I first heard about BDNF in the office of a psychiatrist. I was going through a period of intense anxiety and it wasn't my first. After talking through my history we very quickly saw a correlation between my activity levels and my anxiety levels. During periods when I was injured or unable to exercise for other reasons, my anxiety spiked. I saw the correlation but wasn't convinced. "BDNF -- Write that down!" the doctor told me as her eyes lit up.
I later, somewhat begrudgingly, typed it into Google and what I found was mind-blowing. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a bundle of proteins, is produced in the brain during exercise and plays a key role in combating anxiety, depression, and stress. It only took a couple more clicks for me to find that BDNF is found in the hippocampus -- the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. My morning runs not only improved my mental health but my ability to learn and retain information at work.
If we can better understand how BDNF is produced and released in the body, and what we can do to fast-track the process, we can greatly improve our brain functioning.
BDNF was first discovered in 1982 when it was isolated from the brain of a pig by Yves-Alain Barde, a Professor of Neurobiology at Cardiff University, and Hans Theonen, the late Swiss Neurologist.
Since its first discovery, its uses have been studied in-depth. The evidence suggests that BDNF plays a role in neurogenesis (the growth of new nerve cells) and synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity is essentially neuroplasticity -- the rewiring and strengthening of connections in the brain in response to experiences and learning. To put it simply, BDNF creates new brain cells and increases our ability to learn and remember new information.
BDNF has also been found to reduce the likelihood of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's disease. Its potential use as a therapeutic treatment for these conditions has since been considered. As was the case with me, BDNF has also been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The benefits that BDNF has to offer are extensive. For those who struggle with learning and attention, such as children and adults with ADHD and other learning difficulties, tapping into the goldmine of potential that BDNF has to offer can be extremely beneficial. There is no complex solution or mind-boggling algorithm to stimulate BDNF production in the brain. The steps are simple, and we've outlined them for you below.
1. Quality Sleep
There is no denying that quality sleep is necessary for both mental and physical health. The evidence in support of sleep is extensive. For teenagers, sleep is even more vital. During adolescence, our brains are at their most malleable. The physiological changes which occur during this time demand more sleep than the average adult. Dr. Crocetti, a pediatrician at John Hopkins Hospital, states that teenagers need between 9 and 10 hours of sleep a night. Most teens aren't getting this and studies show that the lack of quality sleep results in poor academic performance and mental health.
The correlation between sleep and learning can be explained by the role played by BDNF. When we sleep, changes in our brain that occur through learning are essentially cemented and hard-wired into our brain. BDNF supports this process in the brain.
Studies show that subjects experiencing insomnia and poor sleep quality exhibited significantly decreased levels of BDNF. So in order to improve your BDNF levels, improve your sleep.
This is why we encourage our students to prioritize quality sleep and help them form helpful habits around their sleep routines.
Our resource on the importance of sleep for teenagers provides some simple tips to support your teenager's sleep habits.
2. Regular Exercise
Exercise has long been known to make us feel good, or at least after the workout that is. That's because when we exercise our bodies release 'happy hormones' such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that exercise also stimulates the production and release of other important molecules such as BDNF.
In 2018 Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University, and leading expert on learning and memory gave a TedTalk entitled 'The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise'. Suzuki's talk considered the ways that exercise can protect our brains against neurodegenerative diseases such as Dementia. That's because of the link between exercise and BDNF production.
Studies on rodents have shown that an increase in exercise causes a spike in the levels of BDNF in the hippocampus. Other studies on human participants indicate that exercise also increases the actual size of the hippocampus and improves memory.
If you are not yet convinced - a 2018 study published in Neuroscience showed that those who exercise regularly exhibit higher levels of BDNF than those who live a more sedentary lifestyle.
Dr. Suzuki's research shows that in order to reap the BDNF boosting benefits of exercise you'll need to do a minimum of 30-45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 2-3 times a week. That doesn't mean you need to be running endless miles or sweating it out on the bike (although you are most certainly welcome to). Even a brisk walk will do the trick.
3. Fresh Air & Sunlight
In 2011 a study examined the impact of air pollution on the production of BDNF during exercise. The BDNF levels of two groups of cyclists were compared after activity. One group cycled for 20 minutes in an air-filtered room while the other cycled for the same period of time near a busy road.
The results showed that those who exercised in an air-filtered room had significantly increased levels of BDNF while those who cycled near traffic had no increase in BDNF. This study, as well as others, suggests that fresh and clean air is important for the production of BDNF -- especially during exercise.
So if you're going to be exercising outdoors, make sure you steer clear of highly congested roads and away from traffic. If you're spending long periods of time indoors during the day, be sure to keep doors and windows open and fresh air plentiful. If you can, wherever possible, spend time outside.
Exposure to the sun, where possible, will also contribute to the production of BDNF. Studies have shown that BDNF levels have seasonal variations. During Spring and Summer, BDNF levels are known to increase whereas in the colder and darker seasons they decrease. Ambient or direct exposure to sunlight boosts the production of BDNF.
4. Social Connection
Many mental health issues such as depression are often brought on or exacerbated through social isolation. A recent report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education indicates that 61% of young adults in the US feel 'serious loneliness'. In addition, 36% of all Americans are reportedly lonely.
Social isolation and disconnection also have a serious impact on BDNF levels. Chronic psychosocial stress is often caused by relational disturbances such as conflict, divorce, loneliness or social exclusion. Research shows that this type of chronic stress directly causes the downregulation of BDNF in the hippocampus. This can be avoided through the creation and maintenance of healthy social connections. This isn't always easy, especially for those with learning difficulties or children in online schooling. Our article (article link) on the importance of social connection, at home and within a community, offers helpful tips to encourage social connection in children.
The little-known super-molecule BDNF plays a powerful role in boosting cognitive and mental performance. Through four easy steps that you can easily introduce into the daily lives of you and your children, you can fast-track your brain's production of BDNF:
If you've gotten this far, here's a bonus tip - clinical studies show that just 100mgs of cascara extract, from the coffee plant, increases the levels of BDNF by over 143%. Don't worry, we don't encourage coffee drinking or caffeine consumption to our students but our team at Coachbit do all we can to soak up the super-molecule.
Wendy Suzuki, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate your Brain and Do Everything Better