Why is BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) such an exciting aspect of brain chemistry? It’s a good question and, fortunately, it has a good answer. For most of the 20th century, we thought that we achieved maximal brain growth by our early twenties. After that, it was thought that we could not increase the number of neurons in our brains, the amount could only decrease as we age.
The good news is not only were we completely wrong, but we can even accelerate the growth of new neurons by implementing practical measures to stimulate the action of BDNF in our brains. This neurotrophin can use neuronal stem cells to grow new neurons in a process called neurogenesis. The bad news is that as we age, the amount of BDNF in our brains does tend to decline at an ever-increasing rate. Happily, we can actually do something about this challenge by following a range of relatively simple measures.
What exactly is BDNF?
BDNF, or the protein abrineurin as it is otherwise known, is a neurotrophin. These are factors that are found in both the brain and the peripheral nervous system. Their role is to promote the survival, growth, and function of neurons. BDNF is secretory in nature, which means it works via the process of secretion, like each of the other neurotrophins. There are four altogether: Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), Brain-Derived Neurotrophin Factor (BDNF), Neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), and Neurotrophin-4 (NT-4).
What does BDNF do?
BDNF plays a vital role in brain and nervous system health. This neurotrophin promotes and regulates the growth of new cells via the process of neurogenesis. It actively promotes the survival of neurons (nerve cells) and dendrites (connections between neurons) via its function in assisting growth, differentiation and maintenance of these cells and dendritic connections. More generally, BDNF plays a vital role in the maturation of the brain and then in maintaining brain plasticity.
How does aging affect BDNF?
Unfortunately, as we age, BDNF levels tend to decrease. Such a decrease is associated with a wide range of neurological consequences. Hence pathologies such a Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and Huntingdon’s often follow in the wake of this decline in BDNF. Because of this, maintaining sufficient levels of BDNF plays a vital role in the management, and even prevention, of these diseases.
What can we do about it?
Fortunately, there is a variety of ways we can boost our BDNF levels and thus fight the age-related decline in levels of this neurotrophin. Perhaps the most regular quoted of these is regular aerobic exercise. Beyond this, imbibing coffee, getting regular and good-quality sleep, and having a good omega 3 to omega 6 essential oil ratio in your diet. Regular sleep and avoiding unnecessary stress in your life are also thought to help in this regard.
Some supplements may also help, for example, resveratrol and fish oil. Turmeric, Curcumin, and Cacao are also thought to assist in maintaining healthy levels of BDNF.
A BDNF boosting regime
As with many of these situations involving our fitness and long-term health, it is wise to set up a regular routine. The power of habit as a psychological tool has been shown again and again. Unless we build these changes into the very structure of our lives, they tend to be fleeting phenomena, here today and gone tomorrow. The road to health mediocrity is truly paved with good intentions. (here is a great book by Charles Duhigg that I enjoyed last year on the power of building habit into your life).
We would recommend creating a routine that supports the production and maintenance of BDNF. Here follows a list of the kind of factors you might wish to consider within your own personal regime:
A Ketogenic Diet
It probably comes as no surprise that we at ketopensioner.com would recommend adopting a ketogenic diet. In truth though, it has been shown in several clinical trials to have a substantial protective effect in regard to this vital neurotrophic factor. In particular, the major ketone BHB (Beta-HydroxyButarate) may play a major supportive role for BDNF. The benefits of a low-carb or keto diet for BDNF were also demonstrated in this trial.
There are numerous books on the keto diet, but not that many that we would recommend. As an introduction, Josh Axe’s ‘Keto Diet’ is as good as any.
Caffeine, usually in the form of high-quality coffee, has been shown in a number of trials to boost BDNF levels. It is also a useful aid in ketogenic diets, upping the promotion of ketone levels. Further, it plays a role in promoting autophagy at the cellular level.
In recent years, fasting has been shown to have many positive effects. Chief amongst these are perhaps autophagy and as an aid for keto. It also has been shown to have a positive effect on the production of BDNF. This study is one of many demonstrating these benefits.
Keto and intermittent fasting are a powerful combination. Siim Land, an Estonian podcaster and author, has written an excellent book on the subject. We would also highly recommend his podcast for information about keto, fasting, biohacking, and many other related subjects.
In recent times, many therapists have been supporting the use of exercise as an adjunct to treatment for neurological diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. There are several reasons for this but perhaps the most significant is its effect on BDNF. Aerobic exercise in particular is often cited in this regard. Although I have a preference for HIIT, it seems that, in regards to neurogenesis at least, aerobic exercise is the most appropriate.
High quality sleep
Obtaining sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep has been shown to be very beneficial to brain health in general and BDND levels in particular. On the other hand, stress and poor quality sleep have been shown to have the opposite effect.
De-stress your life
High levels of stress and anxiety are known to have a detrimental effect on BDNF. There seems to be something of a vicious cycle here, low levels of BDNF will lead to stress and anxiety, and higher levels of these will cause depletion of BDNF. Meditation or other relaxation techniques can help in this regard.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids
As in other areas of a healthy life, ensuring that you imbibe sufficient quantities of Omega 3 essential fatty acids will have a positive effect on BDNF levels. The ratio in regards to Omega 6 intake is also important. Difficult as it may be, it is wise to try to keep the ratios of sixes to threes to at least 4:1, better 2:1 or even 1:1 if you can manage it. Modern processed food renders this a difficult task, unfortunately.
Hypoxia is the condition of having insufficient oxygen in the brain or body. In itself, of course, it would be a negative factor. We made be looking at yet another hormetic effect here though. It seems that when our neurology perceives that we are short of oxygen it initiates a process of adaption to be better able to adapt to the stressor in future. There are many breathing exercises that can promote this adaptation. I personally enjoy techniques from free-diving, but there are other, perhaps gentler techniques from yoga and qigong that will have similar effects.
I saved this one until last. I do not wish to encourage anybody to indulge in illegal activities and to risk the potentially negative consequences that may ensue. That having been said, it has been demonstrated that certain hallucinogens have a positive effect on BDNF. Small doses of lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) have proven highly effective in this regard. Hopefully, it goes without saying, that what we are looking for is the BDNF boosting effect, not a full-on trip. The same can be said of psilocybins (the so-called ‘magic mushrooms’). These too have been shown to have the BDNF boosting effect we are seeking.
Clearly, BDNF plays a vital role in maintaining brain and neurological health. It is only prudent that we should do what we can to promote the growth of new brain cells, increase synaptic connections, and fortify dendritic connections. Fortunately, for the most part, we can do this by utilising a few, relatively simple, measures. Aerobic exercise, the ketogenic diet, fasting and hypoxia have all proven very effective in this regard.