Head injuries can devastate lives.
Thousands of soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury or TBI provide living proof.
Belatedly, the National Football League (NFL) admitted last month that repeated concussions incurred in games cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
A number of prior studies have found very high rates of dementia among retired NFL players, compared to their peers.
And a study led by neuroscientist Daniel Amen, M.D., found that retired NFL players benefited from a brain-health protocol featuring high doses of omega-3 fish oil.
In Dr. Amen's study, former players took 5.6 grams of fish oil daily ... a bit more than the 4 grams per day The American Heart Association recommends for heart patients with high blood triglyceride levels ... see Omega-3-Based Regimen Boosted Battered NFL Brains
Kids are the major concern
One can sympathize with pro football players who suffer brain damage from a sport they love.
But NFL players are adults who can decide whether the risks are worth the rewards, which include millions of dollars.
The only certain way for kids who play contact sports to avoid brain injury is to avoid repeated concussions.
Like football, soccer is risky – thanks to "heading” the ball – as are hockey, rugby, lacrosse, and other contact sports.
The publicity about NFL players has kept some kids out of youth football … but it's likely that millions of will keep playing contact sports.
So schools and coaches need to find ways to reduce the number of concussions ... and minimize their brain-damaging effects.
Omega-3 fish oil may provide some protection
Growing evidence suggests that the consequences of concussions are blunted by omega-3 fatty acids ... especially DHA.
The human brain is nearly 60% fat, and DHA – the most abundant brain fat – is critical to the structure and function of brain cells.
And in 2014, NIH researchers reported that rats recovered from traumatic brain injury much better when their brain cells were high in DHA:
"These results suggest an important influence of the brain DHA status on TBI outcome.” (Desai A et al. 2014)
Now, a study in college football players suggests that kids who play contact sports should be taking ample amounts of fish oil.
Fish oil reduced markers of brain injury in college football players
The new study was conducted among football players at Texas Christian University.
Its positive results suggest that omega-3 DHA could blunt the brain-damaging effects of head blows.
Dr. Michele Kirk, team physician at TCU, co-led the placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical study, designed to test the effect of DHA on brain trauma.
The TCU research team recruited 81 football players. More than 60 started taking DHA at the beginning of the summer of 2014 and were monitored over the course of a season.
Kirk and her team looked for DHA's effects – if any – on an indicator of brain trauma called neurofilament light or NFL, and its blood levels rise with each physical impact.
The results of the study were certainly encouraging:
"If they were on the DHA, they had a 40% reduction in that neurofilament compared to those that were on the placebo,” Dr. Kirk said. "That may indicate that DHA can be protective against some brain trauma.”
DHA may be more important to teens than thought
According to Dr. Floyd Ski Chilton of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, "For the DHA to have this type of effect, that's quite striking and quite promising.”
It's long been known that DHA is critical to brain development, but as Chilton said, "DHA is probably a lot more important in adolescence and later development than we first thought.”
Chilton – whose research focuses on inflammation – said that seafood-source omega-3s probably help protect athlete's brains in part by reducing the inflammation and oxidation caused by blows to the head.
Hee-Yong Kim, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health describes a broader range of benefits from DHA supplements:
"Optimizing the nutritional DHA status in neural tissues may allow significantly improved resilience for the central nervous system to injury and optimized recovery.” (Kim HY 2014)
Among other effects, dietary DHA could help normalize the levels of a key chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and thereby enhance the survival of brain cells (Kumar PR et al. 2014).
The TCU findings will need to be replicated in a larger study before DHA gains mainstream medical endorsement for players of contact sports.
Omega-3s: The source matters
Our bodies can make barely adequate amounts of DHA from the omega-3s found in certain plant foods.
But the only abundant dietary source of DHA is seafood – especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines – and fish oil.
Most fish oils contain relatively low levels of omega-3s, and typically contain more EPA – the other omega-3 fat in fish oil – than DHA.
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- Desai A, Kevala K, Kim HY. Depletion of brain docosahexaenoic acid impairs recovery from traumatic brain injury. PLoS One. 2014 Jan 27;9(1):e86472. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086472. eCollection 2014.
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