Your brain on BDNF: Fantastic, plastic and ready to roll with change

    Ever wondered why some people are more prone to stress than others, even in the same circumstances?

    Recent events (hello, pandemic) have most of us dealing with higher levels of stress on a regular basis. And feeling stressed is completely understandable, given the circumstances. But do you ever wonder why some of us seem to be more resilient than others even in difficult times like these?

    It’s a question with no simple answer—higher and lower vulnerability to stress is the outcome of many factors. A variety of environmental, genetic and biological aspects also play a part in how all of us react to challenging and high-pressure situations.

    Fortunately, we do know quite a bit about how differences in stress and resilience manifest in our brains. Many tiny-but-important molecular mechanisms are involved in our adaptation to stress and one of them involves BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic factor first discovered by Yves Barde and Hans Thoenen in the 80s, building upon Nobel prize laureate Rita Levi Montalcini’s earlier discovery of neurotrophic growth factor.

    So why does BDNF matter?

    BDNF is highly responsive to stress and plays a key part in helping antidepressants influence the brain to improve our moods. Counterintuitively, BDNF can also work with environmental factors and adverse events to strengthen feelings of anxiety, fear and depression.

    Even so, BDNF seems to help more than it hurts in many instances, playing an integral part in the neuroplasticity processes that are key to our survival in today’s rapidly changing world. By enabling our brains to structurally and functionally change, these processes help us adapt to new experiences and environments.

    Specifically, BDNF supports these (for the most part, fantastic) plastic processes through the differentiation, growth and survival of neurons both in the brain and the peripheral nervous system. It also stimulates and controls neurogenesis, aka the proliferation of new neurons from neural stem cells.

    And finally, many of the brain areas where BDNF is active, such as the hippocampus, the basal forebrain and the cortex, are key in learning, memory and analytical thinking—all essential skills we depend upon on a daily basis.

    @craftedbygc via Unsplash

    Can I improve my wellbeing with BDNF?

    BDNF isn’t (at present) available in supplement form, so you can’t buy it over the counter to improve your ability to roll with the punches when it comes to stress. But there are a few easy, practical things you can do to help maintain (and potentially) increase your BDNF levels.

    Get your daily dose of antioxidants.

    Several studies have demonstrated that an antioxidant-rich diet like green leafy vegetables, broccoli,  berries or even dark chocolate, help maintain healthy brain levels of BDNF.  Or if you’d rather, you could take up drinking green tea or seasoning your favourite dishes with turmeric and black pepper to get your daily dose of antioxidants.

    Current science also shows that a balanced diet can help your body fight stress and illness, and that’s nothing to sniff at, either.

    Get some exercise.

    You’re probably already well-aware that incorporating physical activity into your daily routine is a key piece of overall health. As it turns out, studies also indicate moving your body (yoga, A mindful walk with Foundations, HIIT exercises in the living room, riding a stationary bike, taking long walks with friends) has a positive effect on BDNF levels in the brain.

    Learn something new.

    Giving your mind new kinds of information to process, aka learning (languages, music, maths), has been shown to be good for neuroplasticity and BDNF levels, particularly in ageing populations. If you’re not sure where to start, do a quick search on the subject you’re interested in exploring. In most cases, there are lots of inexpensive and free options online.

    Do you have trouble adjusting to change? What are some tactics you use to make it easier? We'd love to hear from you at foundations@koahealth.com.