Your Brain Can Grow Stronger

The Power to Grow

It was once thought that the brain, once fully developed in adulthood, was at best stagnant. You are what you are, so to speak, and no drastic changes to brain health were possible. Or so it was thought. Luckily for you and I, we now know that is not the case. Our lovely, powerful brains can grow and become stronger and healthier! 

This, like many other things in science, has a big fancy term: neuroplasticity. If it helps, you can think of it as your brain’s ability to adapt, stretch and strengthen. Kind of like a muscle. Even though the brain is not a muscle, with use, it gets stronger and more flexible. With disuse, it gets weaker and more limited. 

A Little Thing Called BDNF

What’s exciting about this is, as we invest in our brain health, we can reap the rewards. One way that researchers measure the plasticity of the brain is through a marker called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF for short). BDNF is super important, because it drives the growth, maturation and overall health of a brain cell. You could think of BDNF as a caregiver for brain cells. The basic idea is that, the more BDNF there is, the stronger and healthier your brain cells would be. The healthier your brain cells, the more you can ward off depression and anxiety symptoms, in theory.

Now, this is a simplistic way to think about the subject. I’m sure a neuroscientist would look at this and say well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. And of course it is! But for the sake of getting a basic idea of what’s going on in your brain when you exercise, we’ll camp out at this elevation, rather than going all the way to the summit. 

Exercise Helps Your Brain Grow Stronger

I’m sure you’re wondering how this ties in to exercise. And you have great timing, because I was just getting to that.  Exercise boosts your BDNF! How exciting is that? Exercise is not just for your body, it’s for your brain too. So how does that work, and how does it help defend against depression and anxiety?

A Stronger Brain is a Happier Brain

Glad you asked. So, when BDNF helps your brain cells grow, mature and stay healthy, that makes a difference in how your brain processes all those things that make you feel happy and have a sense of well being. Things like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, etc. Basically, it boosts your brain’s productivity for processing your happy chemicals. Healthy, strong brain cells also adapt better to stressful events. And the way your brain processes stress is a game changer for resilience to anxiety and depression.

Take serotonin as an example. You’ve probably heard of low serotonin being related to depression. This is called the serotonin hypothesis of depression and it’s been around for a while. While serotonin does many things, one of its jobs is to keep us feeling happy. When there are deficiencies in serotonin, or problems with how the brain processes it, symptoms of depression can occur.

In order for your serotonin to work properly, there are several steps it needs to take. I won’t get into them, but I will say that it requires healthy brain cells to get the job done. That’s where BDNF can help. 

BDNF helps many types of brain cells stay healthy, including the ones that make serotonin, and the ones that receive and use the serotonin. For example, let’s say you decide to exercise tomorrow. Your BDNF gets a boost, yay! This means that you are strengthening the system in your brain that produces and uses your happy brain chemicals!

And you’re getting much more than that. By getting that boost in BDNF, you’re investing in the long term health of your brain cells, little by little. BDNF is going to help your brain cells grow and mature, and also do some maintenance too. Similar to putting money into an account and watching it accrue compound interest. The benefits to your brain cells are exponential! 

Exercise as Mental Health Therapy

 “Of the alternative therapeutics garnering attention, physical activity (PA) has shown clear and consistent promise for mitigating depressive neurobiology through mechanisms that involve [BDNF].” In other words, research suggests that exercise can reliably change your brain in ways that fight against depression. So, when considering it as a potential therapy for depression, it has strong merits.

This is not to say that it should replace medicinal antidepressant therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy, or any other traditional method for that matter. But, this does mean that it can support these other methods. And honestly, sometimes they could use a little boost.

Research shows that current treatments alone may not be enough for some individuals. In fact, it is reported that about 30% of patients don’t respond to pharmacotherapeutics. With some reporting that up to 55% of depression patients don’t respond to treatment. For those who do respond, their symptoms may not be totally eradicated. So, what can be done instead of settling for a pill that doesn’t totally fix it? There are a lot of ways to supplement where pills are lacking. And exercise is not the least of these. 

BDNF is the New Serotonin

Common therapeutics focus on improving serotonin use in the brain. But that is not the only part to address in the brain of a person with depression. When looking at BDNF, this includes entire systems within the brain. Systems that are key to healing depression. Serotonin is just a cog in the happy making machine inside your brain.

In fact, BDNF appears to be more important to fighting depression than serotonin alone. This is likely because BDNF can make changes in the neural networks responsible for depression. Yet, exercise doesn’t necessarily eliminate the need for antidepressants in some cases. It can, however, help the antidepressants work better. The two can work synergistically.

So hopefully it’s clear by now that BDNF has more potential to fight against depression than serotonin alone. It’s thought that stress can alter BDNF levels for worse, making the brain more susceptible to depression. This is called the “neurotrophic hypothesis of depression.” The idea is that BDNF is responsible for the health of key brain networks related to depression. And it follows that supporting the whole system should help tremendously in the fight against depression.