You've probably heard some talk about dopamine and serotonin—the former is literally referred to as the "feel-good" hormone. At some point during this bleak pandemic, maybe you've even Googled ways to naturally increase serotonin or dopamine since these two hormones play a role in emotional health (as well as other brain functionalities). But according to psychiatrist and Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety ($22) author Drew Ramsey, MD, there's another chemical that's 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. "It's a little frustrating that so often when people think of psychiatry, they think of serotonin; it's an interesting and important molecule, but it isn't even in my top five when it comes to brain health," he says, adding that the latest research points to BDNF as having a more prominent role. Here, Dr. Ramsey explains more about how BDNF is linked to how we feel—and what you can do to get more of it.
The connection between BDNF and mood
Instead of so much focus on chemical imbalances, Dr. Ramsey says what's really worth our attention is protecting neurons (brain cells) by keeping chronic, high levels of inflammation away. He explains that the latest brain health research is repeatedly showing a connection between inflammation and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. "When you have excess inflammation, you're going to impact the circuits in the brain. Research is very clear about that," he says. "What does an inflamed brain look like? Mood is low, anxiety is high, and many people experience brain fog."
Here's where BDNF comes in, according to Dr. Ramsey: It actively works to fight inflammation in the brain by contributing to neurons' survival—what's more, BDNF is linked to helping develop new brain cells. "It's a very empowering molecule that allows us to think about the brain in a more dynamic way," he says.
When someone is depressed or anxious, the brain has to work harder to function, Dr. Ramsey says. It's part of the reason why it's tough to get through the workday and even get out of bed when you're depressed; it literally requires more effort to function. "Brain cells have to work harder to not only form synaptic connections required for a healthy brain but also just to survive," Dr. Ramsey writes in his book. "In fact, they need all the extra help they can get. BDNF provides that help, making your brain cells more resilient in the face of those threats. It allows them more room to adapt and grow in the face of whatever is happening in the world around you."
How to increase BDNF production in your brain
Now that you know what BDNF is and how it's directly linked to your mood, the next question is: What can you do to make sure your brain is making enough? For starters, the nutrients in certain foods can increase production of this neurotrophin. One in particular that helps increase BDNF levels is omega-3 fatty acids, which are in foods like fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soy. Another nutrient is flavonoids, a type of antioxidant found in green tea, berries, kale, tomatoes, dark chocolate, and nuts (except for macadamia and Brazil nuts).
It's because of these connections that Dr. Ramsey says he's a big advocate of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and lots of plants. "There are actually studies showing that this way of eating can help with depression," he says. This eating plan has been linked to benefitting brain health overall, so besides working to improve mood, it can help protect against cognitive decline.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Mediterranean diet:
That BDNF plays such a crucial role in how we feel—combined with the fact that we can up its production through what we eat—should be encouraging for anyone who is experiencing depression or anxiety, says Dr. Ramsey. He reiterates, though, that mood disorders are certainly challenging to treat—therapy and medication are often needed—but this is one action everyone can take to help themselves. "It's really motivating to have this information," he says. "You can work to improve your brain health—and you'll literally feel the difference."
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