We’ve just published a brand-new article on the website about brain-derived neurotrophic factor – better known as BDNF – and we think it’s going to blow you away.
You can read the article here.
BDNF is a protein that plays important roles in staving off brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases as well as mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It accomplishes these Herculean tasks by increasing neurogenesis and by boosting neuroplasticity.
Neurogenesis is the process of forming new neurons. It’s an essential process during embryonic development, but it continues in certain brain regions throughout human lifespan. Neurogenesis is the basis for memory.
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s capacity to reorganize itself in response to changes in its environment. Basically, it means being able to learn new things and change synapses as a consequence of new behaviors. Neuroplasticity makes your brain more resilient.
As you might expect, BDNF is produced primarily in the brain, but it’s made in a long list of other places, including the muscles, heart, lungs, gut, and a few more. Unfortunately, BDNF production decreases as we age, with important implications for brain health. The upshot: Fewer neurons (and the connections between them), making learning and memory formation harder.
But lifestyle can counter some of the effects of aging.
As it turns out, a common feature of many of the lifestyle behaviors that promote overall brain health is their capacity to drive beneficial increases not only in brain BDNF, but in plasma BDNF, too. Evidence from animal studies suggests that plasma BDNF can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Here’s a short list of some lifestyle behaviors that increase BDNF levels.
Exercise: The benefits of exercise on mental and cognitive health are pretty well established. Many of these benefits are related to exercise’s capacity to increase BDNF levels. But intensity and duration are important determinants of how much BDNF is produced, with longer duration (about 40 minutes) of vigorous or moderate exercise eliciting the greatest effects on BDNF levels – nearly one-third higher than before exercising.
Hot baths: A good soak in the tub might be enough to increase BDNF levels, too. No surprise – heat therapy (such as sauna bathing) reduces the risk of developing a wide range of diseases, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A study of the effects of head-out-immersion in hot water found that BDNF levels were two-thirds higher after a 20-minute soak in water that was 42°C (108°F) than before soaking. BDNF remained high for 15 minutes post-soak.
Meditation: BDNF appears to play a role in the mind-body connection, which is pretty cool. A study of 26 experienced meditators in a three-month-long yoga and meditation retreat found that participants’ plasma BDNF levels increased threefold relative to their pre-retreat levels. Their self-reported scores for depression and anxiety (which were pretty low even at the beginning of the retreat) decreased by about 60 percent.
Mental training: We know that exercising the body increases BDNF levels, but exercising the brain does, too. An intervention trial involving sedentary, elderly women with mild cognitive impairment found that eight weeks of computer-based mental training increased the women’s plasma BDNF levels by 26 percent. In light of BDNF’s role in brain function, it’s not surprising that the women also showed improvements in working memory and processing speed. These improvements lasted at least six months after the intervention.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These essential fats play critical roles in the development and function of the central nervous system throughout life. They are integral to cell membranes and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. But that’s not all. When trauma patients received omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish oil supplements, their levels of pro-BDNF (a precursor to BDNF) were nearly five times higher than in those who received a placebo. A bonus: Those whose pro-BDNF levels were higher were less likely to develop depression – a common occurrence after trauma.
Probiotics: A ton of evidence points to a strong connection between BDNF levels and the gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live in the human digestive tract. When people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment took a daily probiotic containing Lactobacillus plantarum for 12 weeks, their BDNF levels increased, and they showed BDNF-dose-dependent improvements in attention, working memory, and verbal memory.
We cover these topics and much more in this article, including:
How BDNF levels and body temperature are linked
How BDNF levels play roles in neurodegenerative diseases and how BDNF may be useful in their treatment
How BDNF shows potential as a treatment for traumatic brain injury
How BDNF factors into depression, anxiety, and anorexia
How dietary components, such as omega-3 fatty acids, resveratrol, and probiotic supplements, influence BDNF levels
How BDNF is tied to appetite and possibly aggression
How BDNF plays a role in blood sugar levels, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome
How reduced caloric intake affects BDNF and cognition
Learn more about BDNF in our new article.
You can learn more about this topic and see helpful links and a figure on our topic article page.
Visit Topic Page
Team FoundMyFitness spent many hours researching, writing, and reviewing this comprehensive article, supported by over 100 peer-reviewed references. BDNF is a profoundly universal point of convergence for mechanistically explaining basically all known activities that promote brain health.
If you find that you want to learn more topics like this one, I bring great coverage of topics that often brush up against brain health in my members-only podcast The Aliquot. These episodes, released approximately weekly, bring short topics into focus while usually driving at practical take-homes.
Learn more about The Aliquot here.
Rhonda and team