If you read Stephen King’s latest thriller, THE INSTITUTE, and you might believe BDNF is a fictional brain substance that gives people psychic powers.
In reality, BDNF is a valuable growth factor that promotes learning and a better memory – and your levels of it go down as you age.
Lower levels of BDNF are linked to such brain and mental conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, dementia, eating disorders, Rett syndrome and Huntington’s disease.
BNDF is short for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.”
BDNF a Marker for Supernatural Powers?
In Mr. King’s novel, a covert organization searches for psychic children by tracking ones with high amounts of BDNF. It kidnaps them, then subjects them to horrific abuse to augment their telepathy and telekinesis.
These stores entertain some, but it is sort of misleading. The main character, Luke Ellis, is a 12-year old boy who’s so smart he’s outgrown a school for exceptional children and is about to enter both Emerson and MIT.
For plot purposes, his BDNF level is relatively low, so his telekinesis is weak.
BDNF Protects Your Brain, Promoting Learning and Thinking
BDNF and the gene for it are linked to a higher quality of the white matter of your brain.
Your brain’s white matter consists of the fatty myelin layer of insulation that coats the neural “wires” in your brain.
The wires of neurons in your brain transmit the electrical charges of your thinking. The myelin layer covering the wires prevents the leakage of the signals.
The higher the quality of your white matter/myelin layer, the faster the nerve impulses travel.
One recent study at UCLA scanned the white matter of 92 pairs of twins. They found a high correlation between the integrity and quality of their white matter and their intelligence.
The more and better their white matter, the higher they scored on I.Q. tests.
Therefore, a real-life child prodigy such as Luke Ellis would probably have a high level of BDNF, although that isn’t the one, simple cause of their genius.
The Key to BDNF’s Benefits
BDNF is first of all a growth factor.
It helps your cells grow, especially the neurons in your brain, your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system. It promotes the specialization of nerve cell synapses.
It also supports the good health of your nerve cells, and promotes neurogenesis, the creation of new nerve cells.
Because BDNF is so vital for the health and efficient functioning of your nerve cells, it is critical both for fast thinking and long-term memory.
To a large degree, fast thinking and the retention of information are intelligence – IQ.
The Neurotransmitter GABA
Neurotransmitters are biochemicals that carry nerve signals across the synapses.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it actually slows down your thinking. Sometimes that’s good, such as when you’re overexcited or stimulated. But you can have so much GABA it gives you brain fog.
In that case, BDNF reduces the GABA, allowing your thoughts to go through your brain more quickly.
When you’re learning a new skill, BDNF helps your nerves grow together, so the skill becomes natural and normal.
In general, BDNF promotes good cognitive function. Cognitive functioning is everything your brain does – sensing the outside world, thinking, learning, feeling, remembering, making decisions and so on.
What Can You Do to Increase Your BNDF
1. Get outside into a natural environment more often
Human-made structures such as your house, your car, your office and so on, are relatively simple. We were designed to handle the multiple sensory stimuli of nature. That’s where you have to deal with fresh air, the ground, leaves on trees, and the animal life.
Do this during the day, because sunlight also increases your BDNF.
Everything that raises your heart rate helps increase BDNF.
Endurance exercise can increase your BDNF by 2-3X. And the increase lasts a long time. However, it’s of course, better to just keep exercising every week.
Strength training increases your BNDF, but only for a few minutes.
Interval training, where you perform a number of short but highly intense sprints, also raises your BNDF.
Your body replenishes BDNF during deep sleep. Therefore, you want to sleep 7-9 hours every night, so you spend plenty of time in the deep sleep cycle.
That also means staying away from stimulants, alcohol, exposure to the blue light of electronic devices and sleeping pills because they reduce your deep sleep. So does eating before you go to bed. Give yourself 3-4 hours between your last meal and bedtime.
This includes intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding.
When you go without food long enough to force your body to burn ketones for fuel (12-24 hours), that raises BDNF.
5. Meditating – or any form of relaxation that helps deal with stress
The emotional overload most people call stress is terrible for BDNF. If you’re suffering from it, learn to take things easy.
6. Eat plenty of polyphenols
These are the antioxidants and phytochemicals that stimulate BDNF.
Good sources includes dark chocolate, fruits (especially berries), vegetables (especially dark green leafies), green tea and coffee.
The more natural color in the foods you eat, the better.
7. Eat plenty of omega-3 foods
Good sources include flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and supplements made from algae.
(I haven’t forgotten fish and fish oil. Just be mindful of where the fish come from and their, mercury, PCBs and other pollutant content. Wild-caught fish in clean waters are ideal.)
Follow these suggestions, and you’ll lower your risk of cognitive decline.
If you raise your BDNF level so high you develop telepathy and so a top-secret organization kidnaps you and forces you to carry out psychic assassinations . . . well, blame Stephen King, not me.