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TBI and the Immune System: 5 Ways to Bolster Immunity After Brain Injury

woman sneezing into tissue because she has a weak immune system after TBI

New research shows that a TBI, even a mild one, can suppress the entire immune system.

In today’s article, you’ll learn more about how the immune system works and how TBI can affect a person’s immune response. Then, we’ll cover some helpful ways to fortify your immune system after a brain injury.

How the Immune System Works

The immune system is the body’s natural defense mechanism. It consists of a network of cells, molecules, and tissues working together to protect the body from infection or disease.

There are a number of different cells, known as lymphocytes, in the immune system that the body uses to fight off infections. Each type of lymphocyte plays an important role in identifying and destroying harmful cells. These include:

  • B cells. These cells release antibodies to defend against viruses and cancer cells. Each B cell is programmed to make one specific type of antibody.
  • Helper T cells. These send help signals to other immune cells to direct their response and make sure they destroy harmful cells. They also communicate with B cells to produce antibodies.
  • Killer T cells. These cells target and destroy virus-infected cells.

After a TBI, the number and activity of these cells can change. We’ll discuss that in the section below.

How TBI Affects the Immune System

According to research from the journal Military Medicine, TBI causes a decrease in the total number of circulating T cells. This decrease occurs within the first 72 hours after a brain injury.

In addition, increased cortisol levels, which are common after TBI, will suppress the immune system.

In fact, excess cortisol reduces the overall number of lymphocytes in the body, which will make the body more susceptible to infection.

Finally, TBI can suppress the immune system by causing a lack of physical activity. Decreased activity is common after brain injury due to fatigue and physical limitations.

Unfortunately, lack of movement will slow the body’s metabolism and decrease circulation. Without sufficient blood flow, the body’s immune cells cannot receive the oxygen and nutrients they need to function. As a result, the immune system will weaken and the person’s risk of serious infection will increase.

Best Ways to Boost the Immune System After TBI

While TBI does suppress the immune system, it is possible for patients to improve their immune response.

Below are a few natural ways to augment your immune system after brain injury:

1. Get More Sleep

woman in bed stretching and smiling after a restful night's sleep

Sleep supports the immune system. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, which help fight off infections.

Lack of sleep, therefore, can weaken your immune system after a TBI. According to a study on 164 adults, those who slept fewer that six hours each night were more likely to get sick than those who slept at least six hours.

Unfortunately, insomnia is a common problem after TBI. In fact, between 30% to 50% of TBI patients experience insomnia.

To boost your immune system then, it is important to get enough sleep. Some ways to overcome insomnia include:

  • Create healthy sleep habits. Changing your lifestyle can help you get your sleep under control. Try waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, and make sure you exercise regularly.
  • Use natural sleep remedies. Herbal tea and melatonin can help relax your mind and get your sleep cycle back on track.
  • Try medications. If nothing else works, your doctor can prescribe medications that will help you sleep. These should only be used as a last resort though, because some drugs cause daytime drowsiness and cognitive problems.

Try to aim for about 6-8 hours of sleep per night. Anything more than that can cause problems such as difficulties staying asleep.

2. Eat More Antioxidants

Antioxidants counter the effects of free radicals in your brain and reduce inflammation. This improves the communication between your cells, which boosts immune function.

The best source of antioxidants are foods that contain high levels of compounds called flavonoids.

Some foods that are rich in flavonoids include:

  • Blueberries
  • Cranberries
  • Red kale
  • Green tea
  • Broccoli

If you can’t eat enough of these foods, taking vitamin C supplements can also improve your immune system after TBI.

3. Try Probiotics

a bowl of yogurt and blueberries, which is full of probiotics that can help improve the immune system after TBI

Eating fermented foods such as yogurt and kimchi can increase the number of probiotics in your gut. This may strengthen your immune system.

Probiotics are a certain type of healthy bacteria that assist with bodily functions. Some probiotics produce neurotransmitters and improve cognitive functioning.

Most people do not have the right balance of probiotics in their gut, which can lead to inflammation and immune suppression.

Therefore, increasing your probiotic levels might bolster your immune system after TBI. For example, in one study on people infected with rhinovirus, those who took probiotic supplements had a stronger immune response than those who did not. They also had lower levels of the virus in their nasal mucus.

4. Exercise Moderately

Prolonged inactivity will suppress your immune system after TBI. On the other hand, moderate exercise can give it a boost.

For example, moderate exercise helps reduce inflammation and enhances your immune cells ability to regenerate.

It also boosts circulation throughout the body, bringing vital nutrients to your leukocytes.

Doctors recommend that people aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. That comes out to about 30 minutes every day. Some examples of moderate exercise include:

  • Brisk walks
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming
  • Light hikes

Even activities like gardening can count as moderate exercise. Just choose something that gets your heart pumping.

5. Decrease Stress

young woman sitting in grassy field cross-legged, smiling and meditating

Finally, since stress and anxiety suppress the immune system, it is crucial for TBI patients to decrease their stress.

One of the best ways to decrease stress after brain injury is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means focusing on the present moment. This helps you ignore the constant chatter that our brains normally produce, which is often the source of our stress and anxiety.

To do this, it helps to have a point of focus that pulls your attention to your body. For most people, this point of focus is their breath.

When you focus on your breath, it’s much harder for thoughts and worries to sneak in. This gives you a chance to step back and observe what you are feeling with a clear mind.

Other helpful ways to lower anxiety include:

It’s a good idea to try different stress-relief methods to find the one that works best for you.

Understanding TBI and the Immune System

TBI causes a variety of problems that can all lead to a suppressed immune system. Therefore, it is important for brain injury survivors to realize this, so they can take steps to boost their immunity.

By consuming more antioxidants, getting enough sleep and exercise, and reducing stress, you can help lower your risk of infection. Good luck!

©iStock/Wavebreakmedia

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