Many of us are concerned with brain health and cognitive function as we age, and with good reason. Nearly half of us are likely to experience some form of dementia should we survive into our 80’s.
The assumption used to be that our brains stopped developing toward the end of our formative years and remained relatively static for the rest of our lives. Fresh insights have led us to understand that the brain does not fully mature until our mid-20’s and can change and adapt to new circumstances given adequate nutrition and a supportive lifestyle.
A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may determine the extent of this adaptability. Elevated levels of BDNF are associated with a higher degree of neuroplasticity, improving memory and encouraging regeneration of neurons. BDNF levels are predictive of our capacity to assimilate new information and adapt to new experiences.
Given the significant potential of BDNF, it seems prudent to pursue a course that would support our body’s maximum potential for production, thus improving brain health. Improving your potential for production is especially important since a direct BDNF supplement, while theoretically possible, has not yet been developed.
Foods can play an essential role in supporting cognitive potential. Cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines can supply fats and proteins for maintaining brain volume and building healthy brain chemistry.
Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that can protect brain tissue from oxidative stress and reduce inflammation.
Coffee is a favorite way for many to start their day, and studies have shown it to have cognitive benefits. Green tea is also a great choice and can improve concentration as well as being a stimulant and an antioxidant.
Restricting sugar intake may be critical to maximizing BDNF expression. Ketogenic diets (low carb/high fat) have been shown to improve cognitive capacity, even in those already diagnosed with some form of dementia.
Exercise (Regular Moderate Cardio and Strength Training)
Recent research suggests that physical activity causes the release of chemistry from our muscles that prompts the production of BDNF through a complex chain of protein metabolism. Another hypothesis proposes that short-chain fatty acid levels in the hippocampus (the portion of the brain associated with learning and memory) increase post-exercise, encouraging higher BDNF production. Studies have also shown that exercise can improve circulation and mood, further supporting brain health.
Supplemental nutrients and herbs, which have neuroprotective effects and or improve blood flow to the brain, also appear to increase the production of BDNF. They include:
“Use it or lose it.”
Our bodies tend to direct resources toward our most used tissues and organs. It follows that any tissue not challenged will tend to atrophy. Just as we might exercise to maintain muscle tone, it can support cognitive function to engage in activities that require our mental faculties. Solving sudoku or crosswords, reading, writing, or participating in stimulating conversation can all help preserve cognitive potential.
Praise the Sun!
It won’t come as a shock to most that a sunny day can improve our mood like nothing else. In fact, natural light can prompt vitamin D synthesis, which is a necessary nutrient for BDNF production. So, when weather permits, get out and enjoy the sunshine. If sun exposure is not possible, be sure to supplement with vitamin D.
The Regenerative Power of Sleep
Recovering from daily wear and tear is essential not only for our physical wellbeing. Restful sleep is needed to process and store information properly. With our mental architecture adequately arranged, we can start the new day with a clean slate, ready to take on whatever challenges lie ahead.