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THE WHAT, WHY, WHO AND HOW OF BDNF
You may have heard some buzz about something called BDNF and its role in brain function and dementia-causing diseases like Alzheimer’s. Here is the what, why, who and how of BDNF and its role in keeping your brain sharp and your risk of dementia low.
What is BDNF?
So first of all, what is it? BDNF is short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It is a protein that resides in the central nervous system—specifically, the parts of the brain responsible for controlling functions such as eating, drinking and body weight.
BDNF works in the brain’s synapses (the nerve cells where communication occurs). It helps to regulate the ability of the synapses to adapt in response to experience. This is what is known as synaptic plasticity, which is vital for cognitive function.
Why is BDNF Important?
Because it regulates synaptic plasticity, BDNF plays a critical role in the brain’s ability to learn, form and retain memories. Research has shown that when levels of BDNF are high, these brain functions are improved. When BDNF levels are low, the brain struggles to learn new things and perform complex tasks. This is true for people of all ages.
BDNF levels are known to decline with age. Genetics research, however, has identified a genetic mutation, existing in about a third of Americans, which causes BDNF levels to fall much faster than is typically associated with age. This means that one in three people in the U.S. are genetically predisposed to experience a decrease in cognitive function sooner and faster than everyone else.
And here’s another thing. Boston University researchers performed a study tracking BDNF levels in a group of adults over a ten year period. What they learned is that the study participants who had maintained the highest BDNF levels developed dementia 50% less often than the other participants. That’s right. Twice as many of the low-level BDNF participants developed dementia.
Mind. Blown. (Literally.)
And here’s another thing. Scientists have also speculated that BDNF could play a role in regulating lifespan. Meaning, if we can maintain high levels of BDNF, we are more likely to keep our brains sharp, less likely to develop dementia, and could live longer.
Who is Affected by BDNF levels?
Short answer: Everybody.
BDNF performs the same functions in young brains, old brains, and every brain in between. Turns out that absolutely everyone performs better cognitively—and possibly lives longer—when they keep their BDNF levels high.
How Can We Boost Our Levels of BDNF?
BDNF is not something you can buy from your pharmacist (although there have been reports of increased BDNF levels of Huntington Disease patients taking lithium). Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your body’s ability to create BDNF naturally that will also keep you healthier in general.
Scientists say that exercise is the single best way to increase your levels of BDNF. A 2016 article in Science magazine called “How Exercise Beefs Up the Brain” explains exactly how exercise does that if you care to read it. It is pretty fascinating stuff.
- EAT HEALTHY
Dietary changes have a substantial and direct impact on BDNF levels. Here are the specifics:
- Eat more foods with Omega-3.
Omega-3 is present in animal and plant food sources. Animal food sources high in Omega-3 include salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardine, and herrings. Stay away from the farmed varieties because they have been shown to have decreased Omega-3 levels. Plant sources include ground flaxseed, unsaturated oils, nuts, and seeds.
Useful tidbit: Another source is Fish Oil supplements, which are widely available in grocery stores and pharmacies. Supplements are not included in this list though because it has been shown that they can easily go rancid, making them less effective, and possibly even making you sick. If you want to know if a fish oil pill is rancid, check for expired dates, fishy smell, cloudiness of the capsule, and unpleasant aftertaste after swallowing. If you notice any of these, they are probably rancid and should be thrown out.
- Stay away from “bad ”
Research has shown that diets including lots of bad carbs—meaning simple carbohydrates like refined sugar—decrease levels of BDNF. Research also indicates that low levels of BDNF can actually contribute to the development of insulin resistance and adult onset diabetes. In other words, high blood sugar leads to low BDNF, which then leads to worsening blood sugar management which leads back to low BDNF…and so and so on.
There are plenty of good health reasons to eliminate sugar and other simple carbohydrates from your diet, and this is another one.
- Choose Unsaturated over Saturated Fats.
The same research that links BDNF levels to simple carbs also links it to fats. There are two types of what are called the “bad” fats: saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats come from animal sources, like poultry, beef, pork and high-fat dairy items such as butter and cheese. Along with trans fats, they are frequently referred to as “solid fats” because they are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats, in addition to being bad for your heart, lower BDNF and should be avoided.
- Eat more “super foods.”
Specific superfoods that have been shown to increase BDNF are blueberries, red grapes, turmeric, and curry. Bonus: They all taste really good.
- SPEND MORE TIME IN THE SUN
BDNF levels increase just from spending a little time in the sun each day. But don’t forget the sunscreen.
- FAST INTERMITTENTLY
Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. But it isn’t that difficult. Research has shown that intermittent fasting, even for as a short a time as twelve hours, can increase your BDNF levels. That just means skipping the nighttime snack and not eating until morning.
- STIMULATE YOUR BRAIN
There are plenty of ways to stimulate your mind without doing Sudoku. Mostly stimulating your brain has to do with stimulating your senses, according to Dr. Stephen Brewer, medical director at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. There is a great list for how to do that here.
- MANAGE YOUR STRESS
Lots of things in modern life cause us to be stressed. Hectic lifestyles, worry, relationship issues, financial difficulties, work pressures. All are persistent psychological stressors that lower BDNF levels. Finding a way to manage it, or at least your reactions to it helps your heart and your brain. There is lots of information and help available that show you how to reduce feelings of stress. Find out what they are and get started.
- GET ENOUGH SLEEP
Sleep deprivation, which is both a cause and effect of psychological stress, will lower your BDNF levels. Try to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Finally, something fun! Research has shown that BDNF levels are higher in those who have nurturing and caring relationships. So go out and enjoy time with your close friends and family. Your brain health depends on it.