Summer is winding down and for some student athletes, the fall season has already begun. Any sport carries the risk of head impacts and concussions, so I wanted to update all the concerned parents out there about some simple advice that can protect the brains of your young athletes.
Concussion recommendations are changing
About a year ago, I wrote about our mistaken belief that lactic acid is a metabolic waste product. It’s actually a fast-acting energy source called lactate that improves athletic performance and powers, grows and even heals the brain. I mentioned studies that found that athletes that ignored bedrest recommendations after concussions and exercised anyway recovered faster than those who followed the inactivity guidelines. Other studies have confirmed this and an international panel of experts on concussions published new guidelines stating that athletes should return to activity a few days after an injury to improve brain recovery. They don’t suggest diving back into the game that soon, but they do recommend starting with walking and gradually increasing activity levels as symptoms lessen.
Blood flow and lactate
As I mentioned in the previous article, traumatic injuries like concussions impaired glycolysis in the glial cells (the structural cells of the brain that protect the neurons). Normally these cells convert glucose into lactate so it can be used by the neurons, but after injury, the neurons couldn’t receive sustenance from glucose and they starved. Other researchers found that lactate also protects neurons from excitotoxicity after a brain injury. After serious trauma like a stroke or spinal cord injury, neurons can become overstimulated by neurotransmitter signals. This barrage causes a build up of calcium ions that ultimately kills the neuron. Lactate triggers a complex series of defense mechanisms that prevent this build up and keep the neuron from dying.
Other research has found that the foot impact from activities like running and walking creates a pressure wave that drives blood back up through the arteries to the brain, significantly increasing cerebral blood flow. It’s another reason why the new recommendations suggest stress-free activities like walking. Activity helps increase lactate production and the foot impact from walking helps drive that vital brain-fuel where it needs to go.
Recognizing concussions and activity guidelines
The new report includes helpful guidelines for recognizing concussions that you can download here as well as a simple chart of how to properly work back into your sport after an injury. I included the chart below as a handy reference to discuss with your child’s coach. They may know it, they may not, but they don’t want them hurt anymore than you do and they want to get him or her back up to speed as safely as possible. The chart gives a good general idea of how to progress. The basic idea is there should be at least 24 hours between steps and if you experience any symptoms while exercising, move back down to the previous step.
Since the title mentioned a drink that helps protect the brain, I figured I should get back to that bit of advice. Let me first be abundantly clear on the fact that I’m not involved with Cytomax in any way and I do not receive compensation for recommending them. The person that is involved with them though is Dr. George Brooks, an expert in physiology and lactate metabolism from UC Berkley. His research uncovered how L-lactate is a faster acting fuel source than glucose, why it improves endurance and performance, and how it heals the brain after traumatic brain injuries. He helped formulate Cytomax as an energy drink for endurance athletes, but I routinely recommend it to athletes or student athletes that have suffered any kind of head trauma. Increasing the supply of L-lactate to your neurons immediately after a trauma, will reduce neuronal damage and improve recovery. More recently though, I’ve been recommending it for anyone that might experience a head injury as well.
May be more contact than we think
I appreciate the new level of attention, concern and research with concussions, but as someone who has been in martial arts for decades, I can tell you that you’d be surprised how hard you can get hit in the head without suffering a concussion. That doesn’t mean non-concussive impacts are harmless. Previous research has shown that training in impact-heavy sports or even sports where contact is incidental (not an integral part of the game) can impair learning and memory and it changes the function and structure of white matter in the brain.
I’m not trying to scare anyone out of sports because I think inactivity is far more harmful to your body, brain, and emotional well-being, but I do suggest adding a little extra brain-protection to your practices and games.
Worth trying before, highly recommended after
There are currently no studies showing that supplementing with L-lactate found in Cytomax prophylactically (preventatively) protects your brain against injury, but there is plenty of evidence to show that it helps afterwards. Lactate triggers brain cell growth, it’s the preferred fuel source for neurons, and it protects neurons from damage after an impact, so take it before your game and after. Maybe it won’t shield your brain beforehand, but worst case scenario is you feel more energetic. Cytomax is still an effective sports drink that triggers mitochondrial biogenesis, increases the release of norepinephrine, and spares glucose for later which ultimately improves your overall endurance.