I am by no means a qualified dietician or nutritionist, but given the absence of guidance & support from most health specialists when it comes to nutrition and brain injury recovery, I thought it was important to share a snippet of my personal experience. If it isn't an area that you have already explored, it might incite you to carry out some research on this topic or to seek the help of a dietician or nutritionist to get further advices.
Some of the tips shared in the following blog are from my personal trial and error in applying some of tweaks that were suggested to me and for me by a qualified dietician and nutritionist. Although there are often lots of common grounds between brain injuries, please note that a specialist may suggest a different course of action for you. Other fact to keep in mind...not all dietician and nutritionist are made equal. My first attempt in meeting a nutritionist really wasn't successful. A year later, I explored this option again and the health professional that I met had a really sound knowledge of chronic fatigue and brain injury which lead to welcomed changes. Therefore, it you are willing to invest, it is worth asking question around their area of expertise so you can make sure that they are equipped to help you.
How can brain injury affect your gut?
Whether a person sustains a concussion, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or acquired brain injury (ABI) the brain trauma experienced tends to cause an inflammatory response. The inflammatory reaction is not isolated to the brain itself and more often than not results in structural and functional damage to the gut. The neuro trauma can increase intestinal permeability and lead to an immune response where gut inflammation and intestinal dysfunction travels back to the brain (via your central nervous system) perpetuating this cycle of inflammation. The overall inflammatory response tends to affect how your brain functions and can have a huge flow on effect on your whole body. Left untreated, symptoms such as brain fog, hormonal dysfunction, chronic fatigue, cognitive deficits, decreased physical activity and depression can sneak in making the brain injury recovery even more complex.
How did the cycle of inflammation affect me?
The reaction described above matches to the letter how my original brain injury started creating havoc in my body. In my case, encephalitis greatly affected the functioning of my nervous system. My heart rate would fluctuate in the most erratic ways, I felt constantly nauseous and I had diarrhoea just about everyday. Taken individually, these symptoms may not appear too debilitating, but when you add the daily grind of having to factor those symptoms on top of fatigue, blurry vision, sensory overload and a long list of cognitive deficits, they soon started to be one more thing that would affect my mental health. It’s as though no breaks were allowed.
When you first start to recover from a brain injury, you are very much in survival mode. At first, you tend to deal with the most obvious issues at hand and this chain of reaction is often not addressed until much later into your recovery.
Where some may be re-learning to walk, others may be dealing with fatigue, aphasia and so on. In my case, managing my levels of fatigue took priority over many of the other symptoms. At the time our sons were aged 8-7 and 4 so getting adequate sleep at night and a good rest after lunch in order to be somewhat functional once they got back from school/daycare was crucial. Other symptoms such as my fluctuating heart rate and my vision issues were also sitting at the top of the list, relaying gut health, hormonal imbalances and other ways in which I could support my overall wellbeing towards the bottom of the list.
My personal experience has also been that many mainstream health specialists look at a problem from their unique field of expertise, therefore missing out on the overall effects on the individual recovering from a brain injury. The brain does heal, but at a much slower pace than the rest of your body so supporting its recovery in any way you can from the start is key to avoid or minimise the chances of seeing this cycle of inflammation from taking over.
Nutrition tips that can support brain injury recovery?
My journey sure hasn’t been straightforward. Although information and research on the perpetuating inflammation cycle is becoming more readily accessible, it feels as though it still hasn’t become part of the mainstream information that is shared with people recovering from brain injury. I’ve found that you need to do your research, be your own advocate and keep challenging the health specialists in order to start assembling all the pieces of the complex puzzle that is brain injury recovery. Below are some of the ways in which you can support your recovering brain:
Looking into low inflammation food and diet has initiated a much bigger shift than I ever thought possible. Cutting out or reducing the main inflammation culprits such as dairy, sugar and gluten has been really beneficial and translated in a big reduction of symptoms that I was having to factor in every day.
Investing in my gut health has also been beneficial. Adding probiotics to my daily routine has been a simple action that has contributed to the well running of my body. My body isn’t constantly wasting time and energy in trying to recalibrate itself. Therefore more energy is available for the brain to work on healing.
Omega-3 can help fight inflammation, maintain brain structure and have an overall positive effect on mental health so introducing fish oil with DHA & EPA is something that may be worth considering.
In the early days of brain injury recovery, fatigue can be one of the most debilitating symptom experienced by brain injury survivors. Because fatigue can be so intense, prioritising a balanced and healthy diet isn’t always at the forefront of our minds. Therefore, introducing a good multi vitamin into your routine can be a way to help minimise nutritional deficiencies. If fatigue persists or mitochondria dysfunction sneaks into the mix, CoQ10 may be worth looking into as the Coenzyme Q10 acts on cells energy generation.
Having your hormones levels checked after brain energy is also very important. If there is an imbalance, which is fairly frequent in both women and men following brain injury, it can contribute to persisting symptoms, affect your sleep, stress response and reproductive system.
Words of advice from my personal experience
My advice to other brain injury survivors and their carers would be to seek the help and support of a qualified dietician and nutritionist to address the inflammation cycle early in the piece. It is another thing to do, but it’s a piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. The sooner you break this cycle from taking hold, the better are your chances to avoid other secondary symptoms from creeping in. Our experience has been that not all dieticians or nutritionists have sound knowledge of diets that can best support brain injury recovery, so it is best to ask questions prior to investing and meeting with a specialist to make sure they are equipped to help you.
Where to next?
Brain injury recovery is very complex and there are so many aspects to consider. What’s important to remember is that it’s never too late to start working on pieces of the puzzle that were left untouched. You don’t know what you don’t know right, so be kind to yourself! Be open to the idea of looking into less traditional avenues and be curious about the possibilities it might bring. It could lessen some of the undesirable symptoms, perhaps get you off a plateau, translate into an increase in energy and have an overall positive effect on your physical and mental health.
Remember that you don't have to implement everything at once. It's ok to work on a section of the puzzle at a time and there is always time to move to the next step at a later time. I personally would much prefer to take longer to implement a strategy but make it sustainable than to rush into something that won't last.
Nowadays there is more information available online on holistic ways to explore during brain injury recovery, but it needs to also reach the traditional systems as they are often our first port of call. Being your own advocate is crucial and it’s key to finding pieces of the puzzle that will enable you to move forward and live the best life you can following brain injury.
I am four and a half year into encephalitis recovery and I only started on this journey eight months ago after coming across a specialist that had sound knowledge of brain injury recovery. With her guidance, some of the changes implemented have been a real game changer so my advice is to keep looking and don’t give up hope.