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Unlocking the Relationship Between Brain Health and Mental Wellbeing

“I think, therefore I am”.

In many ways, we are our thoughts – and therefore our brains. The brain is a complex organ, playing a crucial part in bodily functions, helping us interact with the world around us and processing thoughts ranging from the mundane to strokes of creativity.

But…if we don’t make it a priority to keep our brains healthy, we can experience a range of challenges, ranging from mild migraines, memory loss and brain fog to more serious neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and even mental health disorders. Poor mental wellbeing, even something as “harmless” as stress, can wreak havoc in our brains, causing brain function to deteriorate.



In this article based on our recent in person educational event with Professor Jerome Sarris and Ora’s CEO and Founder Gabriel Perera, we’ll share the latest research-based protocols for enhancing your cognitive function and slowing brain ageing as well as how we can prevent against the onset of neurodegenerative disorders.

We’ll also explain how brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) works as a compelling novel biomarker with strong evidence-based links to neuroprotection and neuro-enhancement, and unpack research on integrative and break-through approaches to effectively treat mental illness, including the clinical application of psychedelics.

We’ve broken this complex landscape into four core ideas which you can think of as a continuum – you’ll note that the protocols and recommendations in each section have similarities, but are only differentiated by the specific treatments applied in each “level” of care: 

  1. Maintaining optimal brain health
  2. Enhancing cognitive performance and executive function
  3. Slowing and reversing brain ageing and preventing neurodegenerative disorders
  4. Integrative and breakthrough approaches to addressing mental illness


1) Maintaining Optimal Brain Health

What is optimal brain health, and what does it encompass?

Optimal brain health refers to the state in which our brains are functioning at their best possible level, allowing an individual to think, learn, remember, and process information efficiently. This includes: 

  • Sharp cognitive abilities: Optimal brain health involves quick and effective problem-solving, decision-making, and learning skills.
  • Emotional wellbeing: A healthy brain contributes to balanced emotions and a positive mood.
  • Resilience: Optimal brain health helps individuals adapt to and recover from stressful situations more easily.
  • Disease prevention: Maintaining optimal brain health reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

So how do we achieve optimal brain health and maintain it for the long-term?

Research now reveals that much of the answer lies in a very special protein found in the brain and other parts of the body, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)

BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a protein found in the brain and other parts of the body. It plays a crucial role in promoting the survival, growth, and differentiation of neurons in the brain. 

This protein not only plays a key role in promoting neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganise its structure and function in response to experiences, learning, and environmental changes, it also promotes neurogenesis, or the generation of new neurons in the brain as well as synaptic plasticity, which refers to the ability of synapses (connections between neurons) to strengthen or weaken over time in response to activity.

These processes all play a part in learning, memory, and overall cognitive function, helping to protect the brain against cognitive decline associated with ageing and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Diet and BDNF

Consuming adequate amounts of healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts), lean proteins and non-starchy vegetables while avoiding processed foods, refined sugars, and grains – like what you’d find in a Mediterranean diet – is key to keeping the brain healthy.

The Mediterranean diet is in fact now recommended by many clinicians as a first line protocol, with ketogenic diets coming second, as both diets have been causally linked not just to reduced inflammation and improved insulin sensitivity, but also to enhanced cognitive function.

The typical Western diet, on the other hand, which is rich in simple carbohydrates and saturated fats, has been linked to chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. Inflammation can impair BDNF signalling and reduce BDNF levels, which may contribute to cognitive decline and mood disorders. High-fat diets and diets rich in processed foods have also been shown to impair synaptic plasticity and reduce BDNF expression, which may negatively impact learning and memory processes.

Exercise and BDNF

Keeping in your regimen a mix of aerobic exercise and weight training is a great way to boost brain health since exercise is known to trigger the release of BDNF, promoting the growth of new brain cells. 

More so than continuous low intensity exercise, high intensity aerobic exercise has been found to be particularly effective in increasing BDNF. This works by promoting the production of lactate, a metabolic by-product of glucose metabolism. The body "shuttles" lactate from the muscles to various tissues like the heart and brain, serving as an energy source. Once in the brain, lactate acts as a signalling molecule to activate BDNF.


One study found long duration (about 40 minutes) moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise (at least 65% max heart rate) elicited the greatest effects on BDNF levels – nearly one-third higher than before exercising – in young and healthy men. However, a 30-minute session is relatively common in most studies and appears sufficient to induce sustained (24-hour) improvements in memory.

In another study, after participating in a six-month dance program, older adults' brain volumes increased in areas crucial for memory, and plasma BDNF levels rose significantly.

While the rise in BDNF levels following exercise is short-lived – usually less than an hour post-exercise – the long-term impact is considerable, with animal studies demonstrating that exercise leads to increased neurogenesis in the brain.

There's more to BDNF than its role in the brain.

While BDNF is primarily known for its role in the brain, emerging research suggests that it also plays important roles outside the central nervous system. For example, BDNF is a biomarker for some disease states.

  • Suicide risk: BDNF levels are typically lower among women who have attempted suicide than women who have not.
  • Parkinson's disease: Low BDNF levels are often seen in early-stage Parkinson's disease and may serve to distinguish between Parkinson's disease and essential tremor. High BDNF levels may manifest in later stages of Parkinson's disease – possibly the body's attempt to compensate for more severe symptoms.
  • Trauma and depression link: Short-term increases in BDNF levels that occur with physical or other trauma often correlate with better outcomes for the risk of developing depression.
  • Gut permeability: BDNF regulates the expression of tight junction proteins which is essential for maintaining gut barrier integrity.
  • Stroke: BDNF levels are markedly lower immediately after a stroke and may predict stroke recovery outcomes.


2) Enhancing Cognitive Performance and Executive Function 

Now that we have our baseline brain health in place, how can we begin to level up (you’ve seen the Bradley Cooper movie Limitless right?)? Many of us are looking to push our physical and mental performance – but we’re also not looking to tap out our adrenals with all-night study sessions, endless espresso shots or other potentially harmful pharmacological stimulants.

Is there a way to safely turn up and tune up our cognition based on both naturopathic principles and the latest in cognitive neuroscience?

Indeed there is…


Engaging in heat therapy through soaking in a hot tub or enjoying a sauna session can elevate your BDNF levels and thus brain health and cognitive function. This effect aligns with the known benefits of heat therapy in reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer's.

While one study showed a 20-minute hot water soak at 42°C increased BDNF in healthy young men to levels that were two-thirds higher than before soaking, another study showed an increase in BDNF levels after a ten-week regimen of regular heat exposure in a sauna at 80°C compared to light-intensity exercise, positioning sauna bathing as a promising method for promoting brain health through BDNF production.


Human studies consistently show that regular meditation can improve executive function and memory. This cognitive sharpening is again primarily due to increased BDNF. In one study, experienced meditators who participated in a three-month-long yoga and meditation retreat had threefold increases in their plasma BDNF levels compared to their pre-retreat levels. The meditators' self-reported scores for depression and anxiety (which were already low) decreased by about 60 percent.


Sleep, as we know, plays a vital role in cognitive performance and overall brain function. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. On the other hand, adequate sleep – which is not just the duration of sleep but also the quality – enhances many cognitive processes.

During sleep, especially during the deep stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the brain consolidates memories, transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory. This process is crucial for learning and retaining new information. REM sleep has also been linked to creativity, the consolidation of associative thinking and the integration of novel ideas.

Quality sleep is also essential for optimal learning, skill acquisition and improved concentration. Studies have shown that individuals who get sufficient sleep demonstrate better performance on tasks requiring memory recall, comprehension, and the acquisition of new skills compared to those who are sleep deprived.

Time-Restricted Eating and Intermittent Fasting

Time-restricted eating (TRE) and intermittent fasting (IF) involve limiting the time window during which food is consumed within a day. While both TRE and IF have gained popularity for their benefits in weight management and metabolic health, emerging research suggests that they may also have positive effects on cognitive performance.

Studies in animals and some preliminary research in humans suggest that intermittent fasting may promote neuroplasticity and increase the production of BDNF, as well as enhance spatial memory and improve learning and memory performance. These effects may be attributed to increased synaptic plasticity and improved neuronal signalling in regions of the brain involved in memory formation, such as the hippocampus.

While the exact mechanisms of action underlying the potential health benefits of time-restricted eating or fasting have yet to be fully understood, studies have suggested that they regulate circadian rhythm and autophagy by aligning food intake with the circadian rhythm, thereby improving insulin sensitivity, lowering inflammation and reducing oxidative stress.




As we now know, exercise plays a crucial role in maintaining brain health, but it is also key in improving cognitive performance through increasing BDNF, improving cerebral blood flow, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and promoting neuroplasticity.

With aerobic exercise having been shown to have particularly potent effects on cognitive function including improvements in memory, attention, and executive function, experts typically recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week.

Resistance training is also beneficial for cognitive health, as it can improve cognitive control, working memory, and processing speed. Experts recommend incorporating resistance training exercises that target major muscle groups into your routine at least two days per week.

Herbs and Supplements 

Several supplements and compounds have been studied for their potential to promote brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production and have shown promising results in preclinical and clinical studies. Here are some supplements and compounds that may promote BDNF production:

Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines), fish oil supplements and algae oil supplements, omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with increased BDNF levels in the brain. Long-term supplementation (greater than 10 weeks) and moderate doses (about 1.5 grams daily) have more robust effects on BDNF levels, especially in people under the age of 50.

Creatine: Creatine is a compound that is naturally produced in the body and is also found in certain foods, particularly meat and fish. It is widely known for its role in providing energy to cells, particularly during high-intensity activities like exercise. However, research suggests that creatine may also have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects through its role in adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production and antioxidant activity.

Alpinia galangal: Alpinia galangal contains bioactive compounds, such as flavonoids and phenolic compounds, that possess anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation in the brain has been associated with decreased BDNF levels and impaired neuroplasticity. By reducing inflammation, extracts from Alpinia galangal may help maintain or increase BDNF expression. Some studies also suggest that Alpinia galangal extracts may modulate signalling pathways involved in BDNF regulation. For example, they may activate the cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB) pathway, which plays a key role in the transcriptional regulation of BDNF. Activation of CREB can lead to increased BDNF expression and secretion.

Bacopa monnieri: Bacopa monnieri contains bioactive compounds known as bacosides, which have been shown to possess neuroprotective properties. These compounds may protect neurons from oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, and prevent neuronal damage caused by toxins or other harmful substances.

Yerba mate: Chronic stress has been associated with decreased BDNF levels in the brain, particularly in regions involved in mood regulation and cognition. Yerba mate (*botanical name) has been shown to have adaptogenic properties, meaning it may help the body adapt to and cope with stress more effectively. Yerba mate also contains a small amount of caffeine that has been shown to increase BDNF levels in animal studies. Caffeine can activate adenosine receptors in the brain, which in turn can trigger the release of BDNF. 

Curcumin: Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric (Curcuma longa), a spice commonly used in Indian cuisine. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to increase BDNF levels in animal studies.

Lion's mane mushroom: Lion's mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal mushroom with potential neuroprotective effects. It contains compounds known as hericenones and erinacines, which have been shown to stimulate BDNF production and promote nerve growth in animal studies. 


3) Slowing and Reversing Brain Ageing and Preventing Neurodegenerative Disorders

For those of us who have witnessed loved ones succumb to either cognitive ageing or impairment (slower processing speeds, impaired focus, memory, attention or impacts on problem solving) or neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia, it’s clear that despite all measures, ageing is inevitable, and the decline will continue.

However, there are ways to slow that process, with evidence now confirming the importance of cognitive reserves in long-term brain health. 

Cognitive reserve refers to how flexibly and efficiently the individual makes use of available brain resources. These reserves are built up over a lifetime through various factors such as education, intellectual stimulation, social engagement, and healthy lifestyle choices, providing resilience against age-related changes and neurological diseases, supporting compensation for brain damage, enhancing cognitive functioning, promoting brain plasticity and protecting against stress and trauma. 

In short, the greater our cognitive reserves, the better our cognitive performance and the lower our risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Building Cognitive Reserves 

Research indicates that a person's level of intelligence, which has roots tracing back to childhood, along with their lifetime experiences, play significant roles in the development of cognitive reserve. These experiences encompass various aspects such as education, intellectually stimulating jobs and engagement in activities that offer mental, social, and leisure benefits.

Longitudinal studies conducted over extended periods have consistently shown that these lifetime experiences contribute to the development of cognitive reserve. Individuals with higher levels of education and more engaging lifestyles tend to experience a slower rate of cognitive decline as they age and are at a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. In fact, some studies suggest that these experiences may lower the risk of Alzheimer's by as much as 35-40%, with individuals exhibiting the brain changes associated with the disease but remaining asymptomatic. 

While the precise mechanisms remain unclear and are the subject of ongoing research, one theory suggests that engaging in stimulating activities strengthens or creates new neural connections in the brain, leading to more efficient or higher-capacity brain networks responsible for specific cognitive functions. Furthermore, individuals may develop the ability to employ alternative cognitive strategies if typical brain networks are compromised.

The three best ways to build your cognitive reserves are: 

Keep learning: Just because you are no longer in school does not mean that the learning stops. Intelligence is one very crucial factor in boosting your cognitive reserve. Having a mentally stimulating day job or participating in activities that keep the mind active, whether it is learning a new language, crossword puzzles or chess, can help to increase your reserves. 

Stay socially connected: Research has shown the direct link between socialising and cognitive development, especially as we age. Engaging in social interactions involves complex cognitive processes such as perception and comprehension as well as stimulates cognitive functions like attention and memory. It also provides emotional reassurance and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation which we know have detrimental effects on brain structure and function.

Prioritise physical activity: Regular physical exercise, especially aerobic activities such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming, promotes brain health and cognitive function. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the release of BDNF, reduces inflammation, and enhances neuroplasticity. 

Improving Cellular Health

Our brains are made up of cells called neurons, so keeping our brains healthy requires keeping those cells healthy – and this all comes down to minimising oxidative stress and reducing exposure to toxins and associated inflammation.

Autophagy and mitophagy are the two key processes that play essential roles in minimising oxidative stress in our cells. They remove damaged or dysfunctional cellular components such as misfolded proteins and defective mitochondria (the energy-producing organelles) in our cells and their mitochondria respectively, thereby preventing the accumulation of cellular debris and maintaining cellular homeostasis in the brain and the rest the body.

The three ways to trigger autophagy and mitophagy are:

Hormesis: Hormesis is where low doses of positive stressors induce adaptive responses that enhance resilience in the body resulting in the improvement of overall health and longevity. Sauna and ice baths, high-intensity interval exercise and fasting are examples of activities that can induce hormetic responses, promoting not just neuroplasticity, but also mitigate the effects of oxidative stress, inflammation, and protein aggregation associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Sulforaphane: Sulforaphane is a naturally occurring compound found in cruciferous vegetables, particularly broccoli sprouts. It exhibits potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. Preclinical studies have also demonstrated that sulforaphane has neuroprotective effects against neurodegenerative conditions. It may help prevent the formation of toxic protein aggregates such as beta-amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's disease and alpha-synuclein aggregates in Parkinson's disease. Additionally, sulforaphane may promote the clearance of damaged proteins and dysfunctional mitochondria through mechanisms such as autophagy and proteasomal degradation, thereby preserving neuronal viability and function.

Reduce stress: Lowering stress through the regulation of our thoughts and emotions and improving relationships is crucial as the health of our neurons, neuronal circuitry and the associated connections is highly affected by our thoughts, emotions and related stress levels. The emotional part of our brain, our limbic system, craves relationships – a meta-analysis suggests that people self-reporting feeling lonely had a 26% increase in all-cause mortality (risk of dying prematurely) regardless of age, sex or other health factors.


4) Integrative and Breakthrough Approaches to Addressing Mental Illness

Psychiatry has come a long way in the last 10 to 20 years – and yet, much of the medication currently used for mental health disorders such as SSRI antidepressants and lithium are based on science that is over 50 years old. Moreover, for many people suffering from mental illness, traditional pharmaceuticals don’t always work well and even have significant side effects.

This has led to an increasing number of clinicians and researchers looking to psychedelics for their potential therapeutic applications in addressing a variety of mental health conditions – psilocybin, the active ingredient found in “magic mushrooms”, MDMA which is also known as ecstasy, and DMT, an ingredient in South American psychoactive brew Ayahuasca.

Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy

Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in certain species of mushrooms, has shown promise as a therapeutic agent for depression, anxiety disorders, and existential distress. Clinical trials have demonstrated that psilocybin-assisted therapy, administered in a controlled and supportive setting, can lead to profound and enduring changes in mood, cognition, and behaviour. For individuals with treatment-resistant depression or anxiety, psilocybin therapy offers a novel approach that targets underlying psychological and existential issues through introspective and transformative experiences. 

LSD-Assisted Therapy

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) has a long and storied history in psychiatry, dating back to the mid-20th century when it was investigated as a potential treatment for various mental health conditions. More recently, research has revived interest in LSD-assisted therapy for addressing existential distress, end-of-life anxiety, and other psychological challenges. Studies have shown that LSD-assisted therapy can induce profound mystical experiences and facilitate psychological insights that promote healing, acceptance, and personal growth. In the context of palliative care and hospice settings, LSD therapy offers a unique opportunity for individuals facing the end of life to confront existential fears, find meaning and purpose, and approach death with greater peace and acceptance.

MDMA-Assisted Therapy 

3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA) has emerged as a promising adjunct to psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma-related disorders. Clinical trials have demonstrated that MDMA-assisted therapy can enhance emotional processing, facilitate therapeutic rapport, and reduce symptoms of PTSD, including intrusive memories, hyperarousal, and avoidance behaviours. By promoting feelings of safety, trust, and empathy, MDMA therapy helps individuals engage more deeply in the therapeutic process, allowing them to process traumatic memories and emotions in a supportive and non-threatening environment.

Ayahuasca-Assisted Therapy

Ayahuasca, a traditional plant-based brew used by indigenous communities in the Amazon for healing and spiritual purposes, has gained recognition as a potential treatment for addiction and substance use disorders. Clinical research has shown that ayahuasca ceremonies, conducted under the guidance of experienced facilitators, can lead to profound insights, emotional catharsis, and behavioural changes that support recovery from addiction. By addressing underlying psychological issues, promoting self-awareness, and fostering spiritual growth, ayahuasca therapy offers a holistic approach to addiction treatment that goes beyond symptom management to address the root causes of substance abuse.

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