5 Nutrients that Aid in Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery

August 2, 2018




Meghan Gilmour

Without a doubt, good nutrition can improve the function of healthy brains, but what about unhealthy brains? According to current research, certain nutrients may encourage healing following traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injury refers to brain damage caused by an external force (such as a fall, car accident injury, or work related injury), and can permanently or temporarily damage an individual’s ability to move, socialise, or process information.1 

While research regarding nutrition therapy for brain injury is still in its infancy, studies show that certain nutrients may speed up healing and promote optimal brain function.

Calories are crucial

The brain needs calories (energy) to function and heal. Those with traumatic brain injuries should consume a variety of nutritious foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, whole grains, eggs, seeds, and lean meats) regularly, preferably every three to four hours.2 It’s important that calories come from wholesome sources instead of processed, junk foods, as these foods contain a variety of nutrients that encourage healing and promote optimal brain function. Calorie needs vary depending on a variety of factors, including mobility, age, and health status. Therefore, the help of an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) should be sought.

1: Protein


Protein plays numerous roles in the human body. It provides energy and aids in the creation of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.3 Protein is also critical to the formation, repair, and maintenance of bodily tissues, making it indispensable to those suffering from brain injuries. Recent studies show that an infusion of protein (1-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight daily) for two weeks following injury can significantly reduce brain inflammation and speed recovery.4,5

Though patients may initially receive protein infusions via intravenous or tube feedings while hospitalised, optimal protein intake should continue after hospitalization. Some good sources of protein include nuts, fish, lean meats, quinoa, and low-fat dairy products. The recommended dietary intake (RDI) of protein for men is approximately 64 grams daily, while women should average 46 grams.6 However, those with traumatic brain injuries should seek the help of an APD to determine the optimal amount of protein for brain injury recovery.

2: Zinc


Zinc, an essential mineral, is responsible for many vital functions in the human body, including cellular metabolism, wound healing, immunity, cell division, and the creation of DNA.7 Zinc is also found in many areas of the brain, including the olfactory bulb, amygdala, cortex, and the neurons of the hippocampus.8 To put it simply, zinc is essential to brain function and healing. Studies show that zinc deficiency may exacerbate the oxidative damage associated with traumatic brain injuries.8 This mineral can be found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, crabs, and fortified cereals and dairy products.8 While males and females require 11 and 8 milligrams of zinc daily, respectively, this mineral can become toxic when consumed in high doses (more than 40 milligrams per day).8 Therefore, the help of an APD should be sought to determine optimal intake levels.

3: Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient responsible for metabolism, fat transport, and the creation of neurotransmitters.9 A recent animal study found that choline supplementation may improve cognitive function, particularly spatial memory, following brain injury.10 Choline can be found in a variety of foods, including beef (particularly beef liver), toasted wheat germ, eggs, seafood, broccoli, brussel sprouts, milk, and peanuts.9 Women need to consume approximately 425 milligrams of choline per day, while men need 550 milligrams.9 Like zinc, choline can have adverse effects when taken in high doses (more than 7,500 milligrams per day), so an APD should be consulted for guidance.9

4: Creatine

Creatine (a chemical naturally produced by the kidney, pancreas, and liver) is responsible for energy creation within the body.11 The brain utilises approximately 20% of the body’s energy, making creatine vital to optimal brain functioning.11 Studies show that creatine supplementation may help improve brain function and shorten hospital stays following traumatic brain injury, though further research regarding the benefits of choline in traumatic brain injury is needed.12 While some animal foods contain creatine, dietary creatine is usually obtained via supplementation, which should be done under the supervision of an APD.

5: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids play an integral role in brain function, growth, and development.14 Research demonstrates that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may reduce brain damage following injury by impeding inflammation and nerve cell damage.15 There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acid: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (which are found in fish and other seafood), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in flaxseed, flaxseed oils, nuts, and leafy vegetables. It’s important to consume these fatty acids in proper ratios (i.e. 3EPA:2DHA) and intake recommendations vary depending a variety of factors, including health status, age, and gender. It is important to seek the help of an APD to guide supplementation.

Consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian

It is critical that all patients seek the assistance of an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) for guidance, as nutritional needs vary depending on a variety of factors, including health status, age, gender, and current prescriptions. Additionally, the APD should communicate with the patient’s doctor to ensure that their recommendations do not interfere with medications or other treatments. With caution and proper guidance, nutritional therapy can speed healing and improve cognition in those with traumatic brain injuries. 


  1. Dawodu ST, Kishner S. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) – definition and pathophysiology. Medscape website. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/326510-overview. Updated September 22, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  2. Keatley MA, Whittemore LL. Feed your body, feed your brain: Nutritional tips to speed recovery. Brainline.org website. http://www.brainline.org/content/2010/12/feed-your-body-feed-your-brain-nutritional-tips-to-speed-recovery.html. Published 2010. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  3. Swanson Topness E. 6 primary functions of proteins. SF Gate. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/6-primary-functions-proteins-5372.html. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  4. McMillen M. Report suggests infusion of calories and proteins may reduce inflammation and aid recovery. WebMD website. http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20110420/nutrition-may-help-treat-traumatic-brain-injury. Published April 20, 2011. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  5. Erdman J, Oria M, Pillsbury L. Energy and protein needs during early feeding following traumatic brain injury. Nutrition and Traumatic Brain Injury: Improving Acute and Subacute Health Outcomes in Military Personnel. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011.
  6. Protein. National Health and Medical Research Council website. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/protein. Updated September 4, 2014. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  7. Zinc. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements website. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/. Updated February 11, 2016. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  8. Erdman J, Oria M, Pillsbury L. Zinc. Nutrition and Traumatic Brain Injury: Improving Acute and Subacute Health Outcomes in Military Personnel. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011.
  9. Choline. Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center website. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/choline. Reviewed February 2015. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  10. Guseva MV, Hopkins DM, Scheff SW, Pauly JR. Dietary choline supplementation improves behavioral, histological, and neurochemical outcomes in a rat model of traumatic brain injury. J Neurotrauma. Aug 2008;25(8):975-983.
  11. Erdman J, Oria M, Pillsbury L. Creatine. Nutrition and Traumatic Brain Injury: Improving Acute and Subacute Health Outcomes in Military Personnel. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011.
  12. Evidence. Mayo Clinic website. http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/creatine/evidence/hrb-20059125. Updated November 1, 2013. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  13. Renee J. What is a natural source of creatine? Livestrong website. http://www.livestrong.com/article/440009-what-is-a-natural-source-of-creatine/. Published April 15, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  14. Omega-3 fatty acids. University of Maryland Medical Center website. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids. Reviewed August 5, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  15. Omega-3 fats critical to brain health after traumatic injury and surgery. International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids website. http://www.issfal.org/news/articles/2014/06/30/omega-3-fats-critical-to-brain-health-after-traumatic-injury-and-surgery. Accessed July 14, 2016.
  16. Omega-3 fatty acids: an essential contribution. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/. Accessed July 14, 2016.


Meghan Gilmour
Rebecca Earl

ACE-certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Nutrition Coach, Blogger. Qualified with Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science & Master of Science in Applied Nutrition (Concentration in Fitness and Nutrition).

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