Concussions, medically referred to as TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries, or sometimes mTBIs, for mild traumatic brain injuries) are a type of injury that does not discriminate. They can happen to anyone no matter your age, occupation, or lifestyle. My own mother had to take time off this winter after a slippery mishap landed her in the hospital on Valentine’s Day.
These injuries can be long-lasting, and given the range of unpleasant symptoms, very difficult to endure. However, there is research demonstrating that magnesium, along with vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc can help make the complicated concussion recovery a little easier.
What is a TBI?
Traumatic brain injuries are defined by an impact to the head that disrupts typical cognitive functioning. These injuries can range in severity from mild to acute. Most mild or moderate injuries happen as a result of the head suddenly and forcefully hitting an object, and some more severe cases are the result of objects penetrating the skull and perforating brain tissue.
The most common mild cases result in temporary changes in consciousness, cognitive function and mental state, while very serious cases have more grim outcomes including but not limited to prolonged periods of unconsciousness and reduced cognitive function.
How Do They Happen?
The CDC reports that in 2014 falls were the leading cause of all TBI’s, accounting for nearly half (48%) of TBI-related emergency department visits. These incidents disproportionately affected children (0-17 years), and older adults (65+ years).
Following falls, being struck by or against an object was how many TBI victims found themselves in the emergency department.
That being said, not all bumps and falls result in injury, and most TBI’s that happen are relatively mild — we know them as concussions.
Most mild TBI symptoms abate quite quickly, however those who have already suffered a similar injury risk a longer recovery period, and heightened possibility of experiencing another concussion/TBI.
Recovery time depends on the severity of the injury, as well as age. It tends to take longer for older adults, children, and teens to heal.
TBI and concussion symptoms can generally be placed in 4 categories: Thinking/memory, physical, emotional/mood, and sleep.
Common symptoms include:
Thinking/memory – difficulty concentrating, feeling slowed down, foggy brain, difficulty remembering new information
Physical – headache, blurry vision, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, issues with balance, fatigue
Emotion/mood – irritability, sadness, anxiety
Sleep – difficulty falling asleep, sleeping more than usual, sleeping less than usual
Because of the unique nature of each injury, it’s hard to predict when or if an individual will experience these symptoms. Some symptoms appear directly following the incident, while others may take days or weeks to manifest. Some patients only really notice their symptoms when they try to get back to their everyday life. As always, be sure to contact a medical professional if you experience symptoms that worry you.
Because there is no one-step treatment for concussions, it is generally recommended that patients take time to rest themselves, physically and mentally. However, it’s relative rest that is recommended, as opposed to complete rest which some people are inclined towards. Complete rest involves lying in a dark room and avoiding all stimuli, whereas relative rest which includes limiting activities which require mental concentration like reading, texting, doing schoolwork, and using a computer. These types of activities should be avoided until they no longer incite symptom flare-up.
The same goes for physical activity. Strenuous sport and exercise must be avoided until it can safely be tolerated without the worsening of symptoms.
After your physician-recommended period of relative rest, most people slowly scale back up to their previous rate of operation. It is always recommended that you use your symptoms as a guide to what to do and what not to do. If an activity triggers your symptoms, it is best to avoid it until it is tolerable.
In order to manage the headaches that may occur, some patients inquire with their doctors about whether it is safe for them to take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Benadryl, Tylenol, etc.)
However, other options exist for those seeking natural treatment.
Why Magnesium for TBI?
Studies show that after a concussion, magnesium levels drop by 50% and do not rise again for 5 days. Because most patients are already somewhat magnesium deficient before their injury, it makes it all the more likely that their magnesium levels will be very low after suffering such an injury. Because of all of magnesium’s neurological benefits, it makes sense that it is generally recommended as a supplement for patients recovering from a TBI.
Post-TBI, it’s important that your body is equipped with energy at the cellular level, in order to help you recover as quickly as possible. Because of its relationship to ATP (adenosine triphosphate), widely known as the energy currency of cells, magnesium plays an integral role in the production and efficacy of ATP. Without its help, the cells could experience a decrease in the amount of energy provided, making them unable to carry out the functions needed for the repair and restoration of the brain cells. Such a decrease in available energy could lead to cell death, and thus, longer recovery time.
Simply put, magnesium is an important aid in neuronal cell recovery, and without it, it is very possible that TBI recovery times be prolonged.
Other Supplement Options for TBI Recovery
Normally, we’re used to getting our vitamin D intake from the sun, but directly following a brain injury, that can be much harder given the light sensitivity that some patients experience. For that reason, a number of TBI patients choose to take vitamin D supplements.
Vitamin D is a recommended supplement for a variety of reasons, the most relevant here being its role in brain function.
Vitamin D acts as a stimulus for neurotransmitter production, which makes for improved contact among neurons, as well as potentially benefiting memory retention. It is thought that because the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for navigation, some emotional responses, and memory) is packed with vitamin D receptors, this vitamin must play some sort of role in the function of the hippocampus.
Taking the supplement can also increase BDNF production. BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein that is related to the canonical nerve growth factor which is involved in the caretaking of certain neurons. Again, giving your brain supplements that will help its cells repair and restore is what we want after a brain injury.
Because of these many potential advantages to taking this supplement, it is often prescribed following a TBI.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The omega-3 fatty acids that have been seen to have neurological benefits are EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Most of the omega-3 fatty acid in the brain is DHA. It plays an important role in nervous system membranes, and, under normal circumstances, regulating brain function. A change in the DHA composition as a result of a TBI or mTBI could put that regulation capability in jeopardy. As a result, the supplementation of fish oil (the best source of active omega-3 components) has been proven to be beneficial.
As with many natural treatments, more research is necessary for us to know the full extent of the benefits of omega-3s. However, there are many promising animal trials that indicate that taking such a supplement after a TBI can reduce brain inflammation, aid nerve repair, and improve overall brain function. Generally thought to be great for cognitive function, it can’t hurt to give your brain a natural boost like this.
Normally, a high quality, high DHA (DHA>EPA ratio) fish oil is recommended as the best form of omega fatty acids.
The same way that magnesium (and other substance) levels drop after a TBI, so do zinc levels. Studies have found that although TBIs can impair abilities like spatial learning and memory, zinc supplementation helped to prevent these potential impairments.
Once the injury has occurred, zinc can help by mitigating cell death at the site of the injury both immediately and over time. Patients who have recently suffered a TBI have been reported to experience increased urinary zinc loss, as well as very reduced serum zinc levels, all of which pointing toward an increased risk of zinc deficiency in this patient population.
Although it is suggested to have positive effects when used post TBI, and in any case to address the zinc deficiency experienced by so many individuals after an injury of this kind, the most extensive research that we have at the moment with regard to zinc in this context pertain to its effects as a preventative measure.
It has been found to significantly improve cognitive behaviour following a moderate TBI and 4 weeks of supplementation. Those supplemented with zinc showed decreases in depression-like behaviour, and a trend toward lesser stress and anxiety. This data along with other discoveries indicate that chronic zinc supplementation could reduce some of the body’s physical responses to TBI-induced depression and anxiety. Additionally, tests found that after having taken zinc supplements and then sustaining a TBI, certain symptoms of the injury were significantly diminished.
There are many different ways to deal with such an injury. Each patient will find what works best for them, and it may be something different from the next person. It is necessary to note that these are merely suggestions based on research, and that all victims of TBIs, mild or not, should seek the advice of a medical professional to decide what is best for their health. Do not add any of these supplements to your regimen before consulting a naturopath or health professional.
For the record, my mom has healed well and is back to her normal self now.