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

understand the link between TBI and the immune system

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

The immune system is the body’s natural defense mechanism. It consists of a network of cells, organs, and tissues working together to protect the body from infection or disease. After a TBI, the number and activity of cells in the immune system can change.

This article will explain how TBI can affect a person’s immune response as well as some helpful ways to fortify your immune system after a brain injury.

How TBI Affects the Immune System

Following a traumatic brain injury, the brain needs the support of a functional and healthy immune system to repair and stabilize itself. However, due to the outcomes of TBI[1][2], tissue damage and inflammation may occur.

It is thought that TBI causes the release of a stress hormone called cortisol, which suppresses the immune system. In fact, excess cortisol reduces the overall number of white blood cells called lymphocytes that help identify and destroy harmful cells. This occurs within the first 72 hours after a brain injury and makes the body more susceptible to infection.

When the immune response is weak, the brain cannot effectively repair itself and further secondary damage may develop. Unlike primary TBI damage, secondary tissue damage generally has more long-lasting effects.

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

Unfortunately, lack of movement will slow the body’s metabolism and decrease circulation. Without sufficient blood flow, the body’s immune cells may struggle to 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.

Now that you understand how a traumatic brain injury affects the immune system, let’s discuss proactive ways to strengthen it.

5 Effective Ways to Boost the Immune System After TBI

While a TBI can weaken immune system functions, there are many ways for TBI survivors to improve their immune response.

Below, we’ll discuss 5 effective ways to promote a healthy immune system.

1. Get More Sleep

the importance of getting enough sleep after TBI to strengthen your immune system

One of the best ways to improve immune system performance after a TBI is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

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

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

Unfortunately, difficulties falling or staying asleep are extremely common after TBI. In fact, between 30-70% of individuals experience sleep disturbances after TBI.

Some ways to promote better sleep after brain injury 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 to exercise regularly. Try to avoid using your phone, computer or other electronic devices right before bedtime.
  • Use natural sleep remedies. Herbal teas and melatonin can help relax your mind and get your sleep cycle back on track.
  • Limit naps during the day. Taking naps during the day can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep at night. If you need to take a nap during the day, try to take it earlier in the day and limit it to 20 minutes.
  • Try medications. If nothing else works, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications that can help you sleep. These should only be used as a last resort though because some drugs cause daytime drowsiness and cognitive problems.

Learn more about sleep disturbances after TBI »

2. Eat More Antioxidants

Another way to promote immune system health following a TBI is to include more antioxidant-rich foods into your diet.

Antioxidants neutralize the effects of harmful free radicals in the brain, which helps reduce inflammation. This improves the communication between your cells, which boosts immune system functions.

Examples of antioxidant-rich foods 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

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. While this study did not involve participants with TBI, it is probable that these findings may carry over from the general population to the TBI population.

4. Exercise Moderately

Prolonged physical inactivity can suppress your immune system after TBI. Likewise, the opposite extreme of excessive, high-intensity exercise can also be harmful and impair immune functions.

Therefore, focusing on incorporating moderate-intensity exercise into your routine is ideal for enhancing immune function.  Moderate exercise helps reduce inflammation and enhances your immune cells’ ability to regenerate. It also boosts circulation throughout the body, which can help your immune responses and healing abilities.

Doctors recommend aiming 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

5. Decrease Stress

how stress affects immune system after tbi

Since stress and anxiety suppress the immune system, finding effective ways to minimize stress after TBI is a must.

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 possibly 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, brain injury survivors need 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!

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