Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

Brain-Boosting Meal Plans Help Service Members with TBI

Image of During the NICoE intensive outpatient program (IOP), staff nutritionist Ruth Clark teaches hands-on classes in the on-site patient kitchen. (Photo: Tahira Hayes (Ctr), NICoE/WRNMMC, NSA Bethesda). During the NICoE intensive outpatient program (IOP), staff nutritionist Ruth Clark teaches hands-on classes in the on-site patient kitchen. (Photo: Tahira Hayes (Ctr), NICoE/WRNMMC, NSA Bethesda)

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury | Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness

Nutrition is one of eight domains of Total Force Fitness. 

Most of us know that changing the way you eat can improve energy, weight, heart health, and other physical issues. But did you know that it can also affect brain health? 

Research has shown that dietary changes may help relieve symptoms that might complicate recovery from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. 

The Defense Intrepid Network for TBI and Brain Health (Intrepid Network), a group of 13 TBI clinics that includes two OCONUS sites, treats these symptoms using a comprehensive interdisciplinary model of care. This patient-centric approach includes traditional rehabilitation, neurological, and behavioral health treatments combined with integrative medicine interventions and skills-based training. 

At some Intrepid Network sites, individualized nutrition plans are part of the treatment. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) and the Intrepid Spirit Center (ISC) at Fort Belvoir have registered dietitians on staff who are also military veterans. This common ground makes it easier to build rapport with patients, said Fort Belvoir nutritionist Isa Kujawski, a Navy reservist who spent 10 years on active duty. 

NICoE dietitian Ruth Clark, an Army veteran, describes her approach as “focusing on ways to optimize nutrition in order to maximize healing potential.” During the NICoE intensive outpatient program (IOP), a four-week treatment program for active duty service members diagnosed with mild-to-moderate TBI and associated health conditions, Clark teaches group nutrition classes and sees patients individually to create personalized meal plans. 

Both Clark and Kujawski counsel patients on the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, in part because TBI can cause brain inflammation. 

“Inflammation is one of the first things I educate patients on,” said Kujawski. “It’s the body’s defense mechanism but can cause damage over time. That’s why adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is so important, especially for brain health.” Studies suggest that fatty fish, whole grains, legumes, and colorful vegetables and fruits all have anti-inflammatory properties. Processed, package or fried foods should be avoided as they may promote inflammation. 

Many patients come in with what Clark considers overly restrictive diets, limiting both what to eat and how often. She stresses the importance of meal patterns for improved cognition. “Eating more frequently throughout the day gives the brain a steadier source of energy,” she said. 

Military personnel posing in a kitchen
Isa Kujawski, nutritionist at Intrepid Spirit Center Fort Belvoir, teaches TBI patients about how diet affects brain health. An anti-inflammatory diet that includes some of the foods pictured can help with common symptoms of TBI, studies suggest (Photo by: Isa Kujawski (Civ), Intrepid Spirit Center, Fort Belvoir).

She also explains how correcting nutritional deficiencies can improve a variety of symptoms, including problems with sleep quality or quantity. 

Sleep is 10 times more effective for overall health than any sexy supplement I can give you, explained Kujawski. 

Her approach is less about being on a diet and more about using food as medicine. The first step: testing micronutrient levels, especially folate and vitamins D, B6, and B12. Most of her patients have a vitamin D deficiency, which can be associated with depression, fatigue, and anxiety. 

Many also have gastrointestinal symptoms when they return from deployment. Causes are varied and hard to pinpoint, but several studies have confirmed a link between TBI recovery and gut health. For Kujawski, this makes sense. “The gut and brain are connected. About 90% of serotonin [a neurotransmitter associated with mood] is made in the gut,” she said. “The state of your brain can affect the state of your digestion.” 

One Fort Belvoir ISC patient found relief by switching from a meat-heavy, high-carb diet to a plant-based one. In an email to Kujawski months after his treatment ended, he wrote: “All of my abdominal inflammation has disappeared … [along with] the massive cramping and abdominal pain I have had for years.” 

Tips for Reducing Inflammation 

  • Use more herbs and spices. Paprika, rosemary, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are among many that have been shown to reduce inflammation.
  • Increase plant-based proteins. Nuts, beans, and other plant-based proteins are rich in fiber, nutrients, and bioactive compounds that can help reduce chronic inflammation. 
  • Eat the rainbow. Fruits and vegetables of various colors contain different phytonutrients which play varying roles in lowering inflammation. For example, red foods contain lycopene, while green foods contain sulforaphane. 
  • Include more salmon and tuna in your diet. They are good sources of Omega 3, an essential fatty acid that can also be found in whole grains, walnuts, and green leafy vegetables. 
  • Eat dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. Studies show that 1.5 ounces a day decreases inflammation. Dark chocolate contains plant compounds called flavanols, which can lower inflammation by acting as a rich antioxidant while also promoting healthy blood flow.

For more information on the anti-inflammatory diet, see “Eating to Reduce Inflammation,” a resource from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

You also may be interested in...

Ask the Doc: Can I Develop Sudden Food Allergies?

Article
8/1/2022
Allergy Test

Have you ever had an allergic reaction and not know you had an allergy?

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Ask The Doc

How Performance Nutrition Can Help You Maintain Readiness

Article
7/29/2022
A person serving himself a salad

Performance nutrition is a major key to force readiness.

Recommended Content:

Performance Nutrition: Fuel Your Body and Mind | Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

How Registered Dietitians Can Help You Fuel for Peak Performance

Article
7/25/2022
A woman leads a presentation.

Registered dietitians can help service members reach their goals with healthy and safe options.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness

How Diet, Lifestyle and Mental Health Impact Your Overall Health

Article
7/13/2022
Military personnel holding a cookie and broccoli

Think you might need to lose a little weight? You're not alone. Even in the military, where maintaining physical fitness remains a job requirement and a key component of military readiness, thousands of service members struggle with weight.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Performance Nutrition: Fuel Your Body and Mind

Tactical Diaper Bags and Other Fathers' Day Tips from a Marine Officer

Article
6/16/2022
Tactical Diaper Bags and Other Fathers' Day Tips from a Marine Officer

“When we deploy, our lives become simpler, while theirs become more complex: In addition to missing their husband and father, they are missing someone who should be helping to shoulder the burden that military life places on kids.”

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness

Could a Therapy Dog Help with Your Dental Anxiety?

Article
6/2/2022
Air Force Brig. Gen. Goldie, a facility therapy dog at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, helps reduce anxiety in a patient with complex dental conditions that require multiple appointments. The use of therapy dogs is part of an ongoing study with these patients.

A first-of-its-kind study at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is researching whether using facility therapy dogs in dentists’ offices could reduce patient anxiety and improve outcomes for military dental treatment programs.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Total Force Fitness

Tips for Military Parents Planning PCS Moves with Children

Article
6/2/2022
Moving can be hard on military families, especially on children. Moving to a new home, going to a new school, finding new friends – it can be unsettling for kids of any age. Yet there are things that service members can do to prepare for a permanent change of station move that can make for a smoother transition for the children.

Moving can be hard on military families, especially on children. Moving to a new home, going to a new school, finding new friends – it can be unsettling for kids of any age. Yet, there are things that service members can do to prepare for a permanent change of station move that can make for a smoother transition for the children.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Total Force Fitness

How Health Care Providers Can Mitigate Burnout

Article
5/25/2022
U.S. Army Soldiers load a simulated patient on to a New Jersey National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter during a combat lifesaver course run by the Medical Simulation Training Center on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, April 14, 2022.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

“No one is immune to burnout. Healthcare providers are very good at rescuing others. We train for it and practice it daily. Unfortunately, we often do so at the expense of our own health and wellness.”

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Health Readiness & Combat Support

Ask the Doc: Yes, I Binge Drink. But am I an Alcoholic?

Article
5/25/2022
Ian Bell, 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron True North social worker, tries on vision impairment goggles at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Dec. 20, 2021. The vision impairment goggles represented a range of different blood alcohol concentrations, from less than 0.06 BAC, which simulates how reaction time and abilities are affected after just one drink, to 0.25, a very high level of impairment caused by binge drinking.

Dear Doc: I kick back on the weekends and down a six-pack or two at a time. I know this is called binge drinking, but I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. Should I be worried?

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Ask The Doc

Feeling Burned Out at Work? Here Are Some Tips to Feel Better

Article
5/24/2022
Feeling burned out? Tips to understand and avoid burnout.

The good news is that burnout can be mitigated. There are numerous steps that individuals and leaders can take to reduce burnout and its impact.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Health Readiness & Combat Support

A History of the Combat Helmet and the Quest to Prevent Injuries

Article
4/25/2022
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. are pictured here in 1943 wearing the standard M1 helmet, sometimes called the "steel pot." (Photo: 1st Infantry Division Courtesy Photo)

The combat helmet has evolved over time to improve protection against projectiles and shock waves to reduce the risk of fatal blows and traumatic brain injuries.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury | Our History | Injury Prevention

Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune Nurse Powerlifts Her Way to Winner's Podium

Article
4/19/2022
U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Holly Vickers competed in the United States Powerlifting Association’s Virginia Beach Classic on March 26, 2022, taking home the top spot for her weight class. Photo used with permission from DVXT Images. (Photo: Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune Public Affairs)

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Holly Vickers competed in the United States Powerlifting Association’s Virginia Beach Classic on March 26, 2022, taking home the top spot for her weight class.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness

Concussion Care Pathway Streamlined for Better Results

Article
4/1/2022
Dr. Gregory Johnson, Tripler Concussion Clinic medical director, conducts a neurological exam on Army Spc. Andrew Karamatic, a combat medic, having him follow his finger with his eyes, at Tripler Army Medical Center, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Neurologic exams are part of the MACE 2 diagnostic tool to assess service members’ Acute Concussion Care Pathway. (Photo: Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal, DMA Pacific – Hawaii Media Bureau)

The Defense Health Agency has developed a comprehensive clinical care program (Acute Concussion Care Pathway) to manage concussions based on the military medical community’s many years of experience with injured service members.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury

Immediate Testing: How the Military Evaluates Risk For Brain Injuries

Article
3/28/2022
Pfc. Thomas Icenogle, a student in the Army’s Combat Medic Specialist Training Program at the Medical Education and Training Campus on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, conducts a Military Acute Concussion Evaluation 2 (MACE 2) on Pvt. Alejandro Leija, while Pvt. Dominic Dubois refers to the MACE 2 card. (Photo: Lisa Braun, Medical Education and Training Campus Public Affairs)

MACE 2 allows for a quick assessment of traumatic brain injuries in the field and is similar to sports concussion checks.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury

Five Clinical Tools To Help Assess and Treat TBI

Article
3/17/2022
An Army 'gun team' brace for the concussion of a 105mm howitzer during operations in Iraq in 2008. (Photo: Master Sgt. Kevin Doheny)

Here are five new ways that doctors can diagnose and treat mild concussions.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 8
Refine your search
Last Updated: March 30, 2022

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.