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Want a Brain Boost? Try a Jog—or a Curry

January 31, 2014

 

 

Exercise: you know you should, and yet for many, vanity might not be enough to get you on the old treadmill first thing in the morning.

 

So if that isn’t getting you out of bed and into your sneakers, perhaps your brain might do it. No, not do your exercise, but rather, provide the best argument for working up a sweat.

 

It turns out that during strenuous physical activity, your brain produces a neural chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short.

 

In his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, Harvard psychiatrist John J Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Why the fertilizer reference? BDNF strengthens the brain’s electrical connections by boosting their strength and vitality. This means that BDNF plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to rewire itself, often referred to as plasticity.

 

In an interesting study done in Germany, two groups faced off on treadmills. The first group supplemented their 45-minute exercise routine with two separate 3-minute intervals of intense sprinting. The control group didn’t include the high intensity sprinting intervals.

 

In subsequent memory tests, the sprinting group showed a 20% increase in word acquisition over the non-sprinters. Not surprisingly, the sprinters showed increased levels of BDNF, where the non-sprinters showed no difference.

 

Neuroscientist John Medina recommends in his book Brain Rules that we exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day at an aerobic level. Recent Scottish studies support the German findings: extra bursts of brief, high-intensity exercise have a profound effect.

 

Memory improvement not convincing enough for you? How about kicking your mood up a notch? The neurotropic factor released during exercise appears to increase the output of dopamine and serotonin. Both are associated with well-being and enhanced mood.

 

Not into exercise? What about Indian food?

 

Another way to boost your BDNF is by consuming curcumin. It’s one of the main components of the spice tumeric, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also “a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.” You can find tumeric in most commercial curry powders, or on its own as a flavoring and a natural food dye.

 

So tomorrow morning, do your brain a favor and jump on the treadmill. Afterwards, sprinkle a healthy helping of turmeric on your Cheerios. Or better yet, treat yourself to a nice yellow curry at your favorite Indian haunt tomorrow evening. Or do both—your call.

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