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A new study published in the journal Neurology has linked a protein in the brain to better cognitive function and memory as we age. In the study, the people who had more of this protein had a 50% slower loss of memory and cognitive function as they aged compared to those who had the lowest levels of this protein. (1)
This protein is encoded by a gene called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and researchers are now discovering ways to boost BDNF. In the study, they followed 535 people with an average age of 81 for six years. During the study, they measured memory and thinking skills annually. After death, they measured the amount of BDNF in the brain and found that the folks with the highest BDNF levels had the clearest brain function. (1)
BDNF has been shown to be both protective of the brain function as well as help the brain grow new brain cells. The ability to grow new brain cells was not thought possible until the discovery of BDNF. Until now, researchers have dedicated their efforts to finding ways to reduce brain plaque and neurofibrillary tangles to support an aging brain with little success.
Instead, researchers are now looking for ways to increase the amount of the BDNF proteins and thus let the body’s own chemistry solve our aging brain issues. This is a very Ayurvedic concept – bring the body into balance and let the body heal itself.
To date, studies have found that having purpose in life, engaging in regular social interaction and exercise may boost levels of BDNF. The logic here is compelling. Humans survived and evolved as social creatures whose purpose in life was to survive. Their survival depended on each other, as well as lots of physical activity to hunt, forage and gather.
Ayurvedic BDNF Boosters
There are only a handful of herbs that have been shown to boost BDNF levels in the blood, and the main ones happen to be Ayurvedic herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) may be the world’s most powerful adaptogen, which means it helps the body adapt to stress. When I was the Director of Player Development and nutrition advisor for the New Jersey Nets, I gave all the players Ashwagandha daily throughout their 82-game season. That season, we went from the 3rd most injured team in the NBA to the 3rd least injured team in the league. It is known for its ability to boost energy, muscular strength, stamina and endurance in the morning and help support deep sleep in the evening. (2)
In the brain, Ashwagandha has been shown to help support the natural repair of the nervous system while boosting levels of BDNF. (2) It is a root that has been cooked in soups and stews for thousands of years.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is perhaps 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 when under stress. (3)
Turmeric (Curcumin longa) 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 of the body from undesirable microbes. It has demonstrated support for healthy cell function and cellular replication and, more recently, its support for the brain and nervous system has been discovered. Turmeric has also been found to boost BDNF levels in the blood while supporting healthy brain cell rejuvenation, cognitive function and mental and emotional health. (4,5,7)
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%. (6)
While protecting your brain may be as easy as exercise, having passion for a hobby or just hanging out with family and friends, there is good science to suggest that there are natural botanicals that were once foods that support optimal brain health as well.