May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Positive mental health, including taking time for self-care, is part of a healthy lifestyle. That is something we take very seriously! Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. This includes depression and other mood disorders. Part of what makes these conditions so tricky to treat is that they are complicated. Often, there isn’t just one singular root cause and therefore not a quick “fix” either. What’s going on in your life around you certainly plays a role, but we also know that brain chemicals do too.
When it comes to brain chemicals, you’ve probably heard of Dopamine and Serotonin. In fact, Serotonin is literally referred to by doctors and scientists as the “feel-good” hormone. There’s another chemical that some professionals say is even more important: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, better known as BDNF.
BDNF is a neurotrophin, a type of protein that helps brain cells grow and survive. Instead of so much focus on chemical imbalances, some doctors say what’s really worth our attention is protecting neurons (brain cells) by keeping chronic, high levels of inflammation away. According to some, the latest brain health research is repeatedly showing a connection between inflammation and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. When you have excess inflammation, you’re going to impact the circuits in the brain. Here’s where BDNF comes in! It actively works to fight inflammation in the brain by contributing to neurons’ survival. As well, BDNF is linked to helping develop new brain cells.
What does an inflamed brain look like? Mood is low, anxiety is high, and many people experience brain fog. If that sounds familiar, it’s worth looking into how to increase your BDNF levels. The best way to build up your BDNF levels is to develop a daily routine around BDNF-boosting activities. These include:
#1 Eat a healthy diet. For starters, the nutrients in certain foods can increase production of this neurotrophin. Eating plenty of high-quality protein can help your brain stay healthy as you age. One in particular that helps increase BDNF levels is omega-3 fatty acids, which are in foods like salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds, and soy. What’s interesting is omega-3 fatty acids also help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, which is also important for your brain health. The connection between food and sleep is not a coincidence! Another nutrient shown to boost BDNF is flavonoids, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, berries, kale, tomatoes, dark chocolate, and some nuts.
#2 Get enough sleep. One of the best ways to fight off cognitive decline and poor mental health is to make sure your body gets seven to eight hours of sleep a night. You see, while you are asleep your brain is working hard! Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a “housekeeping” role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake. Getting enough sleep is essential for a healthy brain!
#3 Work healthy activities into your daily routine. A 2018 study in Neuroscience found that compared to sedentary people, physically active people had higher BDNF levels. Yoga is an effective way to manage stress and increase BDNF levels, according to a 2017 study. In fact, studies suggest that aerobic exercise is the most effective physical activity to increase your BDNF levels. Although exercise increases BDNF immediately, the results appear to be better when you exercise regularly. Thankfully, it’s easy to work 30 minutes to an hour of exercise into your daily routine!
According to results from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey, general stress levels are significantly above average compared to years past. If you’re stressed, you’re not alone. You are working hard! You face daily stress keeping up with your job, family, household chores, and other responsibilities. We’ve all been living through a pandemic for over a year. Think of BDNF as aftercare for your brain, helping your neurons heal and form new connections despite the pounding they take during your daily grind. BDNF is incredibly important for brain health, which is crucial for your overall health.
Chronic stress and inflammation are terrible for your overall health. This Mental Health Awareness Month, make an effort to focus on boosting your BDNF! Give your brain the full night of sleep it needs, eat a healthy high-protein diet, and fit daily exercise into your routine.