Are you worried about what you’ve done to your brain over the years?
For decades, our understanding of brain chemistry was that we are all gifted with a certain number of brain cells at birth and if you kill them with, say, too much alcohol or drugs, you can never grow them back.
That understanding has now been totally reversed with the discovery of the brain cell-rejuvenating BDNF protein. This protein is encoded by a gene called brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF.
New studies have found that there is much more BDNF protein available in the brain during the more sunlit spring-summer months and much less during the darker fall-winter months, which has been linked to increases in mood-related concerns.1
Studies have also found that when the brain lacks BDNF protein, there is a significant decline in cognitive function and memory. In the elderly, those who had the highest amount of BDNF circulating in their brains had a 50% slowing of age-related cognitive decline.2
Serotonin levels also drop during darker months, which is thought to contribute to the seasonal mood disorders.3 The number of hours of sunlight exposure each day is directly linked to the amount of brain-circulating BDNF and serotonin, which presents a very real problem in the winter for those living above or below the equator.
BDNF and Serotonin Winter Foods to Protect Brain Function
How did nature adjust for this seasonal deficiency in BDNF and serotonin?
Luckily, Mother Earth has provided a way to help us through the dark days. There are many fall- and winter-harvested foods found to boost serotonin levels. These fall-harvested, winter-available foods have all been found to be high in tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin:
High Tryptophan Serotonin Boosting Foods4, 5, 6
These high-fat foods are traditionally consumed in winter, when fresh vegetables are less available and the need is greater for winter- and vata-balancing higher-fat higher-protein foods.
Ayurveda Boosts BDNF Levels with Seasonal Support
During the summer, the sun provides ample serotonin and BDNF, but come winter, nature offers nutritional support to keep BDNF and serotonin stable.
Before I discuss the seasonal Ayurvedic herbs that have been found to boost BDNF, I must mention the research on how fish oils have been shown to not only boost BDNF, but also flush toxins from the brain lymphatics.7
Many folks, however, have difficulty digesting fats and fish oils needed during winter months. Choose a fish oil supplement that is predigested to deliver the omega-3 fats in an easy-to-absorb monoglyceride (not triglyceride) form that enters the bloodstream at 3x the level of conventional fish oils.
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To date, there are only a handful of herbs studied to boost BDNF levels, and three of them are Ayurvedic:
Herbs to Boost BDNF
Not surprisingly, all three of these are fall-harvest roots traditionally consumed throughout the fall and winter. They naturally boost BDNF and serotonin levels when they are needed most.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is known for its ability to boost energy, muscular strength, stamina, and endurance in the morning and help support deep sleep in the evening.8
In the brain, ashwagandha has been shown to support natural repair of the nervous system while boosting BDNF levels.8 This root has been cooked in soups and stews for thousands of years.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is one of Ayurveda‘s most powerful herbs to support brain health, memory, and cognitive function. Bacopa has been shown to increase BDNF levels in the blood and is commonly used with kids to support mental clarity and focus. It is also used for supporting emotional health and stable moods under stress.9
Turmeric (Curcumin longa)
Turmeric has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful herbs, foods, or spices. Originally, turmeric was known for its ability to support liver function while protecting the inner and outer skin from undesirable microbes.
It has demonstrated support for healthy cell function and cellular replication and, more recently, scientists have discovered its support for the brain and nervous system.
Turmeric has also been found to boost BDNF levels in the blood while supporting healthy brain cell rejuvenation, cognitive function, mental health, and emotional health.10-13
Turmeric has been cooked into curries and soups and used as a kitchen staple for just about anything for thousands of years. Studies suggest that mixing turmeric with black pepper in a ratio of 16:1 can boost its absorption rate into the bloodstream by 2000%.10-13
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A Better Winter
How do you feel during the winter? If your mood and mental clarity take a dip, it may be a lack of BDNF and serotonin. Compensate for this with seasonally-appropriate foods and herbs, and see how you feel!