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Weight Gain After Brain Injury: Causes & Tips for Staying Healthy

Cropped image of woman feet standing on weigh scales to measure her weight gain after brain injury. A tape measure lies on the floor in the foreground

Weight changes are quite common after a brain injury. While some people can lose too much weight due to damage in their brain, others might accidentally gain too much weight.

You’re about to learn the causes of excessive weight gain after brain injury and what you can do to counter it.

Causes of Weight Gain After Brain Injury

Weight management is a serious concern in patients with traumatic brain injury. According to one study which assessed data from over 7,000 TBI patients, 23% were classified as obese and 36% were overweight.  

Researchers have determined that eating disorders may be at the root of this weight gain after a brain injury. The main causes of these eating disorders are:

  • Hyperphagia. This refers to an excessive level of hunger and thirst. These cravings do not go away if you eat more food. There are many possible causes of hyperphagia including stress, hormonal changes, medication, and diabetes.
  • Executive dysfunction. This is caused by damage to the parts of the brain in charge of judgment and impulse control. When executive functioning is impaired, the person will have trouble making healthy decisions.
  • Hypothalamus damage. Another possible cause of weight gain after brain injury is damage to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates a person’s appetite and lets the body know that the stomach is full. When it becomes damaged, an increase in appetite can occur.
  • Pituitary dysfunction. Finally, one of the most common causes of weight gain after brain injury is pituitary dysfunction. The pituitary helps regulate your body’s hormone levels. Without the right hormones, a person’s appetite can become dysregulated. In addition, pituitary dysfunction can slow the body’s metabolism. This can cause you to gain weight even if you are not eating more.

Fortunately, by addressing these underlying causes, it is possible to return to a normal weight after brain injury.

Complications of Weight Gain After Brain Injury

Too much weight gain after a brain injury can lead to serious chronic health conditions. Some of the most common include:

In addition, seizure frequency in TBI patients often increases with higher body weights.

Therefore, it is crucial for brain injury survivors to learn how to manage their weight and improve their eating habits.

We’ll discuss some ways to do that in the section below.

Weight Management Tips After Brain Injury

To help you get back to a healthy weight after brain injury, you will need to address the root causes of your increased appetite.

This can be difficult, as there are often multiple factors that can increase your appetite after TBI.

For example, if your pituitary was damaged, your metabolism might be slowed. But you might also have an increased appetite due to hypothalamus problems. While treating these issues can help improve your metabolism, you will still need to make some lifestyle changes to lose the extra weight.

The following are a few changes you can make to help manage your weight after brain injury:

1. Stay Active

couple jogging together to prevent weight gain after brain injury

©iStock/Rawpixel

Most weight gain following brain injury is due to lack of activity. This usually happens because brain injury increases fatigue. However, it’s crucial to stay active during TBI recovery, even if it’s just for a few minutes every day.

Not only will this help you lose weight, it will also help you recover from TBI much faster. In fact, moderate exercise can actually improve cognitive recovery in patients with head injuries.

Some examples of activities you can do to stay active after brain injury include:

  • Walks around your neighborhood
  • Short bike rides
  • Gardening
  • Therapy exercises for brain injury recovery

Again, nothing too strenuous, but enough to elevate your heart rate and burn some calories.

2. Try the recovery-boosting ketogenic diet

As you may already know, changing your diet is one of the most effective ways to lose excess weight. A popular diet that can help you prevent weight gain after brain injury is a ketogenic diet.

A keto diet is great for people looking to lose weight, but it can also help brain injury patients reduce their cognitive fatigue.

That’s because ketones, which your body produces when on the diet, are one of the few molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier. This means they can be a great source of energy for the brain.

Be sure to consult with your doctor first and, if given the green light, adhere strictly to the diet. Failure to do so can exacerbate poor health conditions like high cholesterol and obesity.

3. Address Your Mental Health

patient talking to psychologist to address the root of her weight gain after brain injury

Stress, depression, and anxiety can all increase your appetite and cause weight gain. These conditions are also extremely common after a brain injury.

Therefore, to manage your weight, it’s important to take care of your mental health. If you struggle with depression after brain injury, for example, you should make an appointment to see a psychologist right away.

Psychologists can help you become more aware of emotional problems that may be contributing to your weight gain. For example, they might help you discover that stress and sadness trigger your poor eating habits.

Your therapist can also teach you different techniques, such as mindfulness, to help you manage your anxiety and depression.

By getting your mental health under control, you might find your appetite returning to normal levels. This will help you lose extra weight.

Preventing Weight Gain After Brain Injury

Excessive weight gain after brain injury can cause serious health issues. The most common causes of weight gain following a TBI are hyperphagia, executive dysfunction, and hormonal problems.

By addressing underlying problems, TBI patients can prevent unhealthy weight gain. Making certain lifestyle changes can also help people lose the extra weight they may have gained.

Finally, talk to your doctor about medications that might help you lose weight. While you should continue to eat healthily and stay active, sometimes these actions are not enough. In those cases, certain medications may be useful.

Featured Image: iStock/vadimguzhva

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