At a glance
• What Is BDNF & What Does It Do?
Our bodies go through changes as we age — and our brain is no different. And though these age-related changes to our brains are normal, there are things we can do to give the most complex part of our anatomy a boost — no matter our age.
The brain acts as a command center for the nervous system that enables us to think, remember things, move, and elicit emotion. That is why we must prioritize the health of this command center so it can continue to carry out intricate functions we depend on each day.
One key molecule involved in keeping the brain sharp is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, for short. Put simply, BDNF is involved in changes related to your learning and memory. It helps support differentiation, maturation, and survival of neurons in the nervous system.
A more complicated job description of BDNF is it plays a key role in neuronal survival and growth, acts as a neurotransmitter modulator, and is involved in neuronal plasticity — an essential function for learning and memory.
In other words, BDNF serves as chemical messengers that deliver signals from one nerve cell to another.
According to Cleveland Clinic, your body cannot function without neurotransmitters, as they help you move your limbs, feel tactile sensations, and help you experience all of the information your body receives from internal bodily functions and your external environment.
Keep reading to discover more about the importance of BDNF, the unfortunate reality age-related BDNF decline, and the things you can do to increase levels of BDNF.
This Is Your Brain on BDNF
As stated, BDNF supports the survival of neurons in our brains, and is needed for learning and memory storage. It is a protein found in your brain and spinal cord that is active where cell-to cell communication occurs.
The essential BDNF protein is located in the regions of your brain that control eating, drinking, and even body weight. What’s more, BDNF helps regulate synaptic plasticity — your brain’s ability to adapt to new information, which is key to learning and memory formation.
However, the body goes through changes as it ages, and BDNF levels are no exception.
According to Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, natural aging leads to lower levels of BDNF. The aging process also appears to cause shrinkage of gray matter, reduce multiple synapses, and change neuroplasticity-related proteins. In short, lower levels of BDNF can make learning and forming memories more difficult than before.
Aging isn’t the only thing that stands in your brain’s way of boosting its BDNF levels. Research acknowledges that BDNF expression is decreased by psychological stress and even sleep troubles (more on this later).
But before you grab a stress ball or take a quick nap, check out some other ways to boost your BDNF levels.
How To Increase BDNF
Certain lifestyle changes can help increase levels of BDNF in your brain.
One noteworthy change is to adjust your diet.
But let’s face it — a sudden change to your diet can be a hefty adjustment. For many people, the time, money, and effort needed to overhaul their eating habits is just not practical. Fortunately, you won’t need to flip your diet on its head — and you may already consume BDNF boosting foods daily.
Among these foods (and beverages) for higher BDNF levels are green tea, blueberries, red grapes, coffee, and even dark chocolate! Further research indicates botanicals such as Bacopa monnieri and Rhodiola rosea are two BDNF modulators as well.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these brain boosters:
Camellia sinensis is a botanical equipped with leaves and leaf buds used to produce tea. In fact, the tea obtained from these leaves is one of the most consumed beverages on earth — and for good reason!
You see, Camellia sinensis — commonly known as Green Tea — contains amino acids and flavonoids that play critical roles within your body. Amino acids help build proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters, break down food, and more. And flavonoids act as antioxidants that neutralize free radicals to protect your cells and tissues from oxidative stress.
Research has shown flavonoids — a compound found in green tea — play a role in increasing BDNF as well. Multiple in vitro and in vivo studies provide strong evidence concerning the role of green tea as a modulator of BDNF — and even its role in improving cognitive performance at preclinical levels.
As mentioned, green tea is one of these most widely consumed beverages in the world. However, not all green tea extracts are created the same. If you’re looking to take your green tea to the next level, then GreenSelect® Green Tea Phytosome® may be for you. This special green tea extract has shown to possess superior bioavailability to ordinary forms. Plus, it is naturally decaffeinated!
Blueberries are the second-most popular berry in the United States, and features multiple health benefits — along with their delicious taste.
This super fruit is rich in flavonoids — a class of plant compounds shown to promote healthy aging, especially when it comes to cognitive health. In fact, one study states that flavonoid-rich foods have been shown to support memory formation and learning in both animals and humans.
The same study found that blueberry supplementation yielded spatial memory improvements, faster rates of learning, and region-specific regulation of hippocampal BDNF mRNA expression in young rats.
Hopefully, further studies in humans will support what we’ve always believed: that blueberries are brain food!
Quercetin is naturally present in healthy foods such as apple peels, asparagus, onions, broccoli, and other nutritious and delicious options. And though it takes a back seat to popular vitamins such as Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and Magnesium, this flavonoid deserves a share of the spotlight.
It is hard to spell and pronounce, but Quercetin holds a lot of power for lung health, heart function, and more. This powerful antioxidant has even shown to play a role in BDNF.
A recent study, Effect of quercetin on the brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene expression in the rat brain, investigated the effects of Quercetin on BDNF mRNA in the hippocampus. Rats supplemented with 10, 20, or 50 mg, per kilogram of body weight, of Quercetin for thirty days and BDNF was assessed throughout the study. Subjects who were given doses of 20 and 50 mg per kg of body weight reported significant increases in mRNA expression of BDNF as compared with the control group.
We suspect that further study in humans will yield similar results — albeit at higher dosage levels.
A staple botanical in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, the brain-boosting effects of Bacopa monnieri have been used for centuries. Modern science took note of its impact on ancient society, and this venerable plant has now been the subject of multiple studies.
A 2017 article titled Botanicals as Modulators of Neuroplasticity: Focus on BDNF investigated the role of Bacopa monnieri in multiple studies using different animal models. These pre-clinical studies concluded that Bacopa monnieri extract influences BDNF levels in the brains of rats.
Synapsa® Natural Memory Support is an extensively studied and standardized form of Bacopa monnieri. This patented form has been the subject of more than 35 years of research — and has the evidence to back it up its extensive list of brain claims.
In six double blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies, Synapsa® improved learning rate, working memory, and mental performance for healthy adults in cognitively demanding environments. Take that, rats!
Grown in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia, Rhodiola Rosea is known as the “golden root.” This botanical is an adaptogen that helps your body manage stress by increasing its resistance to stress.
The root of this plant contains over 150 active constituents, including rosavin — the key ingredient in Rhodiola. One in vitro study tested the effects of rhodioloside — a glucoside of tyrosol inside Rhodiola — and found supplementation for 1-6 days significantly increased BDNF mRNA levels.
A separate in vivo study involving 5 days of treatment of rhodioloside prevented the downregulation of BDNF protein levels in the hippocampus in animals.
But when it comes to supporting your brain with the right nutrients, you’ll probably want the ones that go beyond ordinary forms. The patented Rhodiolife® Rhodiola contains a unique “footprint” composition that consistently delivers the nutrients found in the root of the plant responsible for its biological activity. What’s more, this clinically studied Rhodiola is wild harvested from the Altai Mountains using sustainable methods in accordance with World Health Organization Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP).
Other BDNF Boosting Nutrients
The list of BDNF-friendly nutrients, botanicals, and other ingredients doesn’t stop there! Look to incorporate these into your diet to increase BDNF as well:
- Olive Oil
- Fatty Fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring)
- Ashwagandha, ginseng, coffee fruit, curcumin, magnolia bark
Even More Ways to Boost BDNF
Other lifestyle changes such as exercising and managing stress have been shown to impact BDNF levels as well. Similar to enhancing your diet with new food and drink, these two methods do not require a drastic change to your current lifestyle; they are designed to enhance your daily routine — not flip it upside down.
Sprint Interval Exercise
We all know the basic benefits of exercise — it helps keep our bodies in shape and makes us feel good. The CDC doubles down on this idea as they consider regular physical activity one of the most important things we can do for our health.
One way to stay and shape, boost athletic performance, and even help your brain, is by participating in sprint interval training (SIT). This exercise is akin to interval-style method of training; it entails separate periods of intense activity followed by a long rest period.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to carry out this activity, but it does require pushing your body to its max, so be sure to participate in SIT at your own pace.
Frontiers in Neuroscience notes the increasing attention to SIT training as a time-efficient workout. That is because recent studies show acute high-intensity intermittent exercise such as SIT can improve cognitive function.
They examined the effects of acute SIT on cognitive function in nearly 40 males with an average age of 21. The findings showed peripheral levels of BDNF were significantly increased after SIT, as compared to those in a resting control group. Furthermore, blood lactate levels significantly increased and shared a direct relationship with increased levels of BDNF, insulin-like growth factor, and vascular endothelial growth factor. In short, the recent findings demonstrated that acute SIT enhances cognitive function.
Stress Management Through Yoga
If you prefer to boost your BDNF levels without pushing your body to its limit, perhaps a more relaxing activity would make for a great alternative.
The Mayo Clinic notes there are multiple studies that have shown yoga may help reduce stress, as well as enhance your mood and sense of wellbeing. And though yoga has many styles and forms, most utilize three core components:
Poses are movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. They range from a simple lie on the floor while completely relaxed to more difficult postures that may push your limits.
Breathing — and the act of modulating your breathing — can help you control your body and quiet your mind.
Meditation and Relaxation may help you learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment without judgment.
A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience oversaw thirty-eight volunteers who participated in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat. The subjects were tested before and after the retreat for psychometric measures, circadian salivary cortisol levels, and, of course, BDNF.
The conclusion of the yoga retreat revealed some impressive results relating to BDNF. Participants saw a highly significant 3-fold increase in plasma levels of BDNF when comparing pre- to post- retreat data. They also experienced an increase in mindfulness, as well as increased magnitude of the cortisol awakening response.
Boost Your BDNF Today
The brain is the most complex organ in your body; its structure is made up of 4 main regions that house blood vessels, nerves, and other vital factors. One key cog in the machine that is your brain is BDNF. It is a growth factor peptide needed for long term memory.
Unfortunately, factors such as aging and stress lead to lower levels of BDNF. But studies show that we can increase our BDNF levels in multiple ways. Actions such as regular exercise, yoga, and managing stress have all shown to be effective ways to boost BDNF.
And though aging, stress, and other factors life throws at you won’t magically come to a halt, we now know of healthy ways to support BDNF by enhancing your diet with certain botanicals and nutrients and incorporating both high and low intensity physical activity into your daily routine.