5 steps to speed recovery from concussions and traumatic brain injury

Concussions and traumatic brain injury, or TBIs, affect over a million Americans every year. The vast majority are relatively mild, not requiring hospitalization. However, even in these mild concussions, over 75% will develop chronic pain, problems with memory and attention, irritability, and other neurocognitive issues that interfere with school, work, and family life. When people are discharged from the emergency room after a TBI, they usually receive little guidance on what they can do to speed their recovery and greatly reduce the risk of long-term problems with pain or chronic mental health issues that can become severe.

I am a clinical professor of medicine and work with a team in a traumatic brain injury clinic that treats patients with mild to severe injuries. I also do clinical research on diet and lifestyle interventions to improve neurocognitive (thinking) ability and mood of people with traumatic brain injury and multiple sclerosis.

Science has demonstrated that the axons, or wiring, between brain cells are damaged in a concussion: The more severe the concussion, the greater the damage. In addition, brain injury leads to inflammation in the brain, which further slows down the healing process.

We used to think that the adult brain lacked the ability to repair itself, but now we know the opposite is true: the adult brain is capable of building new synapses (connections) between brain cells and even growing more brain cells given the right environment. We have also observed that stem cells, which orchestrate these changes, are present even in the adult brain, and can begin the repair process.

Your brain needs the right tools to repair itself. Here are the top 5 things you can do to speed recovery following a concussion or traumatic brain injury.

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1) Strength train at least 4 times a week. Exercise, particularly strength training, stimulates the production of nerve growth factors that encourage stem cell activity and help build more synapses between brain cells.

2) Stop the sugar and artificial sweeteners. Sugar increases insulin levels in the brain. Higher insulin levels are associated with more rapid loss of synapses and accelerated shrinkage of the brain and spinal cord. Artificial sweeteners are excitotoxins, which induce excessive production of glutamate in the brain, again leading to accelerated shrinkage.

3) Replace flour-based food (bread, pasta, rice, cereal) with vegetables. Get your carbohydrates from eating 6 to 9 cups of vegetables each day, which will dramatically increase your intake of vitamins and antioxidants. Eating more vegetables and berries has been shown to improve cognition and mood markedly.

4) Increase omega-3 fatty acid intake. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the severity of injury and speed recovery. Eat more wild fish and grass-fed meat; you may also take a fish oil supplement.

5) Eat sufficient protein every day. The brain uses amino acids from protein to make neurotransmitters. For most, eating 6 to 12 ounces of protein (depending on your size and gender) will provide sufficient protein. If you are vegetarian, pay attention to protein intake and also take vitamin B12–many vegetarians are B12 deficient, which can also lead to cognitive and mood problems.

This is not theoretical. I have seen it over and over in my traumatic brain injury clinics: when my patients drop the sugar and white flour and instead eat six to nine cups of vegetables a day, their thinking ability improves, mood improves, pain diminishes, fatigue fades and they are steadily happier. They begin thriving again. In short, when people adopt a diet and lifestyle designed specifically for optimal function of their brain cells, their brain and overall health steadily improves. If you want to learn more about the dietary programs that we use in our clinics, visit www.terrywahls.com and pick up my book, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, which details the protocols we use in our clinics and in our clinical trials to restore health and vitality.


Dr. Terry Wahls

By Dr. Terry Wahls

Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents and sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic and a therapeutic lifestyle clinic for those with complex chronic disease. In addition, she conducts clinical trials testing the efficacy of diet and lifestyle to treat chronic disease. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using diet and lifestyle interventions and now pedals her bike to work each day. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine and the paperback, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles, and teaches the public and medical community about the healing power of intensive nutrition.  
You can learn more about her work from her website: www.terrywahls.com. She is conducting clinical trials testing the effect of nutrition and lifestyle interventions on MS. She is also committed to teaching the public and medical community about the healing power of the Paleo diet and therapeutic lifestyle changes to restore health and vitality to our citizens. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @TerryWahls. You can learn more about her research at here.