A Powerful Protocol Proven to Help Reverse Brain Damage

I’ve been reading a lot about brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in retired NFL football players lately.

While doing so, I came across an interesting study by Dr. Daniel Amen, MD, titled “Reversing brain damage in former NFL players: implications for traumatic brain injury and substance abuse rehabilitation.

In the study, thirty retired NFL players who had brain damage and cognitive dysfunction followed a brain-healthy protocol (which I outline below in this post). 

After following the protocol for six months, the former NFL players had increased blood flow to the brain and significant increases in performance. 

Neuropsychological testing showed that they had significant improvements in attention, memory, reasoning, and information processing. 

The NFL players themselves also self-reported subjective increases in memory, attention, mood, motivation, and sleep.

It just so happens that a lot of the supplements and therapies used in this protocol have also improved my mental health and supported my brain after suffering multiple concussions and living in a moldy home. 

We demonstrated that even if you have been bad to your brain, on the right program you can often reverse the damage and improve your life. It’s one of the most exciting discoveries in medicine today. I hope this message finds anyone who played contact sports like football, hockey, soccer, boxing so they can find help because their degenerative conditions can be reversed.
— Dr. Daniel Amen, MD, psychiatrist and author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life
Illustration of a brain with a band-aid on it, demonstrating that it is damaged.

Why This Research Study Is So Important

It’s well known that brain injuries are common in professional American football players, and they increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment, dementia, depression and CTE (1-2).

A study sponsored by the National Football League (NFL) found that 6.1% of retired NFL players over the age of 50 had been diagnosed with dementia, which is five times the national average of 1.2%.

Even 2% of players aged 30 to 49 have received a dementia-related diagnosis, which is 20 times higher than the rate of the general population within that age group (3). 

And in a study of 100 active and retired NFL players, researchers found reduced brain blood flow and a higher rate of depressionmemory and attention problems compared to the general population (4). 

Brain injuries also increase the risk of drug abuse (5-6). 

Lastly, another study reported that 96% of all former NFL players autopsied had CTE, and that 79% of males who played football at any level also had CTE (10). 

But brain injuries and neurological damage don’t just affect retired professional football players. 

Millions of people, including soldiers, suffer concussions every year.  

In addition, substance abusers also experience high levels of brain damage from drugs and alcohol, and from the increased likelihood of suffering brain injuries during intoxication (7). 

But based on Dr. Amen’s protocol, there is hope. And it’s possible to reverse brain damage.

Below is the protocol that the NFL players followed to reverse brain damage and cognitive impairment, and significantly improve their brain, mental health and quality of life.  

1. Improve Your Diet and Exercise Regularly

Even after taking into account their large body frames, forty-eight percent of players in the study were overweight or obese.

So they were encouraged to eat healthier and exercise regularly in order to lose weight. 

This is because obesity is associated with dementia and smaller brain size (8). 

For exercise, you should find an aerobic activity that you enjoy so that you’ll stick with it consistently.

Group of people running. Exercise helps reverse brain damage.

This is exercise routine I try to follow consistently:

  • 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)

  • Run for 20-30 minutes before lifting weights

If you’re looking for a bunch of healthy brain-boosting foods that you can eat on a regular basis, check out My Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health

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2. Eliminate Alcohol

Not too surprisingly, the NFL players in Dr. Amen’s study were encouraged to completely eliminate alcohol.  

A mug of beer. Alcohol should be avoided if wanting to reverse brain damage since it is a neurotoxin.

Alcohol is a neurotoxin and wreaks havoc on the brain by raising cortisol levels, disrupting the blood-brain barrier, and increasing inflammation and oxidative stress (11). 

There are ways to protect your brain from alcohol, but you’re better off avoiding it completely or significantly reducing your consumption if you’re trying to heal from brain damage. I personally don’t drink alcohol at all anymore.

Other than alcohol, the NFL players were also told to eliminate others drugs, including cigarettes.  

3. Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough high-quality sleep was another key aspect of Dr. Amen’s therapeutic protocol for the NFL players because it’s so important for brain health. 

Deep sleep has been shown to slow down cognitive decline, reduce cortisol levels, promote the regeneration of myelin, increase the growth of new brain cells, and support the blood-brain barrier

Baby sleeping. Sleeping helps the brain recover and heal and helps reverse brain damage.

That’s why getting at least 7 hours of high-quality, restorative sleep is so important.

I used to have very poor quality sleep and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health.  

Here are some ways I now maximize the quality of my sleep:

  • Expose your eyes to sun in the morning

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time every night

  • Don’t eat anything for 3 hours before bed, other than raw honey, bone broth and MCT oil, which are easy to digest and can actually support sleep.

  • Avoid stimulating movies and TV before bed.

  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Most people should completely avoid it after 2 pm. Some may have to cut it out even earlier. I can’t have any after 12 noon, otherwise the quality of my sleep suffers.

  • Blue light significantly suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and abnormal functioning of your nervous system. You can read more about the problem with blue light here. As soon as it’s dark outside, you should avoid sources of blue light. Turn off household lights, get red light bulbs, install Iris on your computer and/or wear blue blocking glasses. These glasses block out blue light in your environment.

  • Sleep in a dark environment. Completely black out your room with curtains or wear a sleep mask overnight. Sleeping with lights on in your room decreases neurogenesis and impairs cognitive performance (276). If you need to have light in your room (nightlight or alarm clock), it’s better to have red, orange or amber lighting rather than blue.

  • Reduce stress before bed. I supplement with magnesium and lie on this acupressure mat for 10 minutes before bed.

  • Avoid alcohol before sleep, as it prevents getting into the deeper stages of sleep, which is when the body and brain heal.

  • Melatonin secretion can be disrupted by EMF exposure, so turn off cellphones, Wi-Fi and other electrical devices while you sleep.

  • Take this sleep supplement, which contains magnesium and 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.

4. Reduce Brain Inflammation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Your brain is made up of about 60% fat, so you want to eat high-quality fats so that it can rebuild itself.

Omega-3s fatty acids are the highest quality fats for the brain, and increasing your intake of them is one of the most impactful ways to reverse brain damage. 

Dr. Amen gave the NFL players 5.6 grams of fish oil each day, containing 1720 mg of EPA and 1160 mg of DHA.

A piece of cooked salmon. Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids which can help the brain heal and recover from damage.

EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that are necessary for the optimal functioning of your brain and nervous system. They have been shown in many studies to significantly reduce inflammation; improve memory, mood and cognition; and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (9-10). 

They are also the structural components of synapses, and have been shown to support the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases who have experienced synaptic loss (12). 

It’s important to get enough omega-3s because they are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself.

They are found primarily in cold water fish such as salmon, black cod, sablefish, sardines and herring.

Unfortunately, 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. I don’t feel as well when I stop taking it. I actually notice the difference.

I previously wrote about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in-depth here

5. Get Enough of These Vitamins and Minerals

Research shows that supplementing with a high-dose vitamin B complex, vitamin C and minerals reduces stress, improves mental health, and increases cognitive performance (13). 

So Dr. Amen got the NFL players in the study to take a high-potency multivitamin every day. 

I don’t usually recommend all-in-one multivitamins because they often contain too many synthetic vitamins that we don’t need, and not enough of the minerals that we do need. 

Instead, I separately take this mineral complex, this B complex, and this supplement with Vitamin C.

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6. Enhance Brain Blood Flow

Dr. Amen also focused on increasing blood flow in the brains of the retired NFL football players. 

He enhanced brain blood flow by giving them Ginkgo Biloba and Vinpocetine.

Ginkgo Biloba is a plant 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. 

An illustration of a brain and blood flowing throughout it. Blood flow to the brain is essential if you want to reverse brain damage.

It’s most commonly used to improve brain health, as it’s been shown to increase cognitive function, memory and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and can even improve mood and mental energy.

It has these effects primarily by increasing blood flow to the brain (27). 

Ginkgo biloba extract is included in the Optimal brain supplement

Ginkgo biloba extract goes well with Vinpocetine, which is a compound from the Periwinkle plant used for cognitive decline.

Like Ginkgo biloba, it enhances blood flow to the brain, leading to improved reaction time, reduced neuroinflammation. In Eastern Europe, it’s used for memory impairment (28-31). 

Check out this article for 19 other ways to increase blood flow to the brain. 

7. Increase Acetylcholine

The retired football players also supplemented with Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) and Huperzine A to increase levels of acetylcholine in their brain. 

Acetylcholine is considered the “learning” neurotransmitter and plays a key role in the brain’s cognitive processes. 

Huperzine-A is a compound extracted from the herbs of the Huperziceae family.

It has neuroprotective effects and cognitive enhancing properties because it increases acetylcholine. It does this by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. Because of this, it’s shown promise as a treatment for fighting cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease (33). 

Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It has neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects and helps reverse neurological decline by increasing levels of acetylcholine in the brain and supporting mitochondria function (32). 

Illustration of a body.

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.

ALCAR can be found in the Optimal Brain supplement

8. Increase Antioxidants

Another key aspect of reversing brain damage is optimizing your intake of antioxidants, and Dr. Amen doesn’t ignore this.

Dr. Amen had the NFL football players in his study take Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) daily. 

NAC is a modified form of the amino acid cysteine, and precursor to glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant

Toxins and oxidative stress deplete the body's reserves of cysteine and glutathione, but supplementing with NAC can increase and normalize cysteine and glutathione levels.

This can combat and reduce oxidative stress in the brain, helping to treat several mental illnesses, including cognitive problems and addiction (23). 

Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is a fatty acid created in the body, playing a role in mitochondrial energy metabolism. In supplement form, it is a potent antioxidant compound that has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation that can contribute to neurological decline. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, which is crucial for healthy brain function (24-25). 

Several other studies have found that a combination of antioxidants – including NAC, ALA, Vitamin C and Vitamin E can improve cognitive functioning and decrease symptoms of cognitive decline. This is likely because oxidative stress plays a major role in the development of cognitive impairment and dementia, and these antioxidant nutrients and plant compounds can counteract this (14-22). 

Antioxidants can also reduce levels of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. 

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9. Reduce Cortisol with Phosphatidylserine

Participants in Dr. Amen’s study also supplemented with phosphatidylserine.

Phosphatidylserine is a fat-soluble amino acid that supports cognitive function. 

High amounts of phosphatidylserine are in the brain, and supplementation has been shown to improve attention, learning and memory.

…consumption of phosphatidylserine may reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive dysfunction
— Food and Drug Administration

It’s also been shown to reduce cortisol, which can negatively affect the brain at chronically high levels (26). 

I personally take phosphatidylserine every day. It's included in the Optimal Brain supplement

10. Optimize Important Health Markers

Important health markers were also monitored and optimized to ensure that the NFL players were in the best health possible to support their brain.

Here are some of the markers Dr. Amen monitored in the NFL players:

Weight measures, such as body mass index and height-to-weight ratio – research shows that as a person's weight goes up, the size of their brain goes down. To reduce this problem, Dr. Amen ran an weight loss class to help the NFL players lose excess weight. 

Fasting blood glucose levels – Having high fasting blood glucose levels increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is associated with depression and dementia

Picture of blood in blood containers after being drawn.

C-reactive protein – This is a measure of inflammation, which is associated with many chronic illnesses, including depression, dementia and chronic pain. Dr. Amen aims for a measure of less than 1mg/liter. A healthy diet and nutrients help get inflammation under control.

Vitamin D Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that our skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun. Every tissue in your body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, so a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences, including cognitive impairment. Normal levels are between 30 and 100 ng/mL. Dr. Amen prefers his patients’ levels to be between 50 and 100 because optimal vitamin D levels can reduce inflammation and improve mood. To boost vitamin D levels, he encouraged players to get more sunlight or take a Vitamin D3 supplement. I personally use this Vitamin D lamp to make sure I get enough Vitamin D.

Ferritin – Ferritin is a measure of iron stores. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue, but too much iron can cause stress and accelerate aging. If the NFL players’ ferritin levels were too low, Dr. Amen gave them iron. If they were too high, he encouraged them to donate blood. I personally prefer beef liver capsules as good source of iron instead of taking iron supplements. 

In addition to the above strategies, Dr. Amen and his team treated other dementia risk factors, such as hypertension, heart disease, gum disease, alcohol and drug abuse, anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, low thyroid and testosterone levels, and sleep apnea.

11. Reduce Homocysteine with SAM-e and Methylated B Vitamins

This step – and the next two – are not a part of the original study.

However, Dr. Amen says he uses these treatments with his patients, including retired football players.

Illustration of the homocysteine symbol. Normalizing homocysteine levels can help the brain recover after damage.

Homocysteine is an inflammatory compound at high levels., which can lead to the development of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and other mental health disorders. 

However, certain B vitamins have been shown to normalize homocysteine levels and reduce the rate of cognitive decline.

As a result, Dr. Amen says that he recommends his NFL patients supplement with methyl-B12, methyl-folate, and P-5-P (bioactive B6).

I take this B complex regularly. It contains the bioactive forms of all the B vitamins, including methyl-B12, methyl-folate and P-5-P. 

Trimethylglycine (TMG) and S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) also lower homocysteine.

I personally prefer SAM-e since it is the most powerful and noticeable. I take this one, which you can get here or here

Here is a full article all about how to lower homocysteine. 

For those players who were depressed or demented, we did more. I acted as the psychiatrist for a number of our players or a consultant to their own physicians. For many, I prescribed natural antidepressants, such as SAMe, because it also helps with pain.
— Dr. Amen
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12. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)

A number of our players also opted to do hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which we have seen improve blood flow to the brain. Over the years I have been impressed with HBOT’s ability to increase blood flow to damaged brains.
— Dr. Amen

Again, this wasn’t included in the main protocol of the study, but Dr. Amen often recommends it to NFL players or anyone else with brain damage. 

Woman lying in hyperbaric oxygen tank. Male doctor sitting beside her. HBOt helps reverse brain damage.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a treatment that enhances healing in the brain.

Patients inhale 100% oxygen in a total body chamber. 

Usually, oxygen is transported throughout the body only by red blood cells. But with HBOT, oxygen is dissolved into all body fluids, including the fluids of the central nervous system.

This leads to oxygen being  carried to areas of the body where circulation is diminished or blocked. As a result, extra oxygen can reach all damaged tissues, including areas of the brain that need to heal.

Lots of research shows that HBOT improves brain blood supply, reduces inflammation, and enhances neurogenesis, which improves recovery after injury to the central nervous system (34-38). 

You’ll need to find a practitioner or clinic in your area that provides this treatment.

HBOT can be expensive though. That's why I decided to buy my own oxygen concentrator. An oxygen concentrator is much less expensive than HBOT but it still helps a lot. It has definitely helped me recover.

My doctor uses this one at his clinic and recommended it to me. 

But I did a lot of my own research before buying my own and got this one instead. You can get it here or through Amazon. I use it almost every day. It's the best option on the market. You can also get a refurbished one for cheaper.  

Check out my full article about oxygen therapy for more information. 

13. Neurofeedback

Brain hooked up to computer. Neurofeedback can help reverse brain damage.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that shows you your brain activity in real-time and teaches you how to self-regulate it.  

Sensors are placed on your scalp to measure your brain’s activity, and the measurements are displayed using video or sound.

Dr. Amen uses it with his NFL patients.

In our retired NFL players, we often saw excessively high slow wave activity (excessive delta and theta) and too little fast wave activity (too little beta) in the front part of the brain. Many of our athletes thought of neurofeedback like going to the gym for their minds and found it very helpful.

It’s best to work with a qualified practitioner.

But I also like the Muse headband. It’s a good substitute and gives you real-time feedback in your brainwaves while you meditate. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website

Conclusion

Researchers used to believe that the brain could not heal, but they now know that’s wrong. 

Brain plasticity is possible, and if you put the brain in a healing environment, it can get better, and brain damage can be reversed. 

But the above protocol isn’t just for retired NFL players. 

It also applies directly to the larger traumatic brain injury and drug abuse communities.

Illustration of person holding a blue brain in their hands.

Or simply anyone who is experiencing cognitive decline, depression or other mental health problems. 

The retired NFL players in the study had sustained brain injuries decades previously, but they improved. 

If researchers can improve the brains of retired football players – who have had tens of thousands of hits to their heads – imagine the benefit you can get with a brain healthy program.

You’d don’t have to be held hostage by your bad brain. 

You can recover from brain damage, brain infection, substance abuse and toxic exposure. 

And Dr. Amen isn’t the only doctor showing the brain’s incredible power to heal.

Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD, is reversing cognitive decline and dementia with his own brain rehabilitation program. 

You can read more about his protocol here.

This work is incredibly important for football players, soldiers, firefighters, police, and anyone who has suffered brain trauma and damage.

Please share this post with anyone that you think would benefit from the information within it.

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16239884

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17545878

(3) http://ns.umich.edu/Releases/2009/Sep09/FinalReport.pdf

(4) http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/jnp.23.1.jnp98

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18991956

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20414130

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19345341

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19662657

(9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17574755

(10) http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/09/researchers-find-evidence-of-cte-in-96-of-deceased-nfl-players-they-tested

(11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17241155

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2344157/

(13) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20454891

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984445/

(15) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14500988

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9110909/

(17) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10681271/

(18) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16402761

(19) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18042001

(20) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC161361/

(21) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2675154/

(22) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17510979/

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18990082

(24) https://examine.com/supplements/alpha-lipoic-acid/

(25) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/20622459/

(26) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2170852

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12905098

(28) https://examine.com/supplements/vinpocetine/

(29) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15760651

(30) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12498034

(31) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12460136

(32) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19720082

(33) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17657601

(34) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3231808/

(35) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20715898

(36) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22146131

(37) https://www.hindawi.com/journals/mi/2013/512978/

(38) http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/45/6/1807

Medically reviewed by Dr. Daniel Amen, MD

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31 Proven Ways to Increase BDNF, Your Brain's Growth Hormone

An illustration of a brain with arms and legs. The brain is lifting weights over it’s head.

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 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

 

2. Curcumin

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. 

My favourite is the "Longvida" form of curcumin, as I noticed a significant effect from it. You can get it here.

 

3. 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.

 

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). 

They've 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.

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

 

5. Resveratrol

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). 

I supplement with this resveratrol every other day. You can get it here or here.

 

6. Prebiotics and Resistant Starch

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.

Other high-quality resistant starches include banana flour, plantain flour and waxy maize. I usually rotate between them.

Cooked and cooled white rice and potatoes also contain some resistant starch. 

 

7. Magnesium

Magnesium has been shown to cause antidepressant effects by significantly increasing BDNF expression in the brain (51, 52). 

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 this magnesium threonate supplement before bed. It’s the best form of magnesium for the brain because it’s very effective at passing the blood-brain barrier.

Magnesium threonate is also the exact form of magnesium shown in studies to increase BDNF (80).

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8. 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.

 

9. 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 high-quality, organic dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar. 

 

10. N-Acetyl-Cysteine

N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) is a cheap amino acid and antioxidant, and a very safe and effective way to deal with the root cause of your mental illness or sub-optimal cognition.

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’ve previously explored NAC in depth here. It can help treat at least six mental illnesses

 

11. Theanine

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 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). 

I take this version of Rhodiola on a semi-regular basis to maintain my mood and energy, and I previously wrote about it here

Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb I take every so often.

It’s effective at improving memory and cognition, and reducing anxiety.

And research shows that bacopa increases BDNF in rats that are undergoing chronic stress (60).

Lastly, ginseng has been shown to prevent stress-induced decline of BDNF (61). 

I take ginseng daily to support my mood and cognition.

Rhodiola, bacopa and ginseng are the three main herbs I use to increase BDNF and support my brain function.

But there are several other herbs that have been shown to increase BDNF, including baicalin, ashwagandha, gotu kola, and magnolia officinalis (81-84).

 

13. Zinc

Supplementing with zinc can also increase your BDNF levels.

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). 

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).

If you struggle with depression or 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 so that my zinc levels are optimal.

 

14. Blueberries

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.  

Alternatively, you can take a blueberry extract. I used to take this one. It’s actually cheaper in the long run that eating blueberries every day, but I just prefer eating actual blueberries.

In fact, most researchers actually use a blueberry extract instead of actual blueberries when they study the beneficial health effects of blueberries.

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15. Progesterone

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. 

 

16. Dehydroepiandrosterone

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

DHEA is known to have neuroprotective effects and to improve memory and cognition. 

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.  

 

17. Quercetin

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).  

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 point out that quercetin increases the absorption of resveratrol, so it’s a good idea to take them both together if you really want to increase BDNF (88).  

 

18. Coffee and Caffeine

Drinking coffee is another great way to increase BDNF levels.

Research shows that caffeine protects brain cells and lowers the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases

In one study, researchers found that caffeine significantly reduced age-related impairments in memory by increasing BDNF levels (90).  

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.

 

19. Niacin

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

 

21. Taurine

Taurine is an organic compound found in food, particularly meat and seafood.  

It has a wide variety of health benefits.  

It can cross the blood-brain barrier and increases short-term memory by increasing BDNF expression (96).  

Taurine is included in the Optimal Zinc supplement

 

22. Saffron

Saffron is a spice derived from the Crocus sativus plant.  

It has a number of health benefits due to the medicinal compounds within it. 

Saffron is one of the best supplements for reducing depression

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 

 

23. Exercise

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 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. 

 

24. Sunlight

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. 

During the winter months, I use this Vitamin D lamp. Or you can take a Vitamin D supplement

 

25. Intermittent Fasting

A person holds a knife and fork over an empty plate. Intermittent fasting can increase BDNF levels.

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. 

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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). 

 

28. Socialize

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). 

 

29. Deep Sleep

A woman sleeping deeply. Deep sleep can increase BDNF levels.

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.

 

30. 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 (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. 

Lastly, this anti-anxiety supplement includes several natural compounds that have helped me manage my stress and anxiety over the years. 

 

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.

Picture of foods commonly part of a ketogenic diet, including salmon, red meat, coconut oil, olive oil and butter. A ketogenic diet and ketones have been shown to increase BDNF levels.

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. 

 

Conclusion

A picture of a brain.

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. 

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain Health!

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC

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Rhodiola: The Very Best Herb for Depression and Fatigue

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