Without a doubt, healthy blood flow is absolutely essential for optimal brain function and mental health.
Brain blood flow, or cerebral blood flow, refers to the blood supply that reaches your brain during a given period of time.
Your brain needs almost 20% of the blood supply provided by each heartbeat.
But when brain blood flow is hindered, cognitive problems can arise.
Poor brain blood flow and circulation are linked to a number of brain and mental illnesses, including:
- Cognitive dysfunction and brain fog (131-132)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (140)
- Dementia (133)
- Parkinson’s Disease (134)
- Alzheimer’s disease (135, 143)
- Depression (136)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (137-139)
- Anxiety (139)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (139)
- Panic disorder (139)
- Agoraphobia (139)
- Traumatic brain injury (141-142)
- Lyme disease (144)
Besides addressing these major causes, there are a number of ways to directly increase the amount of oxygen-rich blood that flows to your brain.
Researchers use neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) to measure cerebral blood flow.
And they have found that the following 21 methods increase brain blood flow and circulation in humans.
A lot of these methods have been significantly helpful to me.
Exercise is one of the best and most accessible ways to increase brain blood flow and circulation.
Research shows that moderate exercise increases blood flow to the brain by as much as 15% (1).
And you don’t even need to work out intensely.
Simply walking for 30 minutes at a brisk pace, three or four times each week, is good enough to get more blood and oxygen to the brain and reap the benefits (2).
In fact, the foot’s impact on the ground while walking sends pressure waves through the arteries, which sends more blood and oxygen to the brain (3).
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.
2. Cold Exposure
Exposing yourself to cold can also help you get more blood flowing to your brain.
Research shows that putting your hand in ice water for one minute can significantly increase the speed of blood flow to the brain (6-8).
Researchers have also found that cooling the skin during upright tilting maintains the speed of blood flow to the brain (5).
Animal studies also show that cold exposure significantly increases cerebral blood flow (4).
I take a cold shower every day, and often go outside with minimal clothing in the winter to increase brain blood flow and circulation.
Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel.
Then work your way up to longer periods of time.
It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.
You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face, hand or foot in ice cold water.
Research also shows that light stimulates brain blood flow and circulation.
Positron emission technology (PET) measures blood flow to specific areas of the brain.
In one study, researchers used PET scans to monitor cerebral blood flow in patients with season affective disorder (SAD) – before and after light therapy.
Before light therapy, the scans show that patients had reduced blood flow to the cerebral cortex, the “executive” part of the brain.
But after just a few days of light therapy, this part of the brain started to light up, indicating greater activity and increased blood flow (9).
And this doesn’t just happen in depressed individuals.
Another study found that 10 minutes of light exposure can increase brain blood flow in healthy people (10).
Light therapy even increases brain blood flow in pre-term infants (11).
I personally get sunlight every day during the spring and summer months to support my brain health.
Researchers have also found a positive correlation between Vitamin D levels and brain blood flow (94).
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, as it’s been shown to increase cognitive function, 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 (15).
It has these positive effects mainly by significantly increasing blood flow to the brain and blood circulation in the brain (12-14).
Dr. Norman Doidge, a physician who teaches at the University of Toronto here in Canada, discusses the amazing effects of LLLT in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing.
One way LLLT can help the brain is by increasing brain blood flow and circulation.
Another study showed improvement in the brain blood flow in healthy elderly women (50).
Animal research has also found that light can be used to locally increase brain blood circulation (93).
I previously wrote about my experience with low-level laser therapy here.
I use this device and apply the infrared light directly to my forehead.
I also use the Vielight 810, which is an intranasal device with 810 nm of near infrared light (You can use the coupon code JORDANFALLIS for a 10% discount).
Vinpocetine is a compound from the Periwinkle plant.
It’s commonly used in Europe to treat cognitive decline, memory impairments, stroke recovery, and epilepsy.
Researchers have found that it increases brain blood flow in both healthy people and stroke victims.
The increase in brain blood flow leads to increased brain oxygen levels and energy production, reduced brain inflammation and improved reaction time (16-25).
I took this vinpocetine supplement after my last concussion.
Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it's linked to increases blood flow in the brain.
In one study, 14 people with memory problems followed a simple 8-week meditation program, and researchers found a significant increase in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (31).
Logical memory and verbal fluency also improved after training (31).
Another study showed that just five days of meditation (30 minutes each day) significantly enhanced brain blood flow (32).
I use the Muse headband to meditate. It gives you real-time feedback on your brainwaves while you meditate.
And researchers are starting to understand why.
But it can also help you get more blood and oxygen flowing to your brain.
In one study, after taking either 250 or 500 milligrams of resveratrol, study participants experienced a dose-dependent increase in brain blood flow (26).
Even just 75 mg has been shown to increase brain circulation and cognition (27, 29).
And a new study published just this year found that chronic resveratrol supplementation increases brain blood circulation in post-menopausal women, improving their cognition and mood (28, 30).
Most people love chocolate, and your brain loves it too.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa, which is known to improve blood flow.
It's one of my favourite foods.
Research suggests that the flavonoids found in cocoa beans increase blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours after eating them. And this leads to an improvement in cognitive performance and general alertness (33, 35).
One study found that flavanol-rich cocoa significant increases the speed of brain blood flow in healthy elderly people (34).
Another study showed that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day for 30 days was linked to improved blood flow to the brain and better memory (36).
It’s important to choose a type of dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa.
This one is really good too.
Omega-3s fatty acids are the highest quality fats for the brain, and increasing your intake of them is one of the most impactful actions you can take to promote the normal functioning of your brain and nervous system.
And now it also seems that they increase brain blood flow and circulation.
Research shows that higher omega-3 levels are significantly correlated with higher regional cerebral blood flow (37).
And one study found that omega-3 supplementation, in comparison with placebo, significantly increases brain blood flow (38).
It’s important to consume enough omega-3s because they are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself.
Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough foods with omega-3 fatty acids.
That’s why I recommend people supplement with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids.
I take this krill oil supplement. I feel slightly depressed when I stop taking it. I actually notice the difference.
You can also order very high-quality seafood and krill oil supplements here.
Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to increase brain blood flow and circulation.
In a randomized controlled trial, 17 post-stroke patients did acupuncture or sham acupuncture for 20 minutes.
The researchers found that the speed of blood flow to both hemispheres of the brain significantly increased during and after acupuncture treatment (39, 42).
Research has also shown that acupuncture can significantly improve cerebral blood flow and circulation in animals (40-41, 43).
I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.
In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture.
At the end of each appointment, my practitioner would secure these small black seeds on my ear.
I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed.
Acupuncture also stimulates the vagus nerve.
12. Chewing Gum
Research reveals that chewing increases brain blood flow (44).
As a result, chewing can improve cognitive performance and brain function, including working and spatial memory, and increases the level of arousal and alertness during a cognitive task (45).
If you chew gum, make sure it’s aspartame-free, like this one.
Chewing gum also reduces cortisol.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It gives me a boost in mental energy and resilience.
It is often used as a brain booster because it increases alertness and provides support to brain cells. It’s also been shown to be very effective at alleviating chronic fatigue and improving mood.
Research also shows that it can acutely enhance brain blood flow in people who have had a stroke (46-47).
Nitrates are both naturally-occurring compounds found in soil and plants.
High levels of nitrates are found in foods such as beets, celery, cabbage, spinach, and other leafy green vegetables.
Research shows that a nitrate-rich diet can increase blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain, improving cognitive function and protecting against cognitive decline (51-52).
Beet juice is a particularly rich source of nitrates, and studies have found that it can help widen blood vessels and increase oxygen and blood flow to the brain (53-54, 56).
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial even found that beet juice can improve cognitive performance by increasing brain blood flow (55).
I don’t really enjoy the taste, but every so often I do drink beet juice during cognitively-demanding tasks.
However, studies also show that if you want to get more blood flowing to your brain and within you brain, you’re better off avoiding or limiting caffeine.
Researchers have found that caffeine significantly reduces brain blood flow by 20 to 30% depending on the study and dosage (74-77).
I also sometimes take breaks from drinking coffee to normalize brain blood flow and circulation.
Lastly, you could also try supplementing with the whole coffee fruit, instead of drinking coffee.
Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted from the coffee fruit for roasting. And the surrounding fruit is discarded.
But that’s a huge problem because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.
And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function.
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.
Research also shows that it can increase brain blood flow in humans and animals (85-91).
Here is a good piracetam supplement from a reliable brand. I used to take it regularly but not anymore.
Phenylpiracetam is an advanced version of piracetam and I found it to be more effective. It has additional antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects, and has been shown to reverse the depressant effects of benzodiazepines (81-83). You can get it here.
17. Ketogenic Dieting
A ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet – less than 50 grams of carbs per day.
When you restrict carbohydrate-rich foods – such as grains, sugar, and even potatoes, legumes and fruit – your body enters ketosis, a metabolic state in which your body and brain run on fatty acids and “ketones” instead of glucose.
Researchers have found that ketones are a therapeutic option in traumatic brain injury because they can increase brain blood flow by 39% (100).
Studies have also shown that ketones increase cerebral blood flow by 65% in animals (103-104).
And caloric restriction also increases ketones, which preserves cerebral blood flow in aging rats (102).
I follow a ketogenic diet every so often. I eat this coconut oil, and supplement with 1-2 tablespoons of this MCT oil, as they enhance the production of ketones and help my body get into a state of ketosis more quickly.
Citicoline (also known as CDP-Choline) is one of the most bioavailable forms of choline, an essential B vitamin that most people don’t consume enough of, because very few foods in the Western diet contain it.
It has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, and enhances the synthesis of acetylcholine and dopamine (two neurotransmitters that are critical for optimal brain function) and increases the number of acetylcholine and dopamine receptors in your brain (105-110).
It’s also been shown to improve cognitive function by increasing the rate of brain blood flow (114-116).
19. Blueberry Juice
Drinking blueberry juice improves cognitive function in the elderly, according to research published this year (123-125).
One way it improved brain health was by increasing oxygen levels and increasing blood flow to the brain.
The participants had improvements in working memory while doing cognitive testing.
Researchers have found that supplementing with PQQ can increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (117-118).
One study found that PQQ can prevent the reduction of brain function in elderly people, especially in attention and working memory, by increasing brain blood flow (119).
21. Intranasal Insulin
Insulin is one of the hormones that significantly affects brain function.
It's been shown to pass the blood-brain barrier and act 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 brain blood flow and circulation.
Research shows that intranasal insulin increases regional cerebral blood flow in the insular cortex (120, 122).
And in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, intranasal insulin improved brain blood flow in older adults (121).
If you’re interested in learning more, I previously wrote a full article about intranasal insulin.
22. BONUS: Other Promising Nutrients and Herbs
Researchers have found that the following compounds can increase cerebral blood flow in animals, but I couldn’t find any research showing that it will do the same in humans. However, they are worth experimenting with as many of them have supported my brain and mental health over the years.
- Arginine (57-60)
- Vitamin E (61-64)
- Bacopa (65-66) – also improves memory
- Curcumin (67-68) – one of my top recommendations
- Ginseng (69-70)
- Citrulline (71-72)
- Icariin (73) – also promotes neurogenesis
- Forskolin (95) – also helps with brain fog
- S-adenosyl-L-methionine (96)
- Quercetin (97-98)
- Taurine (99) – also lowers homocysteine
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Reviewed by Dr. Richard Nahas, MD CCFP DCAPM ABIM