Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
10 Ways to Boost Brain Function with BDNF
Did you know that you have a 1 in 3 chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia? Is there a way to boost brain function now and prevent dementia later in life?
The solution may be to raise your BDNF levels. In this article I will share with you 10 ways to boost brain function naturally with BDNF.
What is BDNF?
Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein which can be thought of as “brain fertilizer.” BDNF helps the brain to develop new connections, repair failing brain cells, and protect healthy brain cells. Having enough BDNF around can protect our brains from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.
When BDNF levels are high, acquiring new knowledge is easy, memories are retained, and people feel happier. Indeed, BDNF can even be thought of as a natural anti-depressant.
Unfortunately, when BDNF levels fall the opposite occurs. People have difficulties learning new things, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia occur, and depression is much more common.
Clearly we want more BDNF!
Airplane Pilots and BDNF
As we age our BDNF levels naturally fall and we may find it more difficult to do the complex tasks that were much easier for us when we were younger. Perhaps this explains why your parents or grandparents may not feel as confident driving a car as they did when they were younger.
Even worse, about 1 in 3 Americans have a mutation in the gene coding for BDNF so that in these people BDNF levels fall much faster than they should with age.
A few years ago Stanford University researcher, Dr. Ahmad Salehi and his colleagues, wanted to know just how well these people with genetically lower levels of BDNF with aging functioned with complex tasks over time.
To better understand this question, they designed a study whereby they had 144 airplane pilots, ages 40-69, perform an annual flight simulator test at Stanford University over at least a 3 year period of time. They found that in the pilots without the mutation that their scores and BDNF levels just slightly decreased over time. However, in the pilots who had the mutation causing a much faster drop in BDNF levels with age, their scores on the flight simulator test dropped twice as fast as those without the mutation.
The message of this study is that BDNF levels naturally decrease with age. However, for the 1 in 3 people with the mutation in the gene coding for BDNF, their BDNF levels will fall precipitously with aging making complex tasks very difficult to perform. Thus, if we want to maintain or enhance brain function as we age we will need to do everything possible to keep BDNF levels high.
Turn Old Brains Into Young Brains with BDNF
To reverse the effects of decreased BDNF on aging brains, researchers in Brazil had an interesting idea. What would happen if they put old rats into an exercise program. Could they then increase the BDNF levels and brain function of these old rats with an exercise program?
After 5 weeks of just mild intensity exercise for these old rats, Brazilian researchers were able to show that exercise reversed the age related cognitive decline. Specifically, this exercise program significantly increased BDNF levels and the old rats learned faster and their memory was improved.
While it is hard to extrapolate the findings of these 35 old female rats used in this study to humans, there is still a lesson to be learned here. By getting the old sedentary female rats to start running for 15 minutes 4 days of the week on a rat treadmill their brain function improved so much that it was almost as good as the young rats.
The key message of this study is that even short periods of exercise can have a dramatic effect on BDNF, learning abilities, and memory strength.
Exercise Boosts BDNF and Cognitive Function in the Young as Well
The beneficial effects of BDNF are not just for old brains. Even young brains seem to benefit as well.
To test this hypothesis, Irish researchers designed a study whereby they coaxed sedentary male college students to start exercising. In this study, they wanted to see what the effects of an exercise program would be on BDNF and memory abilities. As these were young college students, researchers pushed them much harder on the stationary bicycle than the old Brazilian rats were pushed on the rat treadmill in the previous study.
This high intensity exercise boosted both the BDNF levels and memories of these young college students. Once again, the message is clear. Exercise improves BDNF and brain function in both the old and the young.
BDNF is Critical for a Healthy Heart
BDNF’s effects are not just on learning and memory. BDNF is also critical for a properly functioning heart.
In a recent study from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Ning Feng and colleagues, genetically created a mouse that lacked BDNF receptors on the heart. In other words, they altered the genomes of these mice so that their hearts could not sense BDNF from the brain at all.
Interestingly, researchers found that in these mice hearts without the influence of BDNF that they quickly developed heart failure. Even though this study was done it mice, it does raise the question of whether heart failure, which is common in the elderly, may also be a function of declining BDNF levels.
It is well known that depression is a common cause of heart disease. People that are depressed also tend to have much lower levels of BDNF. Could the link between depression and heart disease be due to low levels of BDNF?
BDNF May Control Our Lifespan
Researchers are now speculating that BDNF could be one of the key regulators of our lifespan. Indeed, studies have shown that BDNF is closely correlated to lifespan. BDNF may just be how our brains control our lifespan. Could BDNF represent the sand in an hourglass in that when the BDNF is gone our lives are over?
10 Ways to Boost Brain Function with BDNF
By this point in the article it is pretty clear that for optimal brain and heart function we want more of this substance around. How can we increase BDNF levels beyond just exercise? Let me give you 10 scientifically proven ways to raise BDNF levels.
Exercise is the very best way to boost BDNF levels. As seen from the studies already discussed in this article, even short bursts of exercise can dramatically raise BDNF. We must create a lifelong habit of exercise to keep our brains and hearts functioning optimally.
2. Avoid Sugar, Processed Foods, and HFCS
Just as exercise can raise BDNF levels, sugar, processed foods, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) all do the exact opposite. Many studies have now shown that rats fed the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is high in sugar, bad fats, and HFCS, have lower levels of BDNF. These lower levels of BDNF from the Standard American Diet result in rats which are not as smart and have memory difficulties. Clearly, for optimal brain function we have to eat the right foods to increase BDNF levels.
3. Intermittent Fasting
Interestingly, there is a growing body of data that time restricted feeding, or intermittent fasting, may also increase BDNF. Intermittent fasting is merely the act of resting our guts periodically which then triggers a cascade of hormonal events in our bodies which boost our body’s repair mechanisms.
Intermittent fasting does not have to be hard. Studies show that even fasting as short as 12 hours can have a beneficial effect. To fast for 12 hours is really as simple as skipping that pre-bedtime snack and not eating again until breakfast the next day. To learn more about the role of intermittent fasting please read my article Intermittent Fasting, Weight Loss, and Longevity.
4. Mental Stimulation
Exercising our brains with mental stimulation also increases BDNF. Like everything else, the old adage “use it or lose it” also applies to the brain.
5. Eat Oily Fish
Recent data have shown that a diet high in omega 3s can improve BDNF levels and boost brain function. Unfortunately, studies also show that up to 95% of Americans are deficient in the omega 3 fatty acids.
The best studied way to get more omega 3s is to include oily fish in your diet. My favorite way to do this is with the very affordable wild Alaskan salmon that we buy at Costco.
While there are certainly non-fish forms of omega 3s, like those found in walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, etc., these have not been studied as well and may not be as critical as the DHA and EPA forms of omega 3s found in oily fish.
Fish oil supplements can certainly boost omega 3 levels in the body. However, omega 3s, in the form of fish oil supplements, can easily go rancid, they may increase the risk of prostate cancer, and they may even accelerate heart disease and dementia in the 25% of the American population that carries the ApoE4 gene. Thus, given these concerns with fish oil, I recommend that my patients try to get their omega 3s from real fish sources.
6. Be with Family and Friends
Close nurturing relationships have been shown to boost BDNF. These are the relationships that come from real friendships or spending time with family members.
7. Get Some Sun
Even something as simple as getting some sun each day can boost BDNF levels. Look for opportunities to get out of your home or your office building and feel some of the sun’s healing effects each day. Of course, one always has to be sun smart to avoid skin cancer.
8. Eat More Curry/Turmeric, Red Grapes, and Blueberries
Curcumin, which is found in turmeric and to a lesser extent in curry, has been shown in to increase BDNF and can even prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Learn to use these spices with the foods you make to protect your brain.
Do you like red grapes? If so, you may just be in luck. Resveratrol, found primarily in red grapes, has also been shown to boost BDNF levels. If red grapes aren’t your thing then the anthocyanin in blueberries have also been shown to raise BDNF levels.
9. Do Something to Reduce Stress
Managing stress is key to optimal health. BDNF is no exception. People who are under a lot of stress produce less BDNF. Could this be why people often don’t think as clearly when they are feeling very stressed?
Stress is a part of modern life. Find something, anything, that you can do each day that helps you to keep life in perspective and allows you to unwind mentally.
10. Get At Least 7 Hours of Sleep
As with stress, sleep is critical for health. As you might expect, BDNF is reduced with sleep deprivation. If you struggle with getting at least 7 hours of sleep, like me, this study suggests that regular exercise can help to keep BDNF levels up even if your sleep is compromised.
What do you do to keep your BDNF levels up and your brain and heart functioning optimally?
Please do not self diagnose or treat based on anything that you have read in this article. Also, if you are considering changing your exercise program or diet, please discuss this with your physician first.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.