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Brain health and happiness: the undeniable connection

Personal · Mar 15, 2021

There has been a lot more discussion about the seriousness of concussions in recent years. But most people don’t realize that you don’t need to black out — or even be diagnosed with a concussion — to experience cognitive, psychological, or behavioural challenges as a result of a head injury.1

In a new documentary by Storyhive called Headcases, Dr. Tracy Thomson, physician and brain health specialist at TELUS Health Care Centres, reveals shocking truths about the connection between brain injury (even those that are undiagnosed or “mild”) and happiness.

“If we have a healthy brain, everything in our body works. We’re happy in our relationships, we’re productive at work, we’re able to find joy in life and all of our organ systems are humming. If our brain is not working correctly, it affects every aspect of our life,” Dr. Thomson says in the new film, Headcases.

The 40-minute documentary tells the story of Christina Smith, a Canadian Olympic bobsledder and TELUS Health Care Centres patient with a traumatic brain injury that went undetected for a decade.

Below, Dr. Thomson answers our questions about brain injuries, cutting-edge brain mapping and her integrative approach to treating the brain injury you may not know you have: 

Q: How common are brain injuries outside of contact sports settings? Why do they often go undiagnosed?

A: Most of my patients have had a non-contact sports injury. Mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBIs) can result from car accidents, slipping on ice, falling skiing or hitting the head on a car door, an overhead structure or on playground equipment.

These injuries often go undiagnosed because the symptoms can be vague and patients don’t necessarily make the connection between the initial injury and their symptoms. During an assessment, I help them connect the dots and there is almost always an “ah-ha” moment of recognition.

Q: Headaches, nausea and memory issues are well-known concussion symptoms, but what other symptoms can signal a brain injury?

A: A MTBI can present as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, minor memory issues, brain fog, irritability, behaviour issues, anxiety, depression, anger issues and changes to sleep patterns. They often appear years after the initial injury, because insults to the brain are cumulative (ie: they get worse from repeated injury, neurotoxins such as alcohol, a high-sugar diet and/or drug use).

Consider the initial injury as a small smouldering fire in the brain; adding alcohol, for example, makes the fire burn harder. This is the unfortunate consequence of neuroinflammation, which is the pathophysiological pathway for almost all neurodegenerative disorders, including post-concussion issues.

Q: You are one of few specialists who performs brain mapping to evaluate your patients’ brain functioning. What can this test reveal that traditional CT scans and MRIs do not?

A: CT scans and classic MRIs are excellent tools for assessing structural damage in the brain. If there has been a physical change like a brain bleed or hemorrhage, it will show up on these scans. But CTs and classic MRIs do not measure functional changes. Brain mapping allows me to examine brain wave patterns, measure voltage and brain speed, and look for phase lag and coherency problems by comparing patients to a large normative database. This is helpful in assessing how a patient's brain is performing in comparison to normal, healthy subjects.

Q: Can the damage caused by mild traumatic brain injuries be reversed?

A: The damage caused by a MTBI can be reversed in almost all cases, primarily by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself). Once we understand a patient’s injury and analyze their various cognitive scores, test and mapping results, we can develop a plan to help them overcome the injury. Nutrition, sleep, stress reduction, meditation, exercise, new learning, optimizing belief patterns and psychological support are components of most of my patients’ recoveries.

Q: What can we do to protect our brain health, and ultimately optimize our happiness and wellbeing? 

A:

  • Eat a mostly plant-based diet with lean sources of protein, and include lots of phytonutrient-rich fruit and vegetables to help reduce neuroinflammation. Avoid processed foods and limit gluten.

  • Supplement with high-quality fish oil to reduce neuroinflammation and help protect the brain against second impact syndrome (a concussion after a previous underlying concussion). Consider supplementing with natural anti-inflammatories such as turmeric or curcumin, and ensure adequate Vitamin D intake.

  • Exercise daily to increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, the hormone that helps the brain change itself.

  • Practice 20 minutes of stress reduction daily, especially during difficult times. Consider adopting a mindfulness practice to increase your calming GABA levels and reduce overall irritability.

  • Learn something new.

  • Limit known neurotoxins such as alcohol.

  • Connect with friends, family and your community.

  • Find joy as much as possible. Working on changing old patterns and self-limiting beliefs is an important part of this. To learn more about Dr. Tracy Thomson’s practice at TELUS Health Care Centres or to make an appointment, contact Dawn Buetow-James


1 Amen Clinics. 2021. “What are Concussions & Traumatic Brain Injuries?” www.amenclinics.com