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Terrific brain improvement

One of the great tragedies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the thousands of service people who return from overseas with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from blasts and ensuing shocks to their brains.

Athletes in contact sports also are at risk for developing damage when the brain is severely and repeatedly jarred or concussed, leading to cognitive deficits, memory problems, sleeplessness and severe depression.

Veterans Affairs has tried to treat soldiers with therapy and drugs to slow the downward spiral that often leads to suicide. Among athletes, researchers are conducting studies on the brains of deceased football players and have seen accumulations of so-called tau proteins and plaques that proliferate and scar the brain.

The injuries often result in service people being medicated with strong narcotics, antidepressants and other drugs, many of which pose significant side effects of their own.

I've been researching this problem and have come across several studies on food compounds and nutrients that may improve quality of life for veterans and injured athletes. Though many of the studies are preliminary and have not yet been performed on humans in such dire condition, some have been performed on lab animals and show potential.

A recent study on zinc supplementation with mice showed that pretreatment with the mineral appeared to prevent cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with TBI.

Also interesting are the pigments from berries — anthocyanins — which are a deep blue, almost black, color and have profound anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and blood-vessel strengthening effects. They're found in black currants, blueberries, blackberries and other berries, fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin-B12 deficiency is associated with brain atrophy and cognitive decline. Thus, evaluating B12 status is important, and supplemental vitamin B12 may be valuable. The vitamin helps alleviate depression symptoms in some individuals.

Fatty acids also are promising. Best known are the omega-3s obtained from cold-water fish. They reduce inflammation, support cognition and provide protection against stroke. Intake of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 from fish, correlates with lower rates of suicide. Notably, on the whole, American service people are notoriously low in omega-3 status. A healthy brain is thirsty for omega-3s, deemed "essential" because we need to get them from food. Other fatty acids are important, too.

I'd also make a pitch for the VA to run a study using a combination of the medicinal herb feverfew, a plant known to be potently anti-inflammatory, paired with the spice turmeric, which has shown potential in Alzheimer's disease patients.

These herbs and anthocyanins merely scratch the surface of botanical possibilities. Perhaps someday, the acronym TBI will have a second definition — standing for "terrific brain improvement."

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.