Spinach is to Popeye as BDNF is to Einstein. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein found primarily in the brain. Responsible for new, lasting, and powerful cellular growth, this protein would be the envy of Popeye’s biceps. What does it mean to have new cells in your brain? Think: improved memory, slowed aging, better recall, and improved resilience after damage. Let’s discuss the impact that BDNF plays on brain health as well as the ways to help or hurt it’s potential.
Associations with low BDNF include: Parkinson’s, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer’s, an affliction that runs in my family making this topic close to my heart.
4 Ways to Help Your Brain
What does it mean to help my brain? It means that you can increase the expression (read: makes your genes produce more of) BDNF. Think of these 4 aspects as “turning on” your gene. (Later we'll discuss 4 that can “turn off” the gene.) So, even if you are born with a gene that produces a lot of BDNF, influences such as: sugar, stress, solitude, and a sedentary lifestyle can block that gene's production. This is what we call epigenetic influences of genes: what you do and how you do it affects the way your genes function.
(Click here to read a previous post on epigenetics)
Luckily, when you implement helpers like physical activity, you can offset your genetic risk of low BDNF, and therefore Alzheimer’s.
Here are the best 4 BDNF boosters:
A weekly mix of high, moderate and low intensity as well as strength- and flexibility-related activities. Studies show that there is a 50% decrease risk of Alzheimer’s with high levels of exercise compared to none, and a 40% decrease when just moderate and low physical activity is provided!
Time restricted feeding- eating only within an 8-12 hour window every day, provides hormone regulation (read: balancing cortisol and insulin levels). It also allows your body to digest food within its metabolically active time frame, which means everything will run more smoothly: digestion, sleep and mood.
Nutrients: Omega-3 (DHA), folate, B vitamins, vitamin E, choline, to name a few.
----> Oysters, salmon, leafy greens, walnuts, almonds, apples, blueberries, lentils, grass-fed beef, eggs, turmeric, garlic, black pepper, cilantro, and most herbs and spices!
3. Mental Stimulation
Mindful practices (simply paying close attention to the task at hand- notice your sensory inputs: taste, smell, touch, sight). Mindfulness can be a mix of still and stimulating practices. Gardening is great because every day the task is slightly different, recruiting new pathways in your brain.
Walking, music, baths, games, puzzles. This lowers blood pressure and improves memory. Do it daily!
Memory consolidation occurs most strongly during 7-9 hours of sleep.
*Cortisol regulation is done through all the above and an additive effect!
4 Ways to Hurt Your Brain
New research calls Alzheimer’s “Type 3 Diabetes” because of the disastrous effects sugar has on brain connections. Specifically, refined or artificial sugars (aspartame- diet sodas, HFCS). BDNF decreases with diets high in refined carbohydrates like cereals and white breads.
Cortisol, when chronically elevated it creates neuroinflammation that leads to brain degeneration. Stress and depression decrease BDNF, while increasing glutamate, which decreases neuroplasticity. Cortisol regulation happens when the 4 helpers are put into play.
3. Sedentary Lifestyle
Even with vigorous exercise for 30 minutes a day it isn't enough stimulation for brain health if you are stationary the rest of the day. Sure, your 30 minute high intensity intervals may be getting the muscle tone and weight loss effects you are after but it will fall short of the long-term memory gains.
----> Every 90 minutes get movin’ for at least 2 minutes!
4. Solitary lifestyle
Social interactions (friends, family, community, faith) provide new and stimulating mental challenges at each interaction such as: vocabulary, social etiquette, creating plans and fostering new relationships.
There are many genetic factors that come into play in regards to brain health. A few notable ones include:
1. DRD2- a dopamine receptor that impacts your pleasure responses. Addictive behavior may also stem from this gene! When your reward system is impaired it means you require more of the same stimulus to be satisfied than someone who may not have this genetic variation. Sugar addicts out there, this one is especially important for you and your brain health!
2. APOE- one of the many involved in predispositions to Alzheimer’s disease. Take caution when reading your genetic report and focusing on this gene because Alzheimer’s is a multifactorial disease. Many genes, long-term dietary habits, and metabolism related issues like hormones and weight status all play a part.
3. BDNF- this is the specific gene that codes for BDNF protein that we discussed earlier.
Would you like to learn about other natural ways, like supplementation and diet, to boost your BDNF production? Interested in preventative measures to ensure long-term brain health? Come learn about ways to personalize your approach at Genetic Garden