With growing amounts of research on concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), it is becoming more well-known that it is a serious concern, especially for athletes. In particular, collision or high-speed sports such as football and hockey have the highest rates of CTE. Soccer players are also near the top of the list for repeated concussions. And while one concussion is traumatic enough, repeated concussions and traumas are even more devastating.
Upon repeated blows to the head, you will typically experience progressively worse symptoms. Though a first concussion can certainly be severe, often it may be milder and cause a headache, fatigue, or dizziness for a few days, leading you to not pay much attention to it and return to play quickly, before the brain has actually had time to heal. What often happens is continued trauma, even if small, that actually causes further damage and more intense symptoms. Headaches may become more severe or constant, accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Even worse, it can progress to short-term memory loss, changes in personality or aggressive behavior, confusion, and difficulty thinking and carrying out tasks that used to be easy. What is often overlooked as a contributor to these worsening symptoms is the inflammation that has occurred to the brain from repeated traumas.
This inflammation, called neuroinflammation, involves activation of cells in the brain called glial cells, followed by a release of inflammatory mediators in the brain and the recruiting of immune cells for repair. This process is meant to help heal the brain, but the cells can also produce chemicals called cytokines that are actually detrimental to brain function. A key therapeutic intervention in this process is the use of natural anti-inflammatory supplements and foods to decrease inflammation and feed the brain.
Food choices can dramatically affect the brain’s ability to function properly. Knowing which foods are inflammatory or anti-inflammatory is key for people with CTE. Inflammatory foods to avoid include sugar, processed/refined foods, grains, and dairy. Oils that are high in omega-6 also promote inflammation. These include sunflower, corn, and soybean oils, which are found in a lot of salad dressings and processed foods.
The gluten in grains has been found to promote neuroinflammation in a lot of people, even those without CTE or a brain injury. Avoiding gluten can be a key factor in allowing the brain to heal.
Such foods are typically very prominent in the standard American diet. So, what foods are best for helping the brain?
- Protein: clean sources of chicken, oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and grass-fed beef contain higher amounts of essential fatty acids to help feed the brain. Eating higher amounts of chicken and fish, rather than red meat, is best.
- Oils/foods high in omega-3 fatty acids: olives, olive oil, avocado/avocado oil, nuts and seeds. Avoid peanuts as they are inflammatory.
- Vegetables and fruit contain high amounts of vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals; dark green leafy vegetables are particularly high in essential nutrients and antioxidants.
- Foods high in magnesium: avocado, almonds.
In addition to foods, some supplements help decrease the inflammatory process in CTE. Supplements that combine ingredients can give the brain all of the components it needs to support the immune system, decrease the oxidative stress that is created from injury, and provide the support that brain cells specifically need.
- Curcumin: Curcumin is the active component found in turmeric. It has been shown to inhibit not only the acute effects of neuroinflammation but also reduce the long-term consequences of brain inflammation, including memory dysfunction and cognitive defects. It is also a potent antioxidant, helping to decrease oxidative stress.
- Resveratrol: Proven to provide even more effect when combined with turmeric, resveratrol is also a potent antioxidant, helping to prevent brain cell death that can occur with CTE.
- Catechins: Found in green tea, catechins reduce oxidative stress in brain tissue and have antiinflammatory effects. They may help suppress the change in behavior that happens with cognitive defects.
- Baicalin: an herbal that has been used extensively to decrease inflammation and protect the brain. It has also been shown to have anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties, in addition to improving cognitive performance.
- Apigenin: a flavonoid found in fruits, vegetables, and herbs that has anti-inflammatory effects. It is also a potent antioxidant, improves learning and memory, and has protective effects on brain cells.
Though not an exclusive list, these supplements can be used to decrease the neuroinflammatory process that occurs in CTE. When combined with proper diet and brain-based therapies, people suffering with CTE can experience profound improvements in their symptoms. Since there are neuroprotective effects, it may also be helpful for those who are playing high-risk sports to take supplements preventively as concussion will likely occur at some point.
Although it is often overlooked, the importance of diet and supplements that heal and protect the brain cannot be stressed enough. If you continue to struggle with symptoms from CTE, feeding your body to feed your brain may be the piece you are missing.
Dr. Lori Jokinen is a Doctor of Chiropractic specializing in functional medicine, nutrition, sports rehabilitation, auto accident injuries, and acupuncture. She incorporates nutrition into all of her patients’ care plans. www.functionalhealthunlimited.com