Today we speak with my good friend and traumatic brain injury survivor, Cavin Ballaster. After his injury Cavin dedicated his life to improving care in brain rehab and optimization. He has compiled his brain-optimizing findings into his book entitled ‘How to Feed a Brain’.
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Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. Today, I am here with my good friend, Cavin Balaster. And he’s got a very interesting backstory and a book that he has recently authored called How to Feed a Brain. He and I have been crossing paths at Paleo f(x) for a while and we finally got a chance to do an interview together. So Cavin, welcome to the show.
Cavin Balaster: It is such a pleasure. Thank you for bringing me on, Dr. Ruscio.
DrMR: Absolutely. It’s an absolute pleasure. You’ve had such an inspiring story that if people haven’t heard about it, let’s just start there because it’s really quite inspiring. So let’s just jump off there.
CB: Let’s just drop off. All right. So six-and-a-half years ago, I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury. I was instantly unconscious, rushed to the hospital, put on life support. While I was in a coma, I was diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury. So like if you go on Google and you type in “diffuse axonal injury,” you get source after source after source that all pretty much say 90% of patients with this injury never wake up from a coma. And those who do, most are in a vegetative state.
I am extremely appreciative every day that I woke up, that I’m alive. But when I woke up, I didn’t eat, walk, or talk for months. My left hand was totally flexed inward. I was breathing through a tube in my neck. I was receiving nutrition through a tube in my belly, and I put nutrition in air quotes because what they feed you is basically fortified corn syrup, five meals a day. We can talk about that, but that’s what is fed in the hospital.
So I was receiving nutrition in that form, and I was breathing through a tube. And long story short, there’s a whole lot that played into my recovery. But around 10 months post injury, a blood test was done and it showed that I had low protein levels. Like, certain amino acids were low. I was like, “Doc, that doesn’t make any sense. I eat meat with every meal. I have a protein shake every morning. What do you mean – eat more meat?” He was like, “No, no, no. You’re not absorbing the nutrients that you’re ingesting.”
So he gave me a nutritional protocol, and I began to regain clarity. And that’s when I dove into study. I was like, there’s clearly something in nutrition. Also, I realized I’d been in a brain fog ever since my injury. And I didn’t really have a great understanding of what happened. So I’m also going through medical records, text messages, emails, piecing together the last year of my life.
And I created the blog called Adventures in Brain Injury that basically documented that year. On the year anniversary, I would write about where I was a year ago. At the same time that I’m doing this, I’m like, why does nutrition play such a big role? So I’m studying digestion, studying metabolism, studying neuro-metabolism, mechanisms in neuroplasticity, nutrients for synaptogenesis, anything I can do to give my brain the best shot to recover.
And I’m relearning how to walk at this point. I’m able to read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and learn how to read peer-reviewed research and dive into that as well. And it’s become my mission to improve the standard model in neurorehabilitation and beyond that our understanding of brain plasticity and of optimal brain function.
Standard of Conventional Care
DrMR: Now, when you look at this topic as a patient, do you feel there are certain areas, speaking broadly, that are more deficient than others? And maybe we could paint—and I’m not an expert in this field, so if you want to add to this, please feel free. But nutrition would obviously be one. I’m assuming different various types of neurorehabilitation exercise would be two. And then, perhaps, other brain stimulation therapies like lasers or tactile stimulus or what have you may be a third. And I’m not sure if you’d add a fourth to that, but what would you say are the most deficient areas in the rehab setting in your experience?
CB: That’s a perfect question. Yes, like usually when you go through an event like this, after a brain injury or something else like neurodegenerative disease or a stroke or something of that sort, you’re put in physical therapy and occupational therapy. And it’s fantastic that these are in the rehabilitation model because they help a great deal. And what physical and occupational therapy usually are is like mobilizing your extremities and getting you able to function in some degree.
Physical usually pertains to walking and running and being mobile. Occupational usually has to do with the hands and being able to use your hands well. Speech-language pathology is another one. There’s speech therapy—or speech and swallow therapy which is getting you swallowing correctly because that’s something that we very much take for granted is our ability to swallow. Essentially while I was—I said I couldn’t eat for months.
So I wasn’t able to eat conventionally. And the reason why was because the communication between my brain and my pharynx was not very coordinated. So I risked aspiration or—when I’d swallow, what I was eating or drinking had a danger of going into my lungs. I’m sure we’ve all had it where it goes down the wrong tube and you cough.
So, for me, because of this neurological injury, it would go down the wrong tube and I wouldn’t even cough. So that’s called “silent aspiration.”
DrMR: Yeah. Dangerous.
CB: But yes. So these are what is involved in the standard rehab model which is great because those are so important to get you functioning. If you can’t swallow, you can’t eat conventionally.
CB: Again, the standard feeds are fortified corn syrup essentially. So that’s extremely important to get you to be a member of society again. But basically, you get to a certain point. And it’s like, “Oh, you’ve created your rehab goals. You’re like 20% better than when you started.” And then they’re like, “You’re good,” most of the time. And they get you out of that system. So many people are like, “Well, what now? I’m nowhere near where I was.”
Cognitively, if you pass the test, like, “Oh, you’re good.” But like you might’ve been an overachiever before, and you’ve been knocked down several steps. And it’s usually like, “Well, you’re good according to the insurance model and according to the metrics that we have set up.”
DrMR: The standard of care which I understand. And you’re right; I’ve seen that. And I think there’s a number of fields that fall victim to that and probably unintentionally. But their goal is to get someone from pathological to functional but then, unfortunately, there’s this gap between functional to or, I guess you would say, baseline function back to optimization. And yeah, I think there’s a number of fields that are guilty of that, unfortunately.
CB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of the beauty of functional medicine is it takes that wide range. “You’re not in the pathological range, so you’re fine.” And functional medicine is kind of like, “You’re not in the functional range. You’re not in the optimal range. So let’s get you in the optimal range because that’s where we want you.” I really appreciate that.
The thing is we know so much about neurology. I know the brain is extremely complex. We have 86 billion neurons, each making several connections. So we have like trillions or quadrillions of connections being made in the brain. And it’s really complex to map this stuff out. But what we know about the brain is far more than is utilized.
And so, I was lucky enough to be steered towards a functional neurologist and a neuro-optometrist. And these are two fields that I am a huge fan of. If you listen to my podcast, Adventures in Brain Injury, I interview neuro-optometrists and functional neurologists all the time. And the thing about that podcast is that I got into all of this through a brain injury, but we interviewed the smartest and most inspirational people have ever been heard of. It’s far beyond a brain injury audience only. It’s really great.
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And this is one area where it seems like chiropractic care, under the application of functional neurology, really has a lot to offer. And it does seem like there are very advanced assessments that can be used and adjustments can be used in a different way in functional neurology. And I’d love for you to expand on this. I know people may be familiar with an adjustment. Cracking your neck, cracking your back, to say it more crudely.
However, there’s an immense amount of neurological input that you drive into the system when you perform an adjustment due to some of the proprioception and the proprioception stimulus from adjustments. So there are certain mechanisms that adjusting can do with pain regulation and regulating how fast your stabilizer muscles contract. It essentially facilitates what’s almost a feet-forward loop so that your stabilizers contract before your large muscle groups. And that’s one of the theories behind why chiropractic adjustments help with pain and function outside of a few others.
However, there’s also this neurological angle. So as I understand it, a chiropractic neurologist may not put any attention where the pain is but may be trying to perform the adjustments in such a way to provide the appropriate balance of stimulus to the brain which is a very different way of applying chiropractic. And they combine that with lasers and exercises and such. But I’d love for you to talk more about that in case people haven’t heard much about functional neurology.
CB: Yeah, absolutely. So, yes. When we talk about the central nervous system, we’re talking about the brain and the spine. That’s the central nervous system. Everybody equates the spine with chiropractors. And really, everything we do to the spine affects the brain and vice versa. So as you said, with proprioception, that’s like our peripheral which goes through our spine and then goes to our brain.
I think of it like this: our brain is the puppet master. The strings are the spine, and the puppets are our extremities, everything else. So it’s important to have all of it working together. So a really good chiropractor understands the neurology as well. And I really love what they do with functional neurology. It’s really impressive what a lot of these guys are able to do.
So we do things with GyroStim which is a man-sized gyroscope, essentially. And what we can do is we can rotate a patient in certain ways to affect the vestibular system in a specific way which sends input to the brain, which then affects the eyes because it’s all connected in this really intricate web. Actually, the eye and vestibular, that’s called the vestibuloocular reflex which essentially is like if you look at someone and you shake your head while you’re still looking at them, your eyes will stay on them and is able to do that because of this reflex that basically moves your eyes in the opposite direction that your head moves.
So I might be getting a little complex here, but it’s a really cool tool that we can use. So there’s the GyroStim. We also do a lot with vision, especially for the assessment. So you have 12 cranial nerves, and what those cranial nerves do is receive input from every part of your body. And they send output to every part of your body. So this is the highway where information is sent and received.
You have 12 of them. Six of them directly innervate your visual system. And one-third of them—so four of them—are dedicated to your visual system, meaning that’s all they do is work with your two eyeballs. One-third of the output from your brain. It’s pretty impressive. So we often say the eyes are the window to the soul; well, the eyes are literally a window to the brain. We can see how the brain’s functioning through eye movements, through pupil dilation, tear ducts, things of this sort.
And at the same time, it’s also a really awesome therapeutic window. So we can do visual exercises to affect neuroplastic change as well. And that’s where neuro-optometry comes in and is really powerful.
DrMR: So functional neurology and neuro-optometry, are those two fields starting to become more friendly and conjoined with one another? Or because functional neurology is more alternative medicine in scope and optometry, I’m assuming, is more conventional, are they disparate fields? Are they coming together at all? Do you have any indication on that?
CB: I’m working on bringing them together in a big way. And they definitely play nice together.
Functional Neurology and Neuro-Optometry
CB: They’re both very holistic. Ophthalmologists, not as much. Ophthalmologists are MDs, and they look at the structure of the eyeballs and the wiring to the eyes. A neuro-ophthalmologist is looking at the eyes and the cranial nerves. But what an optometrist is looking at is how the brain is interpreting what the eyes are doing and how the brain is affecting what the eyes are doing. So if the hardware looks good, for a neuro-ophthalmologist, everything’s fine.
But for a neuro-optometrist, we’re looking at the functional movement of the eyes and making sure they’re teaming together correctly and we’re improving the function of them. And I think that’s so important. I think both are important. We’ve got to make sure the hardware is working before we can optimize the software.
But if the hardware is working, then we need to move into working with the software, with the brain, and with the function of the eyes for that. So yeah, they are working together. My functional neurologist actually was like, “Are you working with a neuro-optometrist?” And I happened to be working with a neuro-optometrist. And he’s like, “Good job. You’re doing a great job there.”
So they’re definitely working together, and I imagine there will be much more of that in the future. In fact, my book, I put a few allies in the back. Nobody paid me to do this. I just really like all of these companies and clinics. So I have Revive Treatment Centers of America which are the functional neurologists I work with in Denver, and they do a really great job with neurorehabilitation from stroke, from brain injury, from concussion, neurodegeneration, and they also do autoimmunity stuff. And that’s the team of functional neurologists.
And then I also have NORA, the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association, which that’s clearly neuro-optometry. They do great stuff as well. In fact, I spoke for NORA. My first keynote was for NORA because I’m such a huge fan of neuro-optometry.
And then the last group in there is Paleo f(x). I’m going to see you at Paleo f(x) this year, right?
DrMR: I’m looking forward to it. Yeah.
CB: Yeah. And I think that’s a great little trifecta there. We’ve got neuro-optometry, functional neurology, and food. Feed a Brain was based off of a paleo template. Made a lot of sense to me. And so, I’m really looking forward to bringing these together to improve neurorehabilitation.
DrMR: Yeah. That’s fantastic. Coming back to your book for a moment. From a high level, who would you say your book is ideal for? Is there a certain population or a couple different populations that would be best suited or best served from this book?
About the Book
CB: That’s a great question. I joke. I say my book is for anybody with a brain who eats food. But honestly, it was written from a brain injury survivor. I’m a brain injury survivor. That’s how I came into this. And I definitely talk to patients and loved ones who have experienced brain injury at times in the book, “This is a section for patients and loved ones.” I also have sections for gastric feeding, and there are little boxes throughout that are for gastric feeds. So there’s tips on how to implement these for gastric feeds which don’t apply to a lot of people obviously. But it’s so important to me because of what I said earlier with the gastric feeds being fortified corn syrup.
CB: So yeah, definitely brain injury survivors, definitely loved ones of brain injury survivors, stroke, neurodegeneration, and it’s very neuro-protective. So to protect your loved ones’ brains, just to know about how to feed your brain to prevent these neurodegenerative diseases that are stripping our elderly population of their twilight years.
And then, of course, anybody who wants to optimize their brain because I was looking to optimize my recovery, and the way that was going to happen was to supply my neurons and glia with what they needed to function optimally. And essentially, supporting optimal brain function. So it’s for anybody who wants to optimize their brain function.
So maybe I should say it’s for anybody with a brain who eats food and who cares about their brain.
DrMR: Gotcha. Well, that’s a good broad audience there. So I’m assuming that you talk about the exercise neurological rehab piece and about diet and I’m assuming there’s also a section on certain dietary supplements that can be used with this synergistically. Are those kinds of the three main pillars, maybe fourth being lifestyle? If you had to break the book down to a few main pillars just to give the audience a sense, what would you say they are?
CB: Well, actually, this book is focused solely on nutrition. How to feed a brain nutritionally. That’s what this book is. Future books will be about other things, other aspects that you’ve talked about like neuro-optometry, like functional neurology. If you want to learn more about that, check out my podcast and my website. So FeedaBrain.com or AdventuresinBrainInjury.com. It’s the Adventures in Brain Injury podcast. And we certainly have a lot of information about that.
Dr. Ruscio Resources
DrMR: Hey, everyone, this is Dr. Ruscio. I quickly wanted to fill you in on the three main resources that are available to you in case you need help or would like to learn more. Of course, I see patients both via telemedicine, via Skype, and also at my physical practice in Walnut Creek, California.
There is of course my book, Healthy Gut Healthy You, which gives you what I think is one of the best self-help protocols for optimizing you gut health and of course understanding why your gut is so important and so massively impactful on your overall health.
And then finally, if you are a clinician trying to learn more about my functional medicine approach, there is The Future of Functional Medicine Review, which is a monthly newsletter. Which is a training tool to help sharpen clinical skills. All of the information for all three of these is available at the URL drruscio.com/resources. And in case you are on the go, that link is available in the description on all of your podcast players. Okay, back to the show.
CB: What this book is all about is the foods to include. It’s way more of a diet of inclusion. Diet’s probably not the right word. Eating style. I actually just was visiting a friend in L.A., and he’s like, “I’m totally on board with this. I’ve bought your book for like 15 friends at this point.” And they’re all just seeing huge changes.
The thing was, I wanted to write the resource I wish I had while I was researching all this stuff. I was jumping through dietary hoops, I guess, just trying on different things. Some things didn’t work, and I was like, “Argh, that wasn’t good.” And some things, I was like, “All right. That’s good. I’ll make a note of that.” And going through all of this research and figuring it out was a lot of hard work.
One of my mentors and just somebody I respect an enormous amount, Dr. Alex Vasquez. At one point, I reached out to him, and I was like, “Hey, Dr. V, I’m looking for a resource on brain nutrition. Could you steer me towards one?” He was like, “There’s not one that I would steer you towards.” I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I said, “Well, you should write that.” He said, “Nah, you know what? You should.”
DrMR: You do it. No, you do it.
Nutrition Tips in the Book
CB: Yeah. So that’s what How to Feed a Brain is. It’s my response to that. Essentially, I wanted to make this an extremely readable book so it’s very digestible, pun intended. And we have all of these—I created a bunch of handouts or guides that are printable. You can just print them out. In fact, one of them is a guide to fats and oils that I have on my website for free at FeedaBrain.com, if you want to go over and scoop that up. That’s an example of the kind of guides that are in the book and that you can print out in full color PDFs.
I have them on my phone, so if I’m going through a grocery store and I’m like—I wrote the book and it’s still super valuable for me to be able to look and be like, “All right. So what is some produce I can put in there?” I have a list of the different kinds of produce I want to include, the different kind of fats I want to have, and I have a guide to food labels as well because it gets very confusing, the food labels in the US. So that was another aspect.
So I just created these really usable guides that are all very useful anywhere. And that was the whole premise of the book was to make a nutritional guide that’s easy to follow, easy to understand, and has the printable guides that you can just take with you to the grocery store and know exactly what you need to get.
DrMR: For someone who, let’s say, is in fairly good health, they could go through the protocol in the book as kind of a brain hack, if you will, and see if they can get a kick in their performance.
DrMR: Yeah. Good.
CB: I would love to hear about that too. I do hear about that. A friend of mine just sent me a text and was like, “Two weeks and I’ve lost this much weight, and I feel so much clearer than I’ve ever felt before. I’m in.” And it’s easy to implement.
DrMR: That’s awesome. I’m impressed with what you’ve done, my man. It’s sometimes tough to get up when life knocks you down. But not only did you get up, but you turned that into something that was a gift for other people. And that’s awesome. So thank you. Thank you for taking the time and for your passion. I know you’ve been an inspiration to a lot of people, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people post-injury out there who are looking at you as someone who they’re saying, “Well, if he did it, so can I,” which is unbelievable.
Yeah, man. A hearty hat-tip to you, and I commend you for your work. Tell people again the podcast, the name of the book, website, and anything else that you want to make them aware of.
CB: All right. So podcast is the Adventures in Brain Injury podcast. You can follow me on social media FeedaBrain on all of them: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Find me there. We launched the Feed a Brain interview series at the end of last year, and I got to interview some of the smartest experts in brain and nutrition, including Dr. David Perlmutter who you interviewed fairly recently. Nora Gedgaudas, Dr. Terry Wahls, Dr. Daniel Engle, Jessica Flanigan, Dr. Datis Kharrazian.
So we had all of these people on this interview series, and you can also access preview for that. I have it set up—you can watch the first 10 minutes of each one of those interviews for free if you go to FeedaBrain.com/preview. You can get the book on Amazon, and FeedaBrain.com is the website.
DrMR: So you’ve been a busy guy.
CB: Yeah. I’m currently in San Diego. I’m going to be presenting for Bastyr University tomorrow.
CB: Yeah. So that’s exciting.
DrMR: Awesome. Well, keep up the good work, my man. And I’ll see you soon in Austin. And definitely check out Cavin and his work, and, like I said, he’s an inspiration and definitely someone to give some support to. So check him out. And, Cavin, thanks again for taking the time.
CB: Thank you.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
Dr. Ruscio is your leading functional and integrative doctor specializing in gut related disorders such as SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac, IBS and in thyroid disorders such as hypothyroid and hyperthyroid. For more information on how to become a patient, please contact our office. Serving the San Francisco bay area and distance patients via phone and Skype.