It seems that everywhere we look there is someone selling a product that promises to keep us looking and feeling “young.” Perhaps the secret to looking, and feeling our best is actually keeping the brain wired to work at a high level. Being in Silicon Valley where technology and innovation are at a premium, there is an obsession with keeping the brain sharp in order to get more work done in less time in a demanding, rapidly growing tech field.
Biohacking (do-it-yourself biology), which is now a household term, has become the norm in order to survive in such a fast-paced environment. Recently, I read an article that talked about the power of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the body, and how powerful it can be in how our brains develop new pathways. BDNF does in fact play a huge role in how well we age, and how well we learn and perform mentally.
BDNF is a protein which can be thought of as fertilizer, or the “miracle-gro” for our brain. BDNF helps the brain to develop new connections, repair failing brain cells, and protect healthy brain cells. Maintaining adequate levels of the power-packed protein can protect our brains from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.
When BDNF levels are high, acquiring new knowledge is effortless, precious memories and newly learned skills are retained, and in general people feel happier (this is what we all strive for). Like exercise and getting sunlight, higher levels of BDNF can even be thought of as a natural antidepressant.
When levels are low, people have difficulties learning new things, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia occur, and depression and mood swings are much more common. Ever feel like you can’t get going on a Monday morning? Have brain fog? It could be your BDNF levels declining.
So how do we increase BDNF production?
- Deep, restorative sleep.
- Spend time with friends and family.
We’ve all heard that exercise releases endorphins, aka your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters that reduce the perception of pain and improves overall well-being, but it’s also the number one way to increase BDNF production. Short bursts of exercise, along with longer duration bouts of movement can dramatically raise levels of BDNF in the body - so continue to sprint, jump, and lift heavy things.
Improved sleep quality seems to be the one thing that makes everything better, but deeper sleep is where BDNF is released in the body, therefore getting deeper sleep more often will lead to more BDNF released - and in turn improve cognitive function and performance.
An enriched social environment involving close, real relationships have been shown to boost BDNF as well. The more we are around family and friends who are meaningful to our lives, the more nurturing of a relationship we can have. Laughing and smiling with others is a great way to boost levels, but on the other hand isolation has been shown to reduce BDNF, which can lead to depression and loneliness.
What makes BDNF dwindle?
In the brain, excess sugar impairs both our cognitive skills, and our self-control (having a little sugar stimulates a craving for more - you can’t have just one!). Sugar has drug-like effects in the reward center of the brain which often makes it a slippery slope. On top of that, it directly impacts BDNF production for the worse. Therefore, sticking to a whole food approach is recommended.
Stress is key for survival, but too much stress can be detrimental, and cause a decline in BDNF to wreck the immune system. Chronic emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease.
Research shows that people who feel lonely have more health problems, and in many cases die at an earlier age. For these reasons isolation, or lack of meaningful mental stimulation leads to a decline in BDNF.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth, which is vital for learning and memory. There are many natural ways to improve the production of this powerful gene, some as simple as taking some time to laugh and get outside. Controlling your diet, along with exercising are simple ways to improve cognitive function and performance on a daily basis.
Written by Phil Wagner M.D.
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