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Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor - What it does and how to increase it

Optimise your brain health and function

In this article I wanted to do a deep dive into a very important protein that your body makes known as BDNF or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.

What the heck is that you might well ask and why should I care?

Well it's a very important ubiquitous protein in the brain that has a massive impact on the health of your brain and your mood and behaviour and your ability to function at optimal levels. 

It's produced by the BDNF gene which plays a crucial role in maintaining neural plasticity in the brain and helps keep the "wiring" of the brain so to speak in good order.

It promotes the survival of neurons and help them grow and affects their maturation or specialisation.
It's active at the neural synapses and is essential for optimal brain function.

How much of this you have in your brain will be one of the deciding factors and can be a marker of how healthy your brain is and will be.

Ok so why do I need to know about this, our bodies produce this naturally so I don't need to do anything right? 

Well actually there is reason to care and you can affect the amount of BDNF you produce.
It's worth investing a few minutes to understand the basics of this protein and how you can optimise it's production.

In this article we are going to explore what affects it innately (ie genetically speaking)  and what you can do to increase it's production 

This is especially important information for those with any sort of brain injury or facing the onset of dementia or alzheimers, those with concussions or who have suffered strokes or aneurysms or for those looking to optimise their brain function and perform at a high level and for understanding what effects it can have on your mood and behaviour, on depression or neurotic behaviours.

For example, let's say you have a concussion - to optimise recovery and to recover from the damage done to your neural connectivity you want to optimise your BDNF.  This protein helps the brain rewire itself in this scenario and can help reconnect those connections that were broken. 

Decreased levels of BDNF have also been associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease. Reduced BDNF levels may also be associated with type-2 diabetes.

So let's now look a the genetic aspect of the BDNF equation:

Your BDNF gene comes in two versions. There's a snip (a single nucleotide polymorphism) within this gene that affects the production of the BDNF in the first place. 

So there is a "G" version to the gene that is associated with efficient production of this protein.The other version of the gene is the "A"  which is less optimal and which is less efficient at producing this protein (ie BDNF) 

Now each one of us inherited two versions of this gene one from our Mum and one from our Dad. 
Now the super lucky person in regards to the BDNF gene managed to inherit two "G's" ie GG. 
A person with this combination is said to be a homozygote "GG"   conversely the person who inherited the less optimal "AA" combination is said to be a homozygote AA.  You can also be "GA"  but in this case the "A" is the dominant Allele (ie version of the gene) and you will be less efficient in producing BDNF.

Ok, so much for the science. In reality what does this mean and how does this affect you, if you are say a "GA" or a "AA" and you don't innately produce BDNF efficiently.

Well, armed now with this information (and this can  be verified through genetic testing and more about that later) you can now, knowing you have a predisposition to having less BDNF look at environmental factors, lifestyle factors, nutritional factors and nutriceuticals to  support factors that can enhance your BDNF levels.

But before we go there, lets discuss the effects of having less than optimal levels of BDNF on your mood and behaviour and your cognitive abilities and the resilience of your brain to come back after a brain injury of any sort. 

Now, it must also be stated here that others genes also play a major part in your mood (in particular your DRD2 gene, you ADRA2B gene, your COMT gene, and your Serotonin Transporter gene) and these also influence your behaviour and your ability to deal with stressful situations. 

To fully understand the symphony of these interactions is the topic for another day but nonetheless we will look here at some of the manifestations of having low BDNF that all important brain protein that's going to help with the "wiring" so to speak, with the youthfulness, with the adaptability of the brain, it's neuroplasticity. 

When a neuron obtains an adequate amount of these proteins during development, it survives, while neurons that do not receive enough do not survive. 

With low BDNF you may have a tendency towards depression, introversion or even neuroticism, where the brain gets stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts that seems very difficult to break out of (other genes also play a role here) and your mood may be low and your thoughts can get stuck and we keep playing them over and over again like a broken down record player.
When you BDNF is high you feel more able to cope with stress, your mood is elevated. 

BDNF can be viewed as this secretion that helps the brain find alternate pathways and allows the brain to work around an event.

Ok, so now we know some of us won the genetic lottery when it comes to BDNF production, those lucky ones with the "GG" alleles of the gene. 
But it's not completely bad news for AA individuals because there are a number of nutraceutical, lifestyle and environmental things that can help you produce more BDNF, yes, you will have the innately lower producing BDNF gene but you can absolutely do things to improve that production.

For example, it's been shown that heat can be a trigger for producing more BDNF.  So things like saunas, taking a nice long hot bath, a nice long hot shower, or simply being in a warm environment,  is a trigger for the expression of BDNF. That is why you will often have an elevated mood when in warmer climes and conversely why when you have low BDNF you might feel down or depressed.

So what else will help me improve the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor? Well, exposure to sunlight which helps our body to  produce the precursor to Vitamin D which also in turn helps us produce more BDNF.  

 Exercise is also key. Many studies have shown that exercising for at least 30 to 45 minutes at a heart rate of 70-75% of your maximum Heart Rate significantly increases the BDNF in the brain. 

Word of warning though going too hard for too long though will have the opposite effect. It's worth noting here that, that is what the "Runners High" actually is that runners get after a half an hour or more of running. It's the increase in BDNF that produces that high.

Then there are the nutriceuticals and adaptagens we can take to help or body produce more BDNF. Things like:

  • Ashwagandha, 
  • Bacopa
  •  Lions Mane, 
  • Bilberry, 
  • Phosphatidylserine, 
  • bilberry, 
  • green tea extract - L'theanine
  • Curcumin 
  • Omega 3 fatty acids (make sure you get good quality fish oils and not oxidised ones)
  • Resveratrol, 
  • Green coffee fruit, 
  • N-Acetyl-Cysteine, 
  • Rhodiola, 
  • Ginseng
  • Quercetin, 
  • Zinc  
  • Saffron
  • Magnesium threonate
  • All these things have been linked to increased levels of BDNF but I encourage to do your own research into each of these and work with a medical practitioner or health professional to help you create your own optimal list

When it comes to food it's not surprising to find out that highly processed foods, high sugar foods and foods that are high in saturated fat can adversely affect neurotrophin levels including BDNF. 

So think twice about that bowl of french fries and that coke. Instead grabbing to fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and good fats would appear to be beneficial. Several studies have found that intermittent fasting and caloric restriction can affect positively BDNF levels. 

From a social perspective it would appear from at least animal studies that social engagement affects BDNF levels so spending time with friends and loved ones could be another key way of improving your brains health. 

So in conclusion, leading a healthy, active lifestyle with good food, exposure to sunlight and exercise and some support with nutriceuticals if you are someone with the "AA" allele of the gene or the "GA" combination or if you are someone who has suffered a brain injury of any sort or is facing a diagnoses of dementia or alzheimers, you would do well to spend a little more time understanding this unqiue and all important protein and don't forget that other all important aspect for brain which is optimal sleep.

If you would like to get your genes tested  or your epiegentics profile done and have perosnalised recommendations for your specific genes and and how they are expressing right now and to understand not only this gene but many others and what they mean to your health and life reach out to us and visit our Epigenetics Personalised Health Program information page here: Epigenetics

We would also like to refer you to the work of leading Functional Genomics Scientist Dr Mansoor Mohammed and to our podcast episode with Dr Mohammed where genetics are explored in-depth. 

You can find that podcast interview here: https://www.lisatamati.com/page/podcast-dr-mansoor/ or the video of the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v03letmfrJg

This article is in no way meant as medical advice and is for information and  entertainment purposes only. If you suspect you have any medical condition please see your registered medical professional.