Why BDNF Is Miracle-Gro For Your Brain

Why BDNF Is Miracle-Gro For Your Brain


Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor - or BDNF for short - is a naturally occurring growth hormone that is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons.

Higher levels of BDNF are associated with increased intelligence, mood, productivity, and memory along with decreased risks of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's & Parkinson's.

Keep reading to see why expert scientists call BDNF "Miracle-Gro for the brain" and to learn 7 easy ways you can increase BDNF naturally.

Miracle-Gro For The Brain

BDNF has been called a "master molecule" and referred to as “Miracle-Gro for the brain” by Harvard Neuropsychiatrist, John J. Ratey, MD, author of Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

According to Ratey, BDNF is “a crucial biological link between thought, emotions, and movement.” He goes on to stress that "Physical exercise is really for our brains. It turns our brains on." [1]

If you haven't read Dr. Ratey's work, it comes highly recommended.

Author and "evolutionary fitness expert" Art De Vany agrees - and here he explains why more BDNF is so cool for those of us looking to increase performance, intelligence and longevity: [2]

When BDNF is released, new connections form in the brain as the BDNF attracts new dendrites from nerve cells to connect to other cells or their synapses. As the brain cells "fire together", they "wire together." Wiring together new networks is how memory is formed and consolidated. A neural network is a thought, a memory, or a new skill. This "fast" form of learning is essential in emergency situations where fight or flight may be the only means of coping. Evolution would seem to require that fast learning takes precedence in fight or flight situations and the release of BDNF and stress hormones during such episodes almost assures that the event takes on salience and weight. - Art De Vany
Benefits of BDNF
  • Supports survival of existing neurons
  • Encourages growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses through neurogenesis
  • Contributes positively toward memory, learning and thinking
  • Exhibits anti-depressant activity

Conversely, BDNF deficiencies have been linked to developmental disorders and depression. Interestingly, the anti-depressant activity in compounds like Curcumin are attributed to it's ability to increase BDNF. [34, 5]

7 Ways You Can Increase BDNF

#1: Low Sugar Intake

Diets high in sugar reduce BDNF levels. Pretty simple and straightforward here. Avoid processed foods, refined sugars, and stick to natural/real foods as often as possible for optimal brain functioning. [6]

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're already pretty savvy about what you put into your body.

Use this low sugar reminder as extra motivation to protect your long term mental health, your waistline, and your daily performance.

#2: Intermittent Fasting

Periods of caloric restriction and intermittent fasting have both been shown to increase BDNF. [7] Let's focus on intermittent fasting, a practice that anyone can incorporate into their lifestyle.

Whether you follow this approach daily or as little as once per week, the benefits of extended periods of time without food are profound. By extended periods of time, 12-24 hours is all you need to experience:

  • Decreased insulin and upregulated growth hormone and other hormones related fat burning [8, 9]
  • Positive impacts on gene expression related to longevity and disease protection [10, 11]
  • Lowered oxidative stress and reduces inflammation [12, 13]
  • Balanced sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity [14]

Achieving 12-16 hours of fasting easier than you might think. If you stop eating at 8pm, then sleep from 10pm - 6am, and hold off on any food until 8am, you're already at 12 hours!

Many intermittent fasting plans employ eating windows of varying lengths - 4, 6 and 8 hour "windows" seem to be the most popular. 4 hour eating windows (say 12pm-4pm) provide the ability to fast for 20 hours every day, while the 8 hour window (12pm-8pm for example) allows for a 16 hour fast in each 24 hour span.

Author of The Perfect Health Diet, Paul Jaminet agrees and explained to us here on the Optimal Performance Podcast.

#3 Sprints

Numerous studies support the link between high intensity exercise and increased BDNF and cognition. [15, 16, 17, 18] A German study from 2008 discovered the following about sprint workouts:
  • Sprints resulted in 20% increase in learning compared to low intensity aerobics or rest
  • Test subjects exhibited improved vocabulary in both the short-term and long-term following the sprints
  • BDNF increased as well as the catecholamines, dopamine (responsible for the short-term memory boost), epinephrine (long-term memory assistance) and norepinephrine
  • These improvements were achieved with as few a 2 sprints - workout below...
The workout from this study:
  1. 3 Minute Sprint
  2. 2 Minutes Rest
  3. 3 Minute Sprint
  4. DONE - enjoy 20% increased learning abilities!

#4 High Intensity Resistance Training

To paraphrase John J Ratey is his latest book, Go Wild, humans adapted to run. Moreover, we were born to sprint, twist, throw, jump, punch and be the "swiss-army knife" of animal movement. [19]

We can improve our movement, physical health and mental health by getting off the machines and training our bodies in multiple planes of movement (not just linear motion) - sprint, throw, jump, hit, and lift heavy stuff.

The key to exercise-induced BDNF release is to do as much work as possible as quickly as possible.

Personally, I believe this is one reason the "warehouse-style" gym has become so popular - it appeals our primal instincts to be human swiss-army knives, provides small tribes/communities, and encourages us to exert higher levels of output than the traditional "sterile" commercial fitness center .

This also explains why high intensity exercise can be so effective (when done properly) - it accumulates high volumes of work done in short time frames and challenges our minds and bodies to operate the way we have adapted to function. (i.e. It moves us closer to optimal health & human function)

#5 Enriched Social Environment

Studies show that richer social environments lead to increased neurotrophic activity. This makes sense - think about the ultimate punishment for humans...the isolation box in a prison.

Without social interaction, we go crazy. We're not a species designed to operate solo. We wired to function in families, tribes and communities.

One study from Italy found that children exposed to a more stimulating and highly engaging social environment had elevated neurotrophic levels and improved social behavior later in life. [20]

A similar study found that the same engaging and enriching social environment in childhood led to decreased anxiety and depression in adulthood - along with and possible due to - increased neurotrophic activity (BDNF). [21]

#6 Sunlight/Vitamin D

Scientists in the Netherlands found that BDNF levels fluctuate seasonal, indicating a link between sunlight and BDNF levels. [22] They cautioned that seasons should be taken into account when measuring BDNF levels and that their study "may provide novel avenues to understand seasonal dependent changes in behavior and illness such as depression."

Remember, low levels of BDNF have been linked to depression.[34, 5]) 80% of the world has less than optimal levels of Vitamin D.

Unless you live near the equator or spend large amounts of time in the sunshine, taking a high quality Vitamin D supplement is a good idea.

#7 Supplements Like Resveratrol, Krill Oil, Green Tea, and Curcumin

Krill Oil supplementation increases omega-3 levels in the body. Among those beneficial fatty acids is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which responsible for increasing levels of BDNF.  

One study demonstrated that DHA supplementation restored BDNF levels back to the normal range after traumatic brain injury (TBI) - relevant news in today's concussion discussions. [23]

Curcumin as we briefly mentioned earlier can increase BDNF and lead to anti-depressant like improvements in mood. It also acts as a neuroprotective compound help to prevent neural degeneration and associated cognitive decline through the aging process. [24, 25]

Niacin also increases BDNF [26]. Chinese scientists studying neural degeneration discovered that niacin and niacinamide increased BDNF and turned on "genes required for axonal development and neuronal survival".

Serotonin Brain Food users know that niacin and niacinamide produce a flushing, tingling feeling known as the "niacin flush". It's perfectly harmless, possible even beneficial for circulation, yet not entirely enjoyable.

Resveratrol is a natural phenol found in the skin of dark fruits like grapes and berries. In a 2011 study, rats given resveratrol experienced significant increases in BDNF. The boosts in BDNF were dose-dependent and "the findings suggest that the neuroprotective effects of resveratrol may be at least partly due to its inducing effects on the expression levels of the BDNF mRNA." [27]

Green Tea has also been shown to increase BDNF concentrations in the brain. A study at USC in Los Angeles was looking for more effective ways to increase neurotrophic activity in patients with cognitive disorders when they discovered that EGCG, the well-researched catechin in green tea potentiates the neuritogenic action of BDNF.

They concluded that was significant for treatment, especially since only a small dose reaches the brain when drinking green tea.  [28]

So there you have it - BDNF truly is "Miracle-Gro for the brain" and now you know why and how to increase BDNF naturally. Keep kicking butt and #LiveOptimal


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