A healthy diet after brain injury can help boost recovery. Therefore, it’s important to understand what the best foods for brain injury recovery are in order for survivors to intentionally include these foods in their diets.
This article will discuss some of the best foods for TBI recovery based on clinical research, and outline which foods to avoid. Understanding how certain foods can support or hinder TBI recovery can help inspire survivors to make healthy long-term changes.
Examples of diets that can help boost brain health will also be discussed. As always, be sure to check with a doctor or dietician before making significant dietary changes.
Use the links below to jump directly to any section of this article.
- Elements of a good diet for head injury
- What are the best foods for brain injury recovery?
- Foods to avoid during brain injury recovery
- Best diets for brain injury recovery
Elements of a Good Diet for Head Injury
Following a head injury, it is essential to follow a diet that includes foods that fuel the brain. The brain requires a significant amount of energy to function. Following a head injury, the brain will require even more energy in order to stimulate the growth of adaptive neural connections.
Therefore, a good brain injury diet should be high in healthy fats and protein. Fats are especially important, as a portion of many brain cells are covered in a fat layer called myelin. This helps information travel between brain cells quickly, and thus is essential for processing information efficiently. Furthermore, many of the best foods for brain injury recovery are rich in certain vitamins and minerals like as magnesium and zinc, which are both depleted following a TBI.
Foods with high levels of compounds called flavonoids are also great options for survivors of a head injury. Flavonoids contain antioxidants that help fight free radicals. This is important especially important following a brain injury, as these unstable molecules can cause inflammation of brain tissue as well as changes to cerebral blood flow. By consuming foods that reduce inflammation, survivors improve their chances of making a good recovery from TBI.
What Are the Best Foods for Brain Injury Recovery?
Healthy, nutrient-dense foods are vital to provide the brain with the fuel it needs to recover. With the above elements of a beneficial head injury diet in mind, here are some of the best foods for brain injury recovery:
1. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has high levels of both magnesium and antioxidants, two nutrients essential for a healthy brain, making it a great food for TBI recovery.
Although the health benefits of dark chocolate are well established, it should be eaten in moderation. Dark chocolate contains some processed sugars, which should be limited when recovering from a brain injury.
To reduce the consumption of processed sugars, search for dark chocolate with high percentages of cocoa. Chocolates containing more cocoa generally have less added sugar. To extract the best benefits from dark chocolate, try to consume products containing at least 70% cocoa.
2. Fatty fish
Certain types of fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids are some of the best foods for brain injury recovery.
This is because the brain is nearly 60% fat, and much of that fat content is omega-3 fatty acids. Thus, to fuel the brain’s recovery, giving it omega-3 is critical.
The brain actually uses omega-3 to rebuild brain cells, which is essential for preserving the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to change and adapt. Since engaging neuroplasticity is a central component of TBI rehabilitation, including omega-3 is a great way to promote repairs within the brain, leading to recovery.
Some fish that are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Salmon (4,123 mg per serving)
- Mackerel (4,107 mg per serving)
- Sardines (2,205 mg per serving)
To extract the most health benefits out of fatty fish, it is best to bake or broil the fish.
3. Flaxseed oil
Outside of seafood, there are many other foods that are rich in omega-3 that can be beneficial after a head injury. For example, flaxseed oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and is a great alternative to fish. While much of the omega-3 found in flaxseed oil cannot be used without being converted into a more usable form, flaxseed oil can still be a valuable addition to one’s diet.
Simply adding one tablespoon to foods such as salads and smoothies adds 7 grams of omega-3. Ground flaxseed, which is easily added to yogurt or oatmeal, is also a good source of omega-3, providing nearly 2.5 grams of omega-3 per tablespoon. However, since the omega-3 found in flaxseed oil is not as easily processed as the omega-3 found in fish, larger quantities are required to obtain the same benefits.
4. Dark, Leafy Greens
Dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach are excellent foods for survivors of brain injuries. Not only are they some of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth, dark, leafy greens also contain high levels of omega-3.
Kale in particular contains a high level of B-vitamins. B-vitamins improve communication between brain cells and boost neuronal repair after TBI. Therefore, kale can be an especially great addition to one’s diet after a head injury.
5. Walnuts and Pumpkin Seeds
Certain types of seeds such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds are also rich sources of omega-3. For instance, walnuts contain around 2500 mg of omega-3 per each tablespoon-sized serving. In addition, walnut skin is packed with antioxidants, which reduce inflammation and promote brain recovery.
Pumpkin seeds contain good amounts of omega-3 as well, but they also are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Research indicates that too much omega-6 can actually increase inflammation, something that individuals should avoid during their recovery from a brain injury. Therefore, consume pumpkin seeds sparingly.
Berries are full of antioxidants, which, as mentioned above, are very helpful in protecting the brain from damage and reducing inflammation.
Studies have also shown certain berries such as strawberries and blueberries to be useful for improving memory, learning, and other cognitive functions.
Blueberries in particular can increase the production of BDNF. This an important growth protein that triggers the brain not only to repair brain cells, but also to create new brain cells through a process known as neurogenesis.
All of this puts berries, especially blueberries, among the best foods for brain injury recovery.
7. Eggs (and avocados)
Eggs are important for brain injury survivors because they are a good source of choline.
Choline is a nutrient 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.
For extra health benefits, try stuffing eggs into an avocado. Avocados are rich in oleic acid, which the brain uses to process information more rapidly. Therefore, combining eggs with avocados can supply the brain with a significant cognitive boost in just one small meal.
Not only is eating meat an excellent way to increase protein intake, it is also an especially great source of zinc. Zinc levels often become depleted in the brain after a head injury. In fact, according to clinical studies, survivors often show low levels of zinc for weeks following injury, with these levels being proportional to TBI severity. Since zinc plays a critical role in the immune system and the formation of memories, it is vital that survivors find ways to replenish it.
Red meat is a particularly great source of zinc. However, red meat, especially when processed, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Therefore, if you want to consume processed red meats, try to keep them in moderation.
9. Legumes and Seeds
If you have a history of heart disease, or would just prefer to avoid meat products altogether, there are alternatives sources of protein and zinc. For example, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils can provide the zinc needed to help recover from brain injury.
In addition, seeds like squash seeds and sunflower seeds have also been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. This makes them an all-around great food to add to one’s diet plan for head injury.
10. Turmeric root or powder
Finally, one of the best foods for brain injury recovery is turmeric. While technically a spice, turmeric is a rich source of curcumin, which has many benefits for TBI survivors.
Not only is curcumin an antioxidant, but it also stimulates the production of BDNF, an essential growth factor in the brain. As mentioned above, BDNF promotes neuronal repair and regeneration, both of which are very important for brain injury recovery.
Since turmeric is a curry spice, it has a strong taste and can take some getting used to. However, once accustomed to it, turmeric can become an excellent addition to many foods, such as rice, tea, or chicken soup.
If you want more specific ideas for how to use turmeric in your diet, check out these recipes.
Foods to Avoid During Brain Injury Recovery
While there are many foods that are great additions to a brain injury recovery diet, there are also some foods to avoid. In general, it is important to avoid foods containing saturated fat and processed sugar. These foods can reduce BDNF levels and neuroplasticity, the very things necessary to promote recovery after brain injury.
Some foods high in saturated fat and sugar include:
- Dairy products, including butter, cream, milk, cheese, etc.
- Fatty meat cuts, such as ribeye steak or lamb chops
- Processed meats, like salami or sausages
- Sugary drinks
It’s important to note that while these foods should be limited, they can still be eaten in moderation as some of these foods (like dairy products) have important health benefits. The key is to eat these foods sparingly in order to improve brain function.
Some brain injury survivors may also need to limit their consumption of many of the foods that are best for brain injury recovery, as they are also high in fat and sugar. Although the fat and sugar in the foods included in this list are the healthier kind, some of these foods may not be safe for individuals who have high cholesterol or are at risk of stroke or heart attack. Be sure to check with a physician or dietitian before adding any of these foods.
Best Diets for Brain Injury Recovery
Working with a dietician can help TBI survivors determine which dietary choices are best for them. While the above list of foods to eat and avoid is a great starting point, every survivor has unique dietary needs and preferences. A dietician can help to create a personalized diet plan that includes many of the best foods for brain injury recovery.
Some dieticians may recommend a more standard diet, such as the Mediterranean or ketogenic diets. Information and recipes using these diets is more readily available, and each diet can also be customized to fit an individual’s needs.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, oils, and whole grains. Since many of the best foods for brain injury recovery are emphasized in this diet, the Mediterranean diet may be beneficial for survivors of brain injury. Research has demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet can be especially helpful in preventing cognitive decline with age. Some of these cognitive benefits could also carry over to individuals recovering from a brain injury.
A ketogenic diet may also be recommended for some survivors of brain injury. Although this diet tends to be more restrictive than most, many of the foods promoted in the ketogenic diet are low in carbs and processed sugars and high in fat and protein, which are essential for brain injury recovery. While the effects of a ketogenic diet on brain injury recovery are still being researched, animal studies have shown that consuming a ketogenic diet after TBI can result in reduced cerebral edema and apoptosis (cell death), as well as improved cerebral metabolism and behavioral outcomes.
Although these are diets have great benefits for many individuals, their benefits for those recovering from brain injury is continuing to be researched. Therefore, it is best to discuss which diet choices may be best with a physician and/or dietician before making any changes.
Understanding the Best Foods for Brain Injury Recovery
Food plays an essential role in promoting brain injury recovery. Without the nutrients needed, the brain is unable to adapt and repair itself, limiting the potential for recovery. Therefore, consuming foods that are high in healthy fats, protein, and nutrients is essential for an optimal recovery following a brain injury.
With all of this in mind, hopefully survivors may be inspired to try out some new foods and create a healthy brain injury diet to enhance recovery.