A growing body of research is making it clear: there’s a crucial connection between the gut and brain. What you eat matters—from the moment it lands on your tongue, to its digestion, to the way the nutrients build and regulate your body and brain.
Your diet plays a role in several areas of maintaining a healthy brain and good mental health. The foods you eat alter your energy levels, support cognitive function and promote (or inhibit) synaptic plasticity and neuroregeneration. These last two are especially important to concussion recovery, as plasticity is key to recovering (and enhancing) your memory and motor skills, and neuroregeneration is all about how your brain heals.
Recovering from concussion is best supported by a holistic view. That is to say, diet fits into a larger picture of health that also includes exercise, lifestyle, and social interactions.
Important: Always follow your clinician's advice when making changes to your diet, lifestyle, or exercise to ensure these practices best support your recovery.
So let’s explore what nutrition and diet best support concussion recovery!
What Happens To The Brain Post-Concussion?
When someone experiences a concussion, there can be a number of damaging or degenerative processes that happen in the brain. These can include inflammation, oxidative stress, hormone imbalances, neurotransmitter degeneration, mitochondrial dysfunction, and nutrient deficiencies.
The right nutrition can give you the building blocks to counter these effects. That means eating foods that are anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, and rich in nutrients.
Three Mechanisms Of The Gut-Brain Connection
What do we really mean when we talk about the gut-brain connection? One dynamic at play is the microbiome in your digestive system. These bacteria help release hormones and send signals to your brain. The signals support your energy metabolism and synaptic plasticity, and in that way, have an important influence on cognitive function.
To further explore the gut-brain connection, here are three mechanisms at play for how they interact:
- Insulin: Insulin allows glucose into the cells for energy, contributing to overall energy levels, focus, and mood regulation. When our bodies become insulin resistant, we can experience dysregulated hormones and mood, fatigue and brain fog, and other issues like poor sleep. In the long term, insulin resistance can lead to cognitive decline and diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's.
- Vagus Nerve: The vagus nerve carries signals between the digestive system to the brain, in both directions. This nerve center regulates organ function and the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal nerve stimulation is increasingly being studied and used in the treatment of chronic depression.
- Mental Health: Given nutrition’s role in regulating so many aspects of hormones, mood, organ function, cognition, and energy levels, it also has ties to mental health and depression. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, is shown to support brain function and counter depression.
Now that we know some mechanisms at work between the gut and brain, let’s dive deeper into the nutritional building blocks of brain health: vitamins.
The Vitamin Building Blocks Of Concussion Recovery
The nutrients and vitamins we get from the foods we eat help create the resources our brain needs to function at its peak. These building blocks are crucial for good brain health in general, but they’re especially important when recovering from a concussion and overcoming some of the degenerative effects that can result.
Here are some areas of good brain function and concussion recovery, and the vitamins that support them:
- Strengthening synaptic connections: Myelin is the insulation that helps nerve impulses and signals travel between brain cells. In order to produce myelin, our brains need the vitamins B7, B12, vitamin A, vitamin K, iodine, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Reducing neuroinflammation and stress: When the brain is experiencing inflammation and stress, function is inhibited. To counteract these processes, the body needs antioxidants and vitamins C and E. Cellular stress can also be reduced by B2, B3, folic acid (B9), vitamin K, and magnesium.
- Boosting cellular function and energy: Our brains and bodies need energy for focus, attention, memory, and more! They get this energy through the cells with the help of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids that support mitochondrial function and cellular energy production.
- Restoring depleted micronutrients: Because the brain experiences nutrient deficiency during concussion, it’s important to get a good supply of vitamins C, D, E, magnesium, and zinc. Here, omega-3 fatty acids can also help with neuroregeneration.
Bonus: Stay hydrated! Taking in a wealth of vitamins is important, but water is essential for all of our bodily functions, including the absorption of these nutrients. A good guide for getting enough water is to take half your body weight and drink that amount in ounces of water.
The best foods to support brain function through all of these areas listed above are leafy greens, fatty fish, nuts, berries, and dark chocolate because they are rich in all of these vitamins and antioxidants.
FOODS AND DRINKS TO AVOID THAT WORSEN CONCUSSION SYMPTOMS
When healing from a concussion, many adverse symptoms can be overcome—including brain fog, memory limitations, lack of attention or focus, and more. We’ve looked at the foods that are essential for brain function, but here are a few to avoid.
Foods containing high amounts of saturated fats and processed sugar should be avoided, as they can limit brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and reduce neuroplasticity, which are things you want to encourage during concussion recovery.
- Coffee: Caffeine can help boost your wakefulness, mood, and attention in short bursts. But while there may be a temporary boost, caffeine can also lead to crashes. Anxiety, dysregulated mood, migraines, and dehydration can come from too much caffeine intake.
- Alcohol: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. It can inhibit brain areas in control of balance, memory, speech, and judgment, resulting in a higher likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes. Long-term drinking can permanently alter the function and size of the brain.
- Fatty or processed meats: These foods are too high in saturated and trans fats and contain preservatives and other negative ingredients from ultra-processing.
- Sugar: Over time, sugar interferes with our hormone regulation and energy levels. Consistent, long-term consumption can put us at risk of diseases that are related to cognitive decline, like diabetes.
ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES FOR CONCUSSION RECOVERY
There are some alternative therapies that can fit into the holistic view of lifestyle, exercise, nutrition, and other therapies.
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into pressure points. These points send blood circulation and signals into nerve centers and the brain. It can promote relaxation, relieve migraines or other tension and support motor function.
- Meditation: Meditation has many benefits, including the reduction of stress, an increase of attention, focus, and memory, and can even support the growth of white and grey matter in the brain.
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique that helps people learn how to control functions within their body such as heart rate, breathing rate, and brainwaves using non-invasive sensors like heart rate monitors or Sensorbands. This technique can help recover motor skills, memory, and reduce stress.
These guidelines can help you adjust your diet and get the essential ingredients needed to counteract the degenerative effects of brain injury. It’s all about taking in foods that are anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, and rich in nutrients. Those are great supports for concussion recovery and great mental health.
Just like nutrition is part of a larger picture, a nutritionist can provide guidance as part of your wider medical and social support team during recovery. Always remember to discuss lifestyle and diet changes with your clinician. You’re not alone, and recovery is possible—one bite at a time!