How to Help Your Brain Heal After Injury

How you feel, think, and move, what you see and hear, literally every single thing originates in or is processed and assigned meaning by that three-pound mass in your head. I didn’t realize just how big a part my brain played in shaping my world until I had a serious brain injury.

Believe me, when your brain isn’t working right, nothing in your life works right.

Brain Injury Epidemic

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of death and disability in the United States. TBIs contribute to about 30 percent of all injury deaths. In other terms, 153 people in the United States die from injuries that include TBI every day. It’s the leading cause of death in Americans under the age of 45. Those who survive a TBI can face effects that last a few days or the rest of their lives.

My Injured Brain 

When I woke up from the coma I’d been in for the past week, I couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, and my brain couldn’t make sense of what it was seeing. To my surprise, garbled noises and mutilated words spewed from my mouth when I tried to speak. What did come out was disturbingly slow, flat, and mangled. The sluggishness of my speech was an indication of how quickly my brain was working – not very fast.

I’d tried to commit suicide by swallowing an assortment of pills, mostly brain drugs, and although I’d survived, my brain was stuck in a drugged stupor. Over the year following the attempt, I naturally recovered enough to resume living independently but was still mentally impaired. I had short-term memory problems, an inability to focus, aphasia, poor social skills, no math aptitude, and little impulse control.

By then, I’d healed enough emotionally to decide that I did want to live, and I promised myself, “I AM NOT living like this!” So, I started learning everything I could about rebuilding my brain. I tried anything that might help me from supplements and exercise to alternative therapies and brain training.  The more I learned, the better I got, and the better I got, the more I learned.

How to Support Brain Healing

Through exercisemindfulnessmeditation, other tools, alternative therapies (hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neurofeedback, acupuncture) and neuroplasticity, I worked at my rehabilitation every day, gained momentum, and steadily improved. I devised my own exercises to consciously direct, encourage, and take advantage of neuroplasticity.  From the time I got out of bed each morning until the time I went to bed at night, for years, my sole focus was on doing everything that I could do to rebuild my brain. And it did take years, but I recovered, far surpassing what the medical experts predicted.

Many variables affect recovery outcomes and every brain and brain injury are different. While it’s important to be realistic, it’s also important not to take away anyone’s hope or motivation. I have heard way too many accounts of the medical community making pessimistic predictions, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Nobody knows what’s possible until you try.

While each brain injury is unique, the conditions to support and encourage a brain in healing are not. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned and what I wish somebody had told me and my family. The alternative therapies, listed above, were absolutely crucial to my recovery. I can’t stress that enough. However, here I am just going to cover what you can do in your own life. Please click on the terms above to find out more information about each of them.

Sleep … and lots of it … is absolutely essential after injury.

Sleep is the number one most important thing to a healthy brain. Lack of sleep slows down thinking, impairs memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression in a non-injured brain. One Swedish study saw changes in men’s brains after not sleeping for just one night indicative of brain shrinkage and damage similar to a brain injury.

You will need extra sleep while your brain is healing. Unfortunately, sleep problems are common following brain injury. Your brain might be having a hard time making or using the chemicals that help you fall and stay asleep or its electrical rhythms may have been disrupted. A brain injury can also affect control of breathing, dreaming, or leg movements or other physical injuries may cause pain interfering with sleep.

After my injury, I couldn’t sleep deeply or contiguously. I would wake up several times at night and couldn’t go back to sleep. And when I got up in the mornings, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. It wasn’t until I started doing neurofeedback  six months after the injury that my sleep became deep and restful. I think that sleeping more soundly allowed my brain to start seriously healing. I then would allow myself to sleep as much as I felt like I needed to – sometimes as much as 16 hours a day.

Naps were absolutely essential to deal with debilitating mental fatigue during the days. Right after the injury, my brain would just shut down, and I would have to nap several times a day. The frequency of these episodes lessened over the years as my brain healed. An injured brain needs lots of downtime. Too much stimulation, stress, and interaction can exhaust a compromised brain.

Remember, your brain is working when it is processing information of any kind. Stimulation includes sights and sounds too. Don’t overwork your injured brain by giving it too much to deal with at any given time. Save your mental energy for healing.

Exercise is fertilizer for your brain.

Research shows that physical exercise improves memory and thinking skillsmood and creativity, and learning while reducing depressionage-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. So much evidence is accumulating that physical exercise is the miracle potion for getting and keeping your brain healthy at any age — and is especially helpful after injury.

Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels and trig­gers bio­chem­i­cal changes protecting the new resulting neu­rons by bathing them in nerve growth fac­tor (BDNF). These conditions encourage your brain to grow and change by forming new neural pathways and synaptic con­nec­tions, a process known as neuroplasticity.

Once I learned how beneficial moving my body was for my brain, my life became all about encouraging neuroplasticity through exercise. Self-directed neuroplasticity, guided by exercise and activity, was the key to my recovery.

For the first months after the injury, I went to the local Y, working out on the elliptical machine, Stairmaster, or treadmill, and in aerobic classes. The machines were challenging but not nearly as hard as the group classes. Because my timing and coordination were way off, I couldn’t keep up. That’s OK. I wasn’t there to look cool. I was on a mission. By repeatedly challenging my brain and body to do the movements, I forced my brain to make new connections to master the exact things that were difficult.

At ten months post-injury, I began doing cardiovascular activity every day for no less than 30 minutes. Everyday. No excuses. I remember running in the pouring rain and bundled up in the snow with only my eyes peeping out. At a year post injury, I also added hot yoga to the mix.

After an injury, if exercising is too ambitious for you, think and strive for “movement.” You really just need to move your body in whatever way you can. If all you can manage is repetitive arm or leg movements, do that. Even if all you can do is tighten your diaphragm or tense and release muscles, do that. Just visualizing moving your body in your mind can help too. There is scientific evidence proving that just visualizing moving a muscle strengthens and changes it – which means your brain is working.

How to Help Your Brain Heal After Injury

Feed your brain the nutrients it needs to heal.

What you put in your mouth has everything to do with what goes on in your head –and your diet is even more important when your brain is compromised.

The human brain is around 70 percent fat. To function optimally, your brain needs to maintain around this level of fat. But I’m not talking about saturated and trans fats found in many foods. Your brain needs essential fatty acids (EFAs) to function properly and heal. The article, The Influence of Diet and Physical Activity on Brain Repair and Neurosurgical Outcome, states:

A number of studies point to the healthy effects of dietary factors on the brain. For example, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve cognition, plasticity, and recovery of neurons after traumatic brain injury. 

You can find many personal accounts and some scientific evidence to support that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids can facilitate healing brain damage.

When I think back to the poor food choices I was given in the hospital — sugary and processed foods low on brain nutrients — it makes me sad. No medical professional counseled me or my family on how to eat to support my brain either. This was over ten years ago. Hopefully, things have changed. Diet is SO important to support brain healing.

An intelligent diet full of good-for-you brain food would include lots of protein, complex carbohydrates, leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and good fats. Michelle Munt, brain injury survivor and blogger, lists foods which support your healing brain in her article, 10 foods for riding the obligatory brain injury roller-coaster:

  1. Turmeric – It has been identified as having the ability to stimulate new brain cell generation in some cases. Also, it may lessen the development of plaque in the brain, the common cause of Alzheimer’s.
  2. Cashews – Full of nutritional yeast, it helps top up your vitamin B6 and B12. Both of these are linked to memory and overall brain health. Vitamin B is also important for fighting depression so might ease my grumpiness.
  3. Eggs – A particular type of vitamin B called Choline can be found in eggs. It’s important for cell membranes, and especially brain cells.
  4. Dark chocolate – Those with high cocoa content are loaded with antioxidants. These can help boost your memory and overall cognitive skills.
  5. Celery – Anyone who struggles to park the car should be eating it as it contains antioxidants which aid spatial awareness. It also reduces inflammation and improves memory and the ability to learn.
  6. Rosemary – Another one for spatial awareness. (If parking the car is still stressing you out, it will help lower stress too.)
  7. Spinach – It can protect against free radicals and inflammation. (I admit I don’t really understand what free radicals are, but I know they’re not good.) Often those who struggle cognitively are deficient in an antioxidant called Lutein. It helps with learning and memory. You guessed it, spinach is packed with it. Pop-eye might eat it for muscles, but it also helps him remember what he’s doing and learn from his adventures.
  8. Salmon – Packed with omega-3 which I think we all know is good for the brain.
  9. Avocado – Full of mono-saturated fats, it aids absorption of other nutrients.  But also it is a great source of vitamin E which is important for cognitive function.
  10. Yogurt – We are coming round to the idea that the gut and brain have more effect on each other than we previously recognised. So as yogurt has probiotics to support your gut, it can support your mental health.

A word about supplements – I took as many supplements after my brain injury, too many to list here. I took any and everything I read about which might help me at one time or another. My acupuncturist made a special “brain blend” of herbs and tincture for me. Did it help?  I don’t know, but I do know that I recovered fully.

I acknowledge that there is some question as to whether supplements really do anything or if they just make you have expensive urine. My thinking is that if you are dealing with a compromised brain, it’s not going to hurt to support it with supplements — and it might even help. Science is proving that vitamins and nutrients are part of successful therapy for treating brain injuries. At the minimum, I would recommend high doses of fish oil, a B complex, a good brain multivitamin, turmeric, and a probiotic.

** Read the side effects of any supplement you’re considering and thoroughly read the information that comes with it and any prescribed medication you are taking. Some supplements may interact with or conflict with medications. For example, some supplements may also thin blood, which could be dangerous if you’re already on blood thinners. Consult your doctor, but do not rely on them to warn you and keep up what you’re taking. It’s your or your caregiver’s job to ask. 

Train your brain.

I know the jury is also still out on whether computer brain training works. There are some studies that support brain gains and then there are others that totally dismiss any benefit. There is no debate in my mind. Brain training unequivocally produced substantial results for me in rehabilitating my injured brain. You can find out more about what specific training I did here.

Intensive computer brain training yielded dramatic improvements and was crucial to my recovery. My results may have been atypical and so significant because my brain had so much room for improvement to begin with or it could have been my particular type of injury. I don’t know. But I can tell you that it’s not going to hurt anything to see if brain training helps your brain recover and improve. The answer to the question “Does it work?” is “Does it work FOR YOU?”

Some might argue that any hours spent training could be better used by say exercising or even getting some extra sleep. While these activities are extremely important too, I’m going to tell you that with an injured brain, you don’t know what is going to help until you try it. When rehabilitating my brain, I tried any and everything that could possibly help. If I saw a benefit, I continued. If not, I stopped.

You can also train your brain with meditation and visualization.

There’s ample scientific evidence to support the many benefits of meditation for your brain. It’s been proven to increase gray matter density in a number of different brain regions. It supports neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells, which is essential to neuroplasticity.  Simply put, it grows your brain. When practiced at night, meditation may also increase melatonin levels, which helps you sleep and has a number of beneficial brain effects, including supporting neurogenesis.  There are even meditations which have been proven to increase focus and attention.

As mentioned above, visualization changes your brain. The thoughts, words, and images that run through your mind cause constant physical changes in your body. Neurons fire in your brain and neurochemicals are secreted whether something is being imagined or actually experienced.  From a neuroscientific perspective, imagining an act and doing it are not all that different. Read more about how to visualize here.

For years, I visualized daily to help recover from my brain injury. I would picture my mouth enunciating each word clearly and fluidly. I also visualized my brain retrieving words and information at lightning speed like Googling on a computer. It was amazing to me that almost everything I seriously spent time visualizing eventually came to be. Coincidence?  Maybe. Maybe not.

How to Tell If Your Brain Is Improving

Healing from a brain injury can take a long, long time — and I mean years. While I did see the most improvement immediately after the injury, I continued experiencing gains for years. When changes are significant and obvious, that’s wonderful. However, how do you know that the time and effort your investing in recovery along the way is paying off?

There is a device, called Brain Gauge, which gives you a quantified measure of your brain’s health and evidence that what you are doing is helping your brain. Conversely, it can also tell you if something – like staying up late, having a stressful week, or having those three cocktails last night – has degraded your brain function. It’s just as important to know what hurts as it is to know what helps.

The Brain Gauge is a laboratory grade research tool designed to measure brain function. It’s one of the only devices with superior resolution for measuring brain health available to the home user.  The Brain Gauge, which is used by both clinicians and researchers, has been in development for 15 years and combines state-of-the-art technology with decades of neuroscience research. Brain Gauge is not only the most powerful way to monitor subtle changes in brain function, but it’s a way to do it at home — at a fraction of the cost of one imaging scan.

***Use the discount code “bestbrainpossible” to get 10% off any brain gauge purchase.***

How to Help Your Brain Heal After Injury

How Does it work?

Technically, the Brain Gauge is a neurosensory assessment tool – which means that it tests brain functions with inputs from the sense of touch. The Brain Gauge is a small, computer-mouse shaped device that vibrates your fingertips and uses computer software to ask you various questions about the vibrations. The probe areas on the Brain Gauge vibrate your fingertips at varying times, intensities and frequencies in different tests. The tests measure reaction times and ask you questions about what you feel on your fingertips. For example, questions like “Which is larger?”, “Which came first?” and “Which lasted longer?” can assess specific brain processes and give you important information about your brain’s functioning.

What do the results look like?

The results, which come from the included software, are easy to interpret. Without any real knowledge of what the specific measures mean, graphs visually show you how you performed. For example, here’s a set of bar graphs from someone who used the Brain Gauge post-concussion. Long, green bars are signs of healthy brain function, while short, red bars indicate problem areas and impaired brain function. You can see that the individual improved each day after the concussion with more green bars at 100% on day 14 than on day 1.

***Use the discount code “bestbrainpossible” to get 10% off any brain gauge purchase.***

How to Help Your Brain Heal After Injury

The Brain Gauge is a valuable tool for a person recovering from a brain injury or the self-hacker wanting to improve their brain performance.  It’s sensitive enough to measure the direct impact that sleep, diet, exercise, or any other lifestyle factor has on your brain performance.

9 Comments

  1. This is so thorough, Debbie. I was especially interested in what you’ve said about sleep and the non-injured brain. Since the lava eruptions began, I’ve been sleeping more, up to 10 hours a day. I feel I need it to counteract the high level of stress and uncertainty all around me. I’m always so inspired by your story, I hope it will help many others.

    • Thanks, Sandra. Yes, I do think our brains need more restorative sleep during times of stress. I’m glad you are listening to your body. 🙂

  2. Great article. . had been taking many natural supplements and eat a clean diet. After my third stroke the docs looked over my supplements and said that three are natural blood thinners. because i was taking a mixed pill i couldn’t sort it out but now I am at such a loss as to what to do. I have had both a clot and two bleeds so I don’t want blood thinners. Any thoughts are welcome!

    • Tracy,

      Just as every brain injury is unique…so is every person’s individual medical situation. You bring out a good point…I will edit the post…a person should check to make sure supplements do not interfere with any medications you are taking. I don’t know which supplements you were taking or meds. I can’t begin to comment on your individual case nor would I give medical advice. But, I will say this, there are plenty of supplements out there that do various things. You have to find the right mix that works for you without interfering with your medications or blood consistency…since that is something which needs to be closely managed.

      All the best to you.

      Debbie

  3. This information is so helpful for anyone with a brain injury. While I don’t think I’ve had a brain injury, I did take a good fall when I was in middle school and needed a number of stitches in the back of my head. I have always been grateful it wasn’t worse.

    Nutrients, sleep and healthy food seems like great options to help a brain begin the healing process. The idea that meditation grows your brain is interesting as well.

  4. Hi Debbie, this is powerful and so informative. Will help many. As someone who woke from a coma with serious head injuries, after a week at 16 and was normal- my first memory was of having no hair and the Neurosurgeon handing me a pen and paper to write down the names of everyone I knew and I could – quite unusual i gather when you have had bone removed from bth sides of your brain . I always feel blessed that now 50 years on the only side effect I have is not being able to scuba dive and suffering in very cold winds. The german keel bone that was used to replace the bone is till going strong. Thank you for a brilliant post xxoo

    • WoW Suzie, you do have quite a remarkable story. it’s amazing that those are the only lingering effects. It’s inspiring. We just never know what is possible when we stay open to the possibilities. You must have one of your angels watching over you. 🙂

  5. Dear Debbie
    I like to THANK YOU for all the articles you have shared with us.
    I started reading your articles 1 year ago and found them to be really practical and realistic, sharing elements that you have personally experience (the good and bad) and giving advice as someone who clearly cares without imposing your stand.
    I realized i start to look forward to your articles each time they arrived in my inbox, cause they are so informative to anyone who wants to improve their life, and so valuable to those who needs that extra help (we all do at certain points in our life).

    This article is particularly so impressive, with lots of information and tools to help us/me. The experience you shared from your crisis to beyond your full recovery is very inspiring, admirable and beautiful.

    Thank you for being a guardian angel in your own way.

    • Rem,

      Thank you so much for your kind encouraging words. I do feel strongly about sharing what I have learned – the hard way. Maybe I can spare someone having to go through the hardship. 🙂 I also feel strongly that my way is not “THE RIGHT” way. We all have to figure out what is right for us. It’s different for everyone. All I can do is share what works FOR ME.

      All the best to you.

      Debbie

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