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How to Ramp Up Your BDNF and Mental Focus by Fasting

In 2016, the Nobel Prize recognized Yoshinori Ohsumi for his pioneering work in autophagy, a cellular process triggered by starvation. The benefits of fasting on overall health are widely documented, but Dr. Ohsumi's win made the subject even more popular. Since then, more people have sought to uncover the exact mechanisms by which dietary restriction enhanced bodily functions and slowed down aging.

BDNF is known to promote neuroplasticity, boost mental performance and delay age-associated cognitive decline. Scientists found that intermittent fasting could unleash this molecule in the brain.

How does fasting ramp up BDNF? Can it truly sharpen your mind?

In this article, we talk about how fasting contributes to brain health and how you can practice it to increase your mental focus.

So first, let's discuss the molecule that makes all these things happen.

 

Contents

What Is BDNF? How Does BDNF Link Fasting with Brain Health? What Other Factors Can Stimulate the Brain to Make More BDNF? Even if There Were Other Ways to Draw Out BDNF, Why Should You Try Intermittent Fasting?What Fasting Schedules Are Best for Inducing BDNF Secretion? Do Brain Supplements and Fasting Go Together? Conclusion

What Is BDNF?

“BDNF” is short for “brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor.”

As the name implies, growth factors are chemicals that regulate cell growth and multiplication. They also block mechanisms that lead to cell death. BDNF is found in many parts of the body but is most highly concentrated in the brain, where it is known to exert these effects:

what is bdnf

  Stimulate the growth of new neurons

New brain cell formation, or “neurogenesis,” starts in the womb. In adults, neurogenesis mainly takes place in the hippocampus, where it is vital to memory and continuous learning. It can cease during early adulthood without proper care. BDNF stimulates the growth of new neurons, powering up the mind and keeping it sharp for a long time.

   Aid in the formation and reinforcement of neuronal connections

Synaptogenesis is a process linking different brain cells by forming structures called "synapses." These junctions are important for cell-to-cell communication and long-term memory.

BDNF stimulates synaptogenesis and makes synapses more efficient at transmitting signals. It likewise induces the growth of nerve branches called “dendrites,” which also help speed up cell signaling.

  Promote brain plasticity and adaptation

Do you remember learning how to read for the first time? It was slow at first but got better with practice. The same goes for any new skill you acquire and use repeatedly. By promoting synaptogenesis and dendrite growth, BDNF helps rewire the brain, enabling people to adjust to their new circumstances.

Conversely, BDNF deficiency is associated with various cognitive and psychological conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's dementia, insomnia, schizophrenia and depression. Optimal levels of this growth factor promote brain health.

 

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How Does BDNF Link Fasting with Brain Health?

In the first couple of hours after eating, your brain's primary fuel is the simple carbohydrate glucose. Once insulin clears up the excess glucose in your blood, the body starts to use up fat for energy. With continued fasting, your fat cells will release increasing amounts of fatty acids, which the liver will convert to ketones. Ketones will reach peak levels around 12 hours after your last meal.

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Plasma hormones:

Insulin - stores excess glucose

Glucagon - releases glucose and fatty acids From body stores during fasting

Metabolic fuels:

Glucose - comes from food after eating and from body stores at the start of fasting

Fatty acids - mainly come from body stores during fasting

Ketone bodies - form from excess free fatty acids

Relative Changes in Plasma Hormones and Metabolic Fuels During Fasting

We've all learned to adapt to stress. Fasting is a form of stress that stimulates BDNF secretion. This growth factor mediates the changes that let the brain adjust to the stress. However, the fasting period’s duration is critical to the timing of its induction.

“Fasting is a form of stress that stimulates BDNF secretion”

Mouse studies reveal that BDNF levels surge after 12 hours of starvation when ketones start to become the brain's primary fuel. These events correlate with adaptive neuronal changes:

  BDNF levels plummet in the hypothalamus but shoot up in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

  In the hypothalamus, where BDNF is low, autophagy begins. Autophagy is a cellular housekeeping mechanism that starts after long periods of fasting. Normally, it degrades and recycles different cellular structures, including microbial proteins captured when fighting an infection. It conserves resources and disrupts mechanisms that promote growth.

  Autophagy eats up hypothalamic synapses during fasting. The hypothalamus is in charge of bodily functions like feeding and energy production. Synaptic autophagy in this part of the brain sends signals to the body to eat and make more ketones.

 The BDNF rise in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex inhibits autophagy. Remember that the hippocampus is the seat of memory and learning. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of problem-solving, judgment and motivation. By inhibiting autophagy in these areas, the animal learns to cope with the stress and develops new behaviors that will let it respond better in the future.

brain

The Prefrontal Lobe, Hypothalamus and Hippocampus

Autophagy literally means "eating the self." Cells undergo the process to survive long periods of stress, but too much of it is also harmful. BDNF suppression balances autophagy's effects in the brain, making it resilient and primed to learn from the experience.

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What Fasting Schedules Are Best for Inducing BDNF Secretion?

 

There are a lot of fasting regimens being touted by different sources. However, if we go by the science, optimum fasting BDNF secretion in humans is expected to occur after 12 hours of starvation or strict caloric limitation. The ones that meet this requirement are briefly described below.

  Warrior's Diet

This entails restricting your intake to only small bites of fruits and vegetables during the day, capping it off with a large meal at night. The regimen is repeated every day. People who are practicing intermittent fasting for the first time will find the Warrior's Diet the easiest to follow.

  5:2 Diet

Here, you can eat normally 5 days of the week and reduce your intake to 500-600 calories on 2 separate days. This regimen is popular because, like the Warrior's Diet, it does not involve strict fasting, and the choice of fasting days is flexible.

  16/8 Plan

This diet limits the eating window to just 8 hours daily, although some extend it to 10 hours. So the fasting window is 14-16 hours long. You can schedule most of your intake in the middle of the day, during which time you are free to eat any food in any amount you want. Fasting may start a few hours before bedtime and end at lunch the next day, but you may choose any 16-hour period that is comfortable for you.

  Alternate-Day Fasting

The ideal approach to this plan is to eat normally on eating days and drink only calorie-free beverages, like water and unsweetened tea, on fasting days. However, it's a difficult regimen to sustain, so others would rather restrict to 500-600 calories on fasting days than eat nothing. Choose whichever routine is more comfortable for you.

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What Other Factors Can Stimulate the Brain to Make More BDNF?

Aside from fasting, there are other ways to increase BDNF levels in the brain. They can be classified according to the mechanisms they involve.

  Brain stimulation:

BDNF is a growth factor essential to learning, which occurs significantly with repeated stimulation. Brain exercises, physical training and social interaction provide this stimulus. Meanwhile, sunlight exposure excites the retinas, the sensory regions behind the eyes that connect to the optic nerves. Activating these intracranial nerves jolts other parts of the brain, including BDNF-producing cells.

  Glucose depletion:

Activities that simulate prolonged glucose deprivation and increase ketones in the blood trigger BDNF secretion. They include sleep, regular exercise and the ketogenic diet.

  Stress reduction:

Too much stress increases stress hormones in the blood uncontrollably, suppressing BDNF production in the hippocampus. Activities that diminish stress, like sleep, meditation, and breathing exercises, reduce stress hormones and liberate BDNF in the brain.

  Nutrition:

Certain brain foods and nutrients are known to trigger BDNF secretion. Regular intake of these dietary components is proven to enhance memory and mental focus and delay cognitive decline.

  • Alpha-glycerophosphocholine is the precursor of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that boosts alertness and mental concentration. Aside from increasing BDNF levels in the brain, it is also involved in muscle contraction, digestion, vision and other vital bodily functions. Alpha-glycerophosphocholine is found in milk, eggs and vegetables.
  • Curcumin has many beneficial effects on the brain, as it helps fight inflammation, boost immune function and regulate mood levels. Turmeric and curry are its main sources.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are building blocks of the cell membrane, making them crucial in brain cell communication. They also curb inflammation and trap toxic free radicals. Fatty fish, soybeans and walnuts are rich sources of these nutrients.
  • Trans-resveratrol is a powerful stilbenoid antioxidant that is obtained from grapes, berries and red wine.
  • Uridine, a building block of RNA and DNA's thymidine, is essential in making protein molecules like BDNF. It also powers up the immune system and is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Broccoli and other leafy greens are its rich sources.
  • Vitamin C boosts the immune system, traps toxic free radicals, regulates sugar levels and helps produce brain chemicals called "neurotransmitters." Oranges and other citrus fruits are its best sources.

You can get all these mental focus enhancers from a well-balanced, brain-healthy diet. Active individuals who might have suboptimal regimens and forget one or two of these components may benefit from a complete brain supplement like Brain Assist.

Even if There Were Other Ways to Draw Out BDNF, Why Should You Try Intermittent Fasting?

“The increase in clarity of mind I’ve been feeling from intermittent fasting is outstanding. And hard for me to achieve otherwise. I now do it on most of the days when I work at a computer”

Branko Kral
Head of Content & Analytics
at Chosen Data

As previously mentioned, intermittent fasting benefits the entire body, not just the brain. Its impact on overall health and mental performance has been demonstrated in various clinical settings.

  Sugar fluctuations in the brain trigger some forms of epilepsy. Patients with such conditions have low BDNF levels in the central nervous system. Ketogenic diets enhance BDNF secretion and reduce seizure occurrences, which is why they are recommended interventions for some epilepsy syndromes.

  Autism is strongly linked to BDNF deficiency, and many children with this condition are overweight. Exercise and intermittent fasting help improve their cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

  Indulgent lifestyles increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease—all connected to BDNF deficiency. Healthy weight ranges and fasting are associated with alleviation of symptoms in diagnosed patients.

  In several clinical studies, intermittent fasting was found to be a safe and effective intervention for type 2 diabetes mellitus, with patients experiencing body weight and fasting blood glucose reduction. No acute mental changes associated with sugar fluctuations were reported in these studies.

Evidence is growing regarding the benefits and safety of intermittent fasting as a treatment for various disorders. It is one brain-boosting measure that is certainly worth a try.

Aside from the schedule, you also have to consider if intermittent fasting is safe for you. While dietary restriction benefits a lot of people, drastic caloric reduction may cause others to faint, feel dizzy or experience other side effects. If you have a medical condition, make sure to get clearance from your doctor or be under medical supervision before starting any fasting regimens.

Also, intermittent fasting should be done in moderation. Extremely long fasting periods lead to infections, vitamin deficiencies and other malnutrition-related illnesses.

Do Brain Supplements and Fasting Go Together?

 

“Brain supplements and intermittent fasting go together very well.”

 

Remember how excessive autophagy can be unhealthy for the brain and that BDNF can regulate it? The ability of brain supplements to induce BDNF secretion makes them powerful autophagy modulators. Taking brain supplements like Brain Assist helps you maximize the BDNF-enhancing power of intermittent fasting. Together, they make sure that you stay razor-sharp for a very long time.

Conclusion

Intermittent fasting impacts overall health and mental function. Its beneficial effects on the brain are mediated by BDNF, a promoter of neuronal resilience and growth. The fasting period’s duration is crucial to this molecule's secretion, as it is stimulated by glucose depletion and significant ketone formation. Once released, it suppresses autophagy, letting the brain keep stress-adaptive changes in critical regions.

To maximize its benefits, intermittent fasting is best combined with the intake of brain supplements. Particularly important nutrients are alpha-glycerophosphocholine, curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids, trans-resveratrol, uridine, and vitamin C—all potent BDNF inducers, and thus, autophagy modulators. Doctor-formulated Brain Assist, which can go with any fasting schedule, has all these ingredients to let you stay mentally focused and fight off brain aging.

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