Written by James Dixon – fact checked by Jason M & the editorial team
James Dixon is one of the key players in the SOMA Analytics’ team. He is a personal trainer and is educated to Masters level in Philosophy. He is a published author and is a keen advocate of high quality nootropic supplements.
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Until the latter part of the twentieth century, it was generally assumed that we all had finite numbers of brain cells and that, when we had finished developing after childhood, we couldn’t create new ones.
The rug was pulled out from beneath this theory in the 1980s, however, as researchers isolated an amino acid (a protein) that could inspire new brain cell growth.
This amino acid is BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
BDNF’s etymology tells us a lot about it. Brain derived and factor are fairly straight forwards and self-explanatory. The neurotrophic part is far more interesting, however: it comes from the Greek neuro, or of the nervous system (technically ‘sinew, tendon, or cord’), and trophic, or growth promoting (technically something like ‘nourishment or food’).
This is exactly what BDNF does. The researchers who isolated it sprinkled BDNF on neurons in a petri dish and immediately saw new growth.
The idea of nourishment is also important to bear in mind, as BDNF serves a greater purpose than causing new cell growth. It also maintains existing cells’ health. It does so through a variety of mechanisms, including increasing brain plasticity, suppressing cranial inflammation, acting as a natural antidepressant, warding against neurodegeneration, and mitigating the effects of stress and anxiety on the brain.
It has even been linked with lifespan.
Therefore, it’s important that we enable our bodies to make adequate volumes of BDNF, which isn’t always possible.
Low BDNF levels
Low BDNF levels are easy enough to test for with simple blood or saliva tests. They have been linked with a range of side effects and conditions relating to the brain.
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder
- Burnout syndrome
- Depression and suicidal behaviour
- Huntington’s disease
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Sleep disorders
Do note that these concerns have been linked to BDNF. There is a correlation, which does not necessarily imply causation. At present, it isn’t known whether low BDNF levels cause these concerns or are caused by them. However, the correlation itself is strong.
We also know that BDNF levels can be greatly diminished by unhealthy lifestyle practices.
For instance, your diet can greatly impact your BDNF levels. Diets rich in whole foods, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats can boost them. Diets packed with processed foods, especially anything with too much sugar and unhealthy fat, can deplete them.
High stress levels can also damage your overall brain health, including BDNF levels, and your mental wellbeing. Cortisol, the hormone our bodies create to deal with stress, can impair BDNF production, which in turn will lead to a reduction in new brain cell formation.
This is true of all types of stress, including chronic daily stress, occasional acute stress, stress induced insomnia, and burnout. In fact, there is even some tentative evidence suggesting that stress levels during pregnancy can affect a child’s propensity to create adequate BDNF.
BDNF levels also decline naturally as we age, explaining in part older populations’ increased risk factor for cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and dementia.
Increasing your BDNF levels
Happily, just as dietary and lifestyle factors can negatively effect your BDNF levels, so too can they positively impact them. There are plenty of ways you can help to raise your BDNF levels and allow it to more ably enter your brain.
Exercise is excellent for improving BDNF levels. Even a single session of moderate intensity exercise has been found to measurably improve BDNF levels. It is the most efficient thing you can do to boost your brain health.
Exercise and the associated BDNF rise can improve your brain’s resistance to oxidative stress, disease, and damage from injury. The hippocampus is particularly receptive to the formation of new cells elicited by physical exercise. This is the part of your brain most closely tied to learning and memory.
Recent research has shown that exercise actually stimulates, or turns on, the gene that signals your body to boost BDNF production.
It can also help to mitigate some of the damage of sleep deprivation whilst allowing for a better chance of rest, especially in those suffering with insomnia. This in turn may lead to improved BDNF output.
There is no one type of exercise that will work. Or, rather, any type will boost your BDNF output. However, some are more efficient than others. Sprint training and other forms of high impact running, yoga, resistance training, and dance have all been linked with greatly improved BDNF levels.
It isn’t all about exercise, however. There are plenty of things you can change about your daily life that will have a positive effect on your BDNF levels.
Spending more time outdoors is a great place to start.
Firstly, getting into the great outdoors has been proven to lower stress levels. This means lower cortisol levels, so a better chance of your body being able to produce BDNF.
Secondly, if you can get out in the sun, all the better. Sunshine causes vitamin D synthesis, which has a range of health benefits. It also triggers BDNF formation.
This isn’t to say that you need to lie in 35 degree heat for eight hours a day. However, it’s been theorized that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may be caused in part by low BDNF levels. You will benefit from a half hour stroll outdoors, no matter the time of year.
Music has also been linked to increased BDNF output, which is handy for those, like me, who spend all day listening to their tunes.
Researchers have known for years that listening to music can elevate your mood and reduce cognitive decline. Playing music is good, too, though obviously takes more of a commitment.
It’s thought that a key reason for this is music’s ability to impact BDNF production. It may actually go some way to boosting your own natural output.
Finally, high quality social interactions make a big difference to your BDNF levels. The benefits of spending good quality of time with your friends and family – or, more broadly, your loved ones – are profound. Many of them are attributed to the release of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’.
We cannot underestimate oxytocin.
However, high quality social interactions and intimate relationships may help to raise BDNF levels. Again, this may play a large part in elderly cognitive decline – social isolation is a big deal in the elderly and has been linked with an increased risk of cognitive decline and associated disorders.
Reach out to people, connect, and enjoy improved mental health whilst safeguarding your brain’s long-term health.
Your diet is a massive factor in optimizing (or not) BDNF output. The standard American diet (SAD), or rather the typical Western diet, is pretty atrocious for your brain. This is because they tend to be high in saturated fats and sugar.
Alternatively, diets rich in fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy, oily fat like the Japanese or Mediterranean diet are fantastic for BDNF output. Researchers have found a strong correlation between a typical Mediterranean diet, including plenty of fresh produce, seafood, nuts, whole grains, legumes (and even a little red wine) and higher BDNF output.
You really are what you eat.
Excessive eating can also negatively impact your BDNF output. Calorie restriction has been linked to improved BDNF output.
Strangely, a link has been found between chewing and BDNF synthesis. Chewing actively promotes it. Aim for foods that you have to chew, therefore, going easy on smoothies, juices, and soups.
There are some specific foods to look out for. They are all high in flavonoids, naturally occurring compounds known to give plenty of health and cognitive benefits. They are very antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and, of course, boost BDNF output. They include black pepper, blueberries, chocolate, green tea, olive oil, and turmeric.
Prebiotics, containing soluble fibers known to nourish good bacteria, can also promote higher BDNF output. These include plant-based ingredients like asparagus, bamboo shoots, banana, barley, leeks, garlic, lentils, onions, and tomatoes.
Finally, supplementation is always a good idea if you’re looking to optimize your BDNF output. There are actually a lot of BDNF supplements that can help. Some of the common herbal remedies you may already be taking that are good for your BDNF output include:
- Asian/panax ginseng
- Rhodiola rosea
- Magnoila bark
Many of the ingredients listed above can be found in the best nootropic supplements.
Your BDNF levels
You can always talk to your doctor about your BDNF levels. They will be able to measure them easily enough. However, it’s always worth putting a few simple lifestyle practices in place to boost your natural output.
Follow a good diet most of the time. Exercise, get outside, and spend time with your family. Do things you enjoy and try to keep your stress levels down.
And always remember supplementation. I happen to take ashwagandha, panax ginseng, and bacopa as part of my supplement routine, all for separate issues.
If you’re in my situation, great – you’re probably doing a lot for your brain health already.
If not, consider taking one. Ashwagandha in particular is cheap, healthy, and, for men particularly, great for maintaining healthy hormone levels.