Growth hormone for the brain. What a concept. Truth is, science has indeed identified a protein that does exactly that. It’s called brain-derived neurotrophic hormone (BDNF). While this may sound compelling in name and implication, let’s take a step back and look at what the science tells us about this incredibly important actor in brain health.
BDNF is a protein that plays a pivotal role in neuronal health. Your brain contains as many as 100 billion neurons and the health, vitality, and, perhaps most importantly, functionality of each one of your brain cells is intimately influenced by BDNF.
Early in life, BDNF regulates not only the growth of brain cells, but also their ability to make connections to other brain cells, a process fundamental to our ability to create a more powerful brain. But keep in mind that the process of growing new brain cells, neurogenesis, continues throughout your entire life! Think of it. As you are reading this report, your brain is actively producing new brain cells, and brain cells are always busy creating new connections with their neighbors in a process called neuroplasticity.
Both of these events, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, are directly enhanced by BDNF, and who wouldn’t more brain cells that are more connected? No doubt you are now wondering what you can do to get hold of this magic elixir that builds a better brain. But while BDNF isn’t something you can buy at the pharmacy, the good news is that you can absolutely increase your body’s ability to create this powerful protein and pave the way for a healthier, more resilient brain.
I’ve discussed how the omega-3 oil DHA can enhance BDNF as well as how it can be enhanced with aerobic exercise in previous posts. You can get a lot more information beginning on page 126 in Grain Brain.
But today I’m writing about a new discovery. It turns out that sunlight itself is a powerful way to increase BDNF production. In this report from Dr. Marc Molendijk and colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands, a profound seasonal variation in blood level of BDNF was observed with increasing amounts of BDNF found in the blood during months with the most sunshine. Interestingly, they were able to correlate levels of BDNF with the diagnosis of depression as well with low BDNF levels highly related to this diagnosis.
This information has important implications. Not only does it offer up yet another lifestyle modification to provide our bodies with more BDNF (sunlight exposure), it might well explain why individuals may become depressed during winter months and when living in places with little sunshine.