Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein the body makes in order to assist neurons (cells in the brain and spinal cord) to survive, grow, and even create new neural pathways in the case of damage or degeneration—also known as neuroplasticity.
Decreased levels of BDNF are associated with neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis. In fact, dysfunction in the system involving BDNF has been implicated in the onset of these disorders, as well as psychiatric disorders as well. It’s also been a potential therapeutic target for spinal cord injury.
Increasing BDNF could be especially useful in these cases. Here are some of the studied ways to do that.
Essential Fatty Acids
As I wrote here, essential fatty acids, and particularly DHA, are helpful in calming neuroinflammation and establishing conditions for neuroplasticity. This study shows that increasing BDNF is at least one of the mechanisms by which essential fatty acids accomplish this.
And really, everyone should be on an essential fatty acid supplement, anyway.
This review study demonstrates that several herbs, including bacopa monnieri, ginkgo biloba, panax ginseng, and ashwagandha, boost BDNF levels.
Bacopa is an herb that assists with focus generally. It’s also a thyroid stimulant.
Ginkgo and panax ginseng are both herbs known to increase blood flow—to the brain and elsewhere.
Ashwagandha is a well-known calming adaptogen, helping to balance the stress response.
Foods, Beverages, and Diet Changes
This same review study also demonstrates that coffea arabica (higher quality coffee beans), olive oil (unprocessed) and green tea(particularly EGCG, the main polyphenol in green tea) help to boost BDNF production as well.
Polyphenols generally, and blueberries in particular, also help to boost BDNF.
Restricting carbohydrates also has a positive effect on BDNF levels, and intermittent fasting has a similar positive effect upon BDNF.
(And of course, there are many great reasons to consider intermittent fasting besides its effects upon BDNF.)
So it’s no surprise that good bacteria in the gut have been shown to increase BDNF production, too.
Endorphins, released during exercise, also significantly increase BDNF release. Thus, physical activity has been shown to increase neuronal recovery. Perhaps for this reason, carbohydrate restriction has been shown to work much better for raising BDNF levels when paired with exercise.
The stress response triggers release of cortisol, which also releases BDNF acutely—and of course, long-term stress is nearly universally detrimental. However, acute stress (as in a hard workout, for example) will produce a subsequent spike in BDNF, which is associated with efficient recovery.
Low Dose Naltrexone also works by boosting endorphin levels, so it can be a therapeutic consideration too—particularly for someone who needs to boost BDNF but isn’t in a position to exercise, such as after TBI or spinal cord injury.
BDNF has been a therapeutic consideration for many different neurological conditions. Fortunately, it turns out that many of the things that we already knew were healthy for other reasons also serve to boost BDNF.