How to Improve Your Memory: A Lesson in Epigenetics

Deep down in the center of your brain lies a very special area where all your memories are stored. It’s called the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is dynamic. It is constantly being damaged by stress, toxins, and lousy food choices, so it requires continual repair. In young, healthy brains, the repair keeps up with the damage, and memory remains unaffected. When damage increases or the repair rate slows, the healing process can’t keep up, and memory problems gradually appear.

The process by which the brain heals and grows new brain cells is called neurogenesis. Damage to the brain’s hippocampus slows or stops neurogenesis. Without neurogenesis, the brain also loses its neuroplasticity, the ability to change and adapt.

This bring us to BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a powerful neurohormone that activates and accelerates neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, almost all of which happens in the hippocampus. If you wish to improve your memory, the logical place to start would be to stimulate the production of BDNF.

Now you may be thinking, “That sounds good, but how the heck do I do it?” It’s easy. You could simply skip to the end of the article and start incorporating the items on the list into your lifestyle. But if you’d like to learn a little about epigenetics—the science of understanding what controls the expression of our genes—read on.

Lifestyle and Epigenetics

The genes in our DNA molecules bathe in a watery soup in a huge cellular bathtub. Also floating in that soup are proteins called transcription factors. These are the commanders that activate the genes and tell them whether or not to “express” themselves (by making a protein). Together, thousands of different transcription factors form a complex system that guides and controls expression of the entire genome.

If transcription factors control the expression of the genes, who controls the transcription factors? You do! The choices you make directly determine which transcription factors are present in the cellular soup. The foods you eat, the supplements you take, the exercise you do, whether you practice autophagy and eat a low-carb ketogenic diet, and other choices all exert powerful influences on the composition of the soup and the expression of the genes. By altering your lifestyle behaviors, you can control the types and amounts of transcription factors in this fluid, and this, in turn, directly—and dramatically—affects the quality and quantity of the work your genes will be able to do.

How to Boost BDNF

The following is a list of research-proven lifestyle changes that activate BDNF genes and stimulate BDNF production. Keep in mind that BDNF heals damaged brain cells, grows new ones, enhances neuroplasticity, and revitalizes your hippocampus. Try to incorporate as many of these strategies into your life as possible—not just to improve your memory but, even more important, for bulletproof protection from Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Exercise: Daily brisk walking or jogging is far and away the most potent stimulator of BDNF gene expression. One excellent controlled study compared two groups: one walked daily and the other didn’t. The exercise group experienced an increased hippocampal volume of 2 percent per year and showed improved memory, while the placebo group lost hippocampal size and memory as their brains aged.
  • Food: Shift to a ketogenic diet (a very-low-carb, high-fat diet) that includes healthy fats. Practice autophagy (collapsing the time frame in which you consume food). Use a few tablespoons of coconut oil and eat a handful of walnuts daily. Focus on high-polyphenol foods, such as fresh or frozen blueberries (1 cup per day) and other colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Supplements: I recommend taking low-dose lithium orotate (20–40 milligrams per day [mg/day]) and berberine (2,000 mg/day). Other beneficial supplements include Barlean’s flaxseed oil, DHA (Neuromins), curcumin (Meriva or Longvida capsules), activated B-complex vitamins, folic acid (methylfolate), vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin), vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), zinc (orotate, citrate, or picolinate), and green tea or coffee. For specific amounts, see my book, Reversing Alzheimer’s.

You don’t have to do everything at once to see the benefits of making lifestyle changes. For example, you might start by going on a daily walk and taking low-dose lithium. That’s great! Then, as you get used to your new routine, you can incorporate more of these ideas. The goal is to give the brain what it needs to stay healthy for a lifetime.