How to grow your brain. Literally!

shutterstock_121813099Feeling a little forgetful lately? Cannot find your keys again? Instead of accepting your ‘mental decline’, there are several fairly simple things you can do to literally increase your brain mass. Sounds to good to be true? Then read on!

You’re probably familiar with the adaptive qualities of the human body. Expose your muscles to new exercise, and you will be rewarded with a body that is fit to face your new challenges. From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense. Imagine our far ancestors: they didn’t spend most of their days in the office, but lived in a wild environment in which food had to be hunted and gathered. And unlike most of us today, they lived in changing environments, often moving from one place to another and dependent on what the seasons had to offer. You can imagine that these ever changing circumstances ask for a body that is highly adaptable. In some places fruits hang may hang low but in other places you will have to climb the tree to pick them. The involved exercise will cause you to develop stronger arms. Or perhaps your new environment is inhabited by faster animals then you were used to, and you’ll need stronger legs in order to catch them. Exercise tells our bodies what muscles need more development.

It’s hard to imagine that evolution provides us with this highly adaptive physique, but leaves us with a brain that is rigid and hardwired. And although many people think this is the case, science proves otherwise. As it turns out, our brains are highly flexible. In fact, we can even produce our own ‘brain fertilizer’, and boost its level by taking some simple steps.

Brain Derived Neurological Factor

This ‘brain fertilizer’ I’m talking about is BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurological Factor, a protein that can be produced by your own body. It plays a key role in neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons. Furthermore, BDNF is vital for synaps formation, through which it protects your existing neuronal network. No wonder that multiple neurological conditions, including Alzheimers, are associated with low levels of BDNF. Boosting your BDNF level can improve your memory and other cognitive skills. Here are a few tips on how to accomplish this.

The right diet

Science has identified several micro nutrients and vitamins that have a positive effect on the BDNF levels in your brain. To avoid too much diet related mathematics in your daily life, here are some basic rules. First of all, avoid eating to many foods that are high on sugars or dense carbohydrates. Don’t binge on fruits, because they usually contain a lot of sugar. Incorporate plenty of healthy foods to your diet such as veggies, nuts, fish and meat from free range animals. Make sure you vary the food you eat. Furthermore, it’s recommendable to add foods to your diet that are high on omega-3 fatty acids, such as coconut oil and fish oil. Especially DHA (a type of omega 3 fatty acid), has beneficial effects on the brain and the production of BDNF. A spice that you might want to add to your kitchen drawer, is curcumin, which has BDNF boosting properties. Don’t overeat on any of these foods: it’s all about balance!

Physical exercise

Make sure you exercise regularly. Make sure it’s intensive enough to get your heart pumping. If you are not used to exercise, make sure to start slowly so you allow your body to adapt gradually. Exercise has many health benefits, and one of them is an increased level of BDNF.

Other ways to increase BDNF

Fasting or caloric restriction are very effective ways of increasing your BDNF level. You could do this for instance by picking one day in the week on which you lower your usual caloric intake by 30%. Another way to stimulate the production of BDNF, is to enrich your environment. Studies show, that keeping rats in a complex environment cause increased BDNF levels in several parts of the brain. Experienced London taxi drivers, who are exposed to a complex environment almost daily, show increased grey matter in the hippocampus. One way to ‘enrich’ your environment, is by spending more time outside instead of on the couch. You will probably profit from a positive mood change as well!

BDNF from an evolutionary perspective

You may wonder why exactly these factors raise BDNF levels. I’m only speculating, but I think evolutionary theory holds the answer. First of all, nature is efficient: it doesn’t like to spend too much energy on your body or brain, unless it’s beneficial for survival or reproduction. That’s why we are so highly adaptive. Remember the trees with the high hanging fruit? Having strong arms (the ability to climb) could mean the difference between survival and starvation. In an environment where no muscle strength is needed, having Popeye arms would be a waste of energy.

The same principle applies to the brain: if we can order a pizza while sitting on the couch, why would energy be spent on the complex cognitive abilities that are needed to survive in a wild environment? Imagine the mental skills that would be necessary out in the open. Having extensive knowledge of the natural environment and knowing where certain animals hold up. Where nuts, seeds and plants can be found. Understanding what plants are healthy and which ones are poisonous. Mastering effective hunting techniques in order to catch a fish, a rabbit or a bird. Performing highly complex movements. You would need a brain that is like a Swiss army knife.

Furthermore, body and brain are no separate entities, especially in the wild. Your brain may know how to throw a spear in the right direction, but this is only functional if it is translated into a highly complex combination of movements that allow you to actually hit the target. When the environment demands you to move, it will make you think as well. No wonder that exercise not only gives you muscle, but also boosts your BDNF. But what about calorie restriction? Why would that translate into increased BDNF levels? Calorie restriction in the wild would unlikely be a deliberate decision of cavemen. More likely, it would be a consequence of having limited access to food. Increased cognitive ability could definitely increase your likelihood of survival (e.g. hunting and gathering skills). Higher BDNF levels would provide you with it.


There is one more strategy that can increase your grey matter: join a meditation class. Multiple studies show its beneficial effects on cognitive function. ‘Psychiatry Research’ for instance, published an interesting study about the effects of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It shows that participation in MBSR leads to increased concentrations of grey matter in several brain structures, including the regions involved in learning and memory processes. It seems that our brains do not only thrive on hard exercise, but on relaxation as well!

Now that you know how to grow your brain by increasing your BDNF level, there no excuse for losing your keys again! Even more importantly though, are the benefits these interventions have on your emotional well being. Cheers!

Categories: Evolution, Food, Psychology


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