Concussion and Leaky Gut: What a Dietitian Says
What is the connection between concussion and leaky gut?
Have you been frustrated trying to heal gut symptoms like nausea, gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation after a concussion?
What nutrition and supplements recommendations support your leaky gut after a concussion?
Get the inside scoop from a registered dietitian nutritionist who has personal experience with post-concussion symptoms.
In this article, written by registered dietitian nutritionist Amy Archer, you will learn about concussion and leaky gut, the connection between them, and how to reduce post-concussion symptoms with treatments by implementing good nutrition, supplements, stress reduction, and vagus nerve stimulation.
This information is for educational purposes only. As with any medical advice, always check with your doctor or healthcare professional for personal and age-appropriate recommendations.
Let’s dive into science-based information.
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Table of Contents
What is a Concussion?
A concussion is defined as a mild blow to the head or violent shaking of the head, or a hit to the body that causes the brain to shake back and forth.
Maybe you had a sports related injury, a fall, or a worksite accident and now you have a concussion. A mild traumatic brain injury can even happen by simply hitting your head on a cabinet, knocking your head on the top of a car, or bumping your head on the shower door by accident.
You need to get checked by a medical professional as soon as possible even after a mild head injury as early treatment is beneficial.
Awareness of concussion (sometimes known as mild traumatic brain injury-mTBI) is increasing. Have some of your friends, relatives, or neighbors been diagnosed with a concussion recently?
Initial treatment involves removal from activity with a rest of at least 24-72 hours after injury, treatment of symptoms, and prevention of further injury while healing (1, 2).
After an initial rest period, your initial treatments may include a combination of (3):
- Aerobic exercise
- Cervical physical therapy
- Vestibular therapy
- Vision therapy
- Cognitive rehabilitation
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Pharmacological management
In my experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist, functional nutrition treatment can play a big role in symptom reduction and improving your gut-brain health.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut (also called intestinal permeability) occurs when the gut lining is damaged, and this allows harmful toxins, bad bacteria, and undigested food to leak into the tissues and bloodstream causing inflammation in the body.
Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain
Many people who experience brain injury also experience gastrointestinal dysfunction. But, how does the leaky gut, leaky brain happen?
Inflammation across the gut-brain axis can lead to inflammation in the brain. This inflammation may play a role in depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders (4).
How are Concussion and Leaky Gut Connected?
Your gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve which travels from the brain to the intestines. For this reason, it is common to experience changes in digestion like nausea, heartburn, gas, bloating, or change in bowels after a concussion.
To explain a bit further, your vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that controls many body functions in your body including (5, 6):
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
You may have heard “rest and digest”. This is a function of the PNS and when the PNS is activated, it helps calm the body.
When a concussion occurs, this traumatic event activates your sympathetic nervous system (opposite of your PNS) or “flight or flight”. Your “flight or fight” takes over and vagus nerve activity is decreased (including digestion).
Your digestive system slows down which means your enzymes and ability to digest food, and ultimately the waves in your gut that move food. This change in gut function can increase the openings in the gut lining and can lead to leaky gut.
How Does a Leaky Gut Lead to Brain Inflammation?
As we discussed, your gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. When you have a leaky gut, this can cause an immune response leading to inflammation in the body including the brain (7).
This immune response can increase cytokines (these are proteins that in excess can lead to inflammation) which have been shown to play a role in mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline.
Does Concussion Affect the Microbiome?
The gut microbiome plays a critical role in regulating brain function and the microbiome can be affected by the brain’s response to trauma.
A small study of 33 Division 1 Collegiate football players showed initial evidence that changes in the gut microbiome occurred after a concussion and this may help to improve diagnosis of a concussion after a head injury (8).
Traumatic brain injury causes increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) (9, 10). After a concussion, your gut lining is affected, and larger particles can pass into the bloodstream. When the immune system recognizes these larger particles as “foreign invaders”, inflammation occurs.
Gut inflammation is associated with dysbiosis or a change in the microbiome. The inflammation that occurs in the gut can travel throughout the body including the brain.
The gut and brain are connected, and many people experience gut symptoms like nausea and vomiting shortly after a concussion.
Will Healing a Leaky Gut Improve Concussion Symptoms?
Gut health is important for brain health. Reducing leaky gut can support concussion recovery by reducing body (and brain) inflammation and symptoms.
Until your gut is healed, you may experience post-concussive symptoms.
Researchers are looking at ways to diagnose concussion via the gut microbiome (11).
Supporting a Leaky Gut After a Concussion
Nutrition, supplements, mindfulness, and activating the vagus nerve help with gut-brain healing after a concussion. The benefits of supporting the gut and brain after a concussion include better digestion and reduced concussion symptoms like headaches and fatigue.
Early clinical care following a concussion has shown to decrease recovery time.
Anti-inflammatory Diet for Brain Injury
An anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce inflammation after brain injury. The best foods after a concussion include:
- A ketogenic diet
- Omega-3 fatty fish
- Magnesium rich foods like nuts and seeds
- Antioxidant foods like dark green leafy vegetables and berries
- Creatine in protein foods
Supplements for Concussion Recovery
If you need gut healing, the 5R protocol may help improve gut symptoms which may include some gut healing supplements like zinc carnosine. 5R stands for remove, replace, reinoculate, repair, and rebalance.
The best concussion supplements to optimize brain healing include:
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Mindfulness/Stress Reduction for BDNF
When stressed, your cortisol levels may increase therefore, stress reduction is important as a rise in cortisol inhibits neuroplasticity (growth of brain neurons) (12).
Lowering stress may increase neuroplasticity of the brain and increase BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor).
Some ways to reduce stress include:
- Deep breathing
- Optimal sleep
- Healthy relationships
Ways to Activate the Vagus Nerve
Research is showing that vagus nerve stimulation can benefit many chronic diseases (13, 14). Increasing the vagal tone helps your body relax after a stressful event.
Using your vocal cords as well as calming the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic nervous system) are ways to stimulate the vagus nerve including (15):
- Mediation (16)
- Deep Breathing (17)
- Music-singing, humming, chanting, gargling (18)
- Cold water plunges
Concussion occurs when there is a violent blow to the head or a shaking of the head that causes the brain to shake back and forth.
Leaky gut happens when the lining of the gut is damaged and foreign invaders leak into the tissue and bloodstream causing inflammation to the body (and brain).
The gut and the brain are connected via the vagus nerve.
A concussion can affect the microbiome.
Nutrition, supplements, stress reduction, and vagus nerve stimulation can support concussion recovery and improve post-concussion symptoms.
Read the blog for more information on functional nutrition.
Test don’t guess.
Contact me to schedule an appointment to review your personalized nutritional health.
© Amy Archer RDN, CLT, CHWC