Kate Nelson, MS, RD, CNSC
Registered Dietitian, Vibra Hospital of Denver
It’s easy to make the case that the brain is one of our most important organs, perhaps the most important. When the brain gets damaged, it can affect how we speak, behave, move, and eat. As a registered dietitian, nutrition is my passion – so let’s take a closer look at how nutrition can affect our ability to heal and recover from a brain injury.
There are two main types of brain injury – traumatic and non-traumatic. Traumatic injuries include just that: trauma, such as falls, car accidents, sports injuries, and more. Non-traumatic brain injuries include strokes, seizures, infections, and lack of oxygen to the brain.
With either type of brain injury, it can become difficult, dangerous, or simply impossible, to eat. But, your body (and your brain!) still need nutrition to survive. In fact, the body’s protein and calorie needs can rise to double the normal resting requirements after a brain injury. We also know that early ‘feeding’ is critical to good outcomes. So how do we do this?
A feeding tube can be critical for survival when a patient cannot safely eat by mouth. Best practice guidelines recommend early use of enteral nutrition – optimally in the first 72 hours after the injury. This is associated with improved outcomes. Tube feeding can provide the body with the protein and calories it needs to slow the breakdown of lean body mass and help control the extent of the body’s inflammatory response. There are specialty tube feed formulas that your clinical dietitian may use to help manage this response. Nutrition needs, along with fluid and electrolytes requirements, may change and fluctuate frequently during the immediate days and weeks and require close monitoring.
In the recovery phase, it is time to start evaluating whether the patient can eat and drink by mouth again. Depending on the part of the brain that was affected, dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is common. Patients may work with a speech therapist to help them start eating and drinking safely. This phase may also still require nutrition support, tube feeding, or nutrition supplements until the patient is able to eat and drink enough on their own to meet their nutrition needs.
So, what can we do to help ourselves and our loved ones in the event of a brain injury?
Good nutrition before the injury happens is linked with better outcomes. So take a few moments to evaluate your nutrition, and reach out to a registered dietitian if you need support. Once in the hospital, advocate for your (or your loved one’s) nutrition – find out what the nutrition plan is and speak with the clinical dietitian at the facility. Good nutrition before, during, and after a brain injury can help support healing, strength, and improve outcomes.