Think of BDNF as a high performance protein powder that helps you build muscles at the gym, but for your brain cells. Instead of it influencing the size of your biceps it influences the quality and quantity of your brain cells.
Your brain pumps out a series of neurotrophins. Neurotrophins are a family of proteins that are involved in making neurons. Whilst there are a variety of neurotrophins at work in your brain, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is regarded as the most active and the most important protein in your body. Without it you cannot make new brain cells. And without them, you’re nothing.
What else does BDNF do?
Aside from making new brain cells, BDNF is also important in the maintenance and health of your existing brain cells. It’s also integral to the function of your peripheral nervous system. Your peripheral nervous system is made up of two parts, your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions in the body, such as breathing. And your somatic nervous system, which governs voluntary actions. Essentially the peripheral nervous system is your body’s way of getting around in the world.
Your body rapidly degenerates without BDNF supporting your peripheral nervous system. Clinically you’d suffer significant loss of coordination, balance, hearing, taste, and breathing.
BDNF is also important for your cognitive functions. Your cognitive abilities are what enable you to think, to rationalise and to process information. Low levels of BDNF are linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons Disease.
What if you could make more BDNF?
Well, you can. In fact, it’s remarkably easy to increase the levels of BDNF in your brain.
Intense Exercise – Grab those joggers and lycra running pants. If you want more BDNF, you’re going to have to work for it. Certain types of physical exercise have been shown to markedly (threefold) increase BDNF synthesis in the human brain, a phenomenon that is partly responsible for exercise-induced neurogenesis and improvements in cognitive function. Cellular biologist Bruce Spiegelman of Harvard Medical School in Boston ran a series of tests on mice that they had run on a running wheel. The mice that had a running wheel in their cage ran up to 5km a night. They also showed increased levels of BDNF in their brains. The mice without a running wheel showed no increase in BDNF levels. Neuroscientist Barbara Hempstead of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City calls the findings “very exciting,” and believes this research finally begins to explain how exercise relates to BDNF. The more high intensity exercise you do, the higher the levels of BDNF you produce. So get out your mouse wheel and get running!
Stop eating as much – That’s right, reduction in calories and leaving a longer gap between meals elevates BDNF levels. If you can’t get to the gym, watching what you put in your mouth wont just help your waistline, it will increase your BDNF.
Sugar and Fat – Research has shown that high levels of refined sugar and saturated fat actually produce structural changes in the brain. They particularly affect neurotrophins like BDNF. People on a high diet of saturated fat and refined sugar show less hippocampal function (where memory, spatial awareness, learning and emotions are regulated in the brain).
Sunshine! – BDNF just loves sunshine. A study done on individuals in the Netherlands found that their concentrations of BDNF increased in summer and spring. Sunlight converts vitamin D in your body, which is used to produce BDNF. There may be a link to reduced sunlight and lower levels of BDNF, which has been associated with depression. A reduction in neurogenesis is found in depressed patients and BDNF is integral in the neurogenesis process.
Turmeric – If you think it is only good for a decent curry you’re about to be pleasantly surprised. This widely used root is a relative of ginger. It’s been used for thousands of years as a medicinal preparation and a preservative and colouring agent in food. But recently scientists have been studying the effect of turmeric and it’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. And it’s this molecule that scientists have been testing. What they’ve come up with is that aside from a range of other health benefits, curcumin significantly increases BDNF. In mouse studies it’s believed that curcumin elevated BDNF production in the hippocampal region. This then created an antidepressant effect and improved cognitive function. Another study showed that curcumin supplementation increased levels of BDNF. It’s thought that curcumin may increase BDNF production in the hippocampus especially among those with brain injuries.
Green Tea – When researchers were looking at the effects of green tea they trialed it on people with neurodegenerative diseases. These individuals typically have low levels of BDNF. Researchers from the Department of Cell and Neurobiology from the University of Southern California gave patients an extremely low concentration of unfractionated green tea polyphenols and low concentrations of their active ingredient EGCG. Remarkably they found an increase in BDNF levels. This is significant, as extremely low levels of the polyphenols were believed to reach the brain after drinking green tea. If that’s not enough to get you reaching for a cup of green tea instead of a mid morning coffee we don’t know what is!
Low BDNF levels are increasingly linked to a variety of diseases. Nearly every state of cognitive functioning is associated with BDNF. Low levels, low cognitive or abnormal functioning. High levels, great cognitive performances and overall brain functioning. Obesity is linked to low levels of BDNF. So if you want to lose weight, getting your BDNF levels is a biological part that the combined effort of exercise and eating well will only help to improve. Want to improve your long and short-term memory? BDNF.
In fact, virtually all levels of mental and physical health are linked to good levels of BDNF in the brain. So pull out that treadmill, sip a turmeric latte, skip that second serve at dinner and get out into the sunshine. A consistent approach to some of the above tips, and you’ll be remembering where your keys are in no time.