BDNF has been called “Miracle Grow” for the brain. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF for short, is a growth factor and peptide (long-chain protein). BDNF turnover is considered a positive factor against brain aging and plays an important role in staving off neurodegenerative diseases as well as mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It accomplishes these Herculean tasks by increasing neurogenesis and by boosting neuroplasticity.
Neurogenesis is the process of forming new neurons. Neuroplasticity is your brain's capacity to reorganize itself in response to changes in its environment. Basically, it means being able to learn new things and change synapses as a consequence of new behaviors. As a result, neuroplasticity makes your brain more resilient.
Unfortunately, BDNF production decreases as we age, with important implications for brain health. The upshot: Fewer neurons (and the connections between them), making learning and memory formation harder.
The good news? Lifestyle can counter some of the effects of aging.
Here's a shortlist of some lifestyle behaviors that increase BDNF levels.
Exercise: The benefits of exercise on mental and cognitive health are pretty well established. Many of these benefits are related to exercise's capacity to increase BDNF levels. But intensity and duration of exercise are important determinants of how much BDNF is produced, with longer duration (about 40 minutes) of vigorous or moderate exercise eliciting the most significant effects on BDNF levels – nearly one-third higher than before exercising.
Get hot: Elevated body temperature has also been shown to increase BDNF levels, which raises the possibility of sauna use to boost BDNF. A good soak in the tub might be enough to increase BDNF levels, too.
Meditation: BDNF appears to play a role in the mind-body connection, which is cool. A study of 26 experienced meditators in a three-month-long yoga and meditation retreat found that participants' plasma BDNF levels increased threefold relative to their pre-retreat levels. Their self-reported scores for depression and anxiety (which were pretty low even at the beginning of the retreat) decreased by about 60 percent.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These essential fats play critical roles in the development and function of the brain and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. But that's not all. When trauma patients received omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish oil supplements, their levels of pro-BDNF (a precursor to BDNF) were nearly five times higher than those who received a placebo. A bonus: those with higher pro-BDNF levels were less likely to develop depression – a common occurrence after trauma.
Probiotics: A ton of evidence points to a strong connection between BDNF levels and the gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live in the human digestive tract In a 2022 study, six months of multi-strain probiotic supplementation resulted in more significant improvement in mental health parameters.