Wouldn’t it be great to be able to think and remember more clearly, stave off depression and anxiety, change your stress response and get your brain working top notch? There is absolutely no doubt that prolonged stress shrinks your brain1, but the good news to share is: “we can grow our brain back!”
The chemistry of the brain continues to be very complex and baffles scientists the world over, however there is emerging evidence about very important chemicals that can help improve the way the brain adapts to the stressors and challenges of life. One of these chemicals, called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), has attracted much interest in recent years because it seems to function in achieving all of the goals listed above. Some liken BDNF to a ‘fertilizer for your brain’ because it helps to prevent the death of existing brain cells and stimulates the growth of new ones, supporting brain function in many ways. Low levels of BDNF are linked to anxiety, depression,2 obesity,3 Schizophrenia4 and Alzheimer’s Disease.5
While science delves into the microscopic detail of the roles of BDNF, the most solid evidence that has been uncovered is about the very simple ways that this chemical can be increased in the brain.
How to increase BDNF = Top Tips for Growing your brain back:
Exercise (the challenging type) – the most consistently reliable technique for increasing BDNF production. High Intensity Interval Training done regularly over a period of months will elevate BDNF significantly6 and therefore help you better adapt to everyday stress.
Sunlight – catch some rays every day, every bit helps. Locking yourself away in an office can work against you in terms of stress management and productivity. In a Norwegian study of 2851 people, levels of BDNF directly correlated with hours of sun exposure in both men and women, levels dropped when hours were reduced.7
Diet – a whole food, Mediterranean style diet is beneficial. A diet high in fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, with the addition of ‘good fats’, while avoiding refined sugar, prepackaged and takeaway foods, has been shown to promote higher BDNF levels in the brain, compared to a standard Western style diet and even compared to low fat style diets.8 Results are noticed if these dietary changes are consistently followed for two months or more. Poor response to sugars and high levels of inflammation seem to effect BDNF negatively, so this is the proposed reason why the Mediterranean style diet works well:9 ‘Good fats’ (from fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados) have anti-inflammatory properties, and natural sugars found in wholefoods (fruits, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds) are processed more effectively by the body than refined sugars.
Food restriction / Intermittent fasting – Eating less will challenge our brain to produce more BDNF.10 A sensible way to achieve this is simply eating only during certain hours. For example, some people may choose to eat only between the hours of 8am and 4pm (effectively fasting for 16 hours overnight). It is most important though to consult your health practitioner to assess whether this eating style is appropriate for your health background.
Exposure to cold (brr…) – Strange, but true, exposure to bursts of cold stimulates BDNF production.11,12 For those of you that don’t fancy the idea of plunging into icy water or doing nudie runs in the snow, this may be partly achieved by turning the hot water off during showering for approximately 20-30 seconds on a regular basis.
Stress Less – Prolonged perceived stress is a huge inhibitor of BDNF production, which sets up a viscious cycle that is difficult to interrupt. Researchers are examining the effects of a variety of interventions to increase the plasticity of the brain so that individuals can adapt more effectively to stress. “Enriching the environment” of a person’s life produces a positive effect on BDNF and improves stress resilience. Some examples of enrichment strategies are:
- bevavioural therapies including CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), mindfulness and meditation techniques.
- finding meaning and purpose in life
- increasing social support and human connection
- physical activity.13
Natural Compounds – Good evidence exists for the supplemental use of various nutritional and plant compounds for increasing BDNF levels and managing the drivers of BDNF depletion. Magnesium,14 Vitamin B12,15 Turmeric (Curcuma longa)16 and Saffron (Crocus sativus)17 are strong contenders as excellent choices for brain health in that they stimulate BDNF production and other similar growth factors. Please consult your professional Healthcare Practitioner for advice on the dosage and appropriate use of these supplements and always use in conjunction with sound medical advice.
Find out more!
The strategies listed in this blog are our top picks for stimulating new brain cell growth, however there are many more ideas on the subject that can be shared. Please see your qualified Healthcare Practitioner for more details and to tailor a treatment plan that suits your circumstances.
Written by Emily Grieger – Naturopath at Des Lardner’s Organic.