• Lisa Kowalyk

The Molecule That Makes New Brain Cells And How You Can Produce More Of It

Updated: Oct 24, 2019


A common belief, and one that is still taught today is that we are born with a finite number of brain cells that decline as we age. This was disproven in the 1980’s, with the discovery of neurotrophins. Neurotrophin's are chemicals that prompt the synthesis of new neurons (neurogenesis). Brain-derived neutrophic factor (BDNF) is the most abundant and prominent neurotrophin and its release allows new brain cells to be born. The leading paradigm surrounding brain health is to preserve brain cells and promote neural plasticity. Neural plasticity is the concept of forming new connections between already existing neurons. There is no doubt that nurturing existing brain cells and promoting new connections is vital for life long brain health- but thanks to interest in biohacking and active health care, preventative brain health has a new look. Let’s examine the role of BDNF in supporting a healthy brain, now and in the future.


What exactly is BDNF?

Brain-derived neutrophic factor seems complicated and intimidating, and I mean it is. It literally forms new brain cells, and while the mechanisms behind it are complex- the general principles behind its production and release are simple.


BDNF is a protein that signals the formation of new neurons and has the ability to strengthen and reinforce the efficacy of existing brain cells. This neurotrophin contributes to neuroplasticity, which has huge implications in “age-related” cognitive decline and it allows the pathways to remain flexible.


From a therapeutic and practical perspective, BDNF production in the brain lowers inflammation and allows a person to learn faster, retain information and age slower. BDNF primarily works on three structures in the brain- the hippocampus, cortex and fore brain these areas are responsible for not only memory and learning are vital to higher thinking.


How does it work?

Basically, when BDNF is released in the brain, it causes a group of genes to be turned on or expressed (If you’re not familiar with epigenetics, my new book talks about how we can turn genes off and on to promote health and longevity. You can buy it on amazon here). These genes are responsible for the creation of new brain cells and increasing the number of pathways between cells.


If BDNF production is compromised, the body lacks the ability to turn on these genes. This means few to no new brain cells get produced. Not surprisingly, low BDNF levels are seen in early cognitive decline and neural pathologies such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. It is strongly advised to in-still habits that increase BDNF production for prevention of neurodegenerative disorders. One of the major reasons we are seeing an increase in cognitive pathologies is because the general habits of our society suppress BDNF below average, healthy baselines. The good news is with a few lifestyle modifications and the introduction of new daily habits you can prime your brain to release more BDNF and increase your neural resiliency.


How to increase BDNF


1. Exercise- Research shows exercise to be the most effective way to increase BDNF production. Sprinting or HIIT training increase levels the most, although everything from yoga to dance has positive effects on BDNF levels in the brain.


2. Sunlight- Sun exposure has been linked to higher levels of BDNF. It is thought that the vitamin D obtained from direct sunlight is in part responsible for this increase, however supplemental vitamin D does not have the same effects. The range of UV light is needed for optimal BDNF levels.


3. Meditation- Meditation has been shown to have positive effects on the brain. One reason is because it lowers cortisol levels and cortisol suppresses BDNF activity. Although the exact pathways are unclear at this time, an increase of BDNF by 280% was shown in participants after a 3-month meditation retreat.


4. Chewing food- Chewing food stimulates the hippocampal region of the brain and studies have shown that chewing food several times before swallowing has a significant effect on raising BDNF levels.


5. Increasing BDNF friendly foods- foods that promote the production of BDNF are turmeric, blueberries, dark unprocessed chocolate and fermented foods.


6. Supplements- While it is best to obtain nutrients through diet first- supplementation can be useful when trying to increase you BDNF levels. Magnesium, sulforaphane, theanine and quercetin have been shown to up-regulate production.


Factors that inhibit BDNF production


1. Stress- It’s no surprise that stress inhibits the production of BDNF. Stress, specifically cortisol shuts down production of this essential protein. Chronic stress is linked to many cognitive pathologies and this could be the mechanism by which it effects the brain


2. Processed foods- Sugars and rancid fats (those usually found in packaged foods) down regulate BDNF production. Aside from the direct inhibition of BDNF production with the consumption of sugars and bad fats, these also disrupt the gut flora which is thought to play a role in BDNF regulation.


With a few simple upgrades to lifestyle and nutrition, BDNF production can skyrocket and help the brain to stay healthy throughout the lifespan. If you have any questions or comments- send them to hello@lisakowalyk.com


In Health, Lisa xo

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