What is neuroplasticity? and how does it differ from neurogenesis?
Have you ever felt the sense of your brain working very hard to learn a new task or to learn someone’s name, to remember something that happened a few days ago. Almost you can hear the gears grinding! That is neuroplasticity, it is happening during learning or experiencing something new! Some people seem to have no ability to do this, no way they could learn, it seems. This is the gap. What does it take? What is missing? At first, it seems like effort is all that is missing but it is evident recently that our diet and nutrient status plays a role! No surprise really but this also means there is hope, there is something I can do!
Technically, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt, to change, to grow extensions of current neurons. Neurogenesis is different in that it is involved in growing new brain or nerve cells. Over the last twenty years, scientists have studied neuroplasticity using those recovering from stroke, or brain injury. Now it is a health ideal – to have a brain that has neuroplasticity!
To actively stimulate neuroplasticity, the brain needs a reason to grow!
The body does this naturally when we are recovering from an injury, but we can make it happen too, we just need a reason! We can think of these reasons by looking at two categories of stimuli, intrinsic and extrinsic. The studies show that the stimuli needs to have qualities of intensity, repetition, and be motivating, and specific to you. This could be learning a new language, how to play an instrument, a new physical activity such as tai chi, dance or pickle ball. This could also be learning a new subject that is important to you. This can also be practicing or living in a way that you are mindful, more actively aware of yourself, others around you and your surroundings.
To help the brain cells have what they need to grow, we need to give them things that can cross the blood brain barrier (BBB). This is very true, yes. We also need to think about the quality of the our blood in general. If my blood is full of toxins, (called toxemia) the brain and nervous system will suffer by this. We can make our blood toxic from eating mercury or lead containing foods, or taking antibiotics long term causing dysbiosis therefore causing gut porosity, or chronic soda drinking causing acidic blood, or eating foods that are not organic and are full of pesticides (nerve toxins).
One of the best things we can do is include aerobic exercise into our routine. Aerobic exercise enhances neuroplasticity biomarker expression. These include brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) (Cotman et al., 2007 These increase the making of new synapses, the growth of neurons and blood vessels to supply them. Resistance training also improved biomarkers of neuroplasticity, even in senior adults. Although there is some conflicting research as to how exercise helps, it is clear that it does improve neuroplasticity and overall cognitive ability.
Another very important consideration is the quality of our sleep. When we are deprived of sleep, our brain excitability increases and this inhibits neuroplasticity. REM sleep is when the cerebral blood flow increases which supports the growth of neurons.
How do we measure neuroplasticity?
- BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the blood
- IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor) in the blood
- VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) in the blood
- Cerebral blood flow via ultrasound
- EEG electrical reading of the brrain
- fMRI magnetic resonance imaging, functional.
Which diet is best for neuroplasticity?
In general these are anti-inflammatory, ketogenic diets that have been shown to enhance the biomarkers of neuroplasticity. Here are the top 4, not in any particular order:
- Mediterranean diet – less meat and dairy and high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats
- Ketogenic diet – higher in fats, protein and vegetables, limiting carbs Petersson and Philippou, 2016 Shown to reduce free radicals and increase glutathione.
- Intermittent fasting – 16-18 hour fast
- Calorie restriction (20-40%) Lee et al., 2002, Witte et al., 2009
Powerful nutrients you can add or supplement to speed up brain neuroplasticity:
- Astaxanthin – from red algae, powerful antioxidant, reduces reactive oxygen species
- Liposomal Curcumin – enhances synaptic activity
- EGCG from green tea – reduces inflammation and promotes growth
- Essential fatty acids – needed to make the myelin sheath which is the protective fatty layer surrounding the axon of the nerves, without this the nerves cannot grow
- DHA from fish roe, essential fatty acid
- Lions Mane Mushroom, stimulates neuronal growth factors
Foods to include to enhance neuroplasticity:
- High antioxidant foods – organic berries, tomato, spinach, broccoli, carrots
- Food high plant fats, unsaturated – organic olives, nuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, avocado, purslane
- Small fatty fish and fish roe – contain high DHA, which is a fat involved in the function of the synapse.
- Grass fed organic chicken or beef liver – contain phospholipids such as phosphatphosphatidylcholine and phosphatphosphatidylserine which contain the building blocks of healthy membranes and offset stress induced inflammation in the brain.
Enemies of neuroplasticity:
- Diet high in saturated fats, sugars, preservatives
- High amounts of oxidative stress, being obese, exposed to radiation, toxin exposure, chronic infections
- High glucose can lead to cell damage in caplillaries in the brain and body
- Heavy metals can damage the brain tissue, accumulated from food and environmental sources
- Organophosphates or pesticides, neurotoxic
- Herbicides, weed killer, neurotoxic
Hope this is helpful! If you want more information on toxins please check out my website under Resources or go to the search bar and type in ‘toxin’. Also if you are concerned about metals, there is a test we can run in our office that will give you a fingerprint of your levels. One last note, I have clinically seen results quickly with Lions Mane Mushroom, if you wanted to try just one thing.
Here’s to your brain health!