The debilitating short-term and long-term effects of concussion (also known as traumatic brain injury or traumatic head injury) have been in the spotlight again.  The recent concussion to champion AFL player Robbie Gray again highlights the inherent dangers involved in contacts sports, and raises concern about how quickly players return to the game.

Is there anything that can be done to reduce the short and long term effects of concussion and improve recovery?

Whilst avoiding injury is always the best approach, this is not always possible. Some occupations or hobbies increase the likelihood of concussions (e.g. contact sports, military, police, security, etc.).

The short term effects of concussion include headache, dizziness, memory loss, insomnia, sleep apnoea and difficulty in concentration. Whilst these usually disappear over time, there is increasing concern about the long term effects, especially if multiple concussions occur in your sporting career.

Although the acute effects often resolve on 10-14 days, damaging secondary effects often persist, despite the appearance of a full recovery. Secondary effects can include brain cell inflammation, alteration of blood flow within the brain, diminished energy production within the brain, and a damaged ‘leaky’ blood brain barrier. Unfortunately the brain is not designed to control inflammation and has much less capacity to do this compared with other organs. Even more disturbing is the high rate of pituitary function loss. Over 50% of sufferers develop pituitary hormone deficiencies one year post-concussion. The pituitary gland is responsible for controlling the production of thyroid, stress, inflammation and sex hormones. The damaging effects on the pituitary gland further impair the ability of the brain to heal.

Research to date shows concussions may cause or contribute to neuro-degenerative conditions such as chronic depression, fear, anxiety,  memory and concentration loss, chronic mood changes, Alzheimer’s, other dementias and Parkinson’s disease. The likelihood of these effects increases with the more concussions experienced. These concussions may be minor, or more dramatic (as in the Robbie Gray incident), but the cumulative effects also appear a concern even in minor concussions. Younger people appear to be especially susceptible to the effects of concussion, perhaps because the brain is in development.

A recent study highlights these dangers, especially in younger people. A study using brain MRIs in young teen ice hockey players revealed that:

Changes in brain function and brain region connectivity persisted well after players’ clinical assessment scores had returned to normal and they had been cleared to return to play. Ongoing white matter maturation may make adolescent athletes particularly vulnerable to brain injury, and they may require extended recovery periods. The consequences of early brain injury for ongoing brain development and risk of more serious conditions such as second impact syndrome or neural degenerative processes need to be elucidated. (Manning et al., 2017, Para. 4)

The study showed persistent MRI-detectable neuronal changes that reflect long-lasting damage to white matter fibres and compensatory recovery mechanisms.

This highlights that adverse effects are still occurring within the brain, despite a seemingly normal. If a player returns to activities without a full recovery they may have increased susceptibility to injury and may be at risk of serious conditions such as second impact syndrome. So often people are returning to sport or work before their brain has fully recovered.

It appears that some people are also genetically pre-disposed to the ill effects of concussion.

So is there anything that can be done to reduce the short and long term effects of concussion and improve recovery?

The answer is YES!

Various medical trials of currently available prescription medications have been disappointing, showing no treatments that improve neurological outcomes after concussion and that various pharmaceutical treatments may mask symptoms of concussion and are therefore not recommended.

There are other avenues available which do show promise.

A number of herbs, nutritionals and dietary interventions have been shown in some human and many animal studies to produce substantial improvements.

These include the herbs such as Curcumin (turmeric) – enhanced absorption forms, Boswellia, Bupleurum, Bacopa, Ginkgo, Rosemary.

Nutritionals  including DHA,  resveratrol, tocopherol/tocotrienols, creatine,  acetyl-L-carnitine, ubiquinol, N-acetyl cysteine, Magnesium, Vitamin D, lipoic acid, palmitoylethanolamine, NAD, quercetin, MCTs.

It also appears that diet can play a role in both reducing the ill effects of concussion and speeding up recovery. Dietary choices that have been shown to reduce Alzheimer’s offer a sensible approach to reduce the risk of adverse effects from concussion, including the Mediterranean MIND diet and versions of a ketogenic diet. Animal studies have shown a high fat and sugar diet worsened outcome after traumatic brain injury and that calorie restriction improved resilience to the effects of brain injury.

Whilst athletes may not want to employ calorie restriction, some supplements mimic the effects of calorie restriction and would be expected to offer the same protection. Calorie restriction works by increasing the activity of specific genes that promote neuronal growth and repair, and therefore can help increase resilience to injury and to improve recovery.

It is unlikely that a single therapeutic agent will be sufficient to improve outcomes in concussion. It is necessary to employ combinations that are synergistic, to address the variety of disturbances occurring in the brain after concussion.

Treatment should always be individualised and take into account a person’s health history and medical situation. The benefits of taking targeted high quality supplements, at therapeutic doses along with specific dietary interventions can ensure the best recovery possible and also reduce the effects of future concussions.

Craig Wainright
Naturopath, Pharmcist
Viva Naturopathic Clinic @ National Pharmacies Glenelg



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