Hormesis is the “the capacity of low doses of a potentially harmful stimulus to promote beneficial changes in adaptive plasticity”. Diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes can alter the functioning of the brain through hormesis.
A substance known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), found in the brain’s hippocampus, plays a part in synaptic plasticity, mental health and cognitive functions. BDNF is reduced by obesity and hyperglycemia, while caloric restriction (CR) increases levels of BDNF. (Humans are believed to have developed our genome in an environment of alternating feasting and caloric restriction.)
Rats fed diets of high saturated fats and sucrose show decreased brain BDNF levels, and difficulty with learning and memory. Antioxidant therapy reduces the effects of this diet on synaptic plasticity and learning. Antioxidant foods, such as blueberries, increase synaptic plasticity of the hippocampus and improve memory. Curcumin and vitamin E increase synaptic plasticity and improve memory during aging. Omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) increases BDNF and low omega-3 diets are associated with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Energy metabolism is influenced by environmental factors. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced by energy metabolism in cells and cause cell damage when excessive. Nerve cell plasticity is compromised by excessive ROS, especially with aging.
CONCLUSION: A healthy diet (with omega-3) and exercise, benefit the brain by increasing levels of BDNF. Exercise, especially cardiovascular fitness training, improves learning, mental health and memory, and increases BDNF levels in the hippocampus of the brain. Lifestyle effects can, most likely, be transmitted across generations as “epigenetic phenomena”. Exercise during pregnancy alters the brain and improves learning of babies.
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