I’ve been reading a lot about brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in retired NFL football players lately.
While doing so, I came across an interesting study by Dr. Daniel Amen, MD, titled “Reversing brain damage in former NFL players: implications for traumatic brain injury and substance abuse rehabilitation.”
In the study, thirty retired NFL players who had brain damage and cognitive dysfunction followed a brain-healthy protocol (which I outline below in this post).
After following the protocol for six months, the former NFL players had increased blood flow to the brain and significant increases in performance.
Neuropsychological testing showed that they had significant improvements in attention, memory, reasoning, and information processing.
The NFL players themselves also self-reported subjective increases in memory, attention, mood, motivation, and sleep.
It just so happens that a lot of the supplements and therapies used in this protocol have also improved my mental health and supported my brain after suffering multiple concussions, living in a moldy home, and experiencing neurotoxicity.
Why This Research Study Is So Important
It’s well known that brain injuries are common in professional American football players, and they increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment, dementia, depression and CTE (1-2).
A study sponsored by the National Football League (NFL) found that 6.1% of retired NFL players over the age of 50 had been diagnosed with dementia, which is five times the national average of 1.2%.
Even 2% of players aged 30 to 49 have received a dementia-related diagnosis, which is 20 times higher than the rate of the general population within that age group (3).
Brain injuries also increase the risk of drug abuse (5-6).
Lastly, another study reported that 96% of all former NFL players autopsied had CTE, and that 79% of males who played football at any level also had CTE (10).
But brain injuries and neurological damage don’t just affect retired professional football players.
Millions of people, including soldiers, suffer concussions every year.
But based on Dr. Amen’s protocol, there is hope. And it’s possible to reverse brain damage.
Below is the protocol that the NFL players followed to reverse brain damage and cognitive impairment, and it significantly improved their brain, mental health and quality of life.
1. Improve Your Diet and Exercise Regularly
Even after taking into account their large body frames, forty-eight percent of players in the study were overweight or obese.
So they were encouraged to eat healthier and exercise regularly in order to lose weight.
This is because obesity is associated with dementia and smaller brain size (8).
For exercise, you should find an aerobic activity that you enjoy so that you’ll stick with it consistently.
This is exercise routine I try to follow consistently:
Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week
High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week
Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)
Run for 20-30 minutes before lifting weights
If you’re looking for a bunch of healthy, brain-boosting foods that you can eat on a regular basis, check out my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health and my Fuel Your Brain Cookbook.
2. Eliminate Alcohol
There are ways to protect your brain from alcohol, but you’re better off avoiding it completely, or significantly reducing your consumption, if you’re trying to heal from brain damage. I personally don’t drink alcohol at all anymore.
Other than alcohol, the NFL players were also told to eliminate others drugs, including cigarettes.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough high-quality sleep was another key aspect of Dr. Amen’s therapeutic protocol for the NFL players because it’s so important for brain health.
That’s why getting at least 7 hours of high-quality, restorative sleep is so important.
I used to have very poor quality sleep and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health.
Here are some ways I now maximize the quality of my sleep:
Expose your eyes to sun in the morning
Keep a regular sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time every night
Avoid stimulating movies and TV before bed.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Most people should completely avoid it after 2 pm. Some may have to cut it out even earlier. I can’t have any after 10 am, otherwise the quality of my sleep suffers.
Blue light significantly suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep–wake cycle. Therefore, blue light leads to disrupted sleep patterns and abnormal functioning of your nervous system. You can read more about the problem with blue light here. So as soon as it’s dark outside, you should avoid sources of blue light. Turn off household lights or get red light bulbs instead (red light doesn’t disrupt melatonin); install Iris on your computer; and/or wear blue blocking glasses. These glasses block out blue light in your environment.
Sleep in a dark environment. Completely black out your room with curtains or wear a sleep mask overnight. Sleeping with lights on in your room decreases neurogenesis and impairs cognitive performance (276). If you need to have light in your room (nightlight or alarm clock), it’s better to have red, orange or amber lighting rather than blue.
Avoid alcohol before sleep, as it prevents getting into the deeper stages of sleep, which is when the body and brain heal.
Melatonin secretion can also be disrupted by EMF exposure, so turn off cellphones, Wi-Fi and other electrical devices while you sleep.
Take this sleep supplement, which contains magnesium and other natural compounds that I’ve used over the years to promote the production of melatonin.
4. Reduce Brain Inflammation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Your brain is made up of about 60% fat, so you want to eat high-quality fats so that it can rebuild itself.
Omega-3s fatty acids are the highest quality fats for the brain, and increasing your intake of them is one of the most impactful ways to reverse brain damage.
Dr. Amen gave the NFL players 5.6 grams of fish oil each day, containing 1720 mg of EPA and 1160 mg of DHA.
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that are necessary for the optimal functioning of your brain and nervous system. They have been shown in many studies to significantly reduce inflammation; improve memory, mood and cognition; and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (9-10).
It’s important to get enough omega-3s because they are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself.
They are found primarily in cold water fish such as salmon, black cod, sablefish, sardines and herring.
Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet.
That’s why I recommend people supplement with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids. I take this one. I don’t feel as well when I stop taking it. I actually notice the difference.
I previously wrote about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in-depth here.
5. Get Enough of These Vitamins and Minerals
So Dr. Amen got the NFL players in the study to take a high-potency multivitamin every day.
I don’t usually recommend all-in-one multivitamins because they often contain too many synthetic vitamins that we don’t need, and not enough of the minerals that we do need.
6. Enhance Brain Blood Flow
Dr. Amen also focused on increasing blood flow in the brains of the retired NFL football players.
Ginkgo Biloba is a plant used in China for thousands of years to treat a number of health problems. It’s one of the top-selling herbal supplements in the world, and it’s even a prescription herb in Germany.
It’s most commonly used to improve brain health, as it’s been shown to increase cognitive function, memory and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and can improve mood and mental energy.
It has these effects primarily by increasing blood flow to the brain (27).
Ginkgo biloba extract is included in the Optimal brain supplement.
Check out this article for 20 other ways to increase blood flow to the brain.
7. Increase Acetylcholine
Acetylcholine is considered the “learning” neurotransmitter and plays a key role in the brain’s cognitive processes.
Huperzine-A is a compound extracted from the herbs of the Huperziceae family.
It has neuroprotective effects and cognitive enhancing properties because it increases acetylcholine. It does this by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. Because of this, it’s a promising treatment for fighting cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease (33).
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It has neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects and helps reverse neurological decline by increasing levels of acetylcholine in the brain and supporting mitochondria function (32).
It is often used as a brain booster because it increases alertness and provides support to brain cells. It’s also been shown to be very effective at alleviating chronic fatigue and improving mood.
ALCAR can be found in the Optimal Brain supplement.
8. Increase Antioxidants
Dr. Amen had the NFL football players in his study take Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) daily.
Environmental toxins and oxidative stress deplete your body's reserves of cysteine and glutathione, but supplementing with NAC can increase and normalize cysteine and glutathione levels.
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is a fatty acid created in the body, playing a role in mitochondrial energy metabolism. In supplement form, it is a potent antioxidant compound that has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, which can contribute to neurological decline. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, which is crucial for healthy brain function (24-25).
Several other studies have found that a combination of antioxidants – including NAC, ALA, Vitamin C and Vitamin E – can improve cognitive functioning and decrease symptoms of cognitive decline. This is likely because oxidative stress plays a major role in the development of cognitive impairment and dementia, and these antioxidant nutrients and plant compounds can counteract this (14-22).
NAC, ALA and several other antioxidant nutrients are included in the Optimal Antiox supplement.
Antioxidants can also reduce levels of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone.
9. Reduce Cortisol with Phosphatidylserine
Phosphatidylserine is a fat-soluble amino acid that supports cognitive function.
10. Optimize Important Health Markers
Important health markers were also monitored and optimized to ensure that the NFL players were in the best health possible to support their brain.
Here are some of the markers Dr. Amen monitored in the NFL players:
Weight measures, such as body mass index and height-to-weight ratio – research shows that as a person's weight goes up, the size of their brain goes down. To reduce this problem, Dr. Amen ran an weight loss class to help the NFL players lose excess weight.
C-reactive protein – This is a measure of inflammation, which is associated with many chronic illnesses, including depression, dementia and chronic pain. Dr. Amen aims for a measure of less than 1mg/liter. A healthy diet and nutrients can help get inflammation under control.
Vitamin D – Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that our skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun. Every tissue in your body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, so a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences, including cognitive impairment. Normal levels are between 30 and 100 ng/mL. Dr. Amen prefers his patients’ levels to be between 50 and 100 because optimal vitamin D levels can reduce inflammation and improve mood. To boost vitamin D levels, he encouraged players to get more sunlight or take a Vitamin D3 supplement.
Ferritin – Ferritin is a measure of iron stores. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue, but too much iron can cause stress and accelerate aging. If the NFL players’ ferritin levels were too low, Dr. Amen gave them iron. If they were too high, he encouraged them to donate blood. I personally prefer beef liver capsules as good source of iron instead of taking iron supplements.
In addition to the above strategies, Dr. Amen and his team treated other dementia risk factors, such as hypertension, heart disease, gum disease, alcohol and drug abuse, low thyroid and testosterone levels, sleep apnea, and ideally the cessation of anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines.
Check out this article for several other important blood tests.
11. Reduce Homocysteine
This step – and the next two – are not a part of the original study.
However, Dr. Amen says he uses these treatments with his patients, including retired football players.
I personally prefer SAM-e since it is the most powerful and noticeable. I take this one.
Here is a full article all about how to lower homocysteine levels.
12. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)
Again, this wasn’t included in the main protocol of the study, but Dr. Amen often recommends it to NFL players or anyone else with brain damage.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a treatment that enhances healing in the brain.
Patients inhale 100% oxygen in a total body chamber.
Usually, oxygen is transported throughout the body only by red blood cells. But with HBOT, oxygen is dissolved into all body fluids, including the fluids of the central nervous system.
This leads to oxygen being carried to areas of the body where circulation is diminished or blocked. As a result, extra oxygen can reach all damaged tissues, including areas of the brain that need to heal.
Lots of research shows that HBOT improves blood supply to the brain, reduces inflammation, and enhances neurogenesis, which improves recovery after injury to the central nervous system (34-38).
You’ll need to find a practitioner or clinic in your area that provides this treatment.
HBOT can be expensive though. That's why I decided to buy my own oxygen concentrator. An oxygen concentrator is much less expensive than HBOT but it still helps a lot. It has definitely helped me recover.
My doctor uses this one at his clinic and recommended it to me.
Check out my full article about oxygen therapy for more information.
Researchers used to believe that the brain could not heal, but they now know that’s wrong.
Brain plasticity is possible, and if you put the brain in a healing environment, it can get better, and brain damage can be reversed.
But the above protocol isn’t just for retired NFL players.
It also applies directly to the larger traumatic brain injury and drug abuse communities.
The retired NFL players in the study had sustained brain injuries decades previously, but they improved.
If researchers can improve the brains of retired football players – who have had tens of thousands of hits to their heads – imagine the benefit you can get with a brain healthy program.
You don’t have to be held hostage by your bad brain.
You can recover from brain damage, brain infection, substance abuse and toxic exposure.
And Dr. Amen isn’t the only doctor showing the brain’s incredible power to heal.
Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD, is reversing cognitive decline and dementia with his own brain rehabilitation program.
You can read more about his protocol here.
This work is incredibly important for football players, soldiers, firefighters, police, and anyone who has suffered brain trauma and damage.
Please share this post with anyone that you think would benefit from the information within it.
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Medically reviewed by Dr. Daniel Amen, MD