Brain-derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) is a growth factor that helps maintain brain health as we age. It’s similar to several other Neurotrophic Growth Factors (NGF) but offers some specific benefits to mental performance. Taking steps to ensure your body has all it needs to maintain and utilize a steady flow of BDNF will help ensure your retirement years are as enjoyable as your earlier ones.
What is BDNF?
BDNF is a protein that helps grow new brain tissue, repair damaged tissue, and has been associated with things like neural plasticity. Simply put; BDNF keeps the brain fresh and sharp. BDNF affects how your brain associates new information, how it forms new memories, and even how it processes new information. BDNF is the ultimate natural nootropic compound and is essential to maintaining low-term brain health. For more information on the specifics, check out this BDNF article.
We’re going to talk about how to ensure your BDNF levels stay flush but first let’s look at some practical reasons you’d want to do this. After all, it’s hard to put in the work if you don’t understand the outcome! Elevated levels of BDNF (achievable through natural means) are associated with the following benefits (R):
- Higher Pain Threshold
- Better Mental Health
- Healthier Weight
- Better Sleep
- Lower Risk of Brain Disease
All in all—BDNF is about the most essential compound out there in terms of brain health. Many of the brain foods that are associated with better cognitive health are, in some way, associated with the improved production or utilization of BDNF.
How to Increase BDNF
Let’s get to the meat of it—how do you increase levels of BDNF in your brain? As it turns out, many of the same actions associated with better mental health (and overall health in some cases) have a positive effect on BDNF levels. In other words, expect to put in the work.
Exercise is usually the best option to consider when seeking to improve any aspect of one’s health. It involves hard work, so it doesn’t get that lose weight fast shimmer of most popular answers out there. During prolonged aerobic exercise, BDNF levels surge to as high as 200% their normal amounts (R). Animal models have shown even higher achievable levels under certain circumstances. Research has shown that walking even 15 minutes a day can have a tremendously positive effect on long-term brain health. Increased BDNF levels likely help to explain that.
Sleep is the great healer and associated with improvements to every aspect of human health. Sleep comes to us each night (hopefully) in several stages. During the deepest of these sleep cycles, as well as REM sleep, the human brain makes many repairs. Repairing brain tissue, organizing new synaptic connections, and managing new memories from the day are all part of this routine. Guess what helps regulate all that house-cleaning for the brain? BDNF. Research shows that people from many different medical circumstances all measure similarly-reduced levels of BDNF when they receive less REM and deep sleep (R). Considering natural sleep aids and other actions to help improve sleep is a great way to boost BDNF (assuming you aren’t already sleeping as good as possible.)
This one’s a two-part consideration. Firstly, stress is the single largest influencer of BDNF levels. High levels of stress will tank your BDNF (R). Secondly, Yoga has been proven to lower reported stress levels (R)—though researchers are still scrambling to understand exactly how it does so. Stress often has a rippling effect across many aspects of one’s life which can have deeper effects on BDNF production. For example, as stress levels build, you might find yourself less motivated to exercise, sleeping more poorly, or even increasing consumption of things like alcohol that may negative impacts on overall health. Yoga is a prescription-free way to address your daily stress and thus ensure healthier levels of BDNF.
What do polyphenols, catechins, and compounds like Vitamin C and Glutathione all have in common? They’re all powerful antioxidants! There have been several studies that link diets rich in antioxidants to higher levels of BDNF (R). This way to increase BDNF is a pretty open-ended one—meaning there are lots of ways to get more antioxidants. For example, pomegranates are rich in antioxidants. Coffee, green tea, and apple cider vinegar are other examples of sources of vast amounts of natural antioxidant compounds. Again, most foods associated with brain health are also associated with high levels of antioxidant compounds. Coincidence? No way.
Here’s the first curveball—depriving the brain of oxygen for a small amount of time stimulates BDNF release! When the brain is deprived of oxygen it can quickly become damaged. Events like near-death drowning or strokes put one at severe risk of brain damage from prolonged states of low-oxygen supply. In each case, the brain recognizes its precarious position and quickly takes action to protect itself from damage. How you might ask? It releases BDNF! Intermittent states of hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) have been shown to positively affect circulating BDNF levels (R). There’s a fine line between beneficial hypoxia and brain-damaging hypoxia. If you’re considering this approach do your homework first. Better yet, talk to a licensed professional that can help guide you!
These are but a handful of the many ways one can increase BDNF through natural means. You can boost your BDNF levels whether you choose to drink more green tea, utilize natural sleep aids like melatonin, or up your daily exercise routine. In any case, it’s important to be mindful of balance. Over-exerting yourself during exercise could cause BDNF-reducing effects. Drinking too much green tea might disrupt your sleep cycles, thus reducing BDNF (it has caffeine after all!) Whatever your plan, remember that balance is what makes like possible and to think otherwise is to spit in the face of Mother Nature.