You might be asking yourself, “Brain-Derived Neuro-what?”, and we get it – it is a mouthful! However, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a fascinating component of our Central Nervous System and plays an important role in our everyday health.
What is BDNF?
BDNF is a type of nerve growth factor that is especially responsible for enhancing the function and growth of your neurons, which directly impacts your learning and memory, mood, overall sense of wellbeing, and even your glucose and energy metabolism. Low levels of BDNF are seen often in individuals who lead more sedentary and indoor lifestyles, consume a diet higher in processed foods, and/or live with a chronic disease. A connection can be noted between low BDNF levels and the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, mental health concerns and diabetes.1
How can you increase your BDNF?
From movement, to eating more greens, to getting a good night’s sleep – increasing your BDNF is not hard, but it does require a bit of commitment to forming some new and healthier habits.
Incorporating time into your day to exercise is an effective way to boost your BDNF levels (and support many aspects of your health). Studies have shown that BDNF growth is intensity-dependent, meaning the harder your muscles work in a short period of time is directly linked to a rise of BDNF2. Try including a couple sessions of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) into your routine to not only improve your cardiovascular health and strength but your BDNF levels, too!
A breath of fresh air and some time in the sun – a cliché recommendation but for good reason! Surrounding yourself with fresh, clean air and escaping any mild pollutants, dust, or other irritating and toxic particles in your space allow for your body to function under less stress and release more BDNF3. On top of that, studies are showing that BDNF levels are highest during the spring and summer seasons, showing a direct link between catching some rays and feeling better mentally4. It also helps that sunshine increases your body’s Vitamin D3, which is an essential nutrient in supporting your mood, metabolism, and immune function as well.
Socializing & Being with People
Whether you are working from home, living alone or in a situation (like a pandemic!) where you are spending more time away from friends and family, you may have experienced a negative impact on your mood and mental state. Isolation can cause psychological stress on our bodies, which in turn can cause lower levels of BDNF5. Getting out for a walk or catching up over coffee with friends (if safe) can give us a sense of belonging and connection, boosting our moods and BDNF. If meeting in person is not possible, try scheduling work lunches with coworkers over Zoom or planning a virtual movie night with family to stay in touch with your community and feel connected.
Similar to how isolation can act as external stressor to our bodies, lack of sleep can have the same effect! Not getting quality, deep sleep can be linked to lower BDNF, a higher chance of depression and poor memory6. Make sure you are getting enough hours of sleep a night to give your brain and body the chance to restore itself and regulate BDNF.
Do you have difficulty establishing a good sleep routine? Prioritize movement and getting outdoors (aka getting that sunshine)! Exercise can help reduce stress that might be preventing proper sleep7 and exposure to sunlight can help establish a sense of day and night and reactivate a proper sleep cycle8. Supplements help, too – like magnesium to further relax your muscles and mind to prepare for sleep.
Diet & Supplements
Studies have shown the many ways you can directly impact BDNF through food and supplements. Consuming more polyphenol and antioxidant rich plants (like turmeric, blueberries, and greens), drinking more quality coffee9, and adding a DHA (omega 3) supplement to your routine10, all have a positive effect on our BDNF.
If you are really keen to increase your BDNF, you may be interested in exploring a Paleo or Keto diet. Practicing a high-protein intake (like Paleo) and/or a high-fat intake (like Keto) have shown the best BDNF improvements due to their low-carbohydrate intakes11. A low-carb, high-fat/protein diet will provide you with the amino acids needed to build neurotransmitters, like BDNF, but also help you to reach a state of ketosis where ketones are produced as an energy source to efficiently fuel your brain and the production of BDNF12.
Keto and Paleo diets might not be your preference, in which case, adding an Organic MCT Oil to your routine can provide a source of quick energy in the form of ketones (broken down from the MCTs – medium-chain triglycerides). So even if you are not fully Keto, you can reap the benefits of ketosis, just on a smaller scale. Intermittent fasting in some form, whether that be 16+ hours (if you are able and interested), can help you achieve a natural state of ketosis and has been shown to produce positive effects on BDNF as well13. However, a milder approach might be to introduce a more structured eating schedule that allows for extended time between each meal – a less intense “intermittent fasting” experience.
It goes without saying that BDNF plays an impactful role in several facets of our overall health and we can increase our levels with the simplest changes to our habits and diet. You might also be doing some of these things already for other reasons, like stress management, digestion, and immunity. All in all, we could always benefit from more BDNF, so plan for a morning walk to grab an MCT coffee with friends and easily hit 4 of 5 recommendations at once!