What is Strength?
Humans are visual creatures. We make visual assessments all the time of the world – and people – around us. How many times have you walked into a gym, gave someone the ocular pat down, and made an assessment of their capability and capacity? That tall jacked dude in the corner – he’s definitely strong. And that girl with the lat spread like a cobra definitely can lift a small car.
But I would also bet there numerous examples where you made a judgement based on appearance, only to have that judgement shattered. You were so enamored by the huge dude that you totally missed the small guy next to him out-lifting him by a mile.
While size can be an indicator, size doesn’t always equal strength. To quote Louie Simmons, “Big ain’t strong. Strong is strong”. A lot of what makes up strength comes from the mind, and today we’re going to be exploring one facet of this mind-muscle connection. Specifically, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF.
Strong Body or Strong Mind?
Does strength have more to do with the body or the mind? Looking at strength through a strictly biological lens, it’s nothing more than an electrical signal from the brain to the muscles synchronizing the firing order of the motor units. The key here is how this signal is delivered to the muscles – more specifically, the path this signal takes to get there.
When you’re going for a lift, be it a warm up rep or a 1RM, the first thing that happens is an electrical impulse is generated in the brain. This impulse travels through the spinal chord, into the nervous system, and finally into the musculature. Before reaching the musculature though, the signal first stops at the Neuromuscular Junction (NMJ).
The NMJ is s a highly specialized connection between the terminal end of a motor nerve and a muscle. It’s much like firing a gun; only instead of firing a bullet, you’re lifting a weight (or throwing a ball, swinging a club, jumping on a box, etc). Squeezing the trigger (brain) causes the release of a firing pin (neurons), which moves forward to strike the primer (NMJ), causing it to explode and execute the movement. Yeah, buddy!
BNDFs For the Win
Now we get to the star for today, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, aka BDNF. BDNF plays an important role as a neurotransmitter, being involved in neuronal survival, growth, and assisting with neuroplasticity. And, as you probably suspected, BDNFs can also be a key factor in maximizing performance. To cite one study, “during exercise stimuli the BDNF contributes directly to strengthening neuromuscular junctions, muscle regeneration, insulin-regulated glucose uptake and beta-oxidation processes in muscle tissue (1).” In other words, BDNF helps you have healthy neurons, and healthy neurons means a healthier, stronger, and happier you.
Just Tell Me What It Is
To put it simply, BDNF is a nerve growth factor that affects your cognitive function. How well you learn new information or skills, your mood, and even your metabolism is all affected by BDNF. Low levels are often linked to people with neurological disorders and chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, as well as both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. But there are also things within our control that can affect our BDNF levels. Specifically, poor diet, poor sleep patterns, and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to lower levels.
Just Tell Me How To Get More
If you care about performance (which you should), then you know your mental game is just as important as your physical one. If you want to operate at your best, having good BDNF levels will accomplish this. If your levels are low, your mood may be off and your neurons will not fire as well as they could.
But if you are low, you’re in luck! Here is a short list of things you can do that can easily increase your levels:
- We’ve got you covered here. If low BDNF levels are your sickness, then smashing some weights is the cure. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to increase your BDNF levels. Studies have shown that BDNF growth is intensity-dependent, meaning the more harder your muscles work in a short period of time, the larger the rise in BDNF (2). Increases have also been linked to low-to-moderate movement, so don’t think burning it down is the only way you can see improvements. Yoga, mobility work, even a walk can help. If you’re unsure of what to do, then hop on to any of Power Athlete’s training programs and follow along on Train Heroic. Bonus points if you get outside and get some Vitamin D from the sun while you’re at it.
- You are what you eat, so make sure you’re not eating a bunch of junk. Processed foods have been linked to causing impairments in BDNF pathways (3). A good rule of thumb to follow? Eat with abandon: meat, fowl, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, roots, tubers, bulbs, herbs and spices, as well as animal fats, olives, avocados, coconut and dairy.
- As far as supplements go, it’s always a good idea to get some bloodwork done and see if you are deficient in any vitamins or minerals. However, you can’t go wrong with consuming a juicy steak along with polyphenol and antioxidant rich foods such as turmeric, blueberries, blackberries, and leafy greens. You may want to take some fish oil as well. Taking a DHA dietary supplement such as fish oil has been shown to increase BDNF levels in the brain, and these effects are enhanced when combined with exercise (4).
- Depending on your goals and current state, some studies suggest you might also see some BDNF improvements following a Keto-like protocol, due to the high protein/high fat/lower carb intake (5). Additionally, being in a state of ketosis has been linked to assisting neuron activity and production of BDNF (6). But remember the key here is goals – what are you training and eating for? Lowering your carbs may affect your performance, so IF you choose to go this route, including a carb refeed window may be beneficial.
- Ahh, precious sleep. This is probably the number one performance enhancer that people sleep on (take that IngoB). If you’re not getting enough, both in quantity and QUALITY, then your BDNF levels are going to suffer. You need to strive to get a good 7-9 hours per night of quality sleep. Some suggestions to help improve sleep quality are to sleep in a cool, dark room, avoid blue light at night, and avoid alcohol, especially close to bedtime.
- If you’re a shift worker like me, sleep can sometimes (and will) get completely wrecked when you’re on the job. As a firefighter, getting poor sleep when at work is part of the job description, which is why it’s important to maximize the sleep you are getting on your days off, to help balance out those less than optimal nights. Things like establish a bedtime routine, turning off the lights in your house when the sun goes down, and taking a magnesium supplement, or something like Doc Parsley’s Sleep Remedy, can be very helpful for getting a good night’s sleep.
- Sometimes, missing out on good quality sleep is simply unavoidable. Whether you’re a in the military, a firefighter, police officer, or a new parent waking up with your baby, there are moments when duty calls. Thank goodness we have this gift from the gods known as COFFEE. Research suggests that sleep deprivation prevents stimulation induced levels of BDNF. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to know that your brain doesn’t function as well when you are lacking sleep. However, one study tested the results of sleep deprivation combined with a healthy dose of caffeine, and the results suggested that chronic caffeine treatment may protect the sleep deprived brain probably by preserving the levels of BDNF (7). However, this does NOT mean that this is a workaround or life hack – look at caffeine as more of a bandaid; it will NOT replace a quality night’s sleep.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Remember, we want to be the hammer – not the nail. BDNF plays an important role in your performance and overall health, assisting with neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, your metabolism, mood, stress, immune system, decision making skills, and the list goes on! Overall, whether you’re looking to find an extra edge over the competition or are just trying to live a healthy life, everyone can benefit from having higher levels of BDNF. So, slug some coffee in the morning, smash some weights, eat a clean diet, and get a good night’s sleep to help make sure you’re firing on all cylinders!
Blog – The Mental Energy Systems of a Coach by Don Ricci
Blog – Meditating on Muscle by Hunter Waldman
- Rentería I, García-Suárez PC, Fry AC, Moncada-Jiménez J, Machado-Parra JP, Antunes BM, Jiménez-Maldonado A. The Molecular Effects of BDNF Synthesis on Skeletal Muscle: A Mini-Review. Front Physiol. 2022 Jul 6;13:934714. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.934714. PMID: 35874524; PMCID: PMC9306488.. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35874524/
- Gyorkos A, Baker MH, Miutz LN, Lown DA, Jones MA, Houghton-Rahrig LD. Carbohydrate-restricted Diet and Exercise Increase Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor and Cognitive Function: A Randomized Crossover Trial. Cureus. 2019 Sep 9;11(9):e5604. doi: 10.7759/cureus.5604. PMID: 31700717; PMCID: PMC6822553.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6822553/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6822553/
- Verônica T. Dias a, Fabíola Trevizol a, Raquel C.S. Barcelos a, Fabio T. Kunh a, Katiane Roversi a, Karine Roversi d, Alessandra J. Schuster d, Camila S. Pase a, Ronaldo Golombieski e, Tatiana Emanuelli a c, Marilise E. Bürger. Lifelong consumption of trans fatty acids promotes striatal impairments on Na+/K+ ATPase activity and BDNF mRNA expression in an animal model of mania. Received 28 May 2015, Revised 14 September 2015, Accepted 17 September 2015, Available online 21 September 2015, Version of Record 19 October 2015.
- Lu B. Pro-region of neurotrophins: role in synaptic modulation. Neuron. 2003 Aug 28;39(5):735-8. doi: 10.1016/s0896-6273(03)00538-5. PMID: 12948441.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12948441/
- Wahl D, Cogger VC, Solon-Biet SM, Waern RV, Gokarn R, Pulpitel T, Cabo Rd, Mattson MP, Raubenheimer D, Simpson SJ, Le Couteur DG. Nutritional strategies to optimise cognitive function in the aging brain. Ageing Res Rev. 2016 Nov;31:80-92. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2016.06.006. Epub 2016 Jun 26. PMID: 27355990; PMCID: PMC5035589.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5035589/
- Mattson MP, Moehl K, Ghena N, Schmaedick M, Cheng A. Intermittent metabolic switching, neuroplasticity and brain health. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2018 Feb;19(2):63-80. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2017.156. Epub 2018 Jan 11. Erratum in: Nat Rev Neurosci. 2020 Aug;21(8):445. PMID: 29321682; PMCID: PMC5913738.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5913738/
- Alhaider IA, Aleisa AM, Tran TT, Alkadhi KA. Sleep deprivation prevents stimulation-induced increases of levels of P-CREB and BDNF: protection by caffeine. Mol Cell Neurosci. 2011 Apr;46(4):742-51. doi: 10.1016/j.mcn.2011.02.006. Epub 2011 Feb 19. PMID: 21338685.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21338685/
Matt Spaid is a Firefighter, Strength Coach, and a Marine Corps Veteran. He began working in the fitness industry in 2012 as a CrossFit Coach. This experience led to training a wide variety of athletes while learning different aspects of health and wellness. He is a firm believer that in order to be healthy and strong, you must have a balanced approach through the body, mind, and spirit. This outlook led to embracing the Power Athlete Methodology and eventually becoming a Power Athlete Certified Coach.
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