Is it Possible to Improve CTE Outcomes with Natural Medicine?
Updated: Feb 24
By Keith Alban
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE, has been making national headlines and receiving an inordinate amount of attention in the last several years. From sports shows to national news, magazines, and even a movie with Will Smith, this condition is finally being recognized as something very real and extremely sobering. CTE was first discovered in 2002 by Dr. Benett Omalu after examining the football Hall of Famer Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This discovery has shaken up sports such as football, boxing, MMA, rugby, skateboarding, BMX, and others to their very core. Revealing research has come out on the condition of the brains of retired NFL athletes, and has painted a somewhat frightening picture on the potential consequences of certain sports. Science is now able to identify and understand the damage that accumulates in the brain as a result of high impact collisions and head traumas over many years.
The problem with identifying CTE for so long was that the condition couldn’t be diagnosed while alive. The technology that was needed to examine the pathology of CTE wasn’t available until recently. It is also said to be incurable by some medical experts, although some evidence to the contrary exists. The breakthroughs in technology in the last 10 years have enabled CTE to be understood and diagnosed while alive, although medical treatments are still rare. The reason for writing this article is to highlight a few powerful nutrients that may have value for CTE. While there is never a guarantee of improvement with any supplement, nutrient, diet plan, or medication, research shows that several natural compounds may have excellent potential for some of the underlying pathologies seen with CTE.
Repetitive Collisions & Trauma to the Brain
According to research, some of the most common sports that may cause or contribute to CTE include football, boxing, MMA, hockey, soccer, rugby, BMX biking, skateboarding, and other extreme sports. The most common denominator with CTE seems to be about collisions and direct impact to the head over many years. CTE has also been found in many military veterans and is thought to contribute to some of the symptoms that many veterans experience following their service. For veterans, it’s a combination of the traumatic memories of battles, the loss of soldiers, the mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma, and the physical damage that occurs. For athletes, the evidence shows that the amount of time spent competing is the main determining factor in the severity of CTE following retirement. That’s obviously a very logical conclusion, but does CTE really have to be the fate of each athlete that has a long, valiant career?
Thanks to advances in the understanding of CTE, we now know what an insidious condition CTE is and the challenges that it may present. For so many years, retired athletes have suffered in silence, unable to understand what’s happening to them. Most professional athletes, despite having money, are unable to receive any type of effective treatment or guidance. The topic of CTE and brain damage have received a plethora of attention in the last 5-10 years because of players like Aaron Hernandez, Junior Seau, Bubba Smith, Frank Gifford, and dozens of other high profile NFL athletes that were shown to have the condition after passing away. What occurred in the tragic cases of Junior Seau, Shane Dronett, Dave Mirra, Andre Waters, Aaron Hernandez, and others has stirred even more controversy on the potential ramifications of CTE.
The Shocking Statistics of CTE in Contact Sports
A study in November 2016 noted CTE in 90 out of 94 retired NFL athletes that had been examined. Another piece of research from 2017 examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL athletes. All but one person showed signs of CTE. (1) Signs and symptoms of CTE were found in almost 30 percent of high school football players, almost 90 percent of college and Canadian Football League players, over 70 percent of semi-pro players, and 99 percent of NFL players. (2)
This is a very scary and sobering look into the reality of certain types of retired athletes. Even though the truth of it may be tough to fathom, knowing about these risks is the first step to potentially improving things. These numbers may not be consistent with every study in the future, but it's important to know the truth and get these studies out in the open as much as possible. This helps dialogue take place, time for treatment before the damage worsens, and many other positive actions to help this insidious condition.
Certain findings have permeated throughout locker rooms and dramatically altered the views of many athletes within NFL circles and other sports. Bo Jackson, one of the most beloved and decorated athletes in American history, said recently that if he had known about the risks of CTE he never would have started playing football. He also vehemently discourages his kids from playing because of the recent findings.
Despite all of the risks, many athletes rely on these sports to feed their families. A long, successful, and prosperous career is the goal of just about every athlete. While some may take head to some of these strong warnings, many athletes still are unaware of the statistics and long term risks involved. While knowledge is always something that is very useful and powerful, action and guidance may be the most important when it comes to CTE development. Many athletes are well aware that CTE exists, but have no guidance on what can be done about it.
The Window of Time in CTE Development
If there’s one positive thing that can be said of CTE, it's that the condition takes time to progress and manifest. It's very important to take action during this crucial window and not sit idle while more damage is being done. Towards the end of the article, we will list different supplements that have good research and may be worth using on a regular basis. What’s most disturbing is that the trauma to the brain is almost guaranteed, although it takes time to manifest as mentioned. In my opinion, there should be CTE specific supplement protocols available to each at-risk athlete both during and following their careers.
The increased knowledge of the trauma that’s done to the brain has inspired certain rule changes to be implemented within the NFL. This is obviously a step in the right direction, although minor rule changes may be somewhat futile in a sport with clashing and tackling at its core. Just as boxing is about training athletes with the goal of inflicting maximum damage to their opponent’s head and body, the NFL is a sport that will innately cause head trauma. Having said that, any type of attempt at lowering the potential rates of CTE is something that has value.
So what exactly is CTE? According to researchers, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a neurodegenerative disease that can occur in different portions of the brain from repeated head traumas. A concussion isn't necessarily a requirement or prerequisite for it to occur, although repeated concussions may contribute to CTE’s development. The repeated trauma and impact to the brain causes “tau proteins” to detach from microtubules within the brain, destabilizing its structure. When this destabilizing process occurs, and damage to different nerve fibers takes place, the degeneration begins.
Normally, certain proteins in the brain hold these important microtubules and structures together. If these glue-like structures somehow become damaged, the shape of tau proteins changes, which causes clumps to form. These clumps and tangled proteins accumulate in different crevices within the cerebral cortex and slowly spread to other areas of the brain such as the amygdala, brain stem, hippocampus, and sometimes even the spinal cord. This is what can cause depression, memory problems, anxiety, mental deterioration, aggressive, erratic, and impulsive behavior, dementia, paranoia, and atypical thoughts for some people. Speech and motor skills may also be impacted. (3)
Many athletes want to know if there’s anything that can be done to potentially decrease the chances of this seemingly inevitable condition from robbing their joy and peace? The answer might be yes, although more clinical research and experimentation is needed. This doesn’t mean that any single nutrient will cure or totally prevent CTE from occurring, but there are certain nutrients that may have real potential for improving different aspects of CTE. Clinical trials are still needed to better understand how different nutrients may affect CTE and what type of progress is possible. Testing any treatments, supplements, or programs is still an evolving science, but advancements are being made each year.
Cannabidiol Research for CTE
CBD and marijuana have emerged as possible candidates for treating CTE, but is there any legitimate research behind it? Marijuana has been in many discussions lately about its place within the NFL and other sports for chronic pain management without the use of opioids. There is some conjecture that marijuana may be helpful for preventing
CTE development later on in life, although no quality testing in humans has been done. Unfortunately, treating CTE with marijuana may be far from ideal because of certain hidden toxins found within most modern marijuana. Several studies have found trace amounts of molds and a surprisingly high amount of heavy metals within marijuana. Many strains also lack sufficient CBD to be able to adequately fight something as powerful as CTE.
The problem is that cannabis plants naturally suck up compounds from the soil like a vacuum, and soils are rarely pure anymore. Most growers aren’t conscientious of this heavy metal issue, nor do they sufficiently test their product. While many people would assume that this issue only applies to low-grade marijuana, this wasn’t the case in testing. Many different strains of high-quality marijuana from legitimate growers tested high in several toxins. These were expensive strains sold at dispensaries that were considered to be of a high grade. These heavy metals and toxins would have a negative impact over time on memory, learning, anxiety, focus, motivation, depression, and other issues. Vaping and smoking cause the toxins to go directly into brain cells more efficiently than other routes.
There are compounds within marijuana, such as terpenes and cannabinoids, that may still yield some positive benefits. If products were consistently toxin-free and rigorously tested, medical marijuana may be a good option. Taking in high levels of THC can do more harm than good as it seeps into synapses, cell membranes, and begins to deplete and mimic your brain’s neurotransmitters. CBD extracts may give greater overall benefits without any of the downsides of marijuana. CBD may bestow powerful neuroprotective benefits without any downsides according to preliminary research. (4)
Due to the lack of available technology needed to study CTE in living subjects, no specific research has been conducted on the potential of different nutrients such as CBD. However, there has been researching on CBD for conditions that share many similarities to CTE. There appears to be very good potential with cannabidiol for neurodegenerative conditions and brain-based traumas. CBD is able to influence many different receptors in the brain that may help combat protein misfolding, mitochondrial dysfunction, neuroinflammation, excitotoxicity, tau protein tangles, and more. (4) One study found that CBD may have the capacity to slow down some of the negative manifestations of neurodegeneration. (5,6)
A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology reported that CBD limited or decreased the size of damaged tissue after a closed head injury. Researchers have discovered that CBD may impart powerful protection to brain cells if given shortly before and after different types of head trauma or ischemic incidents. (7) The healing and protective actions that CBD helps to stimulate would certainly make it a potential candidate for current and retired athletes. CBD has even been used in Israel to help decrease the amount of damage done to brain cells following a stroke. CBD may also have a positive influence on cellular repair mechanisms within brain cells that may be in bad shape, although more research is needed in the human body to confirm this.
The diverse healing properties that CBD may have on the brain seem more impressive with each passing year. In 2011, two Australian researchers demonstrated in animal studies that CBD may promote the growth and development of brain cells by causing an increase in BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. (8) This research hasn't been verified within the human body though. CBD would need to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier in sufficient doses for the benefits to be maximized. A nano-emulsified or liposomal CBD product would be ideally suited for this purpose and likely the only way to possibly affect tau protein tangles, axonal damage, and the core injuries to neurons. The proliferation of tau protein neurofibrillary tangles and clumps throughout the brain is thought to be at the core of CTE. (9)
Important Nutrients Worth Knowing
There are several other nutrients that may have excellent potential for anyone at risk of CTE or any type of degenerative brain damage. Doctors and team trainers should be researching this for athletes and have them on a protocol in my opinion, although that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Take turmeric and
curcumin for example:
Did you know this humble spice has research showing that it may help to reduce tau protein levels from traumatic brain injuries? (10) This is an amazing thing for those worried about CTE because of the prominent role that tau protein damage and proliferation play in its development. Turmeric already has shown an array of positive research in many different areas. Neurodegenerative conditions such as CTE may respond very well to curcumin extracts, although to truly get the most out of curcumin for the brain, it must be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. An extract with liposomes or nanotechnology would be needed for the active compounds to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier. Something else that’s very important is that most turmeric on the market contains lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals, so it's extremely important to make it’s thoroughly tested for all metals.
Another nutrient called NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine) has been shown to have powerful benefits for those with brain-based traumas and damage. NAC has been proven to be very useful to a wide range of issues and behavioral changes as well. Nutrients such as magnesium threonate, NAD+, boswellia serrata, pterostilbene, alpha-lipoic acid, lion's mane, ashwagandha, liposomal melatonin, zinc, holy basil,. These nutrients all have very good research that can play a significant role in healing if used correctly. A nutrient called gastrodin has impressive research for the brain. The science on it shows that it may help to upregulate healing and repair mechanisms in the brain to help brain-based traumas and damage. (11)
If you enjoyed this article and would like to try CBD, we use a nano-emulsification delivery system to improve the bioavailability. It may help more CBD to reach the brain because of the smaller particle size, although no studies have been done proving this as of yet. Feel free to contact us for more help and support if you or someone you know has CTE. We hope this article helped in some small way and points you in the right direction. Everything mentioned here is research-based, although the understanding of CTE is still evolving. Some of these nutrients may help to slightly tip the scales in a favorable direction and alter the development of CTE, although there are never any guarantees of any improvement with any diet plan, supplements, and even medication.
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