It was once believed that the body stops producing new brain cells once you reach adulthood. Thanks to new research, this belief is effectively debunked. It is now known that brain cells reproduce in various areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, the striatum, the olfactory bulb, and the cerebral cortex.
Neurons, the specialized cells that make up the nervous system, reproduce every day. This process, called neurogenesis, is aided by neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate. However, the biggest players in neurogenesis are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF).
BDNF encourages the growth of brain cells and maintains the health and function of existing cells. It also stops inflammation while increasing brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to change – and protecting it from neurodegenerative diseases. NGF, as its name suggests, is involved in the growth of nerves.
Neurogenesis is an important process, but it is especially crucial for people who suffer from brain-related conditions. Stimulating it is known to reverse the effects of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Dysfunctional neurogenesis has also been linked to depression, stroke, brain tumors, epilepsy, and substance abuse disorders, among others.
The process of brain cell growth continues well into adulthood and occurs even during your senior years. Neurogenesis tends to decline as you go through your advanced years, but your age is just one of several factors with an impact on brain cell production.
Certain drugs inhibit neuron growth. This effect has been observed in antibiotics and chemotherapy medications. Some experts believe this is why some cancer patients experience depression. Some antidepressants throw the whole process off balance by increasing the production of serotonin and boosting neurogenesis in just one area of the brain.
Your weight may also have an impact on brain cell growth. Some studies show that inflammation in the hypothalamus caused by either aging or obesity can disrupt neurogenesis. This inflammation is also linked to increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases. (Related: Cadmium could have adverse effects on brain development, reducing neurogenesis.)
Another study suggests that a high-glucose environment may not be conducive to brain cell production. Researchers found that increasing glucose impairs the development of brain cells in quail embryo. On a related note, a lifestyle involving high amounts of glucose is known to lead to obesity, which negatively affects neurogenesis.
The best thing to do is to live a healthy lifestyle. Eating healthily is a good start. You will need plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which are usually found in nuts and seeds, as well as in fatty fishes like salmon and herring. Increasing your intake of antioxidants will help, too. Flavonoids, found in green tea, cocoa, and blueberries, stimulate brain cell formation. Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, increases BDNF levels.
Drinking red wine also has plenty of benefits as its resveratrol is known to promote brain cell growth. You can’t drink too much though, as alcohol tends to impede neurogenesis. If you want a safer solution, go for olive oil – it is known to increase the levels of both BDNF and NGF. Vegetables like celery and parsley will help, too, thanks to their neurogenesis-boosting apigenin content.
Several studies indicate that to improve neurogenesis, it’s not just what you eat that matters, but how you eat as well. For instance, limiting your caloric intake and going through intermittent fasting have been shown to benefit neurogenesis. Actually chewing food also helps, suggesting that opting for a purely juice-based diet is anything but brain-friendly.
Both physical and mental exercises have been shown to improve brain cell production. Any type of physical exercise helps, but aerobic workouts offer the best benefits. If they’re too much for you, you can do yoga instead.
Mental exercises, like solving puzzles, keep the brain active and functional. Research into the brains of cabbies in London found that their hippocampus tended to be larger than what most people have. This was attributed to having to memorize streets and landmarks for them to navigate through London and do their job.
Finally, one of the best ways to promote neurogenesis is to have enough sleep. Chronic lack of sleep is another of the many bad habits that can impair your brain cell production. Experts suggest exercising the day after a bad night as a workout can offset the BDNF you may have lost from not being able to sleep.
Learn more about the brain and its processes at Brain.news.