Take a moment to think of some avid runners you know of personally. Do they seem to be a bit brainier than the Average Joe? Chances are you know a few of these road warriors that boasts a big, beautiful, brain. Well, they might be just born cunning and intelligent, naturally gifted…or, they may have an ace up their sleeve, or sneaker. This ace, or physiological phenomenon, is the increased production of a protein responsible for brain growth called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
Harvard Psychiatrist and Author Dr. John J. Ratey even went so far as touting BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Of course, this form of brain fertilizer doesn’t make the brain actually bigger in physical size, albeit it would be quite amusing seeing runners with bungling alien-shaped heads. The real growth happens from within whereas a plethora of brain-enhancing stimuli floods the brain, especially in the hippocampal areas for learning and memory. BDNF simply makes brain nerve cells bigger, faster, and stronger. It performs a host of brain-friendly functions by facilitating the birth of new brain cells (neurogenesis), forming new neural connections (synaptogenesis), protecting cells from oxidative stress, and aiding in the creation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis). This predominance of newfound neural activity and efficiency has been associated with substantial cognitive improvement and alleviation of anxiety and depression.
Runner’s intelligence may be ahead of the curve, but perhaps you’re not a fan of running? Is there no hope to achieve BDNF supremacy? Are other forms of exercise a lost cause? Rest assured, your cause for concern is unwarranted as several studies now indicate that running is just one of many exercise modalities observed to influence BDNF. Other low- to moderate-level aerobic exercises like rowing, walking, and biking show a promising upside to BDNF activity in as little as 10 minutes. Of special note are the sizable increases from all forms of interval training, alternating bouts of short bursts of energy followed by short periods of rest. On the more strenuous side of the spectrum, studies have shown that both Continuous High-Intensity Training and High-Intensity Interval Training temporarily increase BDNF post-workout. Interestingly enough, resistance training seems to provide little to no effect, revealing minimal BDNF production for just a few minutes afterward.
I’m sure the majority of you health-conscious readers are steadfast in your pursuit of getting daily exercise. You must be thinking you’re just one big walking, talking, a bundle of BDNF, aren’t you? Maybe so, however, there are some all-too-common factors that may be sabotaging your true potential. Chronic stress, excessive sugar consumption, processed foods, chronic insomnia, and social isolation are modifiable risk factors that are believed to block the production of BDNF. Furthermore, low BNDF has also been associated with anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other brain-related conditions. It’s not yet clear whether low BDNF causes these conditions or is a side effect of them.
Increasing brain power, decreasing inflammation, protection from neurodegenerative diseases, having a natural antidepressant, and potentially lengthening our life span are universal gains that appeal to all of us, runners or not. So, are there any other BDNF-beneficial things you can do to think more clearly, remember things, juggle tasks better, raise your I.Q., figure out how to win the Mega Millions? Of course, there is! No promises on the lotto, but here are some essential BDNF-rich habits: deep sleep (Stages 3 & 4), daily meditation, yoga, dance, sunlight exposure, caloric restriction via intermittent fasting, polyphenols (plant-based phytonutrients), omega-3 (EPA & DHA), and probiotics supplementation.
Recognizing the tremendous upside of BDNF, scientists are aspiring to develop an injectable solution of the precursor believed to activate the BDNF gene. Wouldn’t that be something? Perhaps a remedy for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or an instantaneous way to supercharge the average brain? Until then, regular exercise along with a healthy lifestyle is your best bet. Let’s all make a conscious effort every day by taking big strides to boost our brain, and ultimately, our well-being.
Jason Jaworski, CPT