Nutrition may play key role in supporting brain health following traumatic brain injury

healthy food

Each year in the United States, an estimated 1.5 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and nearly a quarter-million people are hospitalized as a result. Often, full recovery can be challenging. However, experts say that a nutritionally dense diet may play an important role in achieving that goal.

While there is ongoing research linking nutrition to recovery from moderate-tosevere TBI, less is known about its impact on mild TBI (mTBI). “There is still so much we’re learning,” says Natalie Gavi, MS, RD, a neurology dietician with the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program. “We don’t yet have a solid understanding of the role nutrition has in healing mTBI; therefore, a lot of the interventions are focused on symptom management.”

The Mediterranean diet is one of the more popular nutritional approaches linked to promoting brain health after a TBI.

The Mediterranean diet — consisting of moderate portions of lean meat and dairy products and larger portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish and olive oil — is one of the more popular nutritional approaches linked to promoting brain health after a TBI. “As far as the research shows, that style of eating has been demonstrated to be the most beneficial in terms of supporting brain health,” Gavi says.

Such a diet can be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have proven beneficial to brain health. However, consuming the proper source of omega-3s is equally important. “There are different types of omega-3s,” Gavi says. “Omega-3s from fatty fish are great for the brain.” For people who can’t or prefer not to eat seafood, Gavi recommends supplements that include DHA from microalgae, the food that fish eat, to get the brain-specific omega-3s.

Adding antioxidant-rich fruits, such as blueberries or pomegranates, to one’s diet also can help improve cognitive functions. Gavi says it is important to consume antioxidants from multiple sources. The colors in each fruit and vegetable represent different antioxidants and polyphenols, which all play different roles in the body. “The blue from blueberries is going to provide a different benefit than the red in pomegranates, cherries and strawberries,” Gavi says.

As with many treatments for medical conditions, diets for patients recovering from TBI should be individualized.

While foods such as those that are part of the Mediterranean diet have been shown to be beneficial, there are other categories of comestibles that are best avoided while recovering from a brain injury. These include alcohol, sugary drinks, fried foods, red meat, butter and cheese, and a variety of baked goods, such as cakes and donuts.

Understanding the brain-gut interaction also is important in relation to brain function and nutrition, Gavi says. “We’re learning so much about brain-gut interactions and the role the microbiome has on brain health,” she says. To capitalize on that, Gavi encourages patients to identify fermented foods they enjoy and incorporate them into their diet to promote diversity in the gut microbiota. She also recommended adding certain prebiotic foods to the diet, such as onions and bananas.

She says it is important for patients recovering from TBI to eat regularly, every four to five hours. “A lot of mTBI patients, especially athletes who are removed from their sport, sometimes go from eating on a schedule to not eating as much or not eating at all,” Gavi says. “Their eating schedule is thrown off, so I help them get back to recognizing their cues on when it’s time to eat.”