20 Proven Ways to Quickly Lower Your Cortisol Levels

A man looking depressed and stressed, hoping to lower his cortisol levels.

Chronic stress is killer. 

It broke me down over the years and led me to deep depression.

Getting a handle on it has been critical to my recovery. 

But it took me a while to figure out what works.

And I’d rather not see other people struggle and frantically look for solutions.

So I’ve gathered some of my favourite ways to quickly lower levels of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone.

But before we get to them, let’s quickly discuss cortisol and how chronically high levels of cortisol can negatively affect your brain and mental health. 

How Stress and Cortisol Affect Your Brain

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”.

It’s a naturally-occurring steroid hormone that’s produced by your adrenal glands and released when you’re under physical or mental stress. Essentially, it triggers our fight-or-flight response in stressful situations.

But it’s also absolutely necessary for our health, as it plays a key role in many different bodily processes. 

Cortisol levels are generally highest in the morning and lowest at night. But problems can arise when they are elevated for prolonged periods of time (134). 

Chronically high cortisol levels can:

  • Change the size, structure and functioning of your brain;

  • Shrink and kill brain cells;

  • Cause premature aging in the brain;

  • Contribute to memory loss and lack of concentration;

  • Slow down our ability to grow new brain cells; and

  • Increase inflammation in the brain (135-140).

Watch this TED-Ed video, How Stress and Cortisol Affect Your Brain,” to learn more: 

Chronic stress and high levels of cortisol also increase activity in the amygdala, the fear centre of the brain. This can create a vicious cycle in which the brain is more likely be get stuck in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

When I did neurofeedback, my practitioner discovered my amygdala was overactive. She trained it back down to normal levels, and my chronic anxiety dissipated.

Anxiety isn’t the only mental condition linked to an abnormal stress response. Here are some others:

Luckily, there are a number of ways to manage and overcome chronic stress, lower cortisol levels, reverse damage done to the brain, and improve your sense of wellbeing. 

This article includes the best foods, nutrients, herbs and supplements that reduce cortisol; as well as the best lifestyle habits, therapies and practices that reduce cortisol.

Let’s go through them.  

The Best Foods, Nutrients, Herbs and Supplements To Naturally Lower Cortisol Levels

1. Eat Dark Chocolate

Most people know that dark chocolate is rich in multiple antioxidants, such as flavonols and polyphenols, which reduce oxidative stress.

But it also reduces cortisol. 

This may explain why people love to eat chocolate and experience relaxation when they do. 

Dark chocolate can protect your brain by boosting BDNF, your brain’s growth hormone

You should always try to get raw dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar like this one.

 

2. Drink Tea

Several different types of tea have beneficial effects on cortisol levels. 

Green tea has been shown to inhibit the synthesis of cortisol (18). 

And a study found that individuals who drank 4 cups of black tea daily for six weeks had lower cortisol levels in comparison to others who didn’t drink black tea (2). 

Researchers couldn’t confirm what caused this reduction in cortisol, but they suspected it had something to do with the high content of theanine, an amino acid found in both black and green tea.

A follow-up study published this year confirmed that theanine can reduce cortisol (13).

Theanine produces a calming effect on the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier and increasing the production of both GABA and dopamine in the brain (12). 

I personally can’t drink most teas because they tend to contain mycotoxins (mold toxins) and I’m very sensitive to them after living in a moldy home.

If you’ve lived in a moldy home or have found out that you’re genetically susceptible to mycotoxins, you can supplement with straight theanine like I do. 

This supplement includes theanine. 

And if you do decide to drink black tea, you can lower cortisol even more by getting decaffeinated black tea.

Lastly, chamomile tea is another type of tea that can decrease cortisol. It’s been used for centuries as a sleep aid. It contains flavonoids, essential oils, coumarin and other compounds that can help you relax.

Several studies show it can block the precursor hormone of cortisol and improve sleep quality (14, 15). 

This anti-anxiety supplement includes both theanine and chamomile, along with a number of other natural compounds that have helped me manage my stress and anxiety over the years. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.

 

3. Eat Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil has numerous health benefits, particularly because of its strong anti-inflammatory effects.

It also contains a compound called oleuropein, which can reduce cortisol levels (37). 

I add it to my salads and sometimes even 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

 

4. Take Cortisol-Reducing Nutrients and Herbs

There are a number of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and adaptogenic herbs that have been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels. 

I’ll go over some of my favourites here.

Phosphatidylserine is probably the best option for reducing stress hormone levels. 

Phosphatidylserine is a fat-soluble amino acid compound that plays a key role in optimal cognitive function. High amounts of phosphatidylserine can be found within the brain, and supplementation has been shown to improve attention and memory, especially in the elderly (114-116). 

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

On top of all this, phosphatidylserine powerfully lowers cortisol (117-119). 

People who supplement with phosphatidylserine have been shown to have lower average levels of cortisol (120).

I take phosphatidylserine every day. It's part of the Optimal Brain supplement

Ashwagandha is another great cortisol-reducing supplement. It’s a popular Indian herb commonly used to prevent anxiety. Its anti-anxiety effect is synergistic with alcohol.

Its stress-reducing effects are likely because it lowers cortisol levels. 

Multiple studies have concluded that it is a potent stress reliever that can reduce cortisol by anywhere from 14 to 32% (121-123). 

Another adaptogenic herb that can lower cortisol is rhodiola

I’ve discussed rhodiola before. It can really help with symptoms of depression. 

Research has found that it may be doing this by significantly reducing stress hormone levels in the body (124-126). 

Lastly, a number of minerals have been shown to reduce cortisol, including zinc, magnesium and selenium (96, 97, 127-133).

That’s why I take and recommend this multi-mineral supplement every day. 

Overall, ashwagandha, rhodiola, phosphatidylserine and minerals are my favourite ways to keep stress levels low, but there are plenty of other supplements that have been shown to positively affect cortisol levels, including:

 

5. Consume Enough Food, Protein and Water

Eating enough protein and calories, and drinking enough clean, filtered water is also critical to keeping stress hormone levels low.  

Studies show that severely restricting calories elevates cortisol levels (108, 109). 

Restricting protein and depriving yourself of the amino acid leucine can also stimulate the stress response and increase stress hormones (110). 

That’s why I eat plenty of food each day and supplement with creatine and BCAA protein powder throughout the day when I don’t have access to a source of high-quality protein. 

Lastly, make sure you stay hydrated and drink plenty of water.

Properly-hydrated runners have noticeably lower cortisol levels than dehydrated runners (81).

I use this Berkey system to filter my water so that it’s as pure as possible. You can get it here or here.

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6. Consume More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s

As I’ve discussed before, omega-3s are dietary fats that are needed for the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system. They improve learning and memory, and protect against psychiatric disorders including depression, mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (4-7). 

Researchers have also found that when individuals supplement with omega-3 fatty acids, there is a significant reduction in the release of cortisol (1, 10).

Omega-3 fatty acids also significantly reduce stress hormones in animals (3). 

Krill oil is my favourite source of omega-3 fatty acids. I take this one everyday.

I also eat wild salmon and grass-fed beef on a regular basis. 

On the other hand, consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to increased inflammation and cortisol levels (8, 9, 11).

So make sure to avoid refined vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oil.

 

7. Get Enough Antioxidants

Not only do antioxidants counteract oxidative stress within the body; they can also help reduce cortisol (19, 25). 

Most of the research has been done in athletes, but supplementation with antioxidants – such as berry powders, greens powders, vitamin C, glutathione and CoQ10 – leads to fairly significant reductions in cortisol and other measures of stress (20-23). 

Dark berries in particular contain antochyanins, which have been shown to lower cortisol (24). 

Acai berries are my favourite, as they are loaded with antochyanins and vitamin C.

Regarding vitamin C, the research is mixed on whether it can consistently lower cortisol levels.

However, in my experience, high doses of vitamin C definitely reduce stress.

One study found that a high dose of vitamin C decreases anxiety and improves mood (29). 

After exercise, it’s also been shown to rapidly reduce cortisol (26, 27). 

And multiple other studies have found that both vitamin C and vitamin E reduce cortisol and anxiety (30-32). 

It’s also well known that chronic stress and high cortisol can deplete vitamin C and other antioxidant enzymes (28). 

In addition to getting vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, I take at least 500 mg of supplemental Vitamin C every day. I’ve experimented with taking up to 10 grams daily (2 gram doses throughout the day) and it helped me manage stress, but it’s not necessary unless you find it really helps you. 

 

8. Take Curcumin

Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.

Curcumin is one of my favourite compounds for the brain and mental health.

Thousands of high-quality scientific studies have been published, showing that curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and can increase BDNF, your brain’s growth hormone. 

Research shows that curcumin inhibits the increase in cortisol caused by stress (33, 34). 

And animal studies have found that curcumin may reverse elevated cortisol levels after chronic stress (35, 36). 

Unfortunately, curcumin is very inefficient at absorbing into the bloodstream and reaching the brain (54, 55).

Luckily, science and technology has been able to concentrate significant amounts of curcumin into supplement form and increase its bioavailability. 

There are several different patented 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 through Amazon. It is one of my favourite supplements and since it is a fat soluble, I take it every day with a fatty meal.

 

9. Eat Prebiotic Foods

Prebiotics are substances in food 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 probiotics in our intestines.

Dr. Phil Burnet, a neurobiologist at Oxford University, published a paper in 2015 showing that people who ingested prebiotics have lower levels of cortisol.

The people who ingested prebiotics also focused more on positive feedback and less on negative stimuli.

Dr. Burnet said the results were very similar to when people take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, but without the side effects (87).

That’s why I eat prebiotic-rich foods regularly, including sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus and squash. These foods are included in my free grocery shopping guide for optimal brain health. 

Resistant starch is one of the most potent ways to boost your prebiotic intake. A convenient way to incorporate more of it into your diet is by using Bob’s Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch. Other high-quality resistant starches include banana flour, plantain flour and waxy maize. Cooked and cooled white rice and potatoes also contain some resistant starch. 

I previously discussed prebiotics and resistant starch here.

I also created and take Optimal Biotics, which is a premium probiotic supplement that reduces stress and support my mental health. 

 

10. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine

Excess consumption of alcohol and caffeine have been shown to increase stress hormones, so their consumption should be limited. 

Coffee is definitely good for brain health. There is a lot of research showing it is very healthy and can be protective against dementia

However, it can also disrupt sleep and make people anxious. I used to not be able to handle any coffee at all. But now that I'm healthy, I can handle it just fine. I drink one cup of Kicking Horse coffee most mornings.  

But if you’re struggling with high cortisol and chronic stress, I wouldn’t recommend high doses of caffeine.

It’s been shown to directly stimulate the adrenal cortex, release cortisol into the bloodstream and increase stress hormone levels (74-76).

One study found that caffeine increased cortisol by 30% in just one hour, and regular consumption can double your cortisol levels (88, 89). 

So limit it as much as possible.

An alternative solution is to consume the whole coffee fruit, instead of drinking coffee.

The coffee fruit doesn’t contain caffeine, but it does contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.

Scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function. Coffee fruit concentrate can be found in the Optimal Brain supplement

Lastly, excess alcohol consumption over an extended period of time has also been shown to raise cortisol levels. Having a couple drinks here and there likely isn’t a problem though, and you can protect yourself from it by following these steps (90, 91). 

Certain types of alcohol are better to drink than others.

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The Best Lifestyle Habits and Practices to Naturally Lower Cortisol Levels

11. Laugh

In the book The Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins explains how he cured himself of ankylosing spondylitis by laughing along with Marx Brothers movies.

I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.
— Norman Cousins

It sounds farfetched, but more and more research is showing that laughter has a powerful effect on our health. 

Researchers have found that laughing and having fun significantly reduces stress hormone levels (65, 66). 

In one study, laughter improved the short-term memory of older adults, and simply anticipating humour decreased their cortisol levels by nearly 50% (64). 

So, next time you’re stressed, try watching a funny TV show or YouTube video

 

12. Play with Animals

This is my cat named Puddy. He's annoying but he does reduce my cortisol levels.

This is my cat named Puddy. He's annoying but he does reduce my cortisol levels.

Petting your own dog or another person’s dog has been shown to significantly decrease stress hormone levels and increase oxytocin, endorphins, and other healing hormones (71, 73). 

Researchers have also compared 20 minutes of quiet rest to 20 minutes of interaction with a dog, and they found that hanging out with dog contributed to a much more significant decrease in cortisol. This is often why therapy dogs show up on college campuses during exams (71). 

So you should try to hang out with animals as much as possible, and consider getting a house pet if you don’t have one. I have a cat named Puddy. 

Spending time in nature has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels. So you can kill two birds with one stone by taking your pet for a walk in the park (77). 

Hmm perhaps “kill two birds with one stone” wasn’t the best idiom to use in this section, but you get my point. 

 

13. Listen to Music and Dance

Music is actually healing and can have a calming effect on the brain. 

Numerous studies show that music can relax you, especially before a stressful event, by significantly lowering stress hormones. It can also reduce the spike in cortisol during the stressful situation (50-54). 

Music can be even more relaxing when combined with non-strenuous dancing.

Regular dancing has also been shown to greatly decrease cortisol levels (55). 

 

14. Practice Relaxation Techniques and Therapies

Not too surprisingly, simply taking time each day to relax can lower cortisol.  

My favourite relaxation technique is meditation. 

Countless studies show that meditating daily for just 15 minutes can significantly lower stress hormone levels and blunt cortisol spikes (38-43). 

I use the Muse headband to meditate. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback on your brainwaves. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website

Yoga has also been shown to lower cortisol. 

In one study, people with depression practiced yoga regularly for 3 months. By the end of the study, their cortisol levels dropped significantly and they experienced relief from their depression (44). 

Massage is another excellent option, as it’s been shown in many studies to significant decrease in cortisol and anxiety (45, 46). 

I get a massage every couple of months. 

Emotional Freedom Technique, or “tapping”, is another tool I use to manage stress

Tapping is based on ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. You can learn how to practice it here

I know it seems hokey, but it works. 

It’s been shown to significantly decrease cortisol levels (47). 

The book The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living goes in more depth about the practice. 

Lastly, deep breathing exercises can help you manage your stress hormone levels. 

Diaphragmatic breathing – consciously breathing from your diaphragm – has been shown to encourage the body’s natural relaxation response and reduce cortisol (48, 49). 

I use the EmWave2 device every day to reduce stress and make sure I’m breathing optimally. I wrote about it before here.

 

15. Exercise (But Not Too Much)

Exercise is definitely good for you. It can balance hormones and reduce stress by releasing endorphins. However, overtraining can actually backfire and increase stress hormone levels (112). 

That’s why I don’t really recommend chronic endurance exercise and prefer weightlifting and high-intensity sprinting over cardio. 

Research shows that prolonged aerobic exercise can increase cortisol levels, and marathon runners have higher levels of cortisol (111, 113). 

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16. Get More Deep Sleep

This might be the most important step. 

Getting enough high-quality sleep is critical for your brain and mental health. 

My sleep used to be terrible and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health. And then my poor mental health would make my sleep worse. So it was a vicious cycle. 

Let me explain.

Normally, cortisol increases in the morning and then drops very low at night prior to bed. But if you have chronic stress and high cortisol, you can end up feeling wired and anxious at night, making it more difficult to sleep. 

Unfortunately, staying up late when your body expects to be asleep further increases your stress hormone levels even more. And lack of sleep and interrupted sleep have been shown to significantly increase cortisol throughout the next day and contribute to cognitive problems down the road (56-61, 63). 

So it’s clearly a vicious cycle where high cortisol causes sleep problems, and poor sleep increases stress.  

That’s why it’s so important go to bed at the same time every night and aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Without doing that, you can end up with dysregulated daytime cortisol production.

And 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.

So I would try doing everything you can to maximize the quality of your sleep. 

Here are some things that I do:

You can also take 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.

And if you don’t get enough sleep one night, try to take a nap sometime the next day. Daytime napping after a night of sleep loss has been shown to cause beneficial changes in cortisol levels (62).

 

17. Chew Aspartame-Free Gum

Next time you’re stressed, try chewing a piece of gum

It’s an easy way to lower your stress hormone levels. 

According to one study, chewing gum while under moderate stress reduces mental stress and decreases cortisol by 12 per cent. Previous studies have also shown that chewing can increase alertness, neural activity and blood flow to the brain (82). 

I prefer if the gum is aspartame-free, like this one.

 

18. Stand Tall

Changing your body language can have a powerful effect on your biology. 

Standing tall for just two minutes can lower your cortisol by 25 per cent, according to a famous study led by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy (83). 

Cuddy’s research found that if you switch from low-power body language (arms crossed, hunched over, closed up, slumped shoulders, nervous) to high-power body language (opened up, tall, relaxed, confident), your hormones will change to match your new posture (84). 

So try your best to maintain high-power body language as much as possible as it can reduce stress hormones and increase confidence. You could even try holding a dominant pose for 2 minutes every day. You’ll likely find yourself feeling calmer and more mentally powerful.

And if you haven’t already, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”.

I also recommend her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

19. Socialize

Social connectivity and positive social interactions also significantly reduce stress hormone levels.

Research shows that the more social support a person has, the lower their cortisol levels will be (67). 

This is likely because you release the hormone oxytocin during social contact and social bonding, and oxytocin has been proven to decrease anxiety and block increases in cortisol (68). 

One study states that “the combination of oxytocin and social support exhibited the lowest cortisol concentrations as well as increased calmness during stress” (69). 

Animal studies have also discovered that social isolation leads to higher cortisol and mental health problems (70). 

Make sure to check out my full article about oxytocin to learn more about this powerful neurotransmitter.

 

20. Other Cutting-Edge Therapies

Here are some other therapies that have been shown to reduce stress and cortisol:

  • Bright Light Therapy (85, 86) – I recommend this device.

  • Transcranial direct current stimulation (78)

  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (79, 80)

  • Acupuncture (92) – I use this acupressure mat.

 

Conclusion

It’s important to take control of your stress before it takes control over you.

Thankfully, there are so many ways to manage your stress and lower cortisol levels without having to resort to a prescription

Here’s a summary of everything we’ve gone over to reduce stress hormone levels:

A person is squeezing a stress ball. The stress ball looks like and is in the shape of a brain.

I remember when I first discovered all of these tools and strategies, it gave me so much hope that I could get better and overcome my depression and anxiety.

And I thankfully I did.

And you can too. 

Let me know what you think in the comments. Have you ever had high cortisol? Do you have any other tips that have helped you reduce cortisol?

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

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

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31 Powerful Ways to Induce Autophagy in the Brain

Autophagy is an absolutely essential biological process that plays a key role in the normal functioning and survival of your brain cells.

The word autophagy is derived from the Greek words auto and phagein.

Auto translates to “self”.

And phagein translates to “devouring”.

So autophagy essentially means “self-devouring”, or “to eat oneself”.  

That may sound scary and something that you would want to avoid…

But it’s actually something you want to embrace and induce yourself.

Because autophagy is a self-cleaning mechanism within our cells, which helps your brain detoxify, repair and regenerate itself.

It destroys the old, damaged, and malfunctioning components of your cells – and rebuilds new and healthier ones instead!

It’s sort of like spring cleaning or replacing old parts of your car.

By inducing autophagy, we are clearing out worn-out and faulty cellular parts within our brain cells.

Our brain cells need to last a lifetime, so autophagy is our body’s unique way of naturally rejuvenating them and defending them from disease.

Autophagy.

How Does Autophagy Affect Your Brain and Mental Health?

What we’ve discovered is that autophagy protects against neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and certain forms of dementia. If you switch on autophagy, you remove proteins rapidly, as well as protect against excessive inflammation. By learning how to influence this process, we are able to affect the progression of these diseases.
— Dr. David Rubinsztein, professor of molecular neurogenetics at the University of Cambridge and UK Dementia Research Institute

Research shows that autophagy supports the central nervous system, improves brain function and reduces neurological cellular breakdown (136-138).

And studies suggest that autophagy is a built-in defense mechanism that detoxifies and clears the central nervous system (139).

But the autophagy process becomes less efficient as we get older.

And over time, our brain cells accumulate a variety of damaged organelles, abnormal and pathogenic proteins, and oxidized particles (141-142).

This clogs up the brain, accelerates cognitive aging, and even contributes to the development of dementia (140).

But autophagy doesn’t just decline in older individuals.

Even younger people with depression and schizophrenia have been shown to have deficiencies in autophagy pathways (162-163).

In fact, researchers have found a link between autophagy dysfunction and many neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders, including (143-161):

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Parkinson’s disease

  • Huntington’s disease

  • Schizophrenia

  • Depression

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Frontotemporal dementia

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

  • Autism spectrum disorders

  • Fragile X syndrome

  • Mood disorders

  • Psychotic symptoms

  • Behavioural change

The good news is that you can do something about this.

You have the power to activate autophagy.

There are several reliable and natural ways to increase it.

And by doing so, you can reduce neuroinflammation, protect the nervous system, improve cognitive function, encourage the growth of brain cells, and even fight depression and Alzheimer’s disease (164-174).

Read on to learn more about how you can induce autophagy.  

Lifestyle Habits and Therapies That Induce Autophagy in the Brain

1. Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to boost autophagy in the brain.

Researchers have found that aerobic exercise induces neuronal autophagy (1).

They believe the reason why exercise improves cognitive function is perhaps because it increases autophagy in the brain (2).

Exercise is a stressor on the body, and the body induces autophagy so that your cells can recover from the stress. All it takes is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise to activate autophagy in the brain (3).

As a result, exercise increases neurogenesis and reduces neurodegeneration.

Many doctors and researchers recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health.

You should find a sport or aerobic exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently.

2. Intermittent Fasting

One of the major benefits of fasting is a dramatic increase in autophagy, followed by a massive boost in stem cell production.
— Dr. Rhonda Patrick, PhD

Fasting is another biological stressor that promotes autophagy.

When you’re fasting, your body isn’t receiving nutrients, so it stresses out and triggers autophagy.

Researchers have found that fasting activates “profound autophagy” in the brain (24-26).

As a result, it can help treat neurological conditions and lowers the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (27-28).

So how long do you have to fast to trigger autophagy in the brain?

Research suggests 24 to 48-hour fasts are ideal and have the strongest effects (29).

But long fasts are not very realistic and practical.

Luckily, even shorter fasts have been shown to significantly promote neuronal autophagy (30-31).

That’s why I personally eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window, and then fast for the other 16 hours of the day.

You don’t need to go that long, but you should try to fast for at least 12 hours at a time.

The best way to get started is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day.

That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time.

3. A Ketogenic Diet

Ketogenesis is like an autophagy hack. You get a lot of the same metabolic changes and benefits of fasting without actually fasting.
— Dr. Colin Champ, MD

A ketogenic diet is a very high-fat, low-carb diet.

To follow the diet, you need to get most of your calories from healthy fats, and no more than 10 percent of calories from carbs (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.

And this be very beneficial and increase autophagy in the brain.

Researchers have found that ketosis is neuroprotective and reduces neurodegeneration by promoting autophagy in the brain (4-6).

Autophagy reduces amyloid beta, the main component of amyloid plaques found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease (8-9).

An animal study also shows that ketosis reduces brain injury (during and after seizures) by activating autophagy (10).

I follow a ketogenic diet every so often.

Some of the best foods to eat if you follow a ketogenic diet include coconut oil, olive oil, pastured eggs, ghee, grass-fed meat, avocado, nuts and seeds.

These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.

I also take Optimal Ketones every day, which are exogenous ketones that get my body into a state of ketosis very quickly. That way I get the mental clarity of ketosis without having to follow a ketogenic diet all of the time.

Research shows that the ketone bodies in Optimal Ketones stimulates autophagy (7).

4. Circadian Rhythm, Melatonin and Deep Sleep

A baby sleeping. Sleep induces autophagy in the brain.

Getting enough high-quality sleep is very important if you want to increase autophagy.

I used to have very poor sleep and it was one of the main factors that contributed to my poor cognitive function.

Research shows that not getting enough sleep, and waking up intermittently throughout the night, negatively alters autophagy in the brain (11-12).

So it’s the length and quality of your sleep that matters.

That’s why I highly recommend getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.

What can you do to improve your sleep?

  • Maintain a proper circadian rhythm

  • Promote the production and release of melatonin at night

Researchers have found that our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) controls autophagy and plays a role in cognitive decline (13-14).

Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain.

It helps control your circadian rhythm, and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.

Melatonin has been shown to induce autophagy in the brain, and it reduces the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders (66-68).

Even mild changes in our external environment (i.e. blue lighting at night) can affect our circadian rhythm and reduce melatonin production, negatively altering autophagy and our cognition the next day (13-14).

Knowing this, here is what you can do to support melatonin production, maintain your circadian rhythm and maximize the quality of your sleep:

  • Expose your eyes to sun in the morning. This sets your circadium rhythm.

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

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

  • 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 your 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.

  • 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. 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.

If you’re still having trouble with sleep, try this sleep supplement. It 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.

5. Hot and Cold Exposure

Exposing yourself to both hot and cold temperatures can stress your cells and promote autophagy.

Several researchers have found that “heat stress” triggers autophagy and stimulates the autophagic process (15-18).

Autophagy and the heat-shock response are also tightly linked (19-20).

Researchers have found that cold exposure induces neuronal autophagy, and they believe it can reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases (21-22).

Research also shows that switching back and forth between cold and hot can induce autophagy (23).

So how does this translate into every day life?

Try switching back and forth between hot and cold in the shower.

Or spend time in a sauna or steam room, and then take a cold shower.

I personally like to go outside with minimal clothing in the winter, and then eventually come back inside and take a hot shower.

Cold plunges, cold baths and cryotherapy are some other ways to expose yourself to cold.

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6. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a treatment that enhances healing and recovery after injury to the central nervous system.

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 that need to heal.

Several studies have shown that HBOT elevates and enhances autophagy in the central nervous system (41-44).

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. My doctor recommended it to me and it has helped me recover.

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

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

7. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to induce autophagy in the brain (69).

One study found that acupuncture improved learning and memory, and protected brain cells, by upregulating the autophagy pathway (70).

Another found that acupuncture promoted the “autophagic clearance” of proteins from the brain that contribute to Parkinson’s disease (71).

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 also lie on this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed.

Foods That Induce Autophagy in the Brain

8. Coffee and Caffeine

A cup of coffee on a plate with a spoon. Coffee induces autophagy in the brain.

Drinking coffee is another great way to induce autophagy in the brain.

Researchers have found that both regular and decaffeinated coffee rapidly trigger autophagy (32).

The polyphenols in coffee are also good for your brain health because they stimulate autophagy (32).

And other studies show that caffeine protects brain cells and lowers the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases by inducing autophagy in the brain (33-35).

I drink one cup of this high-quality coffee every morning.

Coffee and 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.

It’s also a good idea to try to consume the whole coffee fruit, instead of just the coffee bean or pure caffeine.

Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted from the coffee fruit for roasting. And the surrounding fruit is discarded.

But that’s a 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.

Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.

9. Green Tea

Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate (EGCG) is the main polyphenol found in green tea.

It’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.

Researchers have found that EGCG stimulates autophagy in the brain, protects against brain cell toxicity and may help treat neurodegenerative disorders (36-38, 40).

It also improves learning and memory after chronic stress by restoring autophagic flux in the brain (39).

I personally drink organic green tea regularly, usually in place of coffee on days when I’m relaxing.

I also take a supplement that includes green tea extract and EGCG.

10. Coconut Oil and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)

Coconut oil is one of the best foods for your brain.

It’s especially important if you want to support your thyroid.

But it can also stimulate autophagy in the brain by increasing ketone levels (45-46).

I eat one or two tablespoons of this coconut oil almost every day now, along with Optimal Ketones, to boost ketones and induce autophagy in my brain.

The medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) within coconut oil are responsible for the ketone-increasing effects of coconut oil

If you don’t like coconut oil, you can supplement with pure MCT oil instead.

11. Ginger

Ginger is one of the healthiest spices.

It contains lots of nutrients and bioactive compounds that have powerful, protective benefits for your brain (47-49).

6-shagol, one of the active compounds within ginger, induces autophagy (50-55).

12. Reishi Mushroom

Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a powerful fungus with hundreds of bioactive compounds.

It has been used for thousands of years by Chinese medicine practitioners to support the immune system, regulate inflammation, lower anxiety and support brain function.

Research shows that reishi mushroom can induce autophagy (56).

It also protects the brain from oxidative stress by regulating autophagy (57-58).

I’ve supplemented with this reishi mushroom tincture in the past to support my immune system.

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13. Turmeric (Curcumin)

Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.

It’s one of my favourite natural compounds for the brain.

One reason is because it protects brain cells from damage by activating autophagy (59-61).

There are several different forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them. The Longvida form is my favourite. You can get it here.

14. Broccoli Sprouts (Sulforaphane)

Sulforaphane is a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.

It has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, similar to curcumin.

Studies have shown that sulforaphane increases autophagy within brain cells (62-63).

As a result, researchers believe it can be a therapeutic tool in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases (63).

Broccoli sprouts are the best source of sulforaphane.

You can also take sulforaphane in supplement form.

If you decide to take it in supplement form, make sure you get the "myrosinase-activated" form.

Myrosinase is the enzyme in broccoli that helps metabolize sulforaphane.

I once bought a supplement that didn't contain myrosinase and had to return it, and then ended up buying this one instead.

15. Galangal

Galangal is a spice.

It’s known as “Thai ginger” or “Siamese ginger” because it looks very similar to ginger.

But it’s actually a different spice altogether.

It's commonly found in Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking.

Galangin, a compound within galangal, has been shown to induce autophagy and protect dopaminergic neurons in the brain (64-65).

16. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Oleuropein)

Olive oil on a picnic table. The antioxidants in olive oil can induce autophagy in the brain.

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 (92).

As a result, researchers propose that a diet with extra virgin olive oil might have potential benefits for Alzheimer’s patients because of its induction of autophagy (72).

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.

You don’t just have to eat olive oil to get the benefits of oleuropein though.

Oleuropein can also be found in olive leaf extract and argon oil.

17. Berries

Blueberries, strawberries, acai berries are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain.

And for good reason.

All three berries have been shown to significantly activate autophagy in the brain (74-74).

The polyphenols within them also protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation and improve cognitive function.

I try to eat one cup of berries every day to support my brain health.

18. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself, and they are absolutely necessary for the normal functioning of your brain and nervous system.

They have been shown in many studies to significantly reduce brain inflammation; improve memory, mood and cognition; and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers have also demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids can increase BDNF signaling and enhance autophagy in the brain (108-112).

So increasing your intake of them is one of the most impactful actions you can take to support your brain.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in cold water fish, including:

  • Salmon

  • Black cod

  • Sablefish

  • Sardines

  • Herring

These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.

Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet.

That’s why I recommend supplementing with krill oil, a special kind of fish oil that contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids.

I feel off when I stop taking it. I actually notice the difference.

Some researchers believe that the beneficial effects of supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may simply be due to their ability to activate autophagy (107).

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Natural Supplements That Induce Autophagy in the Brain

19. Probiotics

Research suggests that certain probiotics can stimulate autophagy in the brain.

In one study, researchers gave the SLAB51 probiotic formulation to mice, and it partially restored autophagy in the brains of the mice (75).

The researchers also found that the SLAB51 probiotic reduced brain damage and decreased cognitive decline in the mice (75).

I tried to find the SLAB51 probiotic formulation online, but it doesn’t appear to be commercially available yet.

I personally take the Optimal Biotics supplement every day to support my gut and brain health.

I also like to drink kombucha and eat fermented foods regularly.

Check out this older article for several other ways to increase your good gut bacteria.

And if you struggle with anxiety, here are 9 probiotic strains that can help.

20. American Ginseng

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a powerful herb that enhances brain function.

Researchers have found that it induces autophagy, which then protects the brain from neurotoxicity and reduces mitochondrial dysfunction (76-78).

Because of this, researchers believe it can help treat neurodegenerative disorders (77, 79).

American ginseng is included in the Optimal Ketones supplement. I find it increases my mental clarity and energy.

21. Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba is a plant that has been used in China for thousands of years to treat a number of health problems.

It’s one of the top-selling natural supplements in the world, and it’s even a prescription herb in Germany.

It’s most commonly used to improve brain health because it increases brain blood flow and improves memory, mood, mental energy and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have also discovered it helps treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by activating and increasing autophagy in the brain (80-82).

Ginkgo Biloba is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.

22. Acetyl-L-Carnitine

Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It’s been shown to have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects.

It’s often used as a natural brain booster because it increases alertness and provides support to brain cells. It’s been shown to be very effective at alleviating chronic fatigue and improving mood.

Researchers have also found that it helps reverse cognitive decline and supports mitochondrial function by inducing autophagy in the brain (83-86).

I find that it personally gives me a big boost in mental energy and resilience.

ALCAR is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.

23. Vitamin D (and K2)

An illustration of the sun with Vitamin D in the middle. Vitamin D induces autophagy in the brain.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun.

Unfortunately, researchers estimate that 50% of people are at risk of Vitamin D deficiency.

This is a huge problem because every tissue in your body has Vitamin D receptors, including the brain, so a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences.

Research shows that Vitamin D, and activation of the Vitamin D receptor, induces autophagy (89-91, 93).

Vitamin D supplementation in mice also increases levels of autophagy (92).

One study found that Vitamin D can reduce neurological deficits caused by traumatic brain injury by restoring autophagy in the brain (95).

And some researchers have pointed out that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many diseases that involve defective autophagy (94).

Ideally, you should get your Vitamin D by going outside and getting sun.

I try to get sunlight every day during the spring and summer months.

But most people still don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun, especially during the winter.

During the winter months, when there isn't enough sun, I use this Vitamin D sunlamp.

I also take this Vitamin D supplement as needed, depending on my blood test levels.

Vitamin D is so critical for optimal brain health, so make sure to check your levels regularly. You can order a test here.

If you decide to take a Vitamin D3 supplement, it’s a good idea to take it along with Vitamin K2. They are synergistic and mix well together.

There is also some evidence that Vitamin K2 stimulates autophagy as well (87-88).

24. Lithium

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 can be safely supplemented to improve your brain health and increase the formation of myelin.

Research shows that lithium induces autophagy in the brain and enhances the breakdown and clearance of proteins that contribute to neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

Therefore, it may help treat Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia (96-97).

I used to take this lithium orotate. I don’t take it anymore because I don’t need it, but I remember it making me feel calm and stable.

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25. Cannabidiol (CBD)

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active cannabinoids found in marijuana.

Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD isn’t psychoactive and doesn’t make you “high”.

But it can help treat a number of diseases because it reduces inflammation.

Researchers have found that CBD activates and enhances autophagy pathways in the brain (98-100).

I took this CBD oil for a while and I recommend it. It significantly reduced my stress, made me sleepy and knocked me out before bed.

I only took it in the evening because it made me too drowsy during the day, and I don’t need to take it anymore.

If you decide to get the same CBD oil as me, I found out you can use the coupon code 10off406 for a 10% discount.

26. Rhodiola

Rhodiola, also known as golden root or arctic root, is a Traditional Chinese and Scandinavian herb.

It’s one of the most popular adaptogens used to increase physical and mental stamina.

One study found that rhodiola can reduce neurodegeneration by inducing autophagy in the brain (101).

Other studies have found that the herb significantly upregulates autophagy (102-103).

I take this rhodiola supplement. I don't take it every day, only when I need a cognitive boost. You can get it here or here.

Check out this post all about rhodiola to learn more about this amazing herb.

27. Berberine

A bowl of berberine. Berberine induces autophagy in the brain.

Berberine is an alkaloid extracted from various plants.

It has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and possibly antidepressant effects. It can also improve intestinal health and lower cholesterol.

Researchers have also found that berberine reduces inflammation and protects the brain from damage by boosting autophagy in the brain (104-105).

One study even found it reduces neurological deficits and promotes neurogenesis by stimulating autophagy (106).

I’ve experimented with varying dosages of this berberine. I personally didn’t notice any profound brain and mental health benefits, but I have heard good things from other practitioners.

28. Nicotinamide

Nicotinamide, also known as niacinamide or nicotinic acid amide, is the water-soluble, active form of Vitamin B3.

It has been shown to reduce cognitive decline and halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by improving autophagy function in the brain (113-114).

It also improves cognitive performance and preserves mitochondrial integrity (113).

Years ago, I took this nicotinamide 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.

29. Schisandra

Schisandra is a berry commonly used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.

The seeds of the berry contain lignans, which have health-promoting properties.

It’s considered an adaptogen and traditionally used to treat depression, stress and menopause.

But lots of research shows that Schisandra can also benefit people struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (115-116).

This is because it reduces neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment by enhancing autophagy (117-120).

Besides promoting autophagy, it also has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects upon brain cells (116).

You can also get Schisandra as dried whole berries or as juice.

But it usually isn’t used as a food.

Rather, it’s more commonly used as a supplement. It’s available in multiple forms, including dried powder and pills.

30. Spermidine

Spermidine is a polyamine compound with various metabolic functions.

It’s found in living tissues and within a wide range of foods, including aged cheese, fermented soy, chicken, mushrooms, pears and potatoes.

It can also be taken as a supplement.

Researchers have found that it’s neuroprotective and reduces synapse aging by enhancing autophagy in the brain (121-127).

As a result, it counteracts neurodegeneration, reduces memory impairment, and protects neurons from demyelination (121).

31. Resveratrol and Pterostilbene

Resveratrol is a beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound found in grapes, red wine, raspberries and dark chocolate.

It’s known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.

And researchers are starting to understand why.

Several studies have shown that resveratrol induces autophagy in the brain (128-132).

In two of the studies, it protected brain cells and helped brain cells recover after injury by enhancing autophagy (131-132).

Researchers propose it could even be used to help prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease due to its autophagy-enhancing effects (130).

To consume enough resveratrol to promote autophagy, you’ll need to supplement with it.

I take this resveratrol supplement to support the long-term health of my brain. I don't take it every day, just every so often. You can get it here or here.

Pterostilbene, a compound found in blueberries, is very similar to resveratrol, and it has also been shown to induce autophagy (133-135).

I tried this pterostilbene and it was beneficial, but I didn’t find it any more helpful than resveratrol, so I’ve decided to just stick with resveratrol considering it has significantly more research to back it up.

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD

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