Concussions are more common than you might think, and not just among pro athletes. Children and older adults are especially at risk, though they can affect anyone who experiences a fall, is in a car accident or is otherwise vigorously shaken — and rates are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, annual hospitalization rates went up 11 percent from 2001 to 2010. Recovery usually focuses on physical and mental rest; but could certain foods help you heal too? Emerging research suggests that what you eat may help heal you as well.
What Is a Concussion?
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that can be caused by anything that shakes the brain inside the skull, including direct hits to the head. The brain is soft and surrounded by spinal fluid that usually buffers it from the skull. Concussions, while categorized as “mild” traumatic brain injuries because they’re not usually life-threatening, are still a serious public-health problem. This kind of injury is more functional than physical, so there could be damage without any visible signs like cuts or bruises. Classic symptoms are passing out or memory loss from just before the injury, but there may be no symptoms at all, or they may be hard to connect to a concussion (e.g., fatigue, nausea, headache, anxiety, changes in sleep patterns).
The Case for Nutrition Therapy
“Targeted nutritional therapy is very uncommon in today’s medical model,” says Michael Lewis, M.D., retired U.S. Army colonel and president of Brain Health Education and Research Institute, Inc. However, Lewis has a different take. He says, “I approach concussions and brain injury at the level of providing the brain with the nutritional foundations to foster brain healing.” He adds, “If the brain is going to heal, you have to modulate the neuroinflammation that occurs with an injury,” which helps provide the right environment for the brain to heal.
Dr. Lewis says, “When I treat a patient, I start with what might be considered by some to be very high doses of EPA and DHA [eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid], and patients commonly have beneficial responses within 24 to 48 hours: increased energy, better sleep, less fatigue, improved brain fog [and] decreased or elimination of headaches.”
How Healthy Fats Help
The EPA and DHA Dr. Lewis recommends are healthy fats in the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty-acids category. They’re commonly found in fish and algae, and they help by increasing fluidity of cell membranes, reducing inflammation and enhancing blood flow to the brain.
Several animal studies show that supplementing with EPA and DHA before or after a traumatic brain injury helps limit structural damage and decline in brain functioning. However, EPA and DHA, both long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, have very different and important functions.
Dr. Lewis notes that the dramatic response he sees in patients “is most likely due to the vascular and anti-inflammatory effects of EPA through the…pathways that bring blood flow with nutrients and oxygen deeper into the brain to areas that may not have been nourished regularly for some time.” Conversely, he notes that DHA, the major polyunsaturated fat found in the brain — while incredibly important — takes several weeks to have an impact.
“EPA has been shown to be important in mental health, while DHA is actually incorporated into the brain and has a longer-term benefit by improving the cellular structure of the brain and subsequent downstream effects,” say Lewis. Translation: Include both fatty acids in your diet.
How to Get EPA and DHA Omega-3s
One way to get your EPA and DHA omega-3s is to eat fish — in particular, fatty fish like salmon, arctic char, trout, herring and anchovies. Fatty fish is also incredibly forgiving in the kitchen; due to its high fat content, it’s difficult to overcook. Try dry-rubbing a salmon filet with spices and pan-searing it on medium-high heat, turning over once — no additional oil required.
Read More: Are Omega-3 Supplements Worth the Money?
If you avoid fish, take an omega-3 supplement that provides EPA and DHA. Or look for omega-3-fortified foods, such as milk and eggs — just check that they’re fortified with the EPA and/or DHA type of omega-3 versus the plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is also a healthy fat, but may not provide the same benefits.
When it comes to reasons for upping omega-3 intake, there’s more than one fish in the sea. From early findings on EPA and DHA for concussions to more established benefits for heart health, there are several reasons to put fish on the menu regularly. In fact, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee Scientific Report recommends 8 ounces of seafood per week, especially fatty fish with higher levels of EPA and DHA like salmon and trout. The MIND study diet, which has been shown to slow down cognitive decline, includes at least one fish meal per week. With all of these benefits, why not start adding fish or a natural omega-3 supplement to your routine?
Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. She authored a book on food sensitivities, The Elimination Diet Workbook, and continues to provide nutrition counseling and contribute to healthy-living media as a writer and an expert source. Previously, she led health-and-wellness initiatives for online grocer FreshDirect.com.
Maggie was an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College in the City of New York in both undergraduate and graduate programs. She also developed and implemented nutrition curricula for NYC public schools. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master of Science in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University. She completed her clinical training at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell.