Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that works in the central and peripheral nervous system to promote nerve function and growth. It also works in the neurons of the brain both in forming neurons and in long-term memory formation.
BDNF is also involved in neural plasticity and recovery after brain injury.[ref]
Basically, it’s very important for good cognitive and nervous system function. You want plenty of BDNF to help your neurotransmitters function well.
Genetic variants can decrease the amount of BDNF that your body normally makes. These variants have been tied to a number of brain and nervous system-related issues.
For example, introversion and an increased risk of depression have been tied in with BDNF variants. Obesity risk is also increased for certain variants.
While genetics plays a role in your baseline BDNF production, lifestyle factors such as food, exercise, and sleep also play a big role in BDNF. Fortunately, there are ways to increase BDNF and mitigate the problems associated with the BDNF gene variants. (Read the Lifehacks section)
BDNF Genetic variants:
Check your genetic data for rs6265 Val66Met (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):
- T/T: decreased BDNF[ref] referred to in studies as Met/Met; introversion, resilient to adverse events, a quicker decline in Alz., more likely to be overweight [ref][ref][ref]
- C/T: somewhat decreased BDNF, referred to as Val/Met; introversion, resilient to adverse events, a quicker decline in Alz
- C/C: normal BDNF, referred to as Val/Val
By far the most well-studied BDFN variant, the rs6265 (Val66Met) variant causes a less efficient form and decreased secretion of BDNF.[ref] Other studies on rs6265 have found the T allele linked to:
- depression in alcoholism[ref]
- cognitive impairment in insomnia[ref],
- greater resilience from childhood trauma[ref].
Other variants that affect BDNF expression:
Check your genetic data for rs56164415 C270T (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):
Check your genetic data for rs11030101 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):
Check your genetic data for rs7103411 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):
Lifehacks for BDNF:
Even if you are genetically pre-disposed to lower or altered BDNF levels, you can still affect BDNF levels significantly. Carrying the variants above just makes optimizing BDNF production that much more important!
Sleep: Good quality sleep boost BDNF. Sleep is the mediator between stress and BDNF levels. [ref] Make sure that you don’t have light in your room at night when you sleep. Dim light at night decreases BDFN levels (animal study). [ref] Read this article: Blue-blocking glasses.
Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight or bright light during the day increases BDNF levels. [ref] Go outside! Or take a vacation to a sunny area.
Avoid Chronic Stress: Stress decreases BDNF levels. [ref] We all know that stress isn’t good for us, so here is one more reason why you should avoid it. While easier said than done, there are tried and true methods for reducing stress including exercising (go for a walk in the sunshine!) and sleeping well.
Lion’s Mane mushroom extract has been shown to increase BDNF levels. [ref] Lion’s mane is available as a supplement online and also combined with coffee (one of my personal favorites:-). You also may be able to find fresh Lion’s mane mushrooms at your local farmer’s market in season.
Bacopa increases BDNF expression when given chronically. [ref] Bacopa is an herbal supplement that has been used for thousands of years in India. It is known for its effect on memory and cognition. You can get it at a health food store or online.
Curcumin reverses the decrease in BDNF levels that come from chronic stress. [ref] You can take curcumin as a supplement or get it in turmeric.