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 31 ways that significantly helped me recover, and they likely will help you too.
Foods, Nutrients and Natural Supplements to Increase BDNF Levels in the Brain
1. Coffee Fruit Concentrate
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.
Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound found within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.
It’s one of my favourite compounds for the brain.
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 forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
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).
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.
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.
Resveratrol is a beneficial antioxidant compound found in red wine.
It’s 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 (38).
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.
Essentially, they are 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 don’t cook it.
I discussed prebiotics and resistant starch in this previous article.
Cooked and cooled white rice and potatoes also contain some resistant starch.
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.
Magnesium threonate is also the exact form of magnesium shown in studies to increase BDNF (80).
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.
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.
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 high-quality, organic dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar.
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).
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 theanine 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. But theanine reduces that side effect. I still take it from time to time when I drink coffee.
You can get it here.
12. 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.
Rhodiola is one of my favourite adaptogenic herbs, and it’s been shown to increase BDNF expression in the brain (59).
Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb I take every so often.
Lastly, ginseng has been shown to prevent stress-induced decline of BDNF (61).
Supplementing with zinc can also increase your BDNF levels.
But unfortunately, it’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (72, 73, 74).
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 so that my zinc levels are optimal.
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a great idea if you want to improve your brain health and cognitive function.
But blueberries are particularly potent because of the flavonoids within them.
Research shows that supplementing with the pure blueberry flavanols for 6 weeks, at levels similar to what is found in blueberries, significantly improves memory by increasing BDNF levels and BDNF expression (85).
I buy wild blueberries every time I go grocery shopping.
They are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.
In fact, most researchers actually use a blueberry extract instead of actual blueberries when they study the beneficial health effects of blueberries.
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.
Researchers have also found that it increases BDNF release (86).
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.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is one of the most abundant circulating steroid hormones in humans. It’s produced in the adrenal glands, the gonads, and the brain, and it’s a precursor to other hormones, including estrogen and testosterone.
It's also available as a supplement.
In one study, it increased acetylcholine and BDNF expression (87).
You can get DHEA here.
It's also one of the best supplements for reducing depression.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid found in fruits and vegetables.
It is one of the most widely consumed flavonoids in the human diet.
Quercetin has potent antioxidant action and is “neuroactive”, meaning it can affect brain function.
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.
Researchers have also found that it increases BDNF (89).
18. Coffee and Caffeine
Drinking coffee is another great way to increase BDNF levels.
This is why I drink one cup of this high-quality coffee every morning.
Caffeine can disrupt sleep though, so make sure you don’t drink it later in the day. I have my last cup sometime between 10 in the morning and noon. If I have it any later than that, it disrupts my sleep.
Niacin, also known as nicotinic acid or Vitamin B3, is an essential nutrient.
Evidence suggests that niacin supplementation up-regulates the expression of BDNF (91).
In one study, treatment with niacin significantly increased BDNF expression (92).
Years ago, I took this niacin supplement after reading that it could help with addiction, withdrawal and energy. It did, but I don’t take it individually anymore. I now take this all-in-one B complex instead.
20. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil has numerous health benefits, particularly because of its strong anti-inflammatory effects.
Oleuropein, a polyphenol found in olive oil, has been shown to induce autophagy and reduce cognitive impairment. As a result, many researchers propose that a diet with extra virgin olive oil might have potential benefits for Alzheimer’s patients.
Researchers have found that it also increases BDNF in important areas of the brain (93-95).
This is why I add olive oil to my salads and sometimes even just take a tablespoon of it straight.
Be careful though. A lot of cheap extra virgin olive oil in grocery stores are not actually “extra virgin.”
Investigations have found that there is a lot of fraud within the olive oil industry and many so-called extra virgin olive oils contains other cheaper, refined vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn and canola.
This is discussed more in the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
Saffron is a spice derived from the Crocus sativus plant.
It has a number of health benefits due to the medicinal compounds within it.
And researchers have found that it has antidepressant effects because it significantly increases BDNF levels (97).
Lifestyle Habits, Therapies and Practices to Increase BDNF Levels in the Brain
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 you 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.
25. 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.
26. 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.
27. Lose Fat
The fatter you are, the lower your BDNF levels will be.
Research shows that BDNF levels are 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).
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.
Women who are friendlier to strangers also have higher BDNF levels (35).
29. 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’re not getting 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.
Stress can also ruin your sleep, which as I mentioned earlier, decreases BDNF (41).
As you can see, everything is connected. Ignoring one area of your health will often affect other areas.
I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress.
The most effective way to significantly reduce stress and anxiety is neurofeedback. It’s advanced, guided meditation that you need to do with a qualified practitioner. 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.
31. 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.
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.
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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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC