In other words, my brain has taken quite the beating.
Researchers used to think that if you damaged your brain like I did, you simply had to live with it.
But that’s no longer true.
They now know the brain is plastic and flexible, and it can heal and recover.
You’re not stuck with the brain you have.
You can actually change and improve it.
One way your brain repairs itself is through a process called synaptogenesis.
Synaptogenesis is the formation of new synapses in the brain.
Synapses are the connecting points between your 100 billion brain cells. You have trillions of synapses in your brain, and your brain cells communicate with one another across them (79).
The deterioration and loss of synapses is linked to a number of neurodegenerative diseases and mental health disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, depression, poor learning and memory, intellectual impairment and other cognitive deficits (83-87).
The good news is that researchers now know that synaptogenesis occurs in the brain throughout our entire lives (81-82).
And there are a number of ways you can support synaptogenesis, promote the formation of new brain synapses and increase brain synapses.
Below are 15 ways to do that.
Following these strategies can improve your mood, learning, memory and cognition.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Uridine and Choline
The formation of synapses depends on sufficient brain levels of three key nutrients – uridine, omega-3 fatty acids, and choline. These nutrients are synergistic, and if you take them taken together, they accelerate the formation of new synapses in the brain (66-67, 75-78).
In fact, the uridine in food is not bioavailable, and no food has been shown to increase plasma levels of uridine (1).
That’s why I now take this uridine monophosphate supplement sublingually to support the long-term health of my brain.
At the same time, I take this krill oil supplement and the Optimal Brain supplement, which includes CDP-Choline and Alpha GPC (two high-quality sources of choline). This ensures my brain is getting enough of omega-3 fatty acids and choline.
Several researchers have concluded that supplementing with all three nutrients can increase synaptic formation, increase brain synapses, and improve cognition, learning and memory, particularly in people with Alzheimer's disease (68-74).
Besides supplementation, I still encourage people to eat foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids and choline.
The best way to get omega-3 fatty acids from food is by eating more cold-water fish such as salmon, black cod, sablefish, sardines and herring. And the best food sources of choline include grass-fed beef liver and egg yolks. These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.
2. Low Level Laser Therapy
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT), or photobiomodulation, is a treatment that uses low-level (low-power) lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to stimulate brain cells, helping them function better.
Most doctors don't know about LLLT; but not every doctor.
One way that LLLT may help the brain is by encouraging synaptogenesis (12-15).
Researchers have found that LLLT treatment significantly stimulates the synthesis of synapsin-1 (a marker for synaptogenesis) and increases synaptogenesis in the cortex (16-17).
I previously wrote about my experience with low-level laser therapy here.
I use this device and shine the red and infrared light directly on my forehead.
I also use the Vielight 810, which is an intranasal device with 810 nm of near infrared light (If you decide to try the Vielight, you can use the coupon code JORDANFALLIS for a 10% discount).
Bacopa monniera is an adaptogenic herb with cognitive-enhancing effects.
Several studies show that it improves cognition, learning and memory by strengthening communications between brain cells. Both healthy and elderly people who take the herb experience improved attention, learning and memory (2-5).
Researchers believe these improvements are because bacopa increases brain synapses and increases specific neuromolecular mechanisms that encourage and enhance synaptogenesis (18).
You can get bacopa through Amazon.
Exercise is one of the best ways to promote the formation of new synapses.
Researchers have found repeatedly that physical activity encourages synaptogenesis and increases brain synapses (32-33).
So not surprisingly, many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health.
My usual advice is to find a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently.
5. Magnesium Threonate
Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body, including neurotransmitter and hormonal activity, which can have a huge effect on your brain function.
Researchers have found that increasing magnesium levels in the brain improves learning and memory by promoting synaptogenesis and increasing brain synapses (25-26).
One study concluded that magnesium threonate increases the number of synaptic connections between brain cells and boosts the density of synapses (27).
Unfortunately, lot of people are deficient in magnesium today (6-8).
But there are a number of ways you can make sure you’re consuming enough.
First, make sure you’re eating magnesium-rich foods on a regular basis, including spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas. These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.
Epsom salt baths are another great way to increase your body’s intake of magnesium.
But I also recommend a high-quality magnesium supplement.
Magnesium threonate is the best form of magnesium for increasing brain magnesium levels and forming new synapses.
I currently take this magnesium threonate supplement before bed.
Since most people are deficient, magnesium is one of the three supplements that I think everyone should be taking.
Magnesium can also help repair a leaky blood-brain barrier.
6. Intermittent Fasting
Fasting allows your digestive system to take a break and triggers a number of hormones that boost your body’s ability to repair itself.
On most days, I don’t eat breakfast at all, and then "break my fast" by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window.
There are many health benefits to doing this.
And researchers have also found that fasting can trigger and enhance synaptogenesis (28-31).
The best way to start fasting is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day. That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time.
7. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo Biloba is a plant that has been used in China for thousands of years to treat a number of health problems. It’s one of the top-selling herbal supplements in the world, and it’s even a prescription herb in Germany.
It’s most commonly used to improve brain health because it’s been shown to increase brain blood flow and improve memory and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and may also improve mood and mental energy (34).
Researchers have also discovered that it stimulates synaptogenesis and increases brain synapses (35).
Ginkgo Biloba is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
8. Motor Learning
Motor learning is essentially when you learn something new that involves movement.
Complex processes occur in the brain in response to practicing or experiencing the new motor skill.
This results in changes to the central nervous system, which allows you to produce the movement again in the future.
Researchers have found that motor learning triggers synaptogenesis and generates new synapses in the cerebellar cortex of the brain (36-39).
Some activities that involve motor learning include learning how to play the piano, climbing trees, juggling, and playing table tennis.
When you engage in these activities, motor learning occurs, and you form new synapses in order to learn and solidify the new skill.
Resveratrol is known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
And researchers are starting to understand why.
Research shows the resveratrol promotes and enhances synaptogenesis (23-24).
Piracetam is a nootropic (cognitive-enhancing) supplement. It provides a mild boost to brain function and has a long history of being used to treat cognitive impairment in Europe, Asia and South America.
According to researchers, one way it improves cognition is by enhancing synaptogenesis and increasing brain synapses (9-10).
One study found that rats treated with piracetam had a higher number of synapses than rats not treated with piracetam (11).
Here is a good piracetam supplement from a reliable brand. I used to take it regularly but not anymore.
Both CDP-Choline and Alpha GPC are included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid found in fruits and vegetables. It is one of the most widely consumed flavonoids in the human diet.
As a result, it can protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inhibit the pro-inflammatory molecules that are associated with many progressive brain disorders (45-46).
Researchers have also found that it stimulates synaptogenesis (48).
Red apples, onions and tomatoes have the high levels of quercetin. But you can also supplement with it if you want.
It’s interesting to note that quercetin increases the absorption of resveratrol, so it’s a good idea to take them both together if you want to increase synaptogenesis and form new brain synapses (47).
12. Intranasal Insulin
Insulin is one of the hormones that significantly affects brain function.
It has a number of important functions in the central nervous system, and researchers have found that it passes the blood-brain barrier and acts on insulin receptors directly within the brain.
In a new therapeutic approach, commercially-available insulin (Novalin R) is prepared and added to nasal spray bottles - like these ones - and sprayed and inhaled through the nose to support brain and mental health.
One possible mechanism is by increasing synaptogenesis.
Brain insulin receptors are found primarily in synapses, and insulin signaling contributes to synaptogenesis (19-21).
And the disruption of insulin action in the brain leads to impairment of synaptogenesis (22).
If you’re interested in learning more about intranasal insulin, I previously wrote a full article about it here.
Progesterone is a natural steroid and sex hormone involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
It has a variety of important functions in the body, and even plays an important role in brain function.
Research shows that progesterone supports the normal development of brain cells and protects them from damage (40).
But many researchers have also found that progesterone promotes synaptogenesis (41-43).
In addition to its role as a natural hormone, progesterone can be taken as a medication, usually by women during menopause as part of their hormone replacement therapy.
14. Antioxidant Nutrients
Some nutrients have antioxidant effects in the body, and not consuming enough of them can reduce your rate of synaptogenesis.
One study found that synaptogenesis was significantly enhanced by supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, uridine, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium. But it wasn’t enhanced as much with omega-3 fatty acids and uridine alone, suggesting that Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium play a key role in synaptogenesis (65).
I get these antioxidant nutrients from a number of sources.
In addition to getting Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, I take at least 500 mg of supplemental Vitamin C every day. At one point, I was actually taking up to 10 grams of Vitamin C every day as an experiment, but that’s not necessary unless you find it really helps you.
15. BONUS: 4 Things to Avoid
It’s not just what you do, but also what you avoid that can impact your rate of synaptogenesis.
Researchers have found that certain compounds can impair synaptogenesis and inhibit the formation of new synapses in the brain.
So besides trying to implement the 14 steps above, you should also try to avoid:
Bisphenol A – This compound is found in plastic bottles and containers, food and beverage cans, and other common consumer products, such as CDs, DVDs and sales receipts. Researchers have found that it impairs synaptogenesis in the brain (49). That’s why I recommend you only eat and drink out of glass, ceramic and stainless steel. Avoid all canned food and plastic containers. BPA-free plastic isn’t much better for you and can still disrupt hormonal health.
Lead – Lead is a heavy metal that can accumulate in the body and negatively affect brain function. Research shows that lead exposure can interfere with the formation of brain synapses (55-59). So it’s definitely a good idea to reduce your exposure to sources of lead. One way is by using an infrared sauna regularly.
Gabapentin – Gabapentin is a medication used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, hot flashes, and restless legs syndrome. Researchers have found that it halts the formation of new synapses (80).
Stress – Chronic stress decreases synaptogenesis and decreases the number of synapse connections (88-89). Here are 20 ways to lower cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. These two biofeedback devices are my favourite ways to reduce stress.
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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD