic Brain Injury
The following are a few essential nutrients that promote brain injury recovery.
Probably the most important nutrients your brain needs after an injury are antioxidants.
Antioxidants counter the effects of free radicals in your brain and reduce inflammation.
The best source of antioxidants are foods that contain high levels of compounds called flavonoids.
Flavonoids are great for traumatic brain injury patients because not only do they contain antioxidants, they also stimulate the production of BDNF.
BDNF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor) is a growth factor that helps trigger the creation of new brain cells and improves brain function!
Some foods that are rich in flavonoids include:
- Red kale
- Green tea
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Next up on the list of essential nutrients for the brain is omega-3 fatty acids.
Your brain is made up of about 60% fat, and nearly half of that fat is omega-3. In addition, omega-3 is crucial for promoting BDNF and rebuilding brain cells!
This means that in order to fuel your brain and help it heal, you’ll want to feed it lots of omega-3 fatty acids.
The best natural sources of omega-3 are:
- Fatty fish (e.g. salmon and trout)
Zinc and Magnesium
After a TBI, zinc and magnesium are greatly depleted, so it’s important to consume foods that are rich in those nutrients.
Some great sources of magnesium and zinc include:
- Red meat (unprocessed)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dark chocolate
Finally, as we said above, your brain requires extra energy to heal. Therefore, you’ll need to be eating more calories than you normally would. You’ll also need lots of protein to fuel your brain.
You can get protein from most of the foods listed above, but you can also get it from:
- Turkey and chicken
- Low-fat dairy
Now that we know what nutrients are needed to help your brain heal, it’s time to look at some specific diets that should be a part of your nutrition therapy.
Ketogenic Diet for Traumatic Brain Injury
Because a brain injury affects your ability to convert glucose into energy, it is vital that you find some other source of energy to help your brain heal.
This alternate source of energy can come in the form of ketones.
Ketones are a type of acid that your liver produces from fat. The benefit of ketones is that, unlike glucose, your brain after an injury has no problem converting ketones into energy!
The best way to produce ketones is to get your body into a state of ketosis. This is a normal metabolic process that is triggered when your body doesn’t have enough carbs to burn for energy. Instead, your body burns fat, and this creates ketones.
To trigger ketosis, a low-carb diet, also known as a ketogenic diet, is your best bet.
Ketogenic diets have been shown to improve cognition and boost recovery in animals with traumatic brain injury. Studies on humans are still forthcoming but there seems to be a lot of promise.
But what foods can you eat while on the keto diet?
Basically, the foods you’ll be eating will need to have a low-carb count, but be high in fat and protein.
The following are some good examples of food that meet these requirements.
Plain Greek Yogurt
Plain Greek yogurt is a very healthy, high protein food that is great for brain injury patients.
While it does contain some carbs, its ratio of protein to carbs is almost 2:1. 5 ounces of plain Greek yogurt contains only 5 grams of carbs and 11 grams of protein, which means it can still be included in a ketogenic lifestyle.
Cottage cheese is another great food you can eat while on a ketogenic diet to promote brain recovery.
Again, like yogurt, it does contain a small amount of carbs, but the amount of protein it provides far outweighs them. 5 ounces of cottage cheese contains only 5 grams of carbohydrates and 18 grams of protein.
Eggs are great overall food to add to your nutrition therapy because they are an excellent source of choline.
Choline is a nutrient that is used to create the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps with mood and memory. Higher choline intake has also been shown to lead to better overall cognitive function.
Plus an entire egg only contains one gram of carbs, making it perfect for a TBI ketogenic diet.
Avocados are another great food for brain injury patients.
Not only are they low in carbohydrates, they’re also extremely rich in oleic acid, which your brain uses to process information quickly.
Olive oil has many positive benefits for your overall health, but what makes it so good for TBI nutrition therapy is that it can boost your production of BDNF.
As we said above, BDNF is crucial for promoting brain cell growth, which will help heal your brain after an injury.
In addition, extra-virgin olive oil is a rich source of antioxidants which will help reduce inflammation. Plus, like avocados, it contains a lot of oleic acid.
Even better, because olive oil is a pure fat source, it has almost no carbs!
To add more olive oil to your diet, try substituting it for butter when baking.
You can also use olive oil to stir-fry your vegetables or use it as a dressing for your salad.
Pecans (and other nuts)
Pecans and other nuts such as walnuts are not only high in antioxidants, making them great foods for your nutrition therapy, they are also a good source of healthy fat, which helps promote brain function.
Pecans are also very low in carbs, so they should definitely be included in a ketogenic lifestyle.
Nutrition Therapy for TBI Recovery
And that’s it! These are just a few of the best foods you should incorporate into your diet to make your nutrition therapy super effective.
One final note on the ketogenic diet:
While the foods we listed are all healthy, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the keto diet’s effect on people with traumatic brain injury.
As with anything, make sure you talk to your doctor about any possible health risks the diet may pose to you.
Some people do not react well to a no-carb diet, so it’s important to pay close attention to your body. If you don’t feel good without carbs, then there’s no reason to continue.
With that said, the individual foods in this article have all been proven to promote brain function, so even if you decide not to eliminate carbs, you should still try to include these in your diet!
We hope this article has given you a better understanding of nutrition therapy for TBI and you can now start consuming foods that will help you with your recovery.