Ageing is an inescapable fact of life but it doesn’t mean you have to lose your mental spark too. Unlike the aching joints, sagging skin and wrinkles, the human brain can be rewired. It can stay resilient, active and sharp, keeping you just as on the ball in your later years as you are today.
Your brain relies on a variety of chemicals to help it function optimally throughout your life. This is where BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein produced inside nerve cells, comes into the picture. Synaptogenesis is a process that connects different brain cells by forming structures called “synapses” that are vital for cell-to-cell communication and long-term memory. BDNF stimulates synaptogenesis and increases the efficiency of synapses to transmit signals. With an average of 86 billion neurons in an adult brain, each of these is competing for BDNF in order to function well and regulate healthy neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons in the brain.
Lower levels of BDNF are commonly associated with a host of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more, and can impact cognitive functioning and result in memory loss, depression and diminished physical health. As you get older, BDNF levels inevitably start to drop off with the gradual reduction in the volume of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, which plays a big role in learning and memory—and many of those shifts are commonplace symptoms for ageing adults.
Let’s take a closer look at BDNF and learn more about what it does before we explore how you can hack your body to boost its production.
- BDNF is an essential protein, produced inside nerve cells, that promotes brain-cell growth; boosting its levels can transform cognitive and physical health,
- BDNF production can drop off as you age and can lead to neurodegenerative disease, poor cognitive function, mental illness and more,
- While stress, sugar and social isolation have a detrimental effect on BDNF levels, inculcating lifestyle changes like regular exercise, meditation, getting more sun and better sleep can increase BDNF production and improve cognitive health.
Why should you care about your BDNF levels?
The lack of BDNF has been linked to a host of conditions, from impaired learning to the greater prevalence of mental health disorders. Conversely, higher levels of BDNF sees beneficial impact across a spectrum. As neural pathways are stronger and more resilient, brain plasticity can improve. This enables the brain to form new neural connections, adjust to stressors and strengthen brain function. This improved mental resilience can also help ease recovery from common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety and promote better sleep, which can in turn help improve weight management, immune system response, mood and energy levels.
How to boost your BDNF
There are several practical ideas you can try to help boost BDNF levels over time. Lifestyle changes like the ones described below can help to make lasting, positive impacts and help to protect and improve your overall physical and cognitive health.
High-intensity exercise has been found in a number of studies to increase BDNF levels. This is due to the release of another protein produced during physical activity called FNDC5 (fibronectin type III domain–containing protein 5), which is released from muscles after acute activity. Studies have found that FNDC5 shows a boost in BDNF production, sometimes by as much as 200 percent or more.
For maximum benefit, opt for regular exercise that will get your heart rate pumping, such as running, cycling, swimming or aerobic exercise.
Research suggests that a vigorous to moderate exercise programme with a duration of 40 minutes and a heart rate reserve of 60–80 percent presents the greatest probability of a significant BDNF elevation.
Your recovery is directly tied to your metabolism. If your body doesn’t get enough rest post-workout, it can…
Sleep is an essential component of good health—different stages of sleep have been found to support different types of brain activity and allow mental recovery, which in turn boost cognitive function, memory and more. So it’s no surprise that lower BDNF levels are often inversely associated with sleep-related issues such as insomnia. High levels of stress on the body, caused by sleep disruption or deprivation, can lead to decreased BDNF secretion.
Managing stress levels
Studies have shown that sustained stress can reduce immune function and energy levels and contribute to other physical and mental health conditions that result in lower BDNF production.
Research suggests that mindfulness exercises and meditation can increase peripheral BDNF.
Spend time with others
Loneliness and social isolation may be one of the biggest health risks today, with research suggesting that prolonged isolation is associated with an increased risk of dementia, depression and heart disease.
Regularly socializing with friends and family can be hugely beneficial for your brain health, improving both your sense of well-being and your brain’s neurochemistry. In fact, social interaction has been found to be one of the core elements stimulating more BDNF production, with studies in mice demonstrating that those sharing a communal space show higher levels of BNDF. According to Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, a study researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, “Because lower circulating BDNF levels and small social networks have separately been associated with a higher risk of incident stroke, cognitive dysfunction, and the accumulation of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, we postulated that BDNF may be a biological link between social relationships and a reduced likelihood of developing stroke or dementia.”
Our skin relies on sunlight to produce vitamin D, and studies show that the darker winter months, where exposure to the sun is significantly reduced, correlate with worsening mental health. A study looking at the impact of sunlight has also found that BDNF levels rise and fall through the year, in line with seasonal changes and the amount of sunlight available, with more sunlight appearing to lead to greater BDNF levels.
While getting outdoors is one of the simplest and best ways to increase your exposure to sunlight, options such as light-therapy lamps, which mimic the intensity of the sun and are used to treat seasonal affective disorder, are a great alternative, especially in the winter months.
Improving BDNF levels doesn’t have to involve adding complex or obscure supplements and superfoods to your diet. In fact, there are plenty of everyday foods that can benefit you. Try adding foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, such as oily fish, nuts or eggs. These are a rich source of DHA—a fatty acid that is needed in the formation of healthy brain cells and is essential for the production of BDNF. Foods containing flavonoids are another great addition—flavonoids have been shown to help protect neurons against degeneration and long-term damage, boosting cognitive function and BDNF levels overall. You can find flavonoids in a variety of natural foods, including grapes, berries, kale and dark chocolate.
Cutting back on refined sugars
Consuming food high in refined sugars can have a detrimental effect on your brain health. Researchers have found that a fat-and-carb-heavy diet leads to a reduction in BDNF levels in the hippocampus and lowers BDNF levels overall. As the brain needs a regular source of energy in order to function well, opt for natural sources such as fresh fruits and complex carbohydrates like peas, beans, whole grains and vegetables.
Fasting is considered a form of stress that stimulates BDNF secretion. Some studies have found that restricting intake can help to stimulate neural activity, leading to an increase in the production of BDNF. Research on mice reveals that BDNF levels surge after 12 hours of fasting, when ketones begin to become the brain’s primary fuel. This corresponds with adaptive neuron changes. When BDNF is low in the hypothalamus, autophagy begins. Autophagy is a cellular housekeeping mechanism that swerves into action after long periods of fasting.
However, as intermittent fasting involves restricting food intake, it’s important to get medical advice before adopting this method as it may not be appropriate or safe for everyone.
BDNF is one of the brain’s most essential proteins encoded by the BDNF gene; it aids in the growth and maintenance of healthy brain cells and neurons and strengthens neural networks. BDNF is used to stimulate synaptogenesis—the process of creating synapses between neurons, which are needed for efficient communication across brain cells.
While BDNF levels naturally deplete with age, this process can be reversed with targeted lifestyle changes. Adding food such as oily fish, leafy greens and berries to your diet can promote healthy brain cell development while getting regular high-intensity exercise and improving your sleep hygiene can help raise BDNF production and promote better resilience in brain cells. These boosts in BDNF in the brain overall can aid better cognitive performance, improving your memory and physical and mental health throughout your adult life.
Disclaimer:The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes