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Neurogenesis and Keto

Neurogenesis and Keto

Neurogenesis is the new kid on the block. For the best part of the last century, we believed that by our early twenties we had grown all the neurons that we were ever going to grow. Some scientists believed that even that limitation was too optimistic. They thought that maximal growth may even have already been achieved by our early teens. After that, it was supposed to be all downhill as we lost brain cells. Slowly at first maybe, and then at an ever-increasing rate. Recent findings seem to imply that this overly-pessimistic view may not be the case. Our brains can, according to these studies, go on increasing both in terms of the number of neurons and in terms of their interconnectivity, more or less throughout our lives.

What is neurogenesis?

Neurogenesis is simply the process of creating new neurons, or brain cells if you will. The number of brain cells in itself is not, of course, what determines intelligence or capability. For these factors to improve the neurons must be interconnected with others via dendritic networks. Dendrites are the root-like structures that you may have seen in high scale brain images. They are the basis of the communication system within the brain, connecting and reconnecting within ever more complex networks.

At birth, the average baby will have around 100 billion neurons, a truly phenomenal number. Although this number is impressive, many of these neurons are not interconnected in sufficiently robust networks to be of much use. Hence a babies relatively uncoordinated and incoherent state. Over time, with movement and exposure to its environment, the baby’s brain forms complex, interconnected webs of neurons and dendrites. It’s very much a matter of use it or lose it; those brain cells that are not relevant will be sloughed away, whilst those that prove useful reinforced. During the first 18 months of life, a neonate’s brain will go on creating new neurons at the incredible pace of around 250,000 a minute.

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Neurogenesis tends to take place in two unique areas of the brain. Firstly, the hippocampus, an area that is vital for forming memories and cognitive function. Secondly, the subventricular zone of the dentate gyrus. This area is the home to neural stem cells. These basic cells have the potential to morph into other types of neuron. Once formed, they can then migrate to other areas of the brain.

neurogenesis book

How can we activate neurogenesis?

Recent research seems to show that in order to stimulate neurogenesis we need to create the conditions within our body and nervous system to allow it to occur. Crucial amongst these measures are those relating to the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor); this has been described as ‘fertilizer for the brain’. BDNF plays a vital role in creating the right conditions for neurogenesis to occur. Much as when we garden, we can only get satisfactory results if we prepare the soil first. Likewise, with the brain, we need to create the right conditions to promote neurogenesis.

Diet

The first, and perhaps most obvious, intervention is diet. We are what we eat, as the old adage has it. If our diet consists of too much carbohydrate, particular of the highly-processed, commonly available types available via processed and sugary foods, we are unlikely to create the internal environment required. In this regard, a ketogenic diet may well be indicated.

The author of the Neurogenesis Lifestyle book referred to above, Dr Brant Cortright, has pointed out that there are many similarities between what he considers an ideal diet for neurogenesis and the ketogenic diet. Essentially, removing processed carbs, sugars, grains and excess carbohydrate in general, seems to relieve the brain of the need for a constant rearguard action against these inflammatory agents. It is then set free to focus on the process of creating new dendritic connections and neurogenesis itself.

The author also advocates the inclusion of previously demonised saturated fats in the diet. There is some evidence that these are particularly useful in the promotion of neurogenesis and brain health in general. On the other hand, there are studies that indicate quite the opposite.

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At the time of writing, the science on the matter is far from settled. Personally, I believe we are living in a time where people are beginning to realise that the previous dietary recommendations of high grain, high carbs, and low fat have been clearly demonstrated to be very unhealthy. This applies both to our bodies and our brains. It does take time, however, for these paradigms to shift. The more recent science may be saying one thing, but the public is still relatively vulnerable to the ‘low fat’ message. The neurologist, Dr David Perlmutter, wrote an excellent book on the subject of how harmful a high grain, high carb, low-fat diet can be for the brain a few years back.

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Exercise

It turns out that exercise, or more precisely, movement is very good for neurogenesis. In the strict exercise sense, aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes performed several times a week seems to be best if your goal is neurogenesis. A 2016 study compared the effects of resistance training, aerobic exercise, and high-intensity interval training in promoting hippocampal neurogenesis in adult subjects. Resistance training was found to have very little effect. HIIT was somewhat better, but the clear winner was aerobic exercise. That said, in matters of brain health as in physical fitness, some exercise is always better than none.

Movement, in and of itself, has a positive role in neurogenesis. Simply existing in a three-dimensional space demands a lot of mental energy. Add a fourth dimension to that, i.e. time, and the demand becomes even greater. Beyond that, movement through time in a 3D environment, being able to coordinate the body’s limbs and generally orientate oneself, demands a tremendous amount of processing power. Hence, to some extent at least, the huge pace of neurogenesis in newborn babies.

We tend to think of intellectual challenges as being particularly good for brain development. In reality, the challenges of simply existing and moving in the world we live in can be far more complex, and hence far better for neurogenesis. Yet again, at least to some extent, we have an example of hormesis. The slight discomfort of not quite knowing what you are doing may create an adaptive response in the brain in order to cope with the novel situation.

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Other approaches

There are several other, relatively simple, interventions we can make to encourage neurogenesis. Taking a range of supplements has proven beneficial for increasing BDNF, essentially a precursor to the process of neurogenesis. Amongst these, perhaps the easiest to come by would be curcumin (in turmeric), DHA (an omega 3 found in fish oil), blueberry polyphenols, and sulforaphane. On the more expensive end, resveratrol is also highly recommended. This study goes into such supplements in greater depth.

Going back to movement. It transpires that the uniqueness of the situation makes a difference too. This applies both to the novelty of movement, a new form of exercise for example, and to the location; it seems to be better if the movement takes place in a new place. Simply taking in the novel situation is challenging to your brain. This demands the need to forge new dendritic connections and, further, for neurogenesis. While partaking of such things as crossword, chess, scrabble or writing code will certainly do no harm, greater gains are made through embracing movement and novelty.

guide to brain health book neurogenesis

Conclusion

Neurogenesis is, at the time of writing, still a relatively controversial subject. The balance of evidence does seem to indicate that it is a reality, despite the fact that its existence seems to overturn a paradigm that has existed for the best part of the last century. Given this, it makes sense to build into our lifestyles measures that promote the product of BDNF and support neurogenesis. This is especially the case as the measures involved are relatively beneficial in terms of our mental and physical health in any case. The cost is small, the adjustments easily implemented, the potential gains huge.

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2 thoughts on “Neurogenesis and Keto

  1. Awesome post. I am a regular visitor of your site and appreciate you taking the time to maintain the nice site. I will be a regular visitor for a really long time. Caprice Osmond Stubstad

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