News stories about concussions have brought this brain injury to the top of our minds — their number has doubled between 1997 and 2007 among young athletes (according to a recent study published in Pediatrics), and researchers are looking closely at a pattern of deadly brain disease in former NFL players, trying to discern whether a history of concussions plays a role in its development.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a problem only for those playing sports. The truth is that a concussion can be the result of banging your head on a piece of furniture, being in a minor car accident or even tripping over your dog in a dark hallway and bumping your head against the wall. About one million concussions occur in the US each year, according to reports of hospital admissions, and there are likely many more people who have them and don’t seek help — in short, we’re all at risk.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because my daughter had a concussion a few months back. Her doctor told us she needed “stimulus deprivation” for a week (basically, total brain rest — no computer, no music, not even lying on the couch and watching TV) in order to recover fully. Also, I saw some fascinating new research based on work done with soldiers who had suffered brain injuries. It concluded that one of the most important things to do for someone who has suffered a concussion (or a far more serious traumatic brain injury) is to feed him or her as soon as possible. It seems that making sure patients get at least 50% of their usual calorie intake within 24 hours — including a higher-than-usual amount of protein, which should be continued for two weeks — is vital to healing. Wondering what other natural treatments might be helpful, I set out to do some research.
What You Need to Know:
First, it’s important to review what we should know about concussion, which is like a bruise that results from your brain colliding with your skull. Anyone who has had a blow to the head should consider himself at risk, most especially if there was even a momentary loss of consciousness. Other signs of concussion: Headache, nausea, difficulty concentrating and/or short-term memory loss. One or more of these symptoms should trigger a call to your doctor, who will determine if further testing is required.
I called Laurie Steelsmith, ND, a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist based in Honolulu, who told me that naturopathic medicine can offer natural ways to help the tissues heal after a concussion. Here’s what Dr. Steelsmith shared with me during our conversation…
- Load up on antioxidants. Eat a healthy diet with abundant protein (as mentioned above) and also eat lots of blueberries during the two weeks following the injury. The reason: Blueberries contain potent flavonoid antioxidants that help to strengthen blood vessel walls, including in the brain. Supplement the fruit’s antioxidants by taking up to 3,000 mg a day of vitamin C, which also helps reduce the oxidative stress in the brain associated with head trauma. According to Dr. Steelsmith, buffered powder (vitamin C combined with small amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium) is most easily absorbed — she suggested mixing the powder with juice.
- Drink fluids. Make sure the body is well-hydrated, as that allows the brain to heal more quickly. How much to drink: Dr. Steelsmith said to drink one ounce of fluid (nonalcoholic and preferably noncaffeinated — water is best) per day per two pounds of body weight, so a person who weighs 100 pounds should drink 50 ounces over the course of the day for the critical two weeks.
- Take arnica (Arnica montana). You are probably familiar with arnica cream, made from a plant that has served medicinal purposes for more than 500 years and used for sore muscles, sprains and bruises. But arnica also comes in the form of homeopathic pellets, which help to expedite healing of bruised brain tissue, Dr. Steelsmith told me. Place three homeopathic arnica 30c pellets (available at health stores and online) under your tongue within 15 minutes of the trauma or as soon as you can get them. Continue this dosage every hour for the rest of the day, reducing frequency on the second, third and fourth days to three doses — one in the morning, one at lunch and one in the evening, says Dr. Steelsmith.
- Double dose of fish oil — fast. While the general recommendation for most people is to take one to two grams daily of high-potency fish oil, Dr. Steelsmith said that it is a good idea for people who have suffered head injuries to take up to four grams as quickly as possible after the injury and to continue taking four grams once daily for up to seven days afterward. This advice is based on a recent animal study from West Virginia University School of Medicine reported in the Journal of Neurosurgery, which demonstrated that taking high-potency fish oil that contained large amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA (such as Nordic Naturals Omega-3D, which contains 825 mg EPA and 550 mg DHA per one-teaspoon serving), can assist in healing concussion. This will help decrease brain inflammation and with it the fogginess, memory loss and headaches that are often a part of concussion. Note: If there is evidence of bleeding in your brain (see below), do not take fish oil.
It is important to realize that the danger zone following a concussion can last up to 48 hours, with the first 24 hours being the most critical. The danger is that bleeding will occur in the brain (especially likely if a person is taking an anticoagulant medication such as warfarin) or that a blood clot can form. The following symptoms should be seen as a medical emergency, warranting a call to 9-1-1 and a visit to the emergency department of the nearest hospital:
- A headache that gets continually worse
- Slurred speech
- One pupil larger than the other or other visual disturbances
- Change in sleeping pattern — such as sleeping more than normal
- Confusion and restlessness
Luckily, severe problems are quite rare. Most concussions are much less threatening, and most people can heal safely and completely at home by following these wise, helpful instructions.