When I was younger, it wasn’t uncommon for me to “see stars” after a bang on the head.
I remember lifting my head too fast when exiting a basement once… and getting clocked by the bulkhead door.
At age 12, I got hit in the teeth by a baseball bat that had been swung by a boy who mistook my face for the ball.
And as a young teen, my uncle knocked me out when I walked straight into a punch he had pulled while we were horsing around (thus cementing my reputation as the “glass jaw” of the family.)
In all cases, I was knocked out or close to it, but I shook it off and popped back up.
Now decades later, I thought about those times as I watched the juxtaposition of the end-of-life version of Muhammad Ali shuffling and freezing with the last stages of Parkinson’s Disease with the youthful Ali, employing his “Rope-a-dope” strategy. He became somewhat infamous for taking as many punches as he could to tire out his opponent.
Common wisdom says — and I believe — that the multitude of punches to his head was the cause of his Parkinson’s. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is now known to lead to a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disease that’s the result of head trauma earlier in life.
And now we know that CTE can mimic Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases in which the brain literally “shrinks.”
On a molecular level, there seem to be a number of similarities between CTE and these known brain illnesses:
- chronic inflammation of the brain, leading to disruption of intracellular and intercellular messengers
- a damaging of the glucose metabolism in the nervous system, leading to an underproduction of energy, and
- a disruption of the cerebrospinal fluid circulation, an activity that is critical in clearing toxins from the brain.
So it turns out that the “dings” that we might have experienced when we were younger, even if they were fleeting at the time, may have disabling neurological effects much later in life.
Protects before and after your lights get knocked out
CTE (and TBI) is very much in the media today, primarily because of the former NFL players who’ve been posthumously diagnosed with CTE… but also because of the recently-released movie Concussion starring Will Smith (who also happened to have portrayed “The Greatest” in the movie Ali).
Fortunately, we are becoming more aware of the ways we can use natural medicines—so-called “neuro-prophylactic compounds”—to prevent the results of concussion, even decades after the fact.
According to a recently published “meta-analysis” of the many studies already published of these neuro-prophylactic compounds,1 many of them are antioxidants. This isn’t surprising, since there’s an inflammatory and oxidative component to CTE.
One such antioxidant compound is resveratrol, which you’ve read about in past issues of Nutrition and Healing for other purposes like heart health. Resveratrol is an example of a flavonoid, the very metabolically active portion of the plant kingdom that gives plants their unique smells, colors, and taste as well as their potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
While there haven’t been any human trials as yet, multiple in vitro and animal trials have shown that it crosses the blood-brain barrier and improves the outcomes in situations that stem from TBI (and stroke, spinal cord injury, etc).
Some animal studies have shown that resveratrol can improve both behavior and neurological activity when given after head trauma; and other animal studies have demonstrated that resveratrol can slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
It can lessen fluid on the brain (cerebral edema) and anxiety, and it can improve functional performance and memory. Even movement is enhanced!
While it is thought that the anti-inflammatory effects of resveratrol are responsible for its activity, there are suggestions that it has other neuroprotective effects as well.
Another natural product that has been shown to have remarkable neuroprotective effects is green tea. Green tea actually has three components that are known to protect the brain:
- Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a flavonoid like resveratrol. EGCG readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and into the brain where it has been shown to improve cognitive function after neurological traumas. In addition, animal studies have demonstrated protection in ALS, PD, and AD.
- L-theanine, a unique amino acid that’s thought to give green tea its relaxing qualities. Like EGCG, theanine has been shown to be anti-inflammatory to nerve tissue and to protect it from injury.
- Methylxanthine, best known as caffeine. Caffeine actually acts as a so-called “nonselective adenosine receptor antagonist,” which enables it to model and modify cell signals in the nerves, as well as enhance nerve healing after injury. Multiple studies using experimental injury to nerve tissue have shown that, over time, caffeine intake is neuroprotective. Intracranial swelling has been shown to decrease with caffeine, and neural inflammation is decreased. A large observational study of caffeine intake showed a 22 percent reduction in Parkinson’s disease with coffee and a 28 percent reduction with tea.
Although there are no clinical trials of caffeine in brain injury, there is much suggestion of its effectiveness. Adenosine levels, which are affected by caffeine, are elevated following TBI, and subsequent elevated caffeine levels in the cerebrospinal fluid are associated with improved outcome of TBI.
One of my favorite natural products that shows promise in reversing the effects of TBI is another flavonoid, called baicalin. As I’ve shared with you in previous newsletters, this substance from the scutellaria (skullcap) plant has been studied for its effectiveness in cancer and inflammatory diseases, as well as in brain disorders.
Multiple studies of all kinds have demonstrated the positive effects of baicalin and the other components of skullcap in decreasing inflammatory messages in the brain—particularly something called NFkB, an inflammatory messenger that’s implicated in much of the damage to the brain following injury.
You can bounce back
Several studies have shown vitamin E to be effective in protecting the brain from the damages of injury.
In one animal study, daily intravenous vitamin E improved function after TBI, in a six-month follow-up. In another study, vitamin E reduced the damage and loss of cognitive function of even repetitive concussions.
The high antioxidant activity of vitamin E can sometimes result in altering the vitamin E itself, leading to increased oxidation, so it’s frequently given along with vitamin C, which prevents this from happening.
High-dose vitamin C therapy has also been shown to have neuroprotective effects and to enhance nerve healing after an injury.
Vitamin D is another nutrient that has been studied for its potential use following TBI. Vitamin D actually acts as a hormone—and, as such, it can be used to enhance hormone therapy.
In the case of TBI, Vitamin D seems to enhance the positive effects of the hormone progesterone. Currently, Phase III multi-center studies are underway of progesterone’s use in treatment of TBI.
Finally, creatine is an amino acid that’s useful in maintaining proper brain and muscle function, and there seems to be enough evidence that creatine is useful in improving recovery from brain injury if given soon after.
We know that TBI lowers the creatine level in animal brains and that giving creatine to animals lessens the amount of brain damage caused by subsequent injury. But we also think that the role of creatine in improving metabolism and energy in tissues, including brain tissue, is responsible for its role in protecting the brain from damage.
In one study, children who were given creatine within a few hours of a concussion seemed to have less cognitive problems afterwards. Other studies have shown similar results in adults.
In one study of TBI in adults, creatine therapy showed significantly better function, including cognitive function and behavior, than those who did not receive the supplement.
Turn back the clock on brain injury
We are just beginning to recognize how thoroughly a knock to the noggin can affect us in the long run — and its effects may take decades to manifest.
So as we discover even more natural substances and treatments that protect our fragile nervous systems, I’ll be sure to continue sharing the latest with you.
And if you’ve already taken a few punches to the skull, it’s not too late to start trying to repair the damage that’s been done. Because while you keep taking hits, your opponent in the ring isn’t tiring out anytime soon.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 8 • August 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.