Many doctors’ first response to a concussion is to recommend resting in a dark room until symptoms go away. And if that doesn’t work (and it won’t for up to 30% of post-concussion patients), their next step is often to prescribe medications for the symptoms that haven’t gone away.
But medications aren’t a good solution for most concussion patients. What if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life on ten different meds, some of which have side effects and long-term risks? Or what if you have a really bad reaction to the medication and can’t take it?
Medication after a head injury is complex. It’s not not a complete solution to patients’ problems because it doesn’t address the injury itself; the best medication can do is mask your symptoms.
After you’ve had a head injury, you have a higher risk of adverse reactions to medication. Even if that’s not a problem, finding the right medication for each symptom is difficult.
There aren’t many medications for cognitive symptoms that result from a brain injury (such as brain fog, trouble with decisions, or cognitive overload). The standard medications for treating headaches or mood issues often have side effects that worsen other post-concussion symptoms, such as fatigue, cognitive issues, vision problems, and mood changes. And once you’re medicating other systems (such as nausea, digestive issues, or blood pressure), that’s a lot of potential drug interactions and side effects to juggle.
While the occasional medication may be your best move, there are natural ways to handle post-concussion syndrome — both the symptoms and the root cause. Patients who come to our post-concussion syndrome treatment clinic, Cognitive FX, tell us how relieved they are to know there are non-pharmacological ways to approach lasting post-concussion recovery.
In this post, we discuss eight natural remedies for post-concussion symptoms we’ve used ourselves or recommended to our patients:
If you have lingering symptoms from a concussion, you’re not alone. As many as 30% of concussion patients do not recover without treatment. 95% of our patients experience statistically verified restoration of brain function after natural therapy at our clinic. To learn if you’re eligible for the program, schedule a free consultation here.
Eight Natural Remedies for Post-Concussion Syndrome
Persistent symptoms of a concussion stem from one or more of the following causes:
Dysfunctional neurovascular coupling in the injured brain (in short, miscommunication between neurons and the blood vessels that supply them with the resources they need to function at their best).
Autonomic nervous system dysfunction, aka dysautonomia (a common complication after brain injury that can affect almost any organ system in your body, from lungs to heart to gastrointestinal tract).
While there may be other issues (especially if you sustained any physical damage to the brain or neck), these are the ones we see most often when patients come to our clinic. Hormonal imbalances may need to be treated with hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), but the others — brain dysfunction, dysautonomia, vision problems, and vestibular problems — can all be treated naturally with therapy and homeopathic remedies.
Of all the eight remedies we discuss in this post, the first — cognitive and physical therapy — is the most critical to your recovery.
#1: Cognitive and Physical Therapy
Our brains have a natural ability to heal called neuroplasticity. It can build new pathways around damaged tissue and responds well to the right kinds of therapy.
Some people wonder: If the brain has the ability to fix itself, at least to a certain extent, then why do we need therapy at all?
The problem is that the brain doesn’t always choose a better configuration of neural pathways than before. You can train your brain to have less efficient pathways or more efficient pathways. For people who suffer from lingering symptoms after a mild traumatic brain injury (mild TBI), the brain is “stuck” using worse pathways than before their injury.
The good news is that those pathways are not fixed in stone. Many talented researchers have uncovered ways to prompt the brain to heal with the right combinations of therapy. At Cognitive FX, we employ these therapies in various combinations to help the brain heal itself using neuroplasticity after a brain injury:
We tailor the exact mix of therapy to the needs of each patient’s brain. How? Using a type of functional MRI — the fNCI scan — we can “see” which brain regions were affected by your injury and in what way, based on blood flow in each brain region. That gives us more information to pick the right mix of therapies for recovery.
Our patients complete these therapies after cardio exercise because of something called the post-exercise cognitive boost (PECB). Exercise is a natural way to send a surge of helpful neurochemicals through your brain, preparing it to better respond to the multidisciplinary therapies we use throughout the day.
This approach works. On follow up fNCI scans, 95% of our patients show statistically verified restoration of brain function after treatment. On average, patients improve by 75% after one week of post-concussion treatment. They self-report an average symptom improvement of 60% (and that’s while they are actively pushing their brains to the limit each day!).
When it comes to natural recovery from post-concussion syndrome, multidisciplinary therapy can’t be beat. It’s the only approach that directly targets the cause of your symptoms rather than masking them.
While doing these therapies individually (such as just vision therapy, or just occupational therapy) can be helpful, it is far more impactful to do multiple therapies in a short time span. For example, our patient Sam tried multiple treatment options that included physical and vestibular therapy before coming to Cognitive FX. But because our program used multidisciplinary therapies tailored for her brain, she made the recovery she wasn’t able to make at other clinics.
That said, you can help your body through the healing process with the other seven remedies we’ve listed below.
#2: A Brain-Friendly Diet
One of the best ways to speed up your recovery time (and keep caring for your brain for years to come) is by eating an anti-inflammatory diet rich in the nutrients your brain and nervous system need to function at their best.
Drink enough water. Out of all our nutrition-related recommendations, this one is the most important. Your brain absolutely must have enough water for you to feel and function better. Here’s a way to calculate how much you need:
Let’s say you weigh 220 lbs. That means you need 110 oz per day — almost a gallon of water! Most people don’t drink that much water per day; if you’re struggling, buy a large water bottle (at least 24 oz) and bring it wherever you go, so you remember to keep drinking.
Choose foods that have the nutrients your brain needs. It’s always better to eat regularly than not at all, so the best food to eat is the food you can get. But if you can make some healthier choices, here’s an infographic to help you decide what to buy:
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish, olive oil, and nuts) are especially important for your brain. If you’re not able to get enough omega-3’s from your diet, consider a fish oil supplement.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine may have detrimental effects on your recovery. You can read more about that (and when it’s safe to resume drinking them) here. That said, if you were drinking caffeine before your injury, try not to change your intake drastically. It’s better to continue drinking the same amount and slowly decrease over time than to force your brain to adjust to a major change.
Avoid artificial sweeteners. While processed sugar is not good for your brain, sweeteners like aspartame and stevia are even worse because they trick your brain into thinking you’ve consumed calories when you haven’t. Instead, opt for low glycemic, natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar. These sweeteners are not inflammatory and are gentler on your body.
#3: Vitamins and Other Supplements
A healthy diet is the best source of vitamins and antioxidants. But you may have vitamin deficiencies that require supplementation. Even subclinical (i.e., not low enough to be flagged on a blood test as deficient) levels of these vitamins can result in physical and mental fatigue. That said, you should still work with your doctor to determine which supplements you need and how much you should take, as it is possible to overdose on vitamins.
These are the most important vitamins for brain health:
Magnesium: A key ingredient in nerve transmissions; helps regulate blood pressure and heart health.
Iron: Needed to deliver enough oxygen to your brain and body
Vitamin E: Has a protective effect against mild cognitive impairment and dementia; helps with good vision; is an antioxidant.
Zinc: Is widely used throughout the body; necessary for nerve function; plays a role in wound healing.
Additionally, there are a few supplements you may want to consider:
Curcumin, which is a compound in turmeric, is anti-inflammatory when taken with a small amount of black pepper. If you have reason to believe your body is suffering from inflammation (such as in the days after your brain injury or if you’re having gastrointestinal symptoms), it may help. You can find curcumin supplements or just cook with turmeric more often.
Melatonin is a good supplement to consider if you’re having trouble sleeping after head trauma. Melatonin is a hormone your body makes when it’s time to sleep. Taking a small amount at bedtime may help you sleep through the night.
Creatine may have some benefit, but we need more research to determine exactly how beneficial it is and at what dose. One study shows some positive effect on cognitive health in older populations, and preliminary studies show it may be beneficial for those suffering from the long-term symptoms associated with TBI.
#4: Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can help with a few aspects of post-concussion syndrome:
The human brain has several named brain wave patterns. Meditation, when performed correctly, encourages more alpha and theta brain waves. This helps your brain take a break from all the stimulation it gets each day from conversations, lights, noise, activities, decisions, and so forth.
Alpha waves have the unique property of being able to “entrain” neighboring neuron clusters, so it’s a quick way to let the waves of relaxation wash over your brain, so to speak. This allows the brain to rest and recover from stress. It’s why meditation is so effective for brain injury patients and for those struggling with mental illness.
But not everyone is good at meditation. An alternative is to use a Brainwaves app to induce alpha waves (we recommend an 8 hz setting). While it’s not a “natural” remedy per se, it is patterned after the natural way your brain rests.
These apps put a different frequency in each ear that your brain averages to the desired wavelength. It’s a quick way to get alpha waves without being an expert at meditation. We use the Brain Wave™ 35 Binaural Series app in our clinic.
#5: Herbal Teas
Herbal teas are a good way to relax the autonomic nervous system, improve sleep quality, boost cognition, and combat a few other common symptoms of concussion. While traditional teas (such as green tea and black tea) have caffeine, most herbal teas are caffeine free. Check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure your tea doesn’t have any negative interactions with your current medications.
Chamomile: May fight inflammation, help you sleep better, and lessen diarrhea.
Ginger: May relieve nausea, fight inflammation, and help with stomach pain.
Lemon balm: May combat anxiety, reduce heart palpitations, and improve memory.
Passionflower: May relieve anxiety and improve sleep quality.
Peppermint: May relieve stomach pain, nausea, cramping, and muscle spasms, especially in the digestive tract.
Rose hip: May fight inflammation and reduce inflammation-related pain.
Sage: May improve cognitive function, including mood and memory.
Some of these herbs may be more effective as an extract, but do not take them in this manner without supervision from a health care professional.
After a brain injury, aromatherapy may be a good option to help you relax. But, it may also cause overstimulation, so you’ll need to learn your own limits. If anything you use aggravates your symptoms, don’t use it.
There isn’t much evidence for the medicinal value of essential oils, but diffusers and lotions may help you relax and reduce pain, especially when combined with massage. If it helps you overcome muscle stiffness, sleep better (lavender and chamomile are especially potent here), or suffer less from dysautonomia, then it’s worth a try.
Music may aid your recovery in a few ways.
Listening to calming music can help reduce your stress levels and calm the autonomic nervous system. If you struggle to focus on your work or studies, then playlists of “lofi” music, “relaxing” video game or soundtrack music (such as The Legend of Zelda), or recordings of nature sounds (such as running streams or ocean waves) may help you focus.
Playing music has a different benefit. Learning a new instrument — or deepening your expertise in one you already know — will help engage your brain’s neuroplasticity and further your recovery efforts. Just be careful about doing too much too soon: If learning the instrument brings on headaches or worsens other symptoms, save it for later in your recovery journey.
Finally, dancing to music — especially if you’re learning a mode of dance you haven’t tried before — is an excellent aid to the brain. It requires physical coordination and mental activity at the same time and, like learning an instrument, boosts neuroplasticity. Ballroom dance is a great place to start, but even free-styling in your living room to your favorite song is good for your health. (But if you’ve had dizziness or vertigo, make sure you have someone spot you until you’re more recovered.)
#8: Dry Needling and Acupuncture
Acupuncture isn’t a cure-all for mild traumatic brain injury, but it can be helpful for specific symptoms. Western acupuncture has been shown to be at least as effective as traditional medication in treating headaches. It may reduce inflammation, and it’s also an effective treatment for neck pain. There are no robust studies showing efficacy beyond the placebo effect for other post-concussion symptoms.
Dry needling, which is a technique similar to acupuncture that can be practiced by physical therapists (in some but not all states), can be helpful for relieving muscle tension and headaches.
Want a Comprehensive Plan for Concussion Recovery?
Recovering from post-concussion syndrome is possible, but it takes a good recovery plan. While you may never feel 100% like your old self, a good treatment plan will significantly reduce your symptoms and enable you to work, go to school, play sports, and more.
If you want the most effective, evidence-based, multidisciplinary treatment available for post-concussion syndrome, sign up for a free consultation with our team. We’ll help you determine if you’re eligible for our treatment program and what your next steps should be.
About Dr. Jaycie Loewen
Dr. Jaycie Loewen is a Clinical Neuroscientist who received her Doctorate of Neuroscience at the University of Utah. Her background includes the study of basic and clinical brain injury, including the publication of research regarding mechanisms of epilepsy pathophysiology. Her work has elucidated the role of glial and neuronal cell profiles in viral-induced brain injury and acute seizures. Dr. Loewen is further a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholar, with a Master's in Clinical Investigation awarded in 2018, as well as a recipient of the Higher Education Teaching Specialist Certificate.
Through these degrees, she obtained experience with patient care and education as well as an understanding of the necessity of respecting patient experience and symptoms.
Dr. Loewen’s focus is firstly patient care and education. She also provides literature analysis and aids in the publication of Cognitive FX’s research. Her goal is to improve Cognitive Fx’s ability to help patients through equal interaction and communication, as well as the furthering of concussion and mild traumatic brain injury treatment and science.