In the previous post, I talked about what BDNF is, why is it important and what activities lifestyle choices harm our levels of BDNF. If you missed part one then definitely go check it out to get the most of part 2.
This blog post is fairly long so if you don't care about the geeky details, please head to the end of the article where I've added a summary of all key information.
MAINTAINING & INCREASING BDNF LEVELS NATURALLY
Sleep is the time of highest activity in the brain. Memories and experiences of previous day are processed, stored or discarded, neurons are being repaired, remodelled and reshaped. The brain in the morning is not the same as the brain last night. All of this happens during the two cycles (REM and non-REM). Discussing REM and non-REM would be beyond the scope of this article; however suffice to say that should we purposely cut our sleep short, we will end up with reduced levels of BDNF, impaired memory, impaired ability to pay attention and reduced brain performance throughout the entire day.
WEIGHT AND BODY FAT
It has been found that overweight people have lower levels of BDNF. This is because an excessive amount of fat tissue is highly pro-inflammatory, especially the fat that accumulates around the abdomen (the infamous “tire”). Obese people often have chronically elevated levels of inflammation in the brain, and this is the leading cause why levels of BDNF start to drop. Being obese is also putting a lot of strain on cardio-metabolic health which is tightly connected to our brain health. Losing any excess of weight (especially around the belly) may produce great leaps in mental performance, memory. Although I know that most of you guys reading this are health geeks and obesity will probably not be a problem for you 😊
FOOD AND THE DIET
Sugar Avoid all processed foods, cakes, fizzy drinks and junk food loaded with sugar whenever possible. To protect your brain, it is a good idea to push back on all sugary drinks, sweets, candies and cheap chocolates. On the other hand, natural sugars in fruits that come packaged with nutrients, antioxidants and polyphenols are the right type of brain food that promote and protect BDNF and should be consumed by everyone all the time.
Large amounts of saturated fats
Saturated fats come mostly from foods of animal origin such as meat, dairy, butter, animal fats, eggs, bacon, salamis, sausages etc. The body can handle small amounts (e.g. eating little meat 2-3 times a week), but in large quantities when consumed daily, saturated fats trigger inflammation response in the body which will suppress BDNF.
Rancid oils are oils mostly of plant origin (sunflower, rapeseed, cottonseed) that have been exposed to high temperatures and got oxidised. They are now behaving as tiny little monsters called “Free Radicals”. Rancid oils are commonly found in takeaway foods that use excessive amounts of oils for frying. Any Chinese or Indian takeaway food that is literally swimming in oil is absolutely horrible to our brain health. Again, nothing wrong with occasional takeaway but if you see the restaurant selling you oily food, looks elsewhere because your health is at the bottom of their priorities.
Not all carbohydrates are equal. When it comes to brain health, go for sources of complex carbohydrates: brown rice, buckwheat, oats, millet, whole grain pasta, wholegrain seeded bread, lentils, beans and leave out the simple carbohydrates (white pasta, white rice, white potatoes, plain bread). Complex carbs are incredible for people looking to lose weight for people with high blood pressure or high blood sugar even diabetics. These types of carbs are NOT fattening and are perfect for athletes or people using up a lot of brain power.
it has been found that occasional caloric restriction may promote levels of BDNF. It is not sure why this is happening, but it may possibly be that caloric restriction activates our primordial primitive part of the brain that senses threat and food scarcity and hence starts forcing the brain to adapt and to grow in order to be more effective in hunting and foraging. If your schedule allows it, introducing one day per week when you will not be eating for 24 hours can be amazing for your brain health, digestive system and just overall metabolic and cellular optimisation.
WHAT IS IDEAL AN DIET FOR BDNF
An abundance of fruits and vegetables every day, the more the better.
Eating a lot of other fibre-rich foods such as legumes and wholegrain products
Replace simple carbohydrates with more complex ones (more on this in future blogs)
Avoid excessive frying and buying oily food in restaurants
Get most of your dietary fats from plants (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oils), some eggs and some oily fish.
Minimise (or ideally avoid) all processed meats: salamis, sausages, bacon, hams, any cured meats and any grilled or charred . Not only do they destroy brain health but they are highly carcinogenic. If you burn meat, NEVER EVER eat it.
Replace some meat with plant proteins from (lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, chickpeas)
Do not overeat and allow yourself sufficient breaks between main meals
Consider adding 1 day of fasting
Exercise is one of the greatest promoters of BDNF and overall brain health. The best type of exercise is the type that is intense but not long-term. Triathlon or iron-men may actually be counterproductive for BDNF levels so go for short jogs, weight lifting sessions, HIIT, callisthenics and similar.
BOTANICALS AND NATURAL BDNF ENHANCERS
Before we get into these, I want to mention that many of these herbs have not been studied properly on humans but mostly either on lab rats or in petri dishes. BDNF is an interesting topic but not that interesting that research facilities & universities will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into human trials so we have to use what we got. At the same time, just because something has only rat-testing does not mean it has no effect in humans but it just means we don’t really know for sure so please bear this in mind as you continue reading.
Curcumin is an active ingredient in the yellow Indian spice turmeric that is also found as a part of curry mix. Curcumin is the main reason why turmeric has become a global sensation. Curcumin is such a powerful natural medicine that it may one day be given as a pharmaceutical for the treatment of cancer and heart disease. Curcumin has been found to enhance levels of BDNF in the brain in humans. It is a potent anti-inflammatory and brain-protective substance.
The picture below represents that in case of curcumin, more is not always better and at some point we end up with diminishing return.
PICTURE SOURCE: Sarraf, P. Parohan, M. Javanbakht, M.H. et al. (2019) 'Short-term curcumin supplementation enhances serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor in adult men and women: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials', Nutritional research, pp.1-8
HOW TO USE TURMERIC TO GET THE MOST OF IT?
Use around ½ -1 teaspoon per day in your cooking. You can add it to all meals, soups, stews even smoothies. Ideally spread the doses across multiple meals.
Make sure to add a source of fat into those meals as Curcumin is generally very poorly absorbed and fat helps with absorption.
Do not take turmeric on an empty stomach in capsules; always get it in food as a natural spice. When mixed with food, the absorption is enhanced.
Do not mega dose with turmeric (1 teaspoon per day should be enough)
POSSIBLE DRUG INTERACTIONS
strong anti-inflammatory drugs
in moderate amounts used as a culinary spice the risk of interaction is close to none. Supplementation not advised.
Iron is not a botanical but an essential mineral. It has been found that people with low iron levels or those with iron-deficiency anaemia have lower levels of BDNF. This is because iron is an essential part of the biochemistry behind the process of neuroplasticity. Now I have to issue warning straight away: THIS IS NOT AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO SUPPLEMENT IRON. Please do not supplement iron unless you have been medically diagnosed with iron deficiency as you could easily end up with iron overload and liver damage. What I would like to encourage is to ensure your diet is rich in iron sources coming mostly from plants. If you have low levels of iron and have been having so for a long time, please give it your best effort to get those levels back to normal by working with your doctor or a nutritionist. It is not JUST a number. Lack of iron can have negative consequences on your long-term health in a variety of ways.
having dark circles around eyes, being chronically tired and always sleepy are more reasons to get those levels checked.
Best plant iron sources:
Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, rocket)
Green tea, same as turmeric is an incredible and powerful natural medicine with effects on the entire body. This is because green tea contains two powerful ingredients called EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) and L-Theanine. Green tea has not been researched heavily in relation to BDNF in humans but because we have a large amount of data showing that it reduces inflammation, protects the brain and nervous system, it is safe to assume that regular consumption of green tea may indeed protect our levels of BDNF. Green tea is safe to consume as a tea; however, I would not suggest supplementing with EGCG or using concentrated matcha powders for people on blood thinners (such as warfarin) and antidiabetic medication.
Yes, you got it! Research brings some favourable news about coffee!
It appears regular consumption in small amounts may in fact yield benefits for BDNF levels ….but……but notice I said “small amounts”. 6 cups a day is anything but a small amount. Too much coffee raises levels of stress hormones such as cortisol which will then blunt levels of BDNF, so the key is to keep it low such as having 1-2 cups per day and then if you need an extra kick, consider finishing off with 2-3 cups of green tea for maximum effect. When drinking coffee, consider avoiding dairy milk with it but either drink black or with something like oat milk.
Olive oil has shown some promising results in Petri dish studies; however, nothing has been confirmed in human studies on BDNF. That being said, olive oil has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, so it may be worth making some space for it in our diets. Olive oil is also THE BEST oil to fry on. It is generally good idea to fry as little as possible and whenever possible to use water but in case you are looking for the least harmful oil, use Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I know this sounds controversial, but research shows that even after deep frying for 16 hours, extra virgin olive oil has retained highest amount of its property and scored highest on “oxidative stability” which stands for how well it can resist the damage caused by heat. This is because it has a high content of natural antioxidants protecting it from oxidative damage.
While we don’t have good research data on humans in relation to Ginkgo & BDNF, in lab tests and in rats, Ginkgo has produced a significant increase in BDNF so it may be worth exploring. There is also good research data on Ginkgo in dementia, ADHD, anxiety and schizophrenia, which suggests that there is some positive effect on mental health.
Drug interactions – Ginkgo should not be used with drugs for the treatment of depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, anxiety, diabetes, insulin resistance, those using medical narcotics or by people using a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs (pain killers). Because there is such a wide range of possible interactions, I would advise if you are on ANY MEDICATION long-term, speak to your doctor before using Ginkgo.
SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE (TOO LONG DID NOT READ)
How to maximise your BDNF levels naturally?
Sleep – no sleep cutting, no late-night Netflix. Your brain loves to sleep so give yourself this gift. The more sleep deprived a person is to lower their BDNF and the worse their brain can reshape, repair and maintain itself.
Exercise - daily activity is essential. More standing, more walking, less sitting. The best type of workouts are short sessions of high intensity or skill/agility based exercise (thai-chi,qi-gong, martial arts). Consider investing into standing desk if possible.
Good diet – as close to the Mediterranean type of diet as possible. Many fruits, vegetables and legumes whole grains, nuts and seeds. As little animal foods as possible and (if you like) an occasional oily fish or few eggs per week.
Iron – If you are anaemic or have chronically low levels of iron, make sure to get it under control. Low levels of iron may reduce your levels of BDNF. DO NOT supplement iron unless you have been diagnosed (medically) with iron-deficiency or iron-deficiency anaemia.
Curcumin– Curcumin is the active ingredient in a yellow spice turmeric. It was shown to increase natural BDNF levels in humans and is super protective for brain and the nervous system. Don’t supplement Curcumin but use turmeric in culinary doses. (up to 1 teaspoon per day). Add it to your meals whenever possible. Add a source of fat (such as olive oil) to these meals as curcumin has very poor absorption and fat helps.
Green tea – Drink it daily. Green tea is an excellent brain protector. While direct impact on BDNF in humans wasn't shown (due to lack of specific studies) we may assume that it could contribute. Go for regular tea and avoid matcha powder or green tea extracts if you are on blood-thinning or anti-diabetic medication.
Coffee - small amounts of coffee can be helpful but avoid relying on coffee for energy too much. Drink it black or with plant milk—ideally, no more than 2 per day. High doses of caffeine may, in turn, reduce BDNF by spiking up stress hormones so best to maintain only moderate levels.
Ginkgo Biloba - If you are not on any medication, you may experiment with Ginkgo; however, if you are on medication, please consider discussing it with your medical doctor first.
Olive oil - Olive oil has incredible anti-inflammatory and brain-protective properties. Although direct effect on BDNF in humans was not shown (only tiny amount of studies exist), it may still be very beneficial. Add it to your meals and use it for frying when you have to (throw your sunflower oil away 😊). Whenever possible cook only on water and add the oil afterwards to maximise its antioxidant punch.
Don’t forget that having fun, socialising with your loved ones, playing board games, communicating, cuddling, hugging and having sex are all-powerful brain stimulants so before you go buy a bottle of Ginkgo in your local health store, make sure to hug and cuddle your partner on the way and if you are single, call your mother or your sister or a friend and try to socialise with them a little more. I know in these days socialising is not really a thing anymore but even online socialising is better than none. (no we are not calling our grandmother just to get BDNF boost, don’t you go turn and this into a religion !)
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