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Concussions, or mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), are common among athletes, especially within high risk sports such as wrestling, American football, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball (Zuckerman et al. 2015). There are preventable measures that organizations and athletes have implemented, such as use of more advanced equipment, tighter rules and regulations, and more comprehensive athlete education. However, concussion rates continue to rise, which may be the result of increased public awareness, subsequently increasing the incidence of diagnosed concussions. In fact, the incidence on concussions among high school athletes has increased by 4.2-fold over an 11-year consecutive period beginning in 1998 (Lincoln et al. 2011).
Due to the increased awareness and the negative effects resulting from repeated brain injuries, possible treatment modalities have become an increased area of interest among researchers and health professionals. Unfortunately, to date, there have not been any universally accepted treatments for concussions, besides complete rest, with recent data even questioning the need for strict physical rest post-concussion (Leddy et al. 2016). What about the possibility of using nutrition and dietary supplements in treating brain injuries? To date, the research is limited to preclinical and animal model studies, with little to no evidence showing consistent benefits in humans (Trojian et al. 2017). There are, however, some human trials with severe traumatic brain injury showing potential positive results. The most common dietary supplements studied for the prevention and treatment of brain injuries include: omega-3 fatty acids, creatine, curcumin, resveratrol, melatonin, and a few specific vitamins.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There have been several animal studies investigating the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA or docosahexaenoic acid, in the treatment and prevention of concussions. DHA, along with EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid, are long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, found primarily in marine sources, such as fish and algae. DHA is recognized as being essential for brain development and function, because it is the primary structural omega-3 fatty acid present in the brain (Barrett et al. 2014). Because of DHA’s important structural and functional roles in the brain, consumption has been shown to be beneficial for cognitive function, including protection from any structural damage resulting from a TBI (Mills et al. 2011). It has been shown that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids before a concussion can reduce markers of brain injury and cell death (Mills et al. 2011) and that supplementing after a concussion can decrease the amount of injury the brain sustains (Bailes et al. 2010). Unfortunately, at this time there is no confirmed protocol for DHA supplementation, due to limited evidence from human studies. However, one study with American football players showed that supplementation with 2 grams of DHA daily reduced levels of the serum biomarker neurofilament light (NF-L) (Oliver et al. 2016), a marker of brain damage (Oliver et al. 2018). Although there is no formal protocol at this time, many organizations are recommending that all athletes participating in contact sports receive omega-3 fatty acids as part of concussion prevention and recovery process.
Creatine supplementation is most well known for the role in improving muscle mass growth and power; however, has recently come up in studies looking at the role in concussion treatment. Creatine is naturally found in the human brain. In the days following a concussion, reduced levels of creatine have been documented, coinciding with reduced levels of cerebral energy metabolism markers in the period following the concussion (Vagnozzi et al. 2013). Two human-based studies using creatine supplementation in children after sustaining a TBI showed that compared with the control group, the children who were supplemented with creatine had significantly improved cognition, communication, self-care, personality, and behavior (Sakellaris et al. 2006) and significantly decreased headaches, dizziness, and fatigue (Sakellaris et al. 2008). Based on these studies, creatine shows promise in the treatment of concussions; however, there is not a consensus on the amount or specific protocol at this time.
Curcumin is the flavonoid compound found in turmeric; the popular Indian spice that has become well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids, curcumin in particular, may exert an array of neuroprotective actions within the brain, including protection of neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins (Mendes et al. 2014); decrease neuroinflammation (Briones et al. 2013); and the potential to promote memory, learning, and cognitive function (Petraglia et al. 2011). Other studies have indicated that curcumin supplementation post TBI may reduce brain cell death (Zhu et al. 2014); however, because the research is currently limited to preclinical animal studies there is no recommended dose or protocol.
Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in grapes, blueberries, red wine, and nuts, is a potent antioxidant. There have been many studies evaluating the effects of resveratrol in treating concussions due to its ability to exert neuroprotective effects in degenerative neurological diseases (Saiko et al. 2008). The two animal studies evaluating resveratrol in the treatment of concussions did find that supplementation with resveratrol after a concussion can increase brain cell survival (Lin et al. 2014), as well as improve motor performance, visual spatial memory, and behavior (Singleton et al. 2010). There has been one human trial examining the use of resveratrol treatment in boxers who have sustained a concussion; however, this data has yet to be published. Therefore, there is no current consensus on resveratrol protocol for treatment or prevention of concussions.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and is known to help regulate sleep cycles. This is another supplement found to have potential brain protecting properties. Animal studies have shown that melatonin can decrease brain edema and intracranial pressure as well as the permeability of the blood brain barrier (Bayir et al. 2008, Kabadi & Maher 2010). Melatonin also has shown some value in animal models as a neuroprotective agent against Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Pandi-Perumal et al. 2013). However, these neuroprotective effects have not been studied in actual human models; therefore, there is no current specific recommendation for melatonin for the treatment or prevention of concussions.
Vitamins C, E, and D
These vitamins have been studied more than others for the treatment of concussions. Vitamin E is a potent lipid peroxidation inhibitor that is present in high concentrations in human brains (Petraglia et al. 2011) and lipid peroxidation inhibitors have been reported to be effective neuroprotectants in TBI models (Hall et al. 2010). Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, transforms vitamin E to its active form. Rats treated with vitamin E post-concussion had decreased functional neurologic deficits and microscopic brain damage (Conte et al. 2004) and reduced oxidative stress (Ashbaugh & McGrew 2016). When vitamin C is supplemented with vitamin E, there is significantly less brain injury due to oxidative stress than supplementation with either vitamin E or vitamin C alone (Ishaq et al. 2013). Likewise, by itself, vitamin D has not shown great promise in the treatment of TBI; however, with the combination with progesterone, there have been some promising results. In a rodent study, the combination of progesterone and vitamin D showed significantly reduced neuronal loss and proliferation of reactive astrocytes after a TBI (Tang et al. 2013). In two human studies, the combination of progesterone and vitamin D in patients with severe TBI resulted in significantly improved Glasgow Outcome Scale scores, a better recovery rate (Aminmansour et al. 2012), and a greater ability to reduce neuroinflammation (Singleton et al. 2010). Like other supplements, vitamins C, D, and E have shown promise for the treatment of severe brain injury; however, more research is needed for their use in concussions specifically.
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Allison Tropf, MS, RD, CSSD
Allison is a Sports Dietitian in Michigan. She enjoys helping others reach their nutrition and fitness goals through reliable and trustworthy recommendations.
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