Nutrition is an important part of brain injury recovery because both the brain and body need proper nutrients in order to heal. The food we eat supplies us with energy and nutrients that our brain and body use to complete physical, cognitive, and mental activities. When we eat well our body obtains all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals we need, improving both our overall health and our brain function.
Healthy eating means eating a variety of high nutrient foods. Vegetables, fruit, legumes, meats, milk products and whole grains contain the important nutrients your body needs to heal and stay healthy. Drinking water is also important. Foods and drinks that are high in salt, sugar or caffeine should be limited. Avoid taking any drugs, substances or medications that have not been prescribed to you and avoid/limit alcohol.
Please note: Dietitian is a protected term in Canada, which means they need to have professional certification. Nutritionist is only a protected term in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia. This means that someone may be a nutritionist in British Columbia but not have the same credentials as someone in Alberta. Dietitians of Canada has an explanation and a chart of protected titles by province/territory that can help you identify what kind of health professional to consult for dietary needs.
Topics in this section include:
- How nutrition can impact brain injury recovery
- Working with a dietitian
- Factors that can impact nutrition after brain injury
Our brains use 20% of our daily calories. When someone sustains a brain injury, they need to be eating enough calories to help the brain function well, especially in the first few days after injury . Good nutrition will be important for the rest of their life. In addition to getting enough calories, it is important to also get the specific nutrients that will help our brain recover.
If a person doesn’t get enough of certain nutrients in their diet, it can limit brain recovery and function. Our brains need amino acids, protein, omega 3 fats, vitamins and minerals, and many other nutrients to keep our brains working well.
Are there brain healing foods?
There are no foods that heal the brain after injury. Many different substances have been tested in animal studies – like Omega-3 and Vitamin D – but so far none of these have shown positive effects in humans . Brain injury recovery takes time, patience, rehabilitation, and a commitment to learning coping strategies. This includes proper nutrition.
A healthy diet after brain injury should include :
- Adequate calories
- How often you eat and how many calories you take in have been shown to contribute to brain function. This is entirely dependent on you and your dietary needs. A dietitian can work with you to identify an appropriate eating schedule.
- Anti-inflammatory foods
- Inflammation can occur following a brain injury. Studies have shown that anti-inflammatory diets can be helpful in improving pain, mood, and sleep . Anti-inflammatory diets are made up of foods like fatty fish, healthy oils, flaxseed, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. For a more comprehensive anti-inflammatory diet plan, speak with a dietitian.
- Healthy fats
- Sixty percent of our brain is made up of fat. We want our diet to be higher in good-quality fats (unsaturated fats). Studies have shown diets with a lot of saturated fats aren’t good for the brain (Molteni R, et al 2002). Foods such as oils, nuts and natural nut butters, and some fruits and vegetables (such as avocados) have unsaturated fat that is better for us (in moderation).
Omega-3 fatty acids, a special form of fat, most commonly found in fish, has been shown to improve cognition and recovery of neurons after a traumatic brain injury. Evidence suggests that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an important form of omega-3 fatty acid can help improve neuronal function (Salem, 2001). Our bodies don’t naturally produce DHA, so this needs to be included in our diet.
A dietitian will be able to tell you what kinds of foods you should be eating (and how much) to supplement your diet with healthy fats.
- Proteins and amino acids
- Amino acids, the small components of protein, are used for the growth, repair and maintenance of nearly every tissue in the body. Your brain needs amino acids as well. You can get protein from fish, lean chicken and meats, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. A dietitian can recommend ways to incorporate protein into your meals and snacks.
- Fruits and vegetables
- Fruits and vegetables are the best source of the vitamins and minerals your body requires to become and stay healthy. Each type of fruit and vegetable contains a unique blend of vitamins and minerals so it is best to try to get a variety of each throughout the day.
- Whole grains
- Whole grains contain a lot of the B vitamins that our bodies need to keep our brains functioning well. They are important for sending messages to and from the brain, controlling our muscles and allowing us to function. Whole grains, like brown or wild rice, multigrain breads and cereals should be eaten more often than more highly processed breads and cereals.
- Blood sugar (glucose) balance
- Proper glucose (blood sugar) levels are extremely important. In some cases, the brain’s ability to convert glucose into energy doesn’t work as well after a brain injury. The brain needs more energy than usual, and this can result in more damage to the brain.
Food such as fruits with naturally high sugar (such as grapes or raisins) or fruit juices can help. There are also glucose medications available by prescription. You will need to work with a dietitian or healthcare specialist that is able to identify what is causing the problems in your blood sugar levels. Once that problem is identified, treatment can be recommended.
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin E is found in certain oils, nuts, and spinach. Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant, which helps make sure neurons can function as well as possible. Studies have shown a link between Vitamin E and neurological performance .
- Curcumin is a yellow curry spice that has also been suggested to help recovery after brain injury, particularly in helping preserve cognitive abilities . Although you would need a lot to have the results shown in the studies, even small amounts may help.
- Water is an important part of healthy living for everyone. Dehydration can impair brain function and can even change the brain’s structure. Drinking water regularly throughout the day can reduce the risk of becoming dehydrated. If remembering to drink water is a challenge for you, you can use a large water bottle with time markings or get a smartphone app that sends you reminders.
Consider working with a dietitian to make sure your body and brain is getting what it needs.
Rehabilitation schedules, cognitive struggles, fatigue, and other effects of brain injury can make planning out a nutritious diet difficult for someone with a brain injury. A dietitian is the best person to help you develop a specific and effective nutrition plan after your injury. Your body will have different needs than someone else based on factors such as age, weight, gender, and activity, and a tailored plan is the best way to ensure that you’re getting the nutrients you need. They can help identify what you should be eating and assist you in developing a diet plan that takes away the guesswork. They can also make recommendations on how to get those proper nutrients and liquids safely if you are experiencing problems with chewing or swallowing.
- Changes in taste and smell
- Some individuals living with brain injury experience sensation changes, including the sense of smell and taste. These senses can be altered or lost on a temporary or permanent basis. This can be a difficult adjustment: it can change the kinds of foods and beverages a person wants to eat and can greatly impact their enjoyment of food and eating. Working with a dietitian to create a tailored meal plan can help address these changes.
- Memory problems affecting eating
- People with a brain injury may experience memory problems. This can make it difficult to remember eating, or all the steps needed to make a meal. If you forget to eat or drink, you may not be getting the proper nutrients you need. Alternatively, if you can’t remember eating and make another meal, you may eat too much.
Ways to cope with memory problems in relation to eating include:
- Not feeling full or hungry
- In some cases, a person may not be able to feel the sensations associated with being full or being hungry. This can impact eating habits, which in turn can impact nutrition. Some ways to cope with these changes are:
- Identify the problem. While some people don’t feel hungry because their brain doesn’t process that sensation, others may be experiencing false fullness because of something such as constipation. By identifying the cause and addressing it, you’ll understand why it’s happening
- Scheduling meal times, including portion sizes so you won’t eat too much or too little
- Keeping a food journal to document when and what you ate
Even when you don’t have much of an appetite it is important to try to eat. Remember that food is like medicine and you need it to recover and heal.
Research and resources
There is also research being conducted on how supplements, vitamins, and minerals may be helpful in brain injury recovery. You should work with a dietitian to determine if supplements or an increase in certain vitamins and minerals would be best for you.