Have you heard of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)? I hadn't until recently when my friend Dr. Bryce Wylde taught me what it was.
What is BDNF?
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a growth hormone produced by the body that is responsible for the creation of new neurons (i.e., a process called neurogenesis). Research suggests a high level of BDNF is associated with better mood, productivity, and memory, as well as increased intelligence and reduced risk of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions.
How does BDNF improve brain health?
When BDNF is released in the brain, it plays a large role in the formation of new connections in the brain. As brain cells connect with each other and fire together, they form new networks, which is how memories are made and consolidated. BDNFs are a critical asset to the brain, as they:
- Promote and encourage growth and differentiation of new brain cells and synapses through the process of neurogenesis
- Support the survival of existing brain cells
- Contribute toward learning, thinking, and memory
- Possess anti-depressive capabilities
How can you increase BDNF?
It certainly sounds like we would all want optimal levels of BDNF, but how can we get them? Fortunately, there are several dietary and other lifestyle changes we can make that will help ensure our BDNF levels increase. For example:
Avoid processed foods. This includes frozen foods, fast foods, and foods high in sugar. Basically, if it isn't whole, natural, and fresh, avoid it.
Practice intermittent fasting. You can fast once a week, once every two to three weeks, or whatever fits your schedule. A common practice is to fast for 16 to 18 hours at one stretch once a week.
Try sprinting. We realize sprinting isn't for everyone, but if you are physically up to it, it's certainly worth a try. Practicing sprints (as few as two 3-minute sprints separated by one two-minute rest) has been shown to increase learning by 20 percent when compared with low intensity aerobics or no exercise.
Get more vitamin D. More than three quarters of people in the world have less than optimal levels of vitamin D. Because this nutrient is so important for everything from bone health to brain function and food sources are typically less than adequate, supplements are recommended unless you can get about 20 minutes of sunlight exposure about four times a week.
Mattson MP. Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: a neurobiological perspective. Annual Review of Nutrition 2005; 25:237-60
Molendijk ML et al. Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlations with the amount of ambient sunlight. PLoS One 2012; 7(11) E48046
Munsey J. Why BDNF is miracle-gro for your brain. Natural Stacks 2017 Jul 1
Winter B et al. High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 2007 May; 87(4):597-609