top of page
  • Writer's pictureJake Psenka

Nutritional Influences on Brain Trauma

I recently wrote this article for Cowboy Life Network. The power of medical prevention through nutrition is truly amazing.

Not long ago a good friend of mine fell off her horse while trail riding in Arizona. When she fell onto the hard desert ground, she luckily avoided smacking her head but did manage to break her wrist. After a few months of discomfort, surgery, and the addition of some new stainless-steel hardware she’s almost back to 100%. Another friend recently suffered a severely broken foot after she was accidentally stepped on by her horse. After several months of wearing a fracture boot she’s now back in the saddle.

It seems that people who ride horses and those who live the ranch and rodeo lifestyle seem to be prone to getting hurt.

Interestingly, about a year ago the Kansas Journal of Medicine published a article describing the injuries sustained in rodeo events. The research looked at the number of people who presented to a level-one trauma center after being injured in a rodeo event. 70 people were identified; half were injured by a rodeo animal and the other half were injured after taking a fall. Over 50% of those hurt sustained head injuries, making it the most frequent type of rodeo injury.

Concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are what to worry about whenever someone takes a hard hit to the head. Our brains are suspended in our skull by a layer of fluid called cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid acts like a buffer to prevent our brains from getting damaged by slamming into the skull when we experience rapid acceleration, deceleration, or unexpectedly meet the ground too fast. The term concussion refers to a mild type of TBI. Moderate and severe TBI’s can also be experienced. Symptoms of concussion include nausea, confusion, dizziness, headache, visual disturbances, and light sensitivity. “Red Flag” symptoms that might indicate a more severe TBI include slurred speech, vomiting, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

Lots of people often approach injuries with a “get up, dust off, and get right back to it” attitude. This approach is a risky move for head injuries. Whenever dealing with a head injury safety is the best policy. When in doubt, sit it out and get checked out. It’s not just the initial trauma that is concerning, as experiencing a TBI can cause long-term problems. A condition known as Post Concussive Syndrome affects between 24-84% of people who experience TBI and can last for several months or more. Further, research has suggested that up to a staggering 75% of people who experience TBI develop major depressive disorder.

With that all being said, one might ask about steps that could be taken immediately after sustaining a concussion to minimize the chance of long-term adverse effects. One might also wonder if there is anything that a person could do from a preventative standpoint, knowing that sooner or later they might hit the ground.

The answer to those questions is yes, there are a few things a person can do to facilitate faster more complete healing and to help prevent problems at the time of impact.

Many people are familiar with fish oil and have heard they contain omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that when fish oil is supplemented within 24–120 hours after a TBI there was accelerated symptom resolution and a faster safe return to activity. Further, DHA and EPA , which are the specific fatty acids found in fish oil, can benefit people by supporting performance, recovery, and reducing illness and injury risks. DHA, aka docosahexaenoic acid, specifically makes up 97% of all fatty acids found in the brain structure, and it plays a vital role in brain development, cognitive functioning, and potential brain recovery. Unfortunately, dietary intakes are low, especially those in Westernized countries and athlete groups, resulting in low DHA levels in the brain, and a greater risk of worsened response and further depletion in the event of a TBI. Low DHA availability will subsequently result in reduced neural protection and cognitive recovery and repair support after sustaining a TBI.

Omega-3's also have potent anti-inflammatory action and can help treat and prevent depression, making this a particularly important supplement from a prevention standpoint.

Cold water fish and seafood as well as unroasted nuts and seeds are good dietary sources of omega-3's. Fish oil supplements are readily available, but it’s important to know that quality varies. Cheapest isn’t likely the best. A product with a standardized amount of EPA and DHA is best and a good adult dose is around 2000mg per day.

Vitamin D is another very important nutrient for brain health. Vitamin D plays an important role in neurodevelopment, neuroprotection, neurofunction and overall brain health. Adequate serum vitamin D levels are important especially for those who encounter TBI. Like DHA levels, vitamin D deficiency is common. One study found that 94.8% of those experiencing a TBI were severely deficient. A vitamin D deficiency places patients at risk for poorer recovery after a TBI, leading to unregulated inflammatory and immune responses, reduced neuroprotection and increased risk of cell death. Providing vitamin D supplementation to deficient individuals with acute TBI led to improved outcomes by reducing inflammation and damage resulting from the injury. Additionally, vitamin D deficiency can negatively affect a person’s testosterone level, increasing the chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue post-TBI. The take home message is that having adequate vitamin D levels can help minimize the side effects of TBI.

Mushrooms, liver, and oysters are good sources of vitamin D. If those items don’t make it on the menu too often, a vitamin D supplement can help ensure healthy levels. Our bodies can also convert the sun’s ultraviolet radiation into vitamin D, but risking sunburn and skin cancer makes taking a supplement a good bet. It is a good idea to have your vitamin D levels checked with your annual medical exam. If your doctor isn’t doing this, then ask them to test it or find a new doctor. It’s too important to leave out.

Another nutrient that has the potential to treat and even possibly prevent serious adverse effects of TBI is magnesium. Magnesium is a vital mineral that is responsible for many cellular and enzymatic functions. Following a TBI, magnesium levels acutely fall in the brain, and this decline in magnesium has been found to increase a persons’ risk of prolonged symptomology and poorer recovery. Therefore, taking magnesium may replenish levels in the brain following an acute TBI and lead to symptom improvements for patients

It has been estimated that roughly 50% of Americans are deficient in magnesium. Poor dietary choices are the most likely cause of this deficiency. To make matters worse, low magnesium levels can make vitamin D ineffective. Replenishing magnesium levels is fairly easy to do, pumpkin seeds, green vegetables, eggs, brown rice, and cashews all contain good levels of magnesium. The current RDA for magnesium is between 320-420mg, although many believe the optimal intake is a few hundred mg’s higher.

While it seems that those who actively enjoy the cowboy and rodeo lifestyle might have a slightly higher risk of head injury, medical science is providing new ideas about treatment and prevention. Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, vitamin D3 from mushrooms and sunlight, and magnesium from pumpkin seeds and green vegetables can not only improve recovery but may also prevent serious adverse outcomes of TBI’s. Additionally, getting in more of these dietary nutrients is associated with many other health advantages as well, such as lowering the risk of heart disease and preventing cancer. It’s always good practice to take a proactive approach to health. There’s no good reason to not start being healthier. Consuming a healthy diet is the easiest, and one of the most beneficial things a person can do to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiency, chronic disease, and even help to minimize the effects of taking a hit to the head.

And of course.....always wear a helmet.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page