Your brain is constantly changing. The cells in your brain — neurons — make and break connections all the time. But until recently, scientists thought that a dead neuron is gone forever.
Well, it turns out that the hippocampus — a unique region of the brain that controls memory, learning and mood — can grow new neurons throughout our lives. This process, called neurogenesis or neural regeneration, offers us a taste of true recovery.
And that’s great news, because this region of the brain can get damaged or shrink from a variety of causes including:
- Neurodegenerative diseases.
When people speak of the brain-healing properties of cannabidiol (CBD) oil, they refer to CBD’s ability to protect living neurons (neuroprotection), to help them form new connections (neuroplasticity), and even to trigger the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis).
However, if you want to maximize your healing — either to counter the cognitive effects of aging or recover from depression — CBD will work best when paired with other interventions. Here are 9 science-backed ways to naturally promote hippocampal neurogenesis:
- Exercise. Exercise is one of the best ways to heal your brain, fight depression and even lower your risk for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Numerous studies suggest that exercise promotes neuron growth by boosting your brain’s brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. BDNF is a protein that encourages the growth of new neurons and connections (synapses). Try pairing your exercise routine with a stimulating environment (like hiking outdoors), which helps the survival and integration of these newly-created neurons.
- Spend time with others. Social isolation harms both our bodies and our brains. Rats living in social isolation produce less BDNF in their hippocampi. Social isolation can even negate the power of exercise to stimulate neuron growth. If you’ve been spending too much time alone, have lunch with a friend, join a class, or volunteer.
- Restorative sleep. We’ve all heard the many benefits of a good night’s sleep. It turns out sleep is also important for repairing and growing the hippocampus. Chronic sleep deprivation — both reduced hours or disrupted sleep — can impair neurogenesis. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, it’s absolutely worth exploring ways to improve it.
- Sex. Sex is great for growing new neurons — with a few caveats. For males, rat experiments suggest that regular sexual activity is best, since isolated trysts simultaneously raise hippocampus-harming stress hormones. On the other hand, female rats only receive brain benefits from sex when they are in charge.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol might not “kill” brain cells, but it does shrink your hippocampus. In rats, moderate drinking (equivalent to 3-4 drinks per day) reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus by 40%. However, rats also have a burst of regeneration after 7 days of sobriety. So, if you drink regularly, try incorporating sober weeks into your schedule.
- Meditation. Long-term meditators have larger hippocampi, and a 3-month retreat program of yoga and meditation raises BDNF levels. Don’t worry if you don’t have 3 months to spare — any amount of time spent on stress reduction and relaxation will benefit your hippocampus.
- Healthy diet. Although there is no perfect diet for everyone, it appears that high-fat diets, particularly when combined with refined sugars, are bad for neurogenesis. Vitamin deficiencies can also get in the way of hippocampal regeneration.
- Intermittent fasting. Studies show that fasting and caloric restriction could benefit your brain. In rats, fasting increases levels of interferon‐γ — a molecule that protects the hippocampus from stress-induced death. And in mice, fasting increased BDNF and neural growth. Fasting isn’t for everyone, but your digestive tract might at least appreciate an occasional break.
- Supplements. It happens to the best of us... Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we fail to eat right, exercise enough, or otherwise treat our bodies right. When this happens, many people use supplements to achieve balance. Although CBD oil research is the most promising, studies show that curcumin, resveratrol, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, quercetin (a plant flavonoid) and bilobalide (from ginkgo biloba) supplements could all contribute to stimulating regeneration of the hippocampus.
Written by: Genevieve R. Moore PhD