The Biology of Stress and Depression Part 5: BDNF
6th Post on Stress and Depression: The Cholesterol/Dopamine Connection
7th Post on Stress and Depression: Increasing levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
Hello everyone and welcome to our 5th post on the biology of stress and depression …
What if there were a way to help promote the growth of new nerve cells and tissue? Until recently, medical science in general thought that we grow all the nerve cells that we can grow until we hit adulthood. After that, the best we could expect is a slow degeneration of our mental capacity and nervous system. Well, it turns out that these theories were missing a crucial factor in brain function called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” or BDNF.
BDNF activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons. BDNF also triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health. Inappropriate levels of BDNF have been found to be related to a host of mental health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, epilepsy, drug addiction, and of course depression.
Previous posts highlighted the impact of chronic stress on the brain. Elevated stress destroys a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus acts as a brake on stress responses. Poor hippocampal function leads to increased response to stress and consequently more damage to the brain. It was also noted that elevated stress hormone levels decreased the neuro-protective-hormones DHEA and Pregnenolone. DHEA and Pregnenolone have been studied, and found effective, in the treatment of various chronic stress and depression models with human subjects. Both of these hormones have strong mood-regulating effects.
This post asks whether there is a relationship between levels of the stress hormone cortisol and BDNF? Yes! Elevated cortisol levels lead to a decrease in BDNF. Indirectly, stress reduces the effectiveness of neurochemical connection within the brain. This reduction leads to impulse control issues, a lack of learning capacity, and memory problems. In fact, since intestinal bacteria are directly related to the production of BDNF, (as discussed later in this article), reduced levels even explain why people who are depressed usually have poor appetites. BDNF puts an actual face on the vague symptoms of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) criteria used for diagnosing depression. Clearly, regulating BDNF production can help people who are stressed or depressed.
The point of this posting is that you CAN learn new behaviors, and you CAN grow new neural circuits to help build a better functioning brain. The result is life. The key to this change is producing healthy levels of BDNF and lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
How do you do this? Is there a drug or a magic bullet that can bring about positive changes in the relationships between these seemingly magical chemicals in the body? The answer is yes – BUT – the magic bullet is a strategy, not any one particular thing. We can only imagine what people think when they realize that they can be happy and healthy again. It takes a little bit of effort, and a few small lifestyle modifications, but success is achievable.
Five Ways to Increase BDNF
- Avoid fructose. No, we aren’t talking about fruit here. We are talking about packaged/bottled foods sweetened with fructose. These may also be called “added sugars.” Fructose has been shown to suppress BDNF secretion in several studies. Packaged foods are devoid of nutritional value. Buy actual fresh food and enjoy the benefits!
- Exercise has been shown to have a dramatic impact on BDNF production. Multiple studies have found that moderate levels of exercise lead to significant improvements in BDNF production. Further, moderate exercise has also been shown to elevate levels of sex hormones and decrease stress hormone levels. Moderate weight lifting and low-level cardio are what we are talking about. High-intensity cardio does the opposite and increases stress hormones and lowers sex hormones. However, exercise of either intensity has a positive effect on BDNF.
- Chinese Herbal Medicine has several formulas that directly increase BDNF levels. One medication, in particular, Yue Ju Pills, is supported by some very promising research. In published studies, this formula has been found to have multiple anti-depressant actions beyond just increasing BDNF. Interestingly, this Yue Ju Pills (first described in 1281 AD) were traditionally used to treat depression and irritability. It is no exaggeration to say that it has stood the test of time.
- Meditation has long been known to be a positive behavior for people with depression. Regular meditators have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and higher levels of BDNF.
- Omega 3 fats have a positive effect on BDNF levels, no surprise there since they are so heavily related to a healthy brain. There are plenty of sources, both plant, and animal, of omega 3 fats. These sources include: fish, grass-fed beef, flax seeds, chia seeds & sacha inchi seeds.
There it is … a simple and relatively easy to follow strategy to a healthy and flexible mind. The real key is getting out there and doing it! There will be further posts detailing each of these steps, but, knowledge is only power if you use it!
Get out there and enjoy life!
Stay Tuned More on the Way!