Research over the last several years has shown that our brain has the remarkable ability to re-wire itself throughout life.
And these tiny neural networks are dependent on an ample supply of BDNF.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a naturally occurring protein that is responsible for the growth, maintenance and survival of neurons.
Higher levels of BDNF can increase cognition, mood, productivity and memory. And decrease the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
In this post we investigate why BDNF is so critical for optimal cognitive performance. And how you can increase BDNF naturally.
Table of Contents
How BDNF Works in Your Brain
BDNF is a protein that is encoded in humans by (oddly enough) the BDNF gene. BDNF is part of the neurotrophin family of growth factors which are related to Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
When BDNF is released, new connections form in your brain by attracting new dendrites from neurons to connect to other neurons or synapses.
This wiring together of new neural networks is how memory is formed and consolidated. A thought, memory or new skill you learn is the result of a new neural network.
When BDNF levels decline, you experience problems with memory and learning, and depression. This is why nootropics like Bacopa monnieri, L-Theanine, and Rhodiola Rosea exhibit antidepressant activity in your brain. They each have the ability to increase BDNF in your brain.
Here we’ll explore many of the nootropics available that can be easily added to our stack to increase BDNF at any age.
Nootropics to Boost BDNF
Ashwagandha is one of the most powerful adaptogens and has been used since ancient times to help the body adapt to stress. In the brain, Ashwagandha has been shown to help regenerate axons and dendrites, reconstruct synapses, and restore neural networks affected by neurodegenerative disease.
Ashwagandha performs some of this magic in the brain by boosting levels of BDNF. And research shows that Ashwagandha can also prevent the decline of BDNF levels in the brain.[ii]
Bacopa monnieri helps increase levels of BDNF in your brain. Bacopa has been used to boost memory and as an antidepressant for millennia. The ancient Ayurvedic texts recommended Bacopa to devotees to help memorize long passages of text.
Studies show that Bacopa monnieri improves word recall, increases attention, improves focus and reduces anxiety. A study conducted in India showed that Bacopa monnieri extract promoted hippocampus neurogenesis by elevating BDNF levels in the brain. And as an antioxidant defense against oxidative stress.[iii]
DHA (Omega-3) helps increase levels of BDNF in your brain. DHA makes up much of the gray matter in your brain. DHA regulates signaling in your brain, and gene expression. DHA influences neurotransmitters which affect memory, learning, focus and attention.
One study conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that DHA could restore BDNF levels to normal, even after traumatic brain injury.[iv]
Ginseng as long been used to improve memory and learning. Most neurohackers using ginseng report feeling more alert. We know that stress can reduce BDNF levels in the brain. This is where ginseng comes in.
One study showed that ginseng extract affected memory and learning by boosting nerve growth factor (NGF) and neurite growth in the brain.[v] Another study showed that ginseng extract (GRb1) prevented a decline in BDNF levels in animal brains that were subjected to stress.[vi]
Gotu Kola is often called the “student herb” in Bali because it sharpens the mind. Gotu Kola extract increases dendrite and axon growth in the brain which helps boost memory.
This was demonstrated in a study conducted in China. The researchers found that Gotu Kola extract significantly increased BDNF concentrations in the brain.[vii]
A study in Tokyo investigated the mechanism of action L-Theanine exerts in the brain. And why it provides “antipsychotic-like” and “antidepressant-like” effects. The research team concluded that L-Theanine provides antianxiety and antidepressant effects “through induction of BDNF in the hippocampus and the agonistic action of L-Theanine on the NMDA receptor”.[viii]
Magnesium is critical to all of your body’s electrical and electrochemical activities. It’s involved in muscle contractions, heart rhythm, nerve function and brain cell activity.
Research shows that Magnesium L-Threonate easily crosses the blood-brain barrier (compared to other forms of magnesium). And once in your brain, magnesium increases NMDA receptor signaling, BDNF expression, and synaptic plasticity in the pre-frontal cortex. Increasing learning and memory while impairing fear memories.[ix]
N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)
N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC) is a powerful anti-oxidant that can boost mood, lower anxiety, improve memory, and reduce compulsive behavior. There is a growing body of scientific literature exploring the use of NAC in the treatment of psychiatric illness.
Research has shown that NAC helps boost dopamine release. NAC reduces inflammatory cytokines. And NAC acts in the process of glutathione synthesis.
Scientists believe this convergence of mechanisms in the brain are due NAC’s ability to promote cell survival and growth factor synthesis, leading to increased neurite sprouting. Partly through activating the BDNF/TrkB signal pathway.[x]
A study published by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow shows that Noopept stimulates Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).[xi]
Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb and nootropic that has been used in traditional medicine in Russia and Scandinavian countries for hundreds of years. This herb is known for improving alertness, energy, memory and mood, is anti-anxiety and anti-depressant, reduces fatigue, and boosts cognition and concentration.
Pterostilbene (PTE) is a naturally derived polyphenol antioxidant found in blueberries, grapes, and in the bark of the Indian Kino Tree. This potent antioxidant stimulates BDNF, promotes neuroplasticity, is anti-anxiety, boosts dopamine, and helps cognition, learning and memory.
In several studies, Pterostilbene has been shown to modulate gene expression. PTE up-regulates those genes that stimulate apoptosis (programmed cell death). And down-regulates those genes that allow cancer cells for example, to invade and metastasize.
And this gene modulation is linked to increases in CREB and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). An increase in BDNF helps long-term potentiation needed for the development of long-term memory.[xiii]
Resveratrol is a polyphenol stilbenoid and phytoalexin that certain plants produce in response to stress, such as injury or fungal infection. This potent antioxidant boosts BDNF, increases cerebral circulation, improves energy and memory, and potentially promotes longevity.
Researchers in Iran found that Resveratrol significantly boosted mRNA and BDNF in the hippocampus. And concluded “that the neuroprotective effects of Resveratrol may be at least partly due to its inducing effects on the expression levels of the BDNF mRNA”.[xiv]
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been shown to increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), fight depression, improve cognition, focus and libido, and protect the brain from inflammation.
Curcumin, the primary bioactive compound found in Turmeric, produces its neuroprotective effects in the brain by increasing BDNF. And mediating the BDNF/TrkB-MAPK/PI-3K-CREB signaling pathway in the brain.[xv]
In this post we’ve covered the nootropics we can use to boost BDNF levels in our brain. But the latest research shows several other natural ways to boost BDNF. And they include:
- Intermittent Fasting
- High-Intensity Resistance Training
- Sunlight or Vitamin D
- Restricting sugar intake
The Optimized Brain
Higher brain levels of BDNF helps support the survival of existing neurons, encourages the growth new neurons (neurogenesis) and new synapses (synaptogenesis), better memory, learning and cognition, and less depression.
BDNF is Miracle-Gro for your brain. And now you have all you need to increase BDNF naturally for a highly optimized brain.