How to Increase BDNF: Save your Memory with Omega-3s

April 14, 2021

How to Increase BDNF: Save your Memory with Omega-3s

Article References:

  • Overview of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor: BDNF
  • How to increase your BDNF
  • Supplements to increase BDNF and memory

Overview of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor: BDNF

Get ready for a crash-course in neuroscience, everybody!

The BDNF gene is critical for brain function and development as well as injury recovery. This gene provides instructions for making a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (or BDNF). BDNF is found in the spinal cord and regions of the brain such as the hippocampus (more specifically, the hippocampal neurons) and prefrontal cortex. These areas control eating, drinking, and body weight. Brain derived neurotrophic factor is initially synthesized as pro BDNF, which can be stored in either dendrites or axons to later produce a mature BDNF protein. Like other neurotrophins, the role of BDNF is to prevent neuronal degeneration and premature cell death by supporting the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and synapses, and by helping them to survive and reach maturation (differentiation). The BDNF protein is involved in synaptic transmission and promotes synaptic plasticity, which is critical for learning and the formation of memories.

For this reason, BDNF is regarded as one of the most universally important neurotrophin. Low levels of BDNF and BDNF signaling have been linked to mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Huntington's disease, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, OCD, and even schizophrenia. Even common variations (polymorphisms) of BDNF gene expression have been associated with psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and opioid addiction. Essentially, BDNF is a regulator and possible inhibitor of stress, of memories involving fear and trauma, and of our vulnerabilities to them. As we age, our BDNF synthesis slows. Moreover, it's estimated that 1 in 3 people have a genetic mutation that makes their BDNF levels fall much faster.

We all want to feel empowered, independent, and healthy as we advance in years; we want to hold onto our memories and be fully present and content at all ages. Increasing our levels of BDNF and keeping these signaling pathways strong is absolutely critical for protecting and preserving our memory. Luckily, there are science-backed, fairly simple ways to protect your memory for the long run.

How to Increase BDNF

  • Exercise: On top of alleviating depression and anxiety, exercise has been proven to help boost BDNF. The study states that "engagement in regular bouts of exercise confers numerous positive effects on brain health across the lifespan. Acute bouts of exercise transiently improve cognitive function, while long-term exercise training stimulates brain plasticity, improves brain function, and helps to stave off neurological disease." You should exercise within 60% to 75% of your max heart rate for about 30 minutes everyday to boost BDNF for the long run. In short, exercise hard and exercise often.
  • Intermittent fasting: Autophagy, a method of cellular "cleanup" or regulation, works hand in hand with BDNF and can be triggered by fasting. Fasting is an acute form of stress that stimulates BDNF secretion, usually after 12 hours of starvation. Around this time, BDNF levels drop in the hypothalamus but increase within the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Then, autophagy begins in the hypothalamus to rid it of cellular waste. Simultaneously, the inhibition of autophagy begins within the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This allows these areas of the brain (responsible for memory, motivation, learning, and problem-solving) to learn how to cope with stress and better protect you from memory loss. Following an intermittent fast such as the 16:8 for an extended period of months or years can help to sharpen and strengthen the mind.
  • Avoid Processed Foods: Processed sugars and saturated fats have been shown to reduce hippocampal BDNF, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Inversely, following a diet rich in healthy fats and proteins that cut out processed foods (such as the ketogenic diet) may improve markers of BDNF after about two months.
  • Stay Social: Interestingly, social activity and BDNF activation have been linked affecting both childhood and adult life. One study conducted on highly socialized rats found that raising rats in communal nests "increased adult neuronal plasticity, as suggested by high BDNF levels and augmented the number of newly generated cells in the hippocampus." Whenever possible, try to engage socially. Even just calling your friends and family on your way to the supermarket, or sparking a conversation in the coffee shop may help your memory and mood in the future!
  • Get More Sleep: Sleep deprivation can reduce BDNF. In fact, insomniacs have been known to have less BDNF and what’s more, high levels of BDNF are often a good indicator that you get good sleep! Shoot for 7 hours of quality rest a night by making your room a sanctuary for sleep or even by using a sleep-promoting supplement like magnesium.
  • Manage Stress: Easier said than done, lowering the amount of stress in your life and learning to cope with it may have biological effects on your brain. Stress deprives your body of sleep, which can reduce BDNF. It can also bring on chronic illnesses. Every day, try to do yoga, meditate, or prioritize "me time" and “self-love” in order to take deep breaths and reduce your stress levels.

Supplements to Increase BDNF and Memory

We know that adopting an entirely new set of lifestyle changes all at once isn't very practical. As you begin your journey to preserving your memory and making little changes here and there to boost your BDNF, consider adding a supplement to your diet to accelerate the results. The following supplements have been linked to better memory and in most cases, higher levels of BDNF.

  1. Omega-3s: Omega-3s are vital to the electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system, yet many people (and especially vegans) are often deprived of it. Taking a daily omega-3 supplement has been shown to help improve mental health in a plethora of ways, including enhancing sleep quality, learning and memory. It has also been beneficial in protecting against psychiatric disorders including depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease by way of increasing BDNF levels. In one study conducted on rats, omega-3s were found to help improve recovery from traumatic brain injuries. If you are vegan or simply prefer not to consume fishy omega-3 oils, algae-based vegan alternatives are available!
  2. Magnesium: One brain-boosting supplement that many people are deficient in is magnesium. Among many other benefits, magnesium has been shown to have antidepressant effects by significantly increasing BDNF expression in the brain.
  3. Zinc: Similarly, nearly 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc which can often be a precursor or indicator of depression. Zinc also has antidepressant effects due to its ability to increase BDNF.
  4. Niacin AKA Vitamin B3: One study has shown that niacin can improve neuronal growth through TrkB receptor activation and BDNF expression.
  5. L-theanine: L-theanine is widely considered an anti-stress supplement. It even showed great promise as a potential treatment for schizophrenia due to its ability to increase BDNF and augment antipsychotic therapy. This supplement is often used as a companion to caffeine as a way to reduce jitters and anxiety.
  6. Curcumin: Curcumin is the compound that gives turmeric its glowing orange color. It's most commonly used to treat inflammation, but in many cases, it has been found to improve mood and cognition. Studies link its anti-depressant qualities to its ability to increase expression of BDNF and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), another intracellular signaling molecule.

Like most things in life, diet and lifestyle can protect your memory and boost your brain health. Combine these changes with one of the above supplements and this will act as a helpful step stool to get you to a lifestyle that prioritizes your brain health (and BDNF synthesis) every step of the way! For more information on the best supplements for your specific health goals, check out the Amandean blog.

Summary Points

  • The BDNF gene is critical for brain function and development as well as injury recovery, and is regarded as one of the most universally important neurotrophins
  • Low levels of BDNF and BDNF signaling have been linked to mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Huntington's disease, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, OCD, and even schizophrenia
  • Exercise and intermittent fasting have been found to promote BDNF levels, in addition to healthy eating, regular sleep schedule, and stress management
  • Taking a daily omega-3 supplement has been shown to help improve mental health in a plethora of ways, including enhancing sleep quality, learning and memory




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