BDNF: Neurodegenerative Problems and Natural Neurology – Part 2

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

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Nutritional Approaches to Increasing Neuroplasticity

Food is the best medicine in most cases. This is because it directly affects us physically and psychologically through the mind-body interface. The idea behind increasing nutrition to improve neuroplasticity is to promote the growth of new brain cells and decrease inflammation. The following are some foods and nutrients that will help with BDNF.


Magnesium and BDNF Magnesium has been shown to improve neuroplasticity. It is involved in over 400 processes in the body. Care must be taken when taking magnesium. Too much in the body has been known to cause an irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, slowed breathing, confusion, and even death. Higher doses are likely unsafe. Those with advanced AFS may find magnesium triggering paradoxical reactions. Excessive magnesium can cause diarrhea.


Research has shown turmeric to increase neuroplasticity. It also is a potent antioxidant and may promote the growth of new neurons. In general, there are no significant side effects with turmeric. Some people experience upset stomach, nausea, and dizziness.

If you’re pregnant, you should not take medicinal doses of turmeric. It tends to stimulate the uterus and may put the pregnancy at risk. Those who have a sensitive body or congested liver may not be able to tolerate it either.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin isn’t produced in your body, so it must come from nutritional sources. Deficiencies in vitamin B12 can result in neurodegeneration. Slight deficiencies also cause some difficulties with memory, fatigue, and depression. While vitamin B12 is generally considered safe for most people, women who are breastfeeding should not exceed the recommended dosage because the safety of larger amounts isn’t established. Due to the inherent stimulatory nature of vitamin B12<>, those who are sensitive or in advanced? stages of AFS need to be careful as excessive Vitamin B12 can trigger adrenal crashes.


This fatty acid is very good for the brain. Omega-3 should be kept in balance with omega-6. The latter is found in many food sources. There should be three times as much omega-3 as omega-6 in your diet. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. Because of its blood-thinning effect, those who are already on any type of blood thinner also need to be careful.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Crucial for optimum brain development, this fatty acid is the most abundant in the brain. Certain kinds of cold water fish are the best source of DHA. Overall, DHA is likely safe for most people. There may be a few side effects for some people, but these may be lessened if the DHA is taken with food. It may be unsafe in large doses due to thinning of the blood – leading to increased bleeding possibilities.

BDNF and Neurodegenerative Problems

Brain derived neurogenic factor (BDNF) has been found to significantly decrease the risk of memory-related illness conditions and to decrease the risk of dementia. A recent study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed a group of adults for ten years after measuring their baseline BDNF level.

The finding of most importance was a 50 percent lower rate of development of dementia in those with the highest baseline BDNF level compared to those with the lowest level. It appears that this protein plays a major role in the health of neurons.

Neurodegenerative diseases and BDNFEarly on, BDNF significantly influences the growth of brain cells and their ability to make connections with other brain cells, and this neurogenesis (the growing of new brain cells) has been shown to continue throughout life. This, along with the continual making of connections among brain cells, is the process of neuroplasticity.

It appears that BDNF also may play a crucial role in modulating pro-inflammatory cytokines that may have a detrimental effect on the nervous system and neurons. The damage to neuronal structure and function caused by these pro-inflammatory cytokines leads to deficits in neuroplasticity and in the functioning of the nervous system.

An increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines may be due to a direct trauma of some kind or to an environmental stimulus of the kind that produces stress. This connection of pro-inflammatory cytokines to stress links them to AFS as well.

One of the main results of this increase of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain is an increase in oxidative and inflammatory molecules that affects neurogenesis and the functioning of neurons.

The negative effect of these inflammatory molecules on neurogenesis also detrimentally affects the survival and functioning of new neurons. Cognition will also be detrimentally affected by these inflammatory neurons.

With an increase in inflammation in the brain, BDNF decreases. Since BDNF plays a major role in neurogenesis and in aiding neurons to make more connections with other neurons, a decrease in this protein signals further loss of neurons. This suggests strongly that inflammation is a major culprit in neurodegeneration.

Research has shown that pro-inflammatory cytokines decrease the ability of the hippocampus to perform its role as a temporary site for memory retention, compromise spatial memory, and increase apoptosis of the brain. These are all symptoms related to those illness conditions that are age-related and that are a focus of natural neurology. There is also evidence to support the contention that these cytokines and the inflammation they encourage are involved in several psychiatric illness conditions.

BDNF has been studied in animal research with subjects genetically altered to have the symptoms of several neurodegenerative problems. It appears that increasing the levels of BDNF in the brains of these animals may lead to decreased symptoms. This would appear to suggest the use of BDNF in the clinical approaches to these neurodegenerative illness conditions.

Nutritional and Other Ways to Increase BDNF

With all of the current and probably future research into BDNF pointing the way to defeating, or at least ameliorating, loss of neuronal function and structure that is involved in neurodegenerative illness conditions, increasing BDNF is desirable. Some research seems to indicate this protein may also play a major role in preventing some of the symptoms of these dreaded conditions. Natural neurological research is pointed in that direction.

Discussion of some of the ways to increase BDNF follows.

Diets/Foods to Increase BDNF

Research has suggested it takes about two months for dietary changes to have an effect on BDNF levels. This appears to be true for either beneficial or detrimental effect.

Modified Ketogenic diet

Following this diet of high fat, adequate protein, and low carbohydrates may help your body burn fats instead of carbs. Rather than using carbohydrates to convert into glucose to feed your brain, this diet uses fats to convert into ketone bodies that replace glucose as fuel. Constipation and kidney stones may be side effects of this diet. Lipid and cholesterol levels may also increase. This diet needs to be personalized and individualized to be effective as most people cannot tolerate it without modification.

SAD (Standard American Diet)

It’s important to stay away from the Standard American Diet if you want to increase BDNF. This diet is typically full of sugars and saturated fats.

Fish oil/DHA

Add more of this kind of fish oil for the Omega-3 fatty acids. The best source for fish oil is fresh cold water fish. If this isn’t available, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds are also a source. These haven’t been studied as much as fish oil, so their potency may not be as strong. Fish oil supplements may be used, also, but may not work well. These supplements may increase the risk of dementia in the approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population with the ApoE4 gene.


Soy and BDNFHas been shown by research to increase BDNF levels in mice. Some minor stomach problems may come with consuming soy. Those with estrogen dominance or thyroid imbalances need to be careful.


This appears to be a very good way to increase BDNF production. The exercise needs to be moderately strenuous and can be done in short bursts rather than a prolonged set. Be sure to check with your healthcare practitioner to determine if you’re healthy enough for this kind of exercise because exercise can trigger adrenal crashes for those who are weak.

Avoid sugars and HFCS

Sugars and high fructose corn syrup do the opposite of eating healthy. They lower levels of BDNF and have been shown through research to have a negative effect on cognitive abilities.

Intermittent fasting

Restricting your eating for relatively short periods of time allows your gut to heal itself. This is done through a flood of hormones the fasting releases in your body. Fasting overnight for a period of about 12 hours can be beneficial, but only if you are strong and healthy.

Many with advanced stages of AFS experiences frequent episodes of reactive hypoglycemia requiring frequent meals to replenish glucose. Fasting would not be appropriate for these individuals.

Be certain to check with your healthcare practitioner to determine whether this kind of fasting will interfere with any medications you may be taking or will be detrimental due to a medical condition.

Mental stimulation

Exercise your brain to increase BDNF also. This stimulation can be anything that causes you to think, problem solve, or plan. Excessive stimulation, such as watching an action movie, can trigger a massive adrenaline release that in turn can trigger adrenal crashes in those with advanced AFS.

Lifestyle changes

There are some lifestyle changes you can implement that may have a beneficial effect on BDNF. Spending ample time with family and friends is one of them. Having good relationships that are nurturing may increase BDNF.

Getting outdoors and into the sun is another beneficial lifestyle change you can start. Many people spend their lives indoors at work and home. The sun does have beneficial qualities for the increase of BDNF. It is also important to focus on quality quiet time for those with AFS.

Curcumin and resveratrol

Turmeric, curcumin, and BDNFThese substances have been shown to increase levels of BDNF. Curcumin is found in turmeric and curry. Resveratrol in red grapes. Fermented forms are the easiest to assimilate and recommended if the body can tolerate.

Reduce stress

Decreasing your stress level will assist in increasing BDNF levels. Lower stress leads to lower levels of inflammation and less immune system response. Both of these factors tend to decrease BDNF when they are high.


Sleep is necessary for good health. At least seven hours of sleep per night appears to help increase BDNF. Research has shown BDNF to decrease with sleep deprivation.

Green tea

Research has indicated that adding green tea and/or its active ingredient (EGCG) will boost BDNF levels. Green tea appears to be safe when taken orally for most people. Taken long-term or in high doses, there may be side effects associated with the caffeine in green tea. These may include headaches, nervousness, sleep problems, irritability, and irregular heart beat. Adrenal crashes can be triggered as well. During pregnancy or when breastfeeding, drinking more than two cups of green tea per day is likely unsafe. There are certain illness conditions in which green tea may exacerbate the condition. Be sure to consult your healthcare practitioner.

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