You may have read that boosting BDNF is a good idea. But, to be honest, it is likely only important to boost BDNF with supplements if your levels are lower than optimal.
This article digs into the research studies that show when, how, and why it is important to focus on BDNF.
What is BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)?
BDNF is a neurotrophin, which means that it is a signaling protein that promotes neuronal growth, neurotransmitter release, and synaptic function.[ref]
Your brain has billions of neurons, which send signals via electrical impulses along axons or by releasing chemical signals via synapses. Our brains are continually making new connections and getting rid of old, non-useful connections.
This forming of new connections and paring down unused connections is part of neuronal plasticity.[ref]
BDNF is important in neuronal plasticity — both in neurogenesis (formation of new neurons) and in eliminating inactive neurons.[ref]
Going deeper into the science here…
BDNF initially forms as a precursor called proBDNF. It then modifies into a mature form (mBDNF) or left as the unprocessed proBDNF and transported and released.
The two different forms of BDNF, mBDNF or proBDNF, do pretty much opposite functions:
- When proBDNF releases, it promotes apoptosis (cell death) and synaptic weakening. The proBNDF acts to prune unused neurons.
- Mature BDNF, on the other hand, is promoting cell survival and neuronal connections.[ref]
- Both processes are needed in learning, memory, and cognitive function.
It’s pretty cool how one molecule, BDNF, can do two different functions depending on post-translational modifications.
If you are wondering what causes proBDNF to become mBDNF, it is a proteolytic enzyme called plasmin. This is the same enzyme that degrades fibrin in blood clots. Blocking fibrin with α2-antiplasmin can change the amount of formed mBDFN. While mBDFN is vital for memory processes, blocking the conversion of proBDNF to mBDNF prevents ‘social defeat’ and social avoidance (animal study).[ref]
What is the BDNF gene?
BDNF is encoded by a gene of the same name. People have different BDNF genetic variants that can make them more or less likely to have low BDNF levels.
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: typical BDNF, referred to as Val/Val
Members: Your genotype for rs6265 is —.
Research on the benefits of boosting BDNF?
- Alzheimer’s and dementia patients have lower BDNF levels.
- Decreasing depression
- Increasing working memory
Preventing dementia: One sad fact of life is that there are currently no real treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Therefore, prevention is the only real option. Low BDNF is found in people with cognitive impairment in aging and in Alzheimer’s disease. BDNF is thought to play a protective role in preventing neurodegeneration.[ref][ref]
Depression and BDNF: While BDNF isn’t like a happy pill, increasing BDNF can help people diagnosed with mood disorders. For some people, research shows that low BDNF is a contributing factor for depression and anxiety disorders. Thus, increasing BDNF is a viable treatment approach for some depression, bipolar, or anxiety patients.[ref][ref][ref] In fact, a couple of antidepressant medications do increase BDNF.[ref]
Increasing memory: BDNF plays a vital role in creating and storing memories. Lower levels of BDNF may play a role in decreased cognitive function – aka brain fog.[ref]
What are the best supplements for increasing BDNF levels?
- Bacopa monnieri
- Ginkgo biloba
- Lion’s Mane mushrooms
- Lithium orotate
Bacopa Monnieri is a traditional Indian herb. Animal studies show that Bacopa prevents memory loss and keeps BDNF levels stable. Another study showed that Bacopa increased the protein levels of proBDNF in the hippocampus and improved object recognition.[ref]
Ginkgo biloba flavonols act as a neuroprotective antioxidant. A (human) clinical trial showed that 240 mg/day for 12-weeks increased BDFN levels compared to placebo.[ref]
Lion’s Mane mushroom extract has been shown to increase BDNF levels.[ref] In a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s patients, the lion’s mane extract group had less of a decrease in BDNF over time along with preventing cognitive declines.[ref]
Curcumin reverses the decrease in BDNF levels that come from chronic stress.[ref]
Lithium is a micronutrient that we get each day at low levels in foods and water. Low levels of lithium supplementation may increase BDNF levels if they are low. Lithium orotate is available at health foods stores as a supplement.[ref][ref] Read more about lithium orotate.
How can you use epigenetics to increase your BDNF levels?
- intermittent fasting
- stress reduction
- brain stimulation
Epigenetics refers to increasing or decreasing the transcription and translation of genes into proteins. One way of epigenetically decreasing the transcription of genes is through attaching a methyl group at a certain spot on the DNA. This is called DNA methylation, and it prevents the gene from being turned into its corresponding protein.
Recent research shows acute stress downregulates BDNF in the brain (animal studies). Stress causes DNA methylation of BDNF in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain.[ref]
Reducing stress – whether physical or mental – should help to restore your BDNF levels.
Lifestyle changes and diet for boosting BDNF:
- control stress and inflammation
- a healthy diet that avoids junk food
- regular exercise
- social connections
- sun exposure
- sleep in the dark
Diet: A diet that is high in fat and refined sugar has been shown in animal studies to significantly decrease BDNF in the hippocampus. Consequently, this impacts memory and cognitive function.[ref]
Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio: A clinical trial in adolescents with depression found that increasing omega 3 and decreasing omega 6 for 12 weeks significantly increased BDNF.[ref]
Exercise increases BDNF, at least for most people. Both long-term exercise and short bursts of exercise have been shown to moderately boost BDNF.[ref] This is one way that exercise may reduce depression and prevent dementia.
Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight or bright light during the day increases BDNF levels.[ref] This means that getting outside in the morning hours can have several different cognitive benefits.
Quality sleep: Good quality sleep boosts BDNF. Sleep acts as a mediator between stress and BDNF levels.[ref]
Sleep in the dark: Dim light at night decreases BDFN levels (animal study).[ref] Make sure that you don’t have light in your room at night when you sleep. Block out the street light coming in through your windows with some blackout curtains or shades. Even small amounts of light at night can impact sleep, so try covering up electronic indicator lights and getting rid of night lights.
Learn more about the negative impacts of light at night.
Avoiding drugs that reduce BDNF: Research shows that amphetamine usage reduces BDNF in areas of the brain.[ref]
Lifestyle factors, aging, and genetics can all affect your BDNF levels. But keeping BDNF at an optimal level is necessary both for your current mental health and for preventing cognitive decline in aging.
If you are concerned about BDNF, make a plan to incorporate several of the options above. For example, include both lifestyle changes – reducing sugar, getting out in the sun – and a supplement to boost low BDNF.
Related Articles and Genes:
BDNF variants: introversion, stress resilience, cognition, and depression
Essentially, BDNF is important for good cognition and nervous system function. You want plenty of BDNF to help your neurotransmitters function well.(Member’s article)
The Interaction Between BDNF and Serotonin
A brain imaging study recently showed that the combination of a BDNF genetic variant plus a serotonin receptor variant literally changes the brain. Instead of just looking at a single genetic variant, this article digs into how the combination of these two variants interact to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Hacking BDNF for weight loss
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a fascinating growth hormone that performs many functions in our brain. Its involvement helps to support neurons and neuronal growth. In addition, it plays a role in long-term memory — and it also is important in obesity.
Genetics on Reddit
Best places to learn more about current genetics research and 23andMe on Reddit
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.