If you’re like many brain injury survivors, you might find the slow progress you’re making frustrating. Too often, rehabilitation from a TBI is a series of baby steps. While nothing can magically speed up this process, there are simple steps you can take to help your brain and body heal.
Read on for the 5 lifestyle changes that can help heal a brain injury.
Photo Credit: Pixabay, public domain.
Is working out the last thing you feel like doing? That’s common for TBI survivors. A brain injury leaves many patients with such fatigue that sleeping is just about the only thing they want to do.
However, exercise is good for your body and particularly your brain – especially after an injury. In fact, though medications aren’t always successful in helping brain injury patients recover, research shows pretty consistently that exercise can help the brain heal. The right exercises can even help TBI patients regain lost function.
What kind of exercises should a TBI patient do?
You will most likely want to start with some light daily exercise. While pushing yourself is important for making progress – particularly in your rehabilitation therapy – you also don’t want to take unnecessary risks or overexert yourself. Trying to do too much too soon can make your brain injury symptoms worse.
Even if you were a fitness buff prior to your injury, you should start out slow. If you hurt yourself in an overeager attempt to get back to your normal speed and intensity of working out, you could make your prognosis worse. Your rehabilitation will take even longer.
It’s a good idea to speak with your doctors and therapists about what sort of exercise is right for you at various points of your rehabilitation. Generally, though, a few kinds of exercise have proven to be helpful for patients recovering from a TBI.
Great exercises for brain injury patients include:
Many brain injury patients suffer from physical weakness. This weakness can make the movements that used to seem natural much more difficult. Strength training can help you overcome that muscle weakness.
Exercises using weight machines, resistance bands, and free weights are often good choices. Conventional strength training involves slow movements. However, researchers are currently studying the possibility that “ballistic” strength training may be better at enhancing muscle power and mobility, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reported. Ballistic strength training involves quicker movements.
Whatever form of strength training you choose, just be careful not to attempt lifting more weight than you’re ready for.
Has a brain injury has left you with limited flexibility? If so, following a regular stretching routine may be able to help. The routine doesn’t have to be time-consuming, and you don’t need special equipment to get started.
Loss of balance is a real concern for many brain injury survivors. Poor balance doesn’t just leave you disoriented. It can also put you at risk for falling and getting hurt, and in particular, for sustaining further brain damage.
Yoga is often a good choice for TBI patients, along with exercises like tai chi and Pilates. Just be sure to use caution when attempting these exercises. It’s best if you can work with an instructor who knows how to perform these exercises safely. You don’t want to hurt yourself attempting something you don’t know how to do.
The most effective type of exercise for brain injury patients is cardiovascular exercise, the NCBI Research shows that activities like running on a treadmill work best for helping the damaged neurons in the brain regenerate. If you’re not up to running just yet, that’s okay. Even walking can be a form of cardiovascular exercise.
Not every TBI patient is ready for every type of exercise. It’s important to communicate with your rehabilitation team. Find out what forms of activity your doctors and therapists think you are up to and which exercises will be most beneficial to you.
2. Get More Rest
This one’s easy: let yourself get some sleep. Your brain needs rest so it can heal. When you feel fatigued, it’s time to take a break from what you’re doing – and maybe even take a nap.
What makes sleep so important? The human brain actually has an amazing capacity for adapting. With time and therapy, many types of damage can heal – but only if the person gets adequate rest.
In fact, experienced case managers who work with TBI patients every single day often cite getting more rest as the first step to take to improve cognitive performance. Getting extra sleep can help with problems like lacking energy and moving at an unusually slow speed.
Although many brain injury survivors suffer from fatigue, they may also have trouble sleeping after the injury.
Some steps you can take to get more rest after a brain injury include:
- Make a plan to go to bed at a reasonable time. Remember, you need more rest than you used to.
- Take breaks regularly to avoid straining your brain or your body. Brain injury case managers often suggest limiting the time you spend on a task just 20 minutes to an hour. After that, you need a break so your brain can rest.
- Take midday naps when possible so your brain doesn’t become overworked during the day.
- Start (and stick to) a good “sleep hygiene” routine.
- If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, talk about the issue with your doctor.
- There are a number of things you can try to cope with insomnia and other sleep disorders, including meditation, relaxation therapy, phototherapy, natural remedies, and medications.
- Some brain injury patients develop sleep apnea as a result of the TBI. This condition doesn’t just interfere with getting enough rest – it can contribute to developing other serious health conditions and can significantly increase your risk of dying prematurely. Your doctor can determine if you need to be tested for sleep apnea.
Many TBI patients have the best intentions of getting rest, but may also have a hard time acting on those plans. If you have trouble following your plans to take breaks or go to sleep, set timers or have a reliable friend, family member, or caregiver remind you.
Don’t ignore these reminders. Without rest, you won’t be able to function as well – or to start getting better.
3. Eat a Better Diet
Photo Credit: Pixabay, public domain.
You already know that diet can affect your health. You probably don’t realize, though, just how much what you eat impacts how well your brain heals.
A lot of the losses of function that result from a brain injury happen due to damage to the synapses, the connections between nerve cells. Your body naturally creates the molecules that support the functioning of these synapses. Some dietary factors help your body better produce these molecular systems and improve the function of your synapses, the NCBI reported. Other dietary choices can actually get in the way of your body making these molecules.
What Should a TBI Patient Eat?
Following a healthy brain injury diet means your body has the right fuel it needs for the challenging work of repairing damage to the brain.
Some types of diets brain injury survivors should consider include:
Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids
For patients with a brain injury, omega-3 fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can make a big difference.
Omega-3 matters in brain injuries because these acids help patients achieve better cognition. They can even reduce the damage that results from brain trauma. Though your body can’t make DHA, the acid helps with the function of synapse membranes. This helps your nerve cells to better communicate.
Omega-3 fatty acids are typically derived from fish, but can be found elsewhere, as well. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flaxseed oil
- Fish oil
- Chia seeds
- Roasted soybeans
- Cooked spinach
- Seafood like cured smoked salmon, oysters, caviar, mackerel and other types of oily fish
Diets high in vitamin E
There’s another reason to eat your spinach, healthy oils, and nuts. Vitamin E can fend off molecules known as “free radicals.” These molecules prevent your neurons from functioning at their best. Particularly, vitamin E works well for improving memory and neurological functioning, according to the NCBI.
You can increase your vitamin E intake by eating foods such as:
- Almonds, pine nuts, and hazelnuts
- Raw sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- Mustard greens
- Turnip Greens
- Swiss chard
- Sunflower oil, olive oil, and coconut oil
Some studies show a link between calorie restriction and better function of neurons, the NCBI reported. In fact, some animal studies have pointed to a relationship between fasting every other day and better memory and resistance to brain degeneration. There is some evidence that a ketogenic diet – one that provides enough protein and is high in healthy fats but low in carbohydrates – could be helpful for TBI patients.
However, you have to be careful with this type of diet. It isn’t a good idea to starve yourself. You certainly need your strength to take on the challenging work of rehabilitation.
You should discuss your changing dietary needs with a medical professional if you have questions – or before you start a regimen like fasting every other day. Some brain injury case managers recommend that their patients consult with a qualified dietician to help them make the best dietary choices for their situation.
Diets that are low in saturated fat
Certain foods can actually sabotage your rehabilitation efforts. It’s best to limit the amount of saturated fats and refined sugars you consume.
Eating a lot of saturated fats can lead to lower levels of a protein that helps protect nerve cells and control the transmission of signals from synapses. Having lower levels of this protein results in poorer performance of your neurons.
Consuming large amounts of both saturated fats and refined sugar could cause you to be worse at spatial learning. That’s the last thing TBI survivors who are already trying to cope with this deficit need.
You don’t have to follow a super strict diet to improve your chances of recovery. Just incorporating healthy food choices and avoiding unhealthy foods can give your recovery efforts a boost.
4. Avoid Alcohol, Smoking, and Other Drugs
You might not think about the damage that substances like alcohol and tobacco do to your brain. If you’re already coping with a brain injury, though, maybe you should.
Consuming alcohol can make your memory issues, coordination problems, and trouble with impulsive behavior even worse. Smoking, too, can impact your brain and your memory by decreasing oxygen flow to the brain.
Any drug – that is, any substance that has a physiological effect on the body – can affect the brain and how it functions. Often, these effects are harmful unless prescribed by your doctor for your brain injury symptoms.
One possible exception is caffeine. Some research suggests that caffeine can help protect the brain from injury and disease, the NCBI reported. Of course, whether you would benefit from caffeine may vary from patient to patient. So can the amount of caffeine you should take. It’s a good idea to ask your doctor about your caffeine intake. Also, make sure you don’t go overboard consuming too much caffeine.
Some TBI patients may be able to safely consume alcohol in moderation. Others should avoid it entirely – especially early on after the brain injury. Ultimately, your rehabilitation team knows best what is and isn’t safe for you personally.
5. Take Your Vitamins
Photo Credit: Pixabay, public domain.
Whether you get them naturally as part of your regular diet or by taking supplements, certain vitamins can also assist in your brain injury recovery.
Sure, researchers are still studying the effects of vitamins on TBI patients to determine which vitamins offer the most benefits and how much is the optimal amount. However, existing research shows that the following vitamins and minerals appear to have promising effects on brain injury recovery:
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Don’t go running out to the pharmacy or the health and nutrition store just yet. While these vitamins can be very helpful, they can also be troublesome – even toxic – when taken in excess. Supplements and herbal remedies can also interact dangerously with each other and with over-the-counter or prescription medications.
Your rehabilitation team is there to help you throughout the long journey toward recovery. That means answering all of your brain injury rehabilitation questions – even questions about the lifestyle changes you can make to enhance your recovery.
Each of these 5 easy steps can improve life after a brain injury – and they all involve healthy choices you can start making right now. Every positive lifestyle change you make helps your body and brain become stronger. Research suggests that the combination of healthy diet and exercise choices has an even more pronounced effect on the healing of a brain injury and the regeneration of damaged neurons and synapses.
So go ahead – start putting these tips into practice today!