Just like some people are able to drop massive amounts of weight and never gain it back, you can drop your chronic depression, anxiety and poor cognition and never have it consume you again.
One way to do this is by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor, also known as BDNF.
BDNF is a naturally-occurring protein in the brain that improves brain function and lowers your risk of mental disease.
BDNF protects and repairs your brain cells, increases the growth of new brain cells, and improves learning, memory and mood. In fact, many researchers consider it a natural antidepressant (12-17, 66).
Research suggests that if you struggle with mental illness or poor brain function, you likely have reduced levels of BDNF. But luckily, there are ways to boost it. And by doing so, you can reverse depression and protect yourself from Alzheimer’s disease (46-50, 31, 64-65, 67).
After suffering two concussions, living in a moldy house, and falling into a deep depression in 2010, I started searching far and wide for ways to boost BDNF and heal my damaged brain.
Below are 21 ways that significantly helped me recover, and they likely will help you too.
Exercise is the fastest and most effective way to boost BDNF levels, and improve learning, memory and mood (1, 2, 3, 4).
In just 5 weeks, mild-intensity exercise significantly increased BDNF levels and reversed cognitive decline in old rats (62).
And it’s not just old brains that benefit from regular exercise. High-intensity exercise increases BDNF and improves memory in young sedentary men (63).
You should choose a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently.
I plan on discussing my exercise routine in more depth soon, but for now, this is the general gist of it:
• Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week
• High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week
• Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)
Exercise has a number of benefits besides increasing BDNF. Many of the experts I’ve interviewed think it’s the most important thing you can do for your brain.
So you should try to exercise as much as you can.
Exposing yourself to sunshine each day can also increase BDNF.
One study found that BDNF increased in the summer and spring, and decreased in the fall and winter. They also found that participants with the lowest BDNF levels were more likely to be depressed, which likely explains why some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (5).
I try to get 30 minutes every day during the spring and summer months here in Canada.
On top of increasing BDNF, the sun also provides Vitamin D, which is very important for optimal brain and mental health.
3. 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.
I personally do not 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.
That may sound ridiculous and shocking to you. But there are huge health benefits from doing this.
One benefit is that it increases BDNF signalling, which can improve heart and brain health (7, 8).
And studies show that limiting yourself to only 600 calories every other day boosts BDNF up to 400 per cent (9, 10).
You don’t necessarily need to be this extreme and fast for 16 hours like I usually do. Even a 12-hour fast shows some benefits (11). All you need to do is avoid eating anything after dinner, and then eat a regular breakfast the next day.
Whole coffee fruit has a number of brain health benefits.
It includes the flesh of the berry that surrounds the coffee bean.
Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted for roasting, and the surrounding fruit is discarded.
But this is a problem because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.
After years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases BDNF in humans.
One study found that 100mg of whole coffee fruit concentrate increases BDNF by an astounding 143%.
And another study found that it doubles the amount of BDNF in the blood.
Green coffee beans don’t do this.
Drinking coffee doesn’t do this.
It’s only the whole coffee fruit that goes beyond the bean and naturally boosts BDNF levels in humans.
Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.
Curcumin is one of my favourite compounds. I discussed it previously in “3 Foods That Make Your Brain Work Remarkably Better”.
Studies show that it can increase BDNF production in the brain, leading to improved cognition and mood (18- 20, 22).
It also protects the brain by activating BDNF (21).
There are several different patented forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them.
6. Avoid Processed Food and Refined Sugar
While some habits can raise BDNF, others can lower it.
Many studies suggest that if you eat processed food and sugar (The Standard American Diet), you'll have lower levels of BDNF and neurotransmitters, and impaired cognition (23, 24).
Ideally, you should stick with the whole foods from my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health and you can be sure that you’re supporting optimal BDNF levels.
7. Green Tea
Drinking green tea is another way you can increase BDNF.
The antioxidants within it have been shown to increase BDNF (25).
You can either drink green tea on a regular basis or consider supplementing with a concentrated green tea extract.
8. Lose Fat
The fatter you are, the lower your BDNF levels will be. Research has shown that BDNF is lower in obese adults and children (26, 27, 28).
This may be because overweight and obese individuals are less likely to eat healthy and exercise.
Regardless, if you’re holding onto extra weight, it’d be best to lose it. Your BDNF will increase as a result, which will lead to improved brain and mental health.
One study showed that weight loss in obese men improved depressive symptoms by increasing BDNF levels, and females with higher levels of BDNF are in better shape and perform better on cognitive tests (29, 30).
9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Krill Oil)
A large number of people are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids today, and they are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system (70).
They've also been shown to improve mood, sleep, learning and memory, and protect against psychiatric disorders including depression, mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (31-33).
This is likely because they've been shown to increase BDNF levels (71).
After traumatic brain injury, omega-3s normalize BDNF levels in rats. Without supplementation, levels did not return to baseline (68).
And omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help patients with bipolar, likely because they support optimal BDNF levels (69).
Yet most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet. As mentioned in “Think More Effectively With These 3 Important Nutrients”, 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 one.
Talk to people whenever you get the chance. If you suffer from anxiety, push yourself outside your comfort zone and try starting a conversation with a stranger – even if it’s just the cashier at the supermarket.
Your brain will thank you.
I'm an introvert, so I find this difficult. But I try to socialize as much as I can.
Research has shown that a stimulating social environment increases BDNF and reduces depression and anxiety (34, 36).
Women who are friendlier to strangers also have higher BDNF levels (35).
Resveratrol is a beneficial antioxidant compound found in red wine.
Resveratrol is also known to help prevent the development neurodegenerative diseases.
And science is starting to understand why.
For one, it has neuroprotective effects by elevating BDNF (37).
Because of this increase, it can be effective at improving fatigue symptoms (38).
I supplement with this resveratrol every other day.
12. Deep Sleep
Getting high-quality, deep sleep is critical for the health of your brain. My sleep used to be terrible and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health.
Not surprisingly, sleep deprivation reduces BDNF (39).
And it’s been shown that insomniacs have lower BDNF levels, and higher levels of BDNF are often a sign that a person is sleeping well (41, 42).
Luckily, regular exercise can maintain BDNF levels when you don’t get enough sleep (40).
You should aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. But it’s not just the amount of sleep you get that’s important. It’s also the quality of sleep. In fact, the quality of your sleep is more important than the length of your sleep.
I'll be writing more about how to improve the quality of your sleep soon.
In the meantime, I recommend this sleep supplement, which contains magnesium and a number of other natural compounds that I’ve used over the years to promote the production of melatonin. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.
Prebiotics are substances that humans can't digest, so they pass through our gastrointestinal tract and promote the growth of many different strains of good bacteria in our lower bowel. They are essentially food for the good bacteria in our intestines.
Bacteria convert prebiotics into butyrate, a substance that has been shown to increase BDNF (43, 44)
Prebiotic-rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus and squash. These foods are included in my free grocery shopping guide for optimal brain health and you should try to eat them as much as possible.
Resistant starch is one of the most potent ways to boost your prebiotic intake.
A convenient way to incorporate more resistant starch into your diet is by using Bob’s Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch. I take it on a regular basis and you can get it through Amazon. It's one of the easiest and cheapest ways to incorporate more resistant starch into your diet. It is bland so you can simply add it to beverages, smoothies and meals. It has to stay raw though, so you shouldn't cook it.
I’ve previously discussed prebiotics and resistant starch in “5 Ways to Increase Your Good Gut Bacteria For A Healthier Brain.”
Cooked and cooled white rice and potatoes also contain some resistant starch.
14. Reduce Stress (Neurofeedback/Meditation)
People who experience a lot of stress produce less BDNF, and both acute and chronic stress has been shown to significantly decrease existing BDNF levels (45-48).
Stress can also ruin your sleep, which as I mentioned earlier, decreases BDNF. As you can see, everything is connected. Ignoring one area of your health will often affect other areas (41).
I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress.
The most effective way to significantly and permanently reduce stress and anxiety is neurofeedback. It’s advanced, guided meditation and I previously wrote about my experience with it here.
If you can’t access neurofeedback, taking up a daily meditation practice is an excellent idea.
I’m also a big fan of the Muse headband. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback while you meditate. I’ve used the Muse for the past few months, and I've written an entire review about it. You can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.
I often use this acupressure mat as well. Lying on it for just 10 minutes can relax your entire body and mind. I also use it before bed. It helps me fall asleep faster.
Lastly, this anti-anxiety supplement includes several natural compounds that have helped me manage my stress and anxiety over the years.
15. Ketogenic Diet
Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body runs on fatty acids. This happens when there is limited access to glucose, the body’s main source of energy. Ketosis often results from following a very low-carb diet (49).
To get into ketosis, you need to eat less than 50 grams of carbs per day, meaning you have to avoid grains, sugar, and even potatoes, legumes and fruit.
I don’t recommend following a low-carb ketogenic diet for long periods of time, unless you witness huge beneficial changes in your health.
However, going in and out of ketosis may have some beneficial effects on your brain. One study found that it can increase BDNF (50).
Taking exogenous ketones can help you get into ketosis very quickly.
I take Optimal Ketones and they immediately increase my mental clarity, even when I'm eating plenty of carbohydrates.
It’s one of the three nutrients that everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient.
The good news is that you can easily correct magnesium deficiency yourself. Supplementation is cheap and can restore the mineral to healthy levels.
I take 200-400mg daily before bed. Magnesium glycinate, magnesium malate, or magnesium taurate are the best forms. I take this one.
I discuss magnesium in more depth in “Think More Effectively with These 3 Important Nutrients.”
17. Lithium Orotate
Lithium is predominantly known as a medication given to bipolar patients to manage their symptoms.
However, it’s also an essential mineral.
Bipolar patients are often given high doses of lithium carbonate.
But low doses of lithium orotate has been shown to improve mood and have neuroprotective effects in people without bipolar disorder, and some studies have shown that it increases BDNF (54, 55).
I don’t take it anymore but I did feel calmer and more stable when I supplemented with it.
If you’re interested in trying it, you can get the one I took here.
It's also included in this supplement.
18. Dark Chocolate
I’m sure you're smiling right now.
Everyone loves chocolate.
And thankfully, it’s really good for your brain.
The antioxidants in dark chocolate (not milk chocolate) trigger neuroprotection by activating the BDNF survival pathway (56).
You should try to eat dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar.
Lindt (90%) is a really good high-quality dark chocolate.
It has personally played a huge role in my recovery from mental illness and post-concussion syndrome, which is not surprising, considering that it’s been shown to boost BDNF (57).
I used to take 1200 mg of NAC every other day to manage my long-term mental health. Studies show that people benefit from anywhere between 500 mg to 3000 mg daily or every other day. I no longer need that much and now simply take 250 mg.
L-Theanine is a relaxing amino acid found in tea. It’s known to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Unlike prescription anti-anxiety medication, it does not cause sedation and drowsiness.
One study also found that it increases BDNF (58).
My personal experience with theanine is that it mixes really well with caffeine. Coffee can make a lot of people jittery and unfocused. Theanine reduces that side effect. I still take it from time to time when I drink coffee.
You can get it here.
It's also part of this supplement.
21. Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogens are plants and herbs containing bioactive compounds that can support your brain. They increase your resilience to physical and mental stress, calm you down, or increase your energy, depending on what your body needs.
Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb I’ve experimented with. It’s effective at improving memory and cognition, and reducing anxiety. And research shows that it increases BDNF in rats that are undergoing chronic stress (60).
Lastly, ginseng is another herb that supports mood and cognition, and can prevent stress-induced decline of BDNF (61).
Last but not least, supplementing with zinc can also increase your BDNF.
Zinc is an essential trace mineral that activates several hundred enzymatic reactions, including brain and nervous system function and neurotransmission.
Several studies have shown that zinc has antidepressant effects because it causes a significant increase in BDNF levels and BDNF gene expression (76-79).
Yet it’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in the mineral, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (72, 73, 74).
If you struggle with depression and anxiety, you are likely deficient in zinc, and therefore likely to have depleted BDNF levels.
I used to suffer from anxiety and depression, and increasing my intake of zinc is one of the most impactful actions I have taken to overcome them. You can read more about my research and experience with zinc here.
I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement every day.
As you can see, there are so many ways to increase your brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to promote healing and the growth of new brain cells.
I’ve implemented and experimented with all these treatments with good results. My brain wouldn’t be as healthy today without them.
It’s been tough to overcome my chronic depression, anxiety and concussion symptoms. I’m not going to act like it’s been very easy. But you (and your brain) can definitely grow stronger over time.
If you liked this article, please share it with family and friends because there are still a lot of people who feel hopeless and aren’t aware that they can protect and heal their brains, and strengthen their mental health, without a doctor or prescription.
And let me know what you think in the comments.
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Reviewed by Dr. Richard Nahas, MD CCFP DCAPM ABIM