How to Heal Naturally from a Traumatic Brain Injury
Every nine seconds, someone in the United States sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Yet, the actual number is unknown as not all seek treatment. 5.3 million Americans are living with brain injury-related disabilities at the cost of more than $76 billion annually.
What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?
Traumatic brain injury usually results from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body. Falls make up about half of all reported TBI and are a particular problem for children and older adults. Sports are another leading cause of brain injury for all ages, with soccer, football, cheerleading and skateboarding injuries all topping the list. Vehicle-related accidents, violence and assaults including gunshot wounds, explosive blasts, electric shock and child abuse, also sustain brain injuries.
Lesser dramatic culprits of TBI include tumours, metabolic disorders and clotting disorders. No one is immune from suffering a traumatic brain injury at some point in their life.
What about concussions?
A concussion is a form of mild brain injury which involves a temporary loss of normal brain function following a hit to the head or body, that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. Although they are typically not life-threatening, concussions can be quite serious.
Mild traumatic brain injury may affect your brain temporarily or for the rest of your life. More serious traumatic brain injury can result in coma, paralysis, speech impairment, bruising, swelling, torn tissues, bleeding and other physical damage to the brain, including death. Physical complications of TBI include seizures, infections, vertigo, headache, hearing loss, paralysis, loss of taste and smell and insomnia. Intellectual complications are common and include memory loss, personality changes, unpredictable mood swings and difficulty learning. It can become challenging to make decisions and multi-task after a brain injury; sometimes there it can also result in a lack of self-control, leading to reckless behaviours.
Brain Injury Treatments
There is no drug for a traumatic brain injury at any stage of healing. Medical treatments include pharmaceuticals to control symptoms such as anti-seizure meds, blood pressure regulators, diuretics to control brain swelling, and sometimes even coma-inducing medications are needed to mitigate further brain damage. Surgery is often explored for serious concerns, but there is no singular treatment plan for those with brain injuries and everyone is unique in their healing.
The most practical treatment plan offered is often time. That seems silly; just waiting around to heal is not good enough - why not give the brain all it needs to help heal as fast and completely as possible? There are lots of ideas and approaches available. Naturopathic medicine can be of assistance at any stage of brain injury.
Because little can be done to reverse the initial brain damage caused by trauma, the first thing that should happen after head trauma is a thorough evaluation by a medical professional--the sooner the better. It is vital for medical personnel to try to stabilize an individual with TBI and focus on preventing further injury. Primary concerns include insuring proper oxygen supply to the brain, maintaining adequate blood flow, and blood pressure. Patients with head injuries likely undergo X-rays, CT scans or MRI to assess bone fractures, spinal instability and deduce the prognosis of the outcome. In February 2018, the FDA approved a blood test to evaluate mild traumatic brain injury in adults. As time passes, many of the physical and intellectual changes of brain injuries typically subside, and the brain and other body systems begin to approach stability. This can take up to ten years or a lifetime because, unlike bones or muscle tissue, the neurons in the brain do not mend themselves. New nerves do not grow in ways that lead to full recovery. In fact, certain areas of the brain remain damaged, and the functions that were controlled by those areas may be disrupted, creating new challenges in the individual’s life.
So, for everyone, in the early stages of healing from a brain injury, it is vital not to have any strenuous physical or mental activity. The brain needs less stimuli to heal, meaning you should limit sensory inputs like bright lights, loud voices, annoying people, cellphone/computer screens, TV and other electronics. Don’t drive or do a lot of planning. It’s okay to sleep, and the patient should be allowed as much rest as they need - they are not being lazy!
It’s a lot of work for the brain to repattern, and being stressed about it will not help. Unfortunately, much of this wisdom is ignored if the injury appears mild since it can take days for some symptoms to show. You should proceed cautiously for a few days, even after a mild concussion, and consider holding off on big life decisions and signing contracts for a while. Sometimes, it is advisable to use sick leave to allow this healing to happen, and a student may need to take time away from studies. The person may look fine, but they are not fine yet.
A parent may desire their child, to ‘push through’ homework and a coach may want their player to just ‘get back in the game’. It’s safer to take the time to rest than regret it since healing will likely occur with a better outcome if time is allowed for it. It’s comforting to see sports leagues taking head injuries more seriously: the brain is not meant to rattle around in our skulls.
Natural Remedies for Brain Injuries
An anti-inflammatory diet is a good place to start and vital for the days and weeks following the brain injury since the patient still needs to eat and drink in their fragile state. The goal is to prevent brain swelling or--if it does occur--reduce it as fast as possible. Swelling comes from inflammation, and simple food changes can be surprisingly powerful for healing. If the patient is recovering in a non-home environment, chances are the food quality and choices are less than ideal, so an anti-inflammatory diet may need to wait until they are home.
An anti-inflammatory diet
In the meantime, a caregiver should be allowed to bring in fresh food choices to fill in the missing gaps of ‘hospital food’. There is lots of wisdom regarding an anti-inflammatory diet and most can agree on the benefits of avoiding sugar, wheat and gluten, dairy, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) and alcohol. No one should be consuming artificial sweeteners like sucralose, acesulfame K, or saccharin as they hinder brain healing. Carefully read labels on drinks that boost nutrients, which are commonly used in hospitals and rehab facilities as meal replacements, and may contain these toxic chemicals. There are cleaner and safer liquid nutrient boosters. At the same time, it is recommended to increase good fats (like wild-caught fish, flaxseed, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, etc.) and increase foods rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties.
This may include lots of fresh berries, beets, celery and well more veggies in general. ‘Eating the rainbow’ is a nutritional concept that aims to incorporate fresh produce in every colour! Research continues to prove that our bodies are more resilient and adaptive to any stressor with a steady supply of vitamins and minerals. In addition to healthy food choices, consider a multivitamin supplement to correct deficiencies, although you should make sure to select a capsule instead of a tablet and take it with a meal that has some healthy fat in it.
It’s difficult to get all the nutrients you need from food choices alone, especially vitamin D. Do avoid a multivitamin supplement with iron in it as excess iron can hinder brain health. Also, don’t fall for fancy age-specific marketing when choosing a supplement, as manufacturers add other ingredients to the product that rarely make a difference.
Consider supplementing your vitamin E intake; it has a powerful antioxidant effect on the nervous system. It may reduce nerve damage and improve cognitive performance. In animal studies, those with higher vitamin E levels pre-injury had less brain damage and recovered faster. Some great sources of vitamin E include wheat germ, sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds, green leafy veggies and the beloved avocado. When choosing a supplement, a good one should provide all eight molecules of vitamin E, with the highest proportion being the potent gamma-tocopherol, which is considered the most anti-inflammatory component. Vitamin E also works with other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and Coenzyme Q10, as part of an antioxidant network. This highlights the need to consume antioxidants together to support their proper biological function.
Following traumatic brain injury, magnesium is displaced by other neurotransmitters. This rapid release of compounds can be a huge contributor to neuron death and slow recovery. When magnesium is given intravenously within the first 24 hours of injury, less brain swelling and brain necrosis have been recorded, leading to faster recovery than those with low magnesium levels. Over 300 reactions require magnesium, and food choices are often devoid of this essential mineral.
Magnesium has also been linked to anti-depressant effects. In addition to relaxation of muscles and mind, it's helpful for good sleep too. Choose a magnesium supplement in the threonate form, as it is most effective for absorption in the brain’s tissues. Avoid magnesium oxide, as it has the lowest absorption rate and acts like a laxative. Also, avoid hard-pressed tablets, and there are lots of tasty powders and liquids to try. There is no harm in enjoying more organic dark chocolate (70% and higher cocoa content), pumpkin and chia seeds, organic green leafy veggies like spinach, soybeans and quinoa as food choices with loads of magnesium.
If you want to treat your brain kindly, eat more omega-3 fats, as found in fish oil. The brain comprises up to 60 percent fat from omega-3 and it’s almost impossible to get enough from food choices alone. A number of trials in animal models of TBI have found that omega-3 supplementation improves cognitive function, reduces nerve swelling, stabilizes cellular energy production, helps reconnect damaged neurons and prevents brain cell death. One of these studies showed that pre-injury dietary supplementation with fish oil also had a neuroprotective effect. Fish oil is also awesome for inflammation, a hindrance to brain healing. It’s been recommended that every brain needs omega-3 fish oil, but injured brains need even more. Aim to take 4,000 mg a day of omega-3 fish oil every day with a meal. Please don’t choose a plant-based form like flaxseed oil, as they don’t work as well. No cod liver oil either, just omega-3 fish oil. It is available in liquid or soft gel forms and gummy versions too. Lastly, read the label! You want a ‘TG form’ or triglyceride form’, this is the one found in nature. Certain pharmaceutical fish oil brands and cheap supplements use an ‘EE’ form or ‘ethyl ester’, which is lab-made and the body can’t properly absorb it.
Let’s not forget about choline—an essential nutrient for cell membranes and nerve protection. A major dietary component found in liver and eggs, choline is needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, mood and muscle control. All foods have some choline in it, but it is mostly concentrated in animal food sources. Soybeans, red skin potatoes and our friend wheat germ have decent amounts for those that prefer non-animal sources, although they are not ideal as animal forms of choline. You can also consider a supplement of plant-based lecithin granules, which can flavorlessly blend into smoothies, yogurt and cereals.
Drink more organic green tea--a well-known and widely consumed herb with broad-spectrum antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Its neuroprotective properties can be attributed primarily to the power antioxidant molecule called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the amino acid L- theanine and caffeine to a lesser degree.
There is an obvious need for more research, but promising evidence suggests that even regular dietary consumption of green tea may have a neuroprotective effect. The theanine that naturally occurs in green tea can help calm without causing sedation. Research on caffeine has found neuroprotective qualities in patients with TBI and that higher caffeine levels are associated with more favourable outcomes in the six months following a brain injury. Of course, excess caffeine can have a negative impact on healing from a brain injury, so thoughtful balance is required.
Other herbal aids
Our herbal friends to the rescue! A favourite herb that can help heal TBI is ginkgo biloba, which has been shown to reduce brain inflammation, increase blood circulation and improve mood. Daily intake of 240 to 480mg of gingko will be required and chose a standardized formula for best success. Bacopa monniera, also known as Brahmi, has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine as a brain tonic to improve memory, learning and concentration, and also to treat anxiety and epilepsy.
When utilized in the early stages of recovery, bacopa may aid in the repair of damaged neurons and help restore nerve impulse transmission. Take at least 300 mg of Bacopa extract standardized to 55% combined bacosides A and B and for a few weeks to see any efficacy.
Lastly, turmeric--the yellow powder found in curry and other delicious dishes--has been gaining in popularity recently for many reasons. When used for TBI, less inflammation was seen in the brain and it improved cognitive functions by increasing blood flow and oxygen. Turmeric may work best as a supplement over a food choice: try 1000 mg twice a day and as a standardized formula of curcumin, the most active component in turmeric. Turmeric needs to be taken with fat to be absorbed properly, so it is ineffective when simply added to drinks such as smoothies and juices. A blend of these herbs can be used together, and there are oodles of other botanicals that are effective against depression, anxiety, insomnia, memory, mood and focus. Consult with a qualified practitioner if you’re also using anything from a pharmacy.
The Age-Old Homeopathy Controversy
While this approach is controversial, homeopathy can have a powerful effect on brain trauma by matching specific symptoms with the appropriate remedy. One of the most well-known remedies is Arnica, which has excellent applications to trauma or injury. Homeopathic remedies have no side effects, are very safe and either help or do nothing. They are so inexpensive that it’s always worth a try and especially useful during those critical first few days after the injury. Do remember to take the pellets least 30 minutes before and after food and drinks. Don’t touch the pellets and dispense directly into the cap and then the mouth. Lastly, don’t store the homeopathic vial near a cell phone or computer. Take for a week and see what happens.
Beyond food choices and supplements, consider physical medicine. Most TBI patients have not been assessed for neck and muscle issues contributing to their symptoms. Muscle release, massage, specialized physical therapy using counter-strain, chiropractic manipulations, acupuncture and natural injection techniques are then used to resolve these issues. Cranial sacral treatments are very gentle and powerful for a happy brain and body. There is value in gentle moving exercises and deep breathing techniques, including yoga, while healing from the injury.
It is important to remember that a brain injury is unpredictable in its consequences. Brain injury affects who we are and the way we think, act and feel. It can change everything about us in a matter of seconds and impact our lives and families forever. Preventing injuries is vital in treating them. So, for older folks, ditch the throw rugs, make bathing easier and be sure to get your eyes checked often to prevent falls. For athletes, create good habits in wearing protective gear and rest when necessary. It is critical that you never 'push through' injuries or minimize a head injury. Alcohol and drugs will slow recovery, so chose other coping mechanisms instead, like counselling and new sedentary hobbies that bring joy. Manage headaches, insomnia and other symptoms with natural agents that work with the body and not against it.
There is a lot that can and should be done at the onset of the injury and beyond. Do not just ‘watch and wait’ to heal from a brain injury. The brain will learn a new way to repattern and process information but this takes time and loving patience. Give the brain all it needs and stand back in awe as it heals itself; it beats the alternative.
For more information on traumatic brain injuries, prevention, and recovery, visit the Brain Injury Association of America at biausa.org.
For more articles by Dr. Hayduk, visit her author page.