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Can Fish Oil Help Heal After a Head Injury?

two fish oil capsules

Last year, while in Los Angeles, I drilled my head while hanging out on an outdoor patio.

I was visiting with a friend over coffee on an outdoor area with glass paned double doors that led back to a main dining area. When I left to use the restroom, both doors were open, but in the time I was in the bathroom, someone closed half of the door. My friend and I, who got up to use the facility a few minutes prior to me, both jammed into the door on the way back out. The half door was invisible against the late afternoon sun.

I walk fast, so when I hit the door, there was quite a collision, so much so that it drew blood and formed a small bump. My head ached immediately after. The door basically punched me in the face using my momentum as its fist. I was very lucky that my friend is an M.D. I am also lucky not to have a concussion. In fact, when I first hit my head, a few guys who saw what happened were nice enough to say “haha, concussion protocol bro.”

Thanks guys.

In any event, my friend and I watched and waited, but none of the concussion symptoms, such as vomiting, severe headache, and loss of memory occurred. I was fine, but my head hurt. The collision with the door echoed in my mind as I finished the meeting.

If you’re reading this post, you, or a loved one may have experienced a brain injury, or hit your head hard enough to lead you to believe that an injury could be possible.

What to do after a head injury

Seek medical attention as your first priority.

It is important to keep in mind that sometimes what appear to be minor head injuries can actually be more major. The first thing to do is rule out a serious injury and decide whether your situation requires immediate medical attention. In my case, I was lucky that I had a skilled physician on hand to evaluate me, and it was his opinion that I didn’t need an MRI or medical attention.

He watched my pupils closely to see that I was maintaining focus and recommended that I ice the bruise. He was also on the lookout for signs of a concussion. None of those things developed, so I was free to move on, but if you experience concussion like symptoms, or feel seriously unwell, the first stop should be the emergency room, not the supplement store.

Some symptoms to watch are:

  • A feeling of being dazed or confused
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much (I didn’t have a great night’s sleep the night of my collision)
  • Problems with speech
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Mood changes such as depression or anxiety
  • Loss of memory

Be on the lookout for these symptoms days and even weeks after the injury.

Taking fish oil after a head injury

Note: fish oil acts as a blood thinner. If you’ve suffered a head injury, it is essential that you have medical clearance before taking fish oil supplements.

This is a blog about my experience, and the protocol I chose, so before you take the path I did, consult your physician. Although the initial evidence is promising, there are more studies needed to prove fish oil as a treatment for head injury.

Since I could rule out concussion based on my symptoms, and since I didn’t lose consciousness or exhibit any other major symptoms, I was left to fend for myself. When I started reading about protocols for helping to heal after a blow to the head, I was surprised to learn that omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil have produced some successes, even in patients with severe injury.

After the acute and immediate injury to the brain as with a collision, there is a secondary, “pathogenic” period to traumatic brain injury where symptoms can linger and smolder. To quote this case study on the therapeutic effect of fish oil on brain injury:

the secondary injury phase of TBI is a prolonged pathogenic process is characterized by neuroinflammation, excitatory amino acids, free radicals, and ion imbalance. There are no approved therapies to directly address these underlying processes.

Yikes, so what the authors of this review are saying is essentially that your brain has the potential to linger in a state of inflammation well after an initial head injury, and that we don’t have great tools for treating this period.

What is a good fish oil dose for a brain injury?

First, it’s important to point out that many fish oil products on the market today contain rancid and oxidized fats, meaning they will do you more harm than good. So, if you decide to supplement with fish oil, be sure to check out our fish oil guide, titled: Most fish oil is garbage. Here’s what to do about it. Selecting a quality brand will make all the difference in this very murky corner of the supplement world.

In the case study I mention above, a teenager who suffered a major brain injury after a motor vehicle accident was given an omega 3 fish oil supplement called Ultimate Omega by Nordic Naturals (Nordic Naturals is a brand we like because each bottle comes with a certificate of analysis for purity) in very high doses (9,756 mg Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), 6,756 mg Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) for a year and beyond.

He experienced no side effects.

During that time, the authors credit these high doses of omega 3 fatty acids with his recovery. For the reader playing along at home, the “normal” Nordic Naturals Omega dose is 330 EPA, 220 DHA, and 140 mg of “other omega 3s,” so this case study had the injured teenager on a dose over 20 times the typical consumer dose. Obviously, mega doses such as these must be discussed and approved by a doctor and administered under medical supervision, and this was an extreme case of very severe brain damage and I would caution that many people would have side effects at this high of a dose.

In my case, I am taking a double dose of the Ultimate Omega plus CoQ10 product, which has a higher baseline dose of omega 3 fatty acids than does the regular Nordic Naturals product, so my daily intake equals out to 1320 EPA, 880 DHA, and 280 mg of the other stuff.

It is also worth noting that Nordic Naturals, when they heard about the case study, donated its “top shelf” medical grade fish oil product called ProOmega-D, and the boy continued with high doses of this product for a year and beyond.

Why does omega 3 supplementation help the brain heal?

It is well established that omega 3 fatty acids help with brain development early in life, and the brain itself is made of about 30% omega 3 fats.1 Experts believe omega 3 fatty acids help reduce oxidative stress in the brain after a traumatic event, thereby helping aid the survival of neurons and improving overall brain function.2

To quote the Journal of Traditional Complementary Medicine:

The brain tissue analysis of traumatic brain injury (TBI) models supplemented with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) showed significantly reduced lipid peroxidation, nucleic acid and protein oxidation, thereby promoting neuronal and brain cell survival. Thus, omega-3 FA intake could be considered as a therapeutic option to reduce the secondary neuronal damages initiated by TBI.

This review of the impact of Omega 3 fatty acids on traumatic brain injury offers a nice visual of how fish oilcan help the brain recover after an injury.

brain injury and omega fatty acids

I chose the Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega with added CoQ10 to try to further guard against the oxidative stress that my collision with the door could have caused.

There are several studies showing the antioxidant effect of CoQ10 can help reduce oxidative stress.3

Closing thoughts

Without imaging, we don’t know exactly what is happening in the brain after a head injury, even if it appears minor.

As such, supplementing with moderate doses of high quality fish oil may be an effective tool for helping your brain heal.

Having said that, some will develop severe side effects when taking high dose fish oil, and more studies are needed to establish omega 3 supplements as a standard protocol after a head injury, as of now this is for those in the “experimental mind set.”

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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