When my three-year-old fell off the bottom step from a deck and bumped his head on the cement slab below, he cried, Grandma snuggled him, and she assured me it was no big deal when I arrived back from the grocery store.
My “mother’s intuition” is usually pretty quiet except in labor, but it was dancing around pretty wildly giving me an uncomfortable feeling, a sense that something deeper was wrong. On the way home for dinner, when I heard from the back seat, “I’m so tired, Mama,” I knew it was a bad omen.
That was the beginning of our journey through a pediatric concussion, and you can hear more details of that day in my post about natural concussion recovery and support and brain healing recipes with the Healthy Mind Cookbook, but today we have to explore the front end of the issue.
Are Concussions on the Rise?
Once this happened, it was like when you get pregnant and you see babies everywhere. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone had a concussion or knew someone who did. This was a trend I noticed starting about 6 months before because I watched a great deal of the Broken Brain docu-series and thought I would skip the episode on concussions and traumatic brain injuries. It wasn’t something that applied to me. Since it was relatively short, I ended up watching it, and I have used the information in that episode more than anything else from the entire series, even before we had a concussion event in our own family.
It really felt like there were more concussions being diagnosed among people I knew, first adults, and then at one high school youth group meeting, 3 of 24 kids were recovering from a concussion! I was certain rates had to be increasing.
As a curious soul, my mind was consumed with the question of why. Why does it suddenly seem like there are more concussions?
Is this just a result of awareness, of more education about concussions and therefore more diagnoses?
Is media attention on NFL players making us feel like it’s a bigger problem than it really is simply because we are so connected to the world, like how we feel the world is more dangerous now than a few decades ago even though it is safer?
Or is this more like the diseases of civilization… A trend actually caused by something we humans are doing, eating, or have invented in the past few decades that is literally making our brains weaker and more susceptible to injury?
The simple answer is yes, but I know you will want more than that!
Factors Contributing to the Rise in Concussions
YES, head injuries are being more accurately diagnosed because of greater education and awareness, in part because of football players in the news, although of course, they are in the news because science and medicine have begun to understand some terrible and frightening things about head injuries. This awareness is a good thing, and it’s especially important, as you will learn today, that we understand the cumulative effect of repeated brain injury.
But there’s likely a lot more going on as well.
Just as our bodies are damaged by processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, and toxins in the environment, causing a vast increase in autoimmune disease, mental health issues, and the diseases of civilization, our brains are impacted by our lifestyles in the same way.
The brains of American children (and adults) have a decreased resilience to injury, both on the entry and exit sides of the equation.
Entry meaning before an event happens: our brains are quite simply weaker, more fragile when a concussive event takes place, much like you can get away with dropping a jelly jar sometimes but never a thin-stemmed wine glass.
Exit means our brains are less able to recover from a concussion, because there are actual physical responses to the injury that, while helpful at first, must also be deactivated and cleared from the system or they will continue to cause immunoneurotoxicity:
“After a concussion, an immune response becomes triggered and immune cells known as microglia release powerful chemicals leading to widespread inflammation in your brain. If the levels of inflammation are high enough, brain cells can die…[which causes] excitotoxity. Your brain cells are being literally tickled to death.” (Brain Save! by Dr. Titus Chiu)
The cumulative effect plays a role here too. Because our brains are more susceptible to a small bump becoming a serious concussion, each little bump or jiggle is magnified, which means each subsequent injury is magnified even more. Add to that the fact that environmental input may cause the same biological reaction as a physical concussion plus the inflammatory Standard American diet, and our brain health after a concussion becomes, says retired Army Colonel Michael Lewis, M.D., author of When Brains Collide, “like smoking at a gas station.”
Let’s dig into the research behind each of those steps in this perilous path, which really is statistically leading to more concussions: Although participation in organized sports is declining in number, the rate of sport-related concussions continues to rise. The brain is showing its weakness in other areas too when we look at mortality rates: while total mortality is decreasing, neurological deaths have nearly doubled in the last decade.
We have Developed Weaker Brains
Congratulations, humankind, we have discovered an anti-evolutionary path for our brains!
In this 2014 research paper, Wendy Morley coined the term Diminished Brain Resilience (DBR) Syndrome to describe a “specific physiological state of nutritional functional deficiencies and altered microbiome created by modern-day exposures and lifestyle choices that lead to a diminished capacity to respond and recover from brain insults.” (source)
What sort of interactions with our environment cause our brains to be less resilient, quite simply weaker? Buckle up, this list is long! 🙁
- High omega-6 fats in industrial oils common in the American diet, like soybean, corn, cottonseed and more
- Low omega-3 fats – we just don’t eat as much fish as we used to!
- Magnesium and/or zinc deficiencies (you’re right if you thought you read about that recently; it’s one of the potential root causes in my undiagnosed depression)
- Serotonin (and thus melatonin) deficiency related to the above
- Glyphosate and the effects of Roundup on the shikimate pathways of our gut bacteria
- Other gut microbiome disruption, particularly from antibiotics/any poor gut health
- Aluminum toxicity, magnified in the presence of glyphosate
- Vitamin D deficiency (why we need to make sure we’re getting some sun exposure and save the natural mineral sunscreens for when you’ll be outside all day long)
- Stress, which causes inflammation and prevents us from getting into the parasympathetic state where our bodies can heal and rebuild
- Not getting enough healing sleep
- Food sensitivities, especially undiagnosed
- Lack of time in nature
- EMFs, which may mimic the exact mechanisms in the brain affected by a concussion – expert Nicolas Pineault, author of The Non-Tinfoil Guide to EMFs said in an interview, “EMFs may worsen or make our brains more susceptible to injuries.”
- Fluoride exposure, which may impact both sleep and neurotoxicity
“All this leads to inflammation and especially neuroinflammation which each bump on the head (even if it seems harmless) is amplified by the underlying inflammatory condition, making the resulting injury much more noticeable and increasing the symptoms,” Tara Ayranto, NTP, an expert in neurodevelopmental disorders in children told me.
Some of those environmental factors decrease our ability to detoxify or heal after a concussive event; many of them cause inflammation in our brains that make us more susceptible to brain injury.
Dr. Titus Chiu explained in an interview that we end up with “higher baseline brain inflammation and greater susceptibility to the physical trauma of a brain injury. Most of us, kids included, are chronically in a state of yellow alert. And so after a head injury go straight to red, leading to more cases of concussion and post-concussion syndrome.”
Although all of these factors are likely working together on “Team Weak Brain” against us humans, I bet you already have one or two picked out as the ring leaders, don’t you?
Nutritional status is Dr. Michael Lewis’s number one factor, as he explained to me: “As a population, we are overwhelmed by pro-inflammatory omega-6s to the point of >25:1 over pro-resolving omega-3s. It is like smoking at a gas station and omega-6 is the fuel making our brains more susceptible to injury and worse outcomes when they do occur.” He’s a huge fan of fish oil and I’m pretty sure he is on a mission to increase the omega-3 intake of the nation. 😉
Weaker Brains Don’t Detox Effectively
As it turns out, there are actual physical byproducts after a concussion that can cause additional problems in your brain.
Your body needs to rid itself of these problematic little metabolic by-products, so having strong detox pathways is important to recovering from a concussion. In people whose brains are inflamed from processed foods, stress, or lack of sleep, or who may have had a previous injury from which the brain could not fully heal, these detox pathways are compromised. The problems caused by the concussion continue to exacerbate symptoms and are like a rolling snowball picking up more and more as it goes.
Our bodies need a balanced microbiome, sufficient zinc, magnesium and glutathione levels, and well-functioning detox pathways to bounce back from a concussion and clear the metabolic by-products of the injury. Guess what many Americans are deficient in?
After a brain injury (even a mild concussion), people can experience secondary injuries from the excitotoxins that are no longer needed to fight the immediate effects of the injury – they’re literally bouncing around in your brain causing further, new damage.
When left unaddressed, these byproducts are not only the root of the cumulative negative effect of concussions in the brain but can cause continued and sometimes worsening symptoms, although often at such a slow rate that people don’t even relate it to their brain injury.
In fact, Dr. Titus Chiu, the “Doctor’s doctor” and an expert on concussions, ended up specializing in brain injury after his own automobile accident. He had healed himself of many physical ailments but realized he was sliding into poor mental health: depression, anger, excessive worry, paranoia. He didn’t know where it was all coming from for a while…
Dr. Chiu is a functional neurologist, although he never thought he wanted to specialize in brain injuries until he realized that he himself was suffering from post-concussion syndrome years after that accident! That’s what makes brain health so tricky – unlike a cut on the skin or a broken bone, a broken brain is harder to trace back to root cause (and know when you’ve completely healed).
We were fortunate enough to have a functional neurologist in our town, Dr. Brian Hanks, and he worked with my three-year-old after the concussion. He says often, “The brain doesn’t heal, it only compensates.” Most conventional medical doctors don’t know this, because they haven’t been taught it. And that’s yet another reason why we are seeing so many concussions these days. Most people who get even a minor bump aren’t actually healing, so they are more susceptible to the snowball effect of accumulation.
And the really bad news you don’t want to hear? The brain has a total toxic load of sorts, a bucket of injury that, when overfilled, may cause neurodegenerative disease. So your concussion(s) plus your toxic environment plus your inflammatory foods all pile up in the same “brain bucket” and may overflow as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s and the like, just as we’ve finally learned that multiple concussions may cause CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease affecting football players thought to only be able to be diagnosed through autopsy).
If you take nothing else away from reading this, understand that a concussion is not a one-day inconvenience or even a few months of recovery until you “feel” better. It’s a piece of the puzzle of your entire brain health that you carry with you throughout life.
Are Subsequent Concussions Worse than the First?
When we had babies struggling to sleep well, all four of them in fact, we were often told, “Sleep begets sleep.” In other words, getting your baby a really good daytime nap can help nighttime sleep be better and longer, and a good night’s sleep is often the genesis of a quality nap.
We can see the same pattern in reverse when it comes to making decisions. If I told you that bad decisions beget more bad decisions, you could probably think of any number of examples in your own life, usually at the end of the day, when you do something that isn’t optimal for your goals and it cascades into a slew of poor decisions. For example, you eat a bigger bowl of ice cream than you should or immerse yourself in social media or Netflix longer than would be best (we just keep scrolling, don’t we?). Suddenly, all you want to do is stay up too late, eat a whole bag of potato chips, and shirk any responsibility that may come to mind!
Human, meet your brain.
In the same way, a brain that has been physically injured by a concussive force, when left in that state, will practically be welcoming another concussion with open arms. Much like a child who simply can’t stop picking his scabs, it just gets worse and worse with each event when you never heal. And here the entry and exit of the event are both compromised. A brain with a previous concussion that has not had the proper therapy (and almost no one does), is like a thin-stemmed wine glass. Any bump is a bigger bump.
Plus, since the brain is already injured, that injury, however small, will stack up on the first and become a medium-sized or large problem.
If you bruise your left knee one day and your right the next, you have two sore knees. But if you bump your left knee again, everything is magnified. Such as it is with multiple concussions, and with environmental toxins being poured into the same “brain tolerance” bucket, it’s like we’re bumping our knee day after day, never allowing it to heal.
If your brain isn’t fully recovered, you may even simply be more off-balance or have tiny “blind spots” like you’ll see in my Healthy Parenting Connection video with Dr. Hanks, so you may be more likely to receive another bump on the head because of that as well! The cards are stacked against you!
Most medical doctors aren’t treating the brain after a concussion (or people don’t even realize their brain was jarred) and then they are more susceptible to the next big bump. “Traditional neurology and conventional medicine solely focuses on the diagnosis, and the treatment is geared towards suppressing the symptoms associated with that diagnosis,” Dr. Chiu explains in Brain Save. Ayranto agrees that there has also historically “been a lack of recognition of the cumulative impact of any head trauma (even your toddler falling and bumping their head multiple times as they learn to walk, etc).”
So every tumble as a toddler, bit of whiplash from a fender bender, and Round-Up spattered corn chips you eat all pile up in a bucket that can’t empty fast enough, compromising our brain’s ability to resist and heal from concussive injury.
It’s good to understand the importance of the cumulative effect of head injury, and we have NFL and military examples to thank for that, but much more work on how to heal from brain injury is needed.
There are two more posts in this series, on how to naturally support brain healing after a concussion or mild brain injury and steps everyone can take to improve their own brain resilience – basically the practical antidote to this depressing post!
Some Quick Home Tests to Figure it Out Below:
If you can’t see the video above, click Simple Brain Balance Tests at Home to see the video on YouTube, or see the full interview on Healing Concussions and Motion Sickness with Functional Neurology through our Healthy Parenting Connector series at Kids Cook Real Food.
Experts for Whom I’m Grateful Who Contributed to this Post
- Dr. Michael Lewis
- Dr. Titus Chiu
- Dr. Brian Hanks
- Nicolas Pineault
- Tara Ayranto
- Trudy Scott, Food Mood expert
- Heidi Hanna of the American Institute of Stress
- Melissa Gallico, author of The Hidden Cause of Acne
- Jessica Sherman