Nootropics aren’t just about hacking your brain to make yourself smarter. Did you know that nootropics can keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age and help prevent brain disorders and other diseases? All of this is thanks to a compound known as BDNF.
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What is BDNF?
Essentially, BDNF can be thought of as the “wiring” for the pathways in your brain to keep doing their jobs correctly. It does this by simply binding to the appropriate receptors.
Low levels of BDNF are associated with the development of neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis((Siresha Bathina, Undurti N. Das. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Arch Med Sci. (2015) Dec 10; 11(6): 1164–1178)) and Alzheimer’s disease,((Josiane Budni, et al. The involvement of BDNF, NGF and GDNF in aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Aging Dis. (2015) Oct; 6(5): 331–341 )) psychiatric conditions,((Raul Andero, et al. BDNF–TrkB Receptor Regulation of Distributed Adult Neural Plasticity, Memory Formation, and Psychiatric Disorders. Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science. (2014) Volume 122, Pages 169-192)) and even the development of type 2 diabetes.((Siresha Bathina, Undurti N. Das. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Arch Med Sci. (2015) Dec 10; 11(6): 1164–1178)) Higher levels of BDNF can help fight anxiety((Suliman S, Hemmings SM, Seedat S. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) protein levels in anxiety disorders: systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Front Integr Neurosci. (2013) Jul 29;7:55)) and depression((Lee BH, Kim YK. The roles of BDNF in the pathophysiology of major depression and in antidepressant treatment. Psychiatry Investig. (2010) Dec;7(4):231-5)) (and even the simple occasional bad mood) and improve productivity, reasoning,((Sama F Sleiman, et al. Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. eLife. (2016); 5: e15092)) and focus.((Kronenberg G, et al. Increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein concentrations in mice lacking brain serotonin. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. (2016) Apr;266(3):281-4))
For example, as shown in the image below, BDNF can exert a protective effect on nerve fibers that could otherwise be damaged by cell-mediated immunity associated with multiple sclerosis. Rather than allowing β-cells and macrophages to cause neuron damage, BDNF can actually serve a therapeutic role.
BDNF can be produced naturally through exercise.((Kelly Servick. How Exercise Beefs Up the Brain. Science.com. (2013) Oct 10))((Sama F Sleiman, et al. Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. eLife. (2016); 5: e15092)) It is believed that this effect is due to the need for coordination of movement. In fact, the brain seems to get a bit of a workout while your muscles and joints do the same.
By increasing the production of FNDC5 (another type of protein in the brain), increased levels of BDNF can allow for improved functions such as memory and learning.
How Can Nootropics Help to Increase BDNF?
Of course, we can only exercise so much. You’re busy, we’re all busy, there isn’t enough time in the day, and if you’re already active, there’s only so much more you can do… but you want a healthy, productive brain, right?
Enter nootropics! Luckily, you don’t just have one to pick from. A wide variety of commonly-used supplements are capable of increasing BDNF, as well as nootropic drugs (such as piracetam and meclofenoxate).
Not Sure Where to Start?
If you’re new to the idea of BDNF, there’s generally not a need to play chemist and pharmacist to make your own stack. There are many pre-formulated supplements which will increase BDNF. Not all make the cut, however.
The popular Alpha Brain, for example, does not contain ingredients to boost BDNF. Others that may increase BDNF but fall somewhat short in their other ingredients that are not BDNF related.
Two supplements hit the sweet spot in terms of both effectiveness and ingredients (and won’t cost you an arm and a leg either). The first, and one most people tend to lean towards is Opti-Nutra’s Mind Lab Pro. The other, the memory supplement Better Focus.
Both can boost BDNF levels effectively and safely, and neither skimps on other quality ingredients. Among others, they feature:
- Bacopa Monnieri extract: This adaptogenic herb can expedite the growth of nerve endings,((Aguiar S, Borowski T. Neuropharmacological Review of the Nootropic Herb Bacopa monnieri. Rejuvenation Res. (2013) Aug; 16(4): 313–326)) which in turn improves the communication within the nervous system. Bacopa Monnieri can not only improve brain function in the elderly but also serves as an effective nootropic in healthy adults.
- Gingko Biloba extract: Gingko has been used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years, and it appears that they’re on to something! Gingko Biloba allows for improved blood circulation to the brain,((Ameneh Mashayekh, et al. Effects of Ginkgo biloba on cerebral blood flow assessed by quantitative MR perfusion imaging: a pilot study. Neuroradiology. (2011) Mar; 53(3): 185–191))((Krieglstein J, Beck T, Seibert A. Influence of an extract of Ginkgo biloba on cerebral blood flow and metabolism. Life Sci. (1986) Dec 15;39(24):2327-34)) which can boost concentration, focus, and alertness.
- L-theanine: In theory, it’s just an amino acid. In reality, L-theanine is so much more. It can help decrease stress,((Keiko Unno, et al. Reduced Stress and Improved Sleep Quality Caused by Green Tea Are Associated with a Reduced Caffeine Content. Nutrients. (2017) Jul; 9(7): 777)) anxiety,((David J. White, et al. Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an l-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients. (2016) Jan; 8(1): 53)) and even aid in fighting depression and insomnia.((Keiko Unno, et al. Reduced Stress and Improved Sleep Quality Caused by Green Tea Are Associated with a Reduced Caffeine Content. Nutrients. (2017) Jul; 9(7): 777)) In addition to helping increase levels of BDNF, L-theanine gets down to business working right on compounds in the brain such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. Although it is derived from tea leaves, it provides a calming effect (minus drowsiness) without the caffeine or jitters.
- Rhodiola Rosea extract: Another adaptogen, Rhodiola Rosea helps ease stress, both physical and emotional. Less stress can then equate to decreased fatigue and irritability and more energy to devote to cognitive tasks.
Whether you’re new to nootropics or you’ve tried just about everything, getting more BDNF in your life is a significant next step in maximizing your mental potential and making sure your brain is healthy for decades to come. Start simple with trusted nootropics proven to boost BDNF, and enjoy the benefits of feeling more focused, alert, and productive.