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Promising Natural Compounds for Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries

It seems that every week there is a news story highlighting the rising toll and damage of head injuries and concussions. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are generating greater medical and research interest as public awareness grows, especially on the impact on younger and more vulnerable populations. An explosion of recent research has uncovered some of the biochemical pathways involved in TBI. Emerging evidence shows that brain trauma from a concussion causes a complex cascade of neuro-inflammation. It’s also important to consider the supportive structures around the brain and in neck. Every brain trauma also causes severe stretching and damage to muscles and ligaments of the neck, face and upper back which can refer pain to the head causing a variety of symptoms. The last consideration is that the blood-brain barrier is responsible for protecting the brain from substances circulating in the blood stream but research shows that this barrier becomes more “leaky” after a brain injury further hampering recovery.

Natural Compounds for Neuroprotection and Recovery

Conventional drugs have shown limited benefits since they don’t address the root cause of what is driving concussion symptoms. Currently, no neuro-protective treatment options exist that improve symptoms after a TBI. Now many researchers are starting to study a wide range of natural compounds and vitamins that have promising broad-spectrum, neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory activity. Curcumin, green tea, essential fatty acids, resveratrol, and vitamin E are some of the compounds with potential therapeutic benefit in the treatment of TBI. Its important to note that the evidence for these substances is still very preliminary and there is much more research needed to confirm these effects in humans but they offer potential options in a condition with no known treatment.

Curcumin is the active compound found in the spice turmeric. While results are still preliminary, curcumin extracts are showing positive benefit in neuro-recovery, membrane stabilization and reduction of oxidative stress in animals. The unfortunate problem with curcumin is that it doesn’t dissolve well in water, its absorption through the digestive tract is limited. It is important to point out that only free curcumin (not other curcumin molecules) is able to pass the blood brain barrier. Newer fat soluble formulations, such as a curcumin extract called Longvida, appear to improve delivery into bloodstream, past the blood brain barrier and into brain tissue. Longvida curcumin was developed specifically for neurological disorders by researchers at UCLA. Curcumin stands as one of the most promising neuroprotective and therapeutic agents in TBI and PCS due its excellent safety profile and wide ranging mechanism of action.

Green tea, like curcumin, is a well-known and widely consumed herb with broad-spectrum antioxidant activity. It’s neuroprotective properties can be attributed primarily to the power antioxidant molecule called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the amino acid L- theanine and to a lesser degree caffeine. EGCG has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in animal models of brain injury. A number of other plant compounds such as resveratrol (found in red wine) and anthocyanidins (found in berries) have also shown neuroprotective effects. Unlike pharmacological medications, these plant extract have multiple modes of actions and work synergistically with each other. Since these molecules are found in many colourful fruits and vegetables it would be a safe recommendation for people with TBI to incorporate them into their diets.

Omega-3 fatty acids have long been considered essential for brain development and function. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (and to a lesser degree Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)) is primarily found in nerve membrane and influences cell signaling and anti-inflammatory pathways A number of trials in animal models of TBI have found that that DHA and omega 3 supplementation improves cognitive function, reduces nerve swelling, stabilizes cellular energy production and increases nerve repair. One of these studies also showed that pre-injury dietary supplementation with fish oil also had a neuroprotective effect.

Vitamin E is a commonly studied natural compound for brain health since it has a powerful antioxidant effect specifically in fatty tissue. A number of animal studies have found that vitamin E supplementation reduces nerve damage and improves cognitive performance following repetitive, concussive brain injury. Interestingly, supplementation before the concussions also had a neuroprotective effect. A good formulation should provide all eight molecules of vitamin E with highest proportion being the potent gamma-tocopherol.

We can remain cautiously optimistic that more evidence will emerge to support natural therapies for TBI and in the meanwhile we can use innovative and integrative methods to address the chronic effects of brain trauma.

For more information on improving the quality of life for all Canadians affected by acquired brain injury and promoting its prevention please visit The Brain Injury Association of Canada.


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Dr. Paul Hrkal

About The Author

Dr. Paul Hrkal is a board-certified Naturopathic doctor with a passion to apply innovative and evidence-based nutritional, biological, and supplemental interventions to address underlying metabolic, endocrine and immunological dysfunctions. He is strong advocate of integrative medical education frequently writing and lecturing to both healthcare practitioners and public audiences. He also is the medical director for Advanced Orthomolecular Research, a leading Canadian natural health product company, and maintains a clinical practice in the Toronto area.

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