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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 and living in a moldy home.
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 significantly improve 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.
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 12 noon, otherwise the quality of my sleep suffers.
Blue light significantly suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and abnormal functioning of your nervous system. You can read more about the problem with blue light here. As soon as it’s dark outside, you should avoid sources of blue light. Turn off household lights, get red light bulbs, 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 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. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.
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).
They are also the structural components of synapses, and have been shown to support the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases who have experienced synaptic loss (12).
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 even 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 19 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 shown promise as a 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.
Toxins and oxidative stress deplete the 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 that 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).
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.
It’s also been shown to reduce cortisol, which can negatively affect the brain at chronically high levels (26).
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 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. I personally use this Vitamin D lamp to make sure I get enough Vitamin D.
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, anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, low thyroid and testosterone levels, and sleep apnea.
11. Reduce Homocysteine with SAM-e and Methylated B Vitamins
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 take this B complex regularly. It contains the bioactive forms of all the B vitamins, including methyl-B12, methyl-folate and P-5-P.
Here is a full article all about how to lower homocysteine.
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 brain blood supply, 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.
But I did a lot of my own research before buying my own and got this one instead. You can get it here or through Amazon. I use it almost every day. It's the best option on the market. You can also get a refurbished one for cheaper.
Check out my full article about oxygen therapy for more information.
It’s best to work with a qualified practitioner.
But I also like the Muse headband. It’s a good substitute and gives you real-time feedback in your brainwaves while you meditate. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.
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.
Or simply anyone who is experiencing cognitive decline, depression or other mental health problems.
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’d 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.
Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain Health!
Medically reviewed by Dr. Daniel Amen, MD
Oxygen is absolutely essential for life, and your brain depends it more than any other part of your body.
Your brain weighs about 2% of your body weight.
But it consumes about 20% of the oxygen you breathe.
Your brain cells need to get enough oxygen to produce energy and function optimally.
I personally use oxygen therapy with an oxygen concentrator to support and optimize my brain function.
This post discusses oxygen therapy, the benefits, how I use it, and how it could help you.
Read on to learn more.
Types of Oxygen Therapy
Oxygen therapy is the use of supplemental oxygen to treat a variety of medical conditions.
Air is typically 21% oxygen by volume, but oxygen therapy increases the amount.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is the most well-known type of oxygen therapy, and it allows patients to inhale 100% pure oxygen in a total body chamber.
HBOT is often used by professional athletes for recovery and performance.
But it’s expensive and not available to most people.
Luckily, it’s not the only option available to you.
Similar to HBOT, NBOT brings a higher percentage of oxygen into the body and can bring major benefits to your brain and cognition.
Researchers have found that both normobaric and hyperbaric oxygen therapy increase the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the blood and brain (1-2).
With normobaric therapy, oxygen can be delivered via an oxygen concentrator.
Make sure you read the “My Experience” section below where I discuss how to use it. .
Why You Might Need Oxygen Therapy and How It Works
Hypoxia is a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.
If this happens to you, you can end up with mitochondria dysfunction and poor brain function.
But how do you know?
You can use an oxygen saturation monitor to measure and monitor your blood oxygenation levels. I use this monitor. It’s the best and most accurate oxygen saturation monitor that is often used by medical professionals, and freely available to the public.
Your blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO2) should measure 99-100% if you want to feel optimal.
There are a number of reasons why your body and brain might not be getting enough oxygen:
Sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise
Shallow breathing – Most people today don’t breathe well and are shallow breathers.
Chronic stress – Stress and anxiety can also affect your breathing. If you're stressed and anxious, you end up taking more shallow breaths. Your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system is chronically active, and this reduces the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain.
Abnormal blood pressure – Both high and low blood pressure can be problematic and may suggest that blood is not optimally flowing to your brain. If blood flow to your brain is poor, oxygen levels in your brain will also be suboptimal.
Normobaric oxygen therapy can help you if you’re struggling with any of these problems.
It can also help if you’re recovering from a concussion or brain injury or some sort of toxic exposure (e.g. mold).
Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis require oxygen, and increasing the delivery of oxygen to the body and brain supports the healing process of damaged tissue.
Researchers have concluded that the “neuroprotective role of normobaric oxygen therapy is extremely promising” (9).
They have also found that it can lead to a number of positive cognitive outcomes, which I'll explore below.
1. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Improves Memory and Recall
In their book Advances in Natural Medicines, Nutraceuticals, and Neurocognition, Dr. Andrew Scholey and Dr. Con Stough state that normobaric oxygen therapy is an effective memory enhancer:
In one study, inhalation of oxygen immediately prior to learning a word list resulted in a significant increase in the average number of words recalled 10 minutes later (14).
In other studies, subjects who received oxygen remembered shopping lists and faces better than subjects that didn’t receive oxygen (12-13, 18).
Researchers have also found significant positive correlations between changes in oxygen saturation and memory performance (15).
2. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Improves Cognitive Performance
Research shows that concentrated oxygen significantly enhances cognitive performance (19-20, 29).
And it doesn’t just improve cognitive function in the elderly; it also enhances cognitive processing in young adults (21-23).
In one study, students that inhaled oxygen while playing a computer game performed much better compared to students who didn’t inhale any additional oxygen (26).
In two other studies, researchers found that the inhalation of 30% oxygen improved cognitive functioning and performance by activating several brain areas (24-25).
They concluded that breathing a higher concentration of oxygen increases blood oxygen levels in the brain, which then supports cognition (24-25).
And other researchers have found significant correlations between blood oxygen levels and cognitive performance (27-28).
3. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Enhances Accuracy
Several studies have found that normobaric oxygen therapy can also increase your accuracy when doing tasks.
Two studies found that 30% and 40% oxygen administration significantly enhanced accuracy rates compared to 21% oxygen (normal air). It did this by increasing oxygen levels in the blood, which then stimulated activity in the brain (31-32).
As the difficulty of the task increased, the difference in the accuracy rate between 40% and 21% oxygen administration also increased (33-34).
And researchers found a positive correlation between task performance and oxygen levels in the brain (33-34).
Other research has found that 30% oxygen administration enhances accuracy rates during verbal tasks by activating specific areas of the brain (35-36).
4. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Reduces Reaction Time
People who receive normobaric oxygen therapy also have faster reaction times (37-38).
In one study, participants performed visual matching tasks under 43% oxygen or 21% oxygen (normal air).
Researchers reported a significant decrease in reaction time in the presence of 43% oxygen (39).
The researchers hypothesized that normobaric oxygen therapy increases oxygen levels in the blood, which then leads to more available oxygen in the brain (39).
Another follow-up study confirmed that response time decreases during normobaric oxygen therapy due to the increase in blood oxygen levels (40).
Normobaric oxygen therapy has even been shown to reduce reaction time in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (41).
5. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Increases Energy
All cells within your body need oxygen, particularly your brain cells.
They require a lot of oxygen to produce energy.
In fact, your energy levels depend on how much oxygen you have and how well your mitochondria utilize it.
If your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it simply won’t function properly, and you’ll end up feeling tired.
But normobaric oxygen therapy can increase energy.
Research shows that it "decreases fatigue and reduces feelings of sleepiness" (51).
6. Normobaric Oxygen Therapy Improves Neurological Function After Stroke
Researchers say that normobaric oxygen therapy is a promising therapy for stroke patients.
One study found that normobaric oxygen therapy significantly improved neurological functions in patients with acute ischemic stroke (44).
Other researchers have found that normobaric oxygen therapy increases oxygen supply to damaged tissues and improves outcomes after stroke, in both animals and humans (45-46).
As a non-pharmaceutical and non-invasive treatment, normobaric oxygen therapy is “worthy of notice” (47).
7. Oxygen Therapy May Help Reverse Brain Damage After Traumatic Brain Injury
Researchers found that a combination of normobaric and hyperbaric oxygen therapy reversed brain damage in 2-year-old girl who nearly drowned in a swimming pool.
Normobaric oxygen therapy alone improved the girl’s neurological function before she started hyperbaric oxygen therapy (48-49).
She eventually made a full recovery with both types of oxygen therapy.
Researchers have also said that the “neuroprotective role of normobaric oxygen therapy is extremely promising” for traumatic brain injury (50).
I’ve also seen multiple studies with rats and mice showing that normobaric oxygen therapy reduces brain swelling and brain damage.
8. Other Possible Benefits (with Less Research Behind Them)
Increases attention and vigilance – Oxygen administration significantly improved performance on several measures of attention and vigilance (52).
Reduces inflammation – Oxygen levels play a critical role in determining the severity of the inflammatory response and ultimately the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs (53-54).
Improves hand-eye coordination (55).
Increases positive sense of wellbeing (56).
My Experience with Normobaric Oxygen Therapy
I was first introduced to oxygen therapy through an integrative doctor I know.
I eventually decided to buy my own oxygen concentrator and now regularly use it at home.
I use it for about 20 to 30 minutes, a few times each week. I often do this while exercising on this indoor stationary bike. Sometimes I use it without exercising on the bike.
I also use it for about 3 to 5 minutes as needed, usually when doing work.
During a session, I use this oxygen saturation monitor to measure my blood oxygenation levels.
Your blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO2) should measure 99-100%. I see mine increase and max out while using the concentrator.
My oxygen concentrator delivers up to 5 litres of oxygen per minute. I usually set mine somewhere between 3 and 5 litres per minute.
But I would recommend starting lower and working your way up.
Benefits and What I’ve Noticed
I've had good results with concentrated oxygen therapy and it has surprisingly increased the quality of my life.
One of the main things I notice is that it feels like it puts energy back into my body every time I use it.
One of my clients uses it whenever she gets brain fog, and it clears it up. Another client uses it when she gets a headache and the headache disappears within 10 minutes.
Here are some other benefits I’ve experienced:
Increased energy and alertness
Increased cognitive function
Improved memory and enhanced ability to work through difficult tasks
More mental motivation, endurance and productivity if used during tasks
Keep in mind that this is my personal experience (and the experiences of a couple of clients). There really is no guarantee that you’ll experience the same results, but it’s worth a try if you’re sick and other therapies aren’t improving your brain function.
Combining Oxygen Therapy with Other Therapies
I also combine oxygen therapy with other therapies and supplements for their synergistic effects.
Researchers have found that combining normobaric oxygen therapy with the following therapies leads to better results (57-59):
Exercise – Exercise with oxygen therapy (EWOT) is typically done with a full mask. But I simply use a nasal canula. My integrative doctor recommended AGAINST wearing a full mask when doing EWOT. I use this indoor stationary bike.
Low-level laser/light therapy (LLLT)– I find I get even more positive effects if I combine oxygen therapy with low-level laser/light therapy (LLLT). My doctor combines the two as well. You can read more about LLLT here.
Methylene blue – Normobaric oxygen therapy and methylene blue work better together at improving outcomes after stroke than either alone. I sometimes take this methylene blue, particularly if I'm sleep deprived or within a high-EMF area.
Melatonin – Melatonin and oxygen therapy work better together at supporting brain health than either alone. Sometimes I use my oxygen concentrator at night before bed, along with melatonin supplementation and/or blue blocking glasses that naturally increase my body’s production and release of melatonin.
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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC