25 Powerful Ways to Boost Your Endocannabinoid System

The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.
— Dr. Dustin Sulak

It’s becoming increasingly clear that stimulating and supporting your endocannabinoid system is another way to improve your brain and mental health. 

But you don’t need to smoke marijuana to do this. 

There are a number of other options, and this articles explore them.

Marijuana leaf and the endocannabinoid system.

But first, what exactly is your endocannabinoid system? 

Well, your body actually creates its own cannabinoids, similar to those found in cannabis. 

And these naturally-occurring cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors within your body and brain.

You can think of these receptors like little “locks”, and your body’s cannabinoids fit naturally into these locks like “keys”. Together, they make up your endocannabinoid system, which can influence your appetite, pain, inflammation, sleep, stress responses, mood, memory, motivation, reward, etc. (91-92). 

There are two main cannabinoid receptors – cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2). 

An illustration of CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body and brain.

CB1 receptors are mostly found in the brain and impact a number of neurotransmitters, including GABA, glutamate, dopamine and serotonin. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are mostly found within the immune system and blood cells (93-99).

However, it’s important to note that some CB1 receptors are still located outside the brain, and some CB2 receptors can be found within the brain. So, there is some overlap. 

According to Martin Lee, author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana, cannabinoid receptors are more abundant in the brain than any other type of neurotransmitter receptor.

There are two different types of cannabinoids that can activate these receptors in your body:

  • Phytocannabinoids – plant-derived cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) found in marijuana

  • Endocannabinoids – as mentioned before, these cannabinoids are produced naturally within the body. Anandamide is the main endocannabinoid in your body. It can be found in humans, but also many other animals and plants. It binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors and has similar effects as THC. 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is another critical endocannabinoid in your body that also binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Its effects are similar to CBD (100-107).

What Are the Benefits of Stimulating and Supporting Your Endocannabinoid System?

Modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system has turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few.
— Dr. Pal Pacher, M.D., Ph.D

There is an increasing amount of research linking a number of illnesses and symptoms to low endocannabinoids levels, including:

Some researchers are convinced that when your body doesn’t produce enough endocannabinoids (anandamide and 2-AG), you’re more likely to develop these diseases.

They’ve even coined the term “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency” to describe the problem (108). 

But if you have one of the above conditions, don’t worry!

You can stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system naturally, which can lead to a number of brain and mental health benefits:

CDB receptor synapses.

So without further ado, here are 25 ways to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system naturally.

1. Cold Exposure

Cold exposure has been shown to increase endocannabinoid levels (1). 

Researchers have also found that cold exposure significantly increases the density of CB1 neurons (2). 

A man sitting outside in the freezing cold. Cold exposure stimulates the endocannabinoid system.

To support my endocannabinoid system, I take a cold shower every day, and often go outside with minimal clothing in the winter.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel.

Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water.

Cold exposure also stimulates the vagus nerve.

2. Sex Hormones

Male and female sex hormones also stimulate and support the endocannabinoid system.

Both testosterone and estradiol have been shown to upregulate CB1 receptors (3-4). 

Estradiol also increases the synthesis and release of the endocannabinoids (anandamide), which activates CB1 receptors (5-6). 

And the plasma levels of anandamide correlate nicely with the levels of estrogen during the menstrual cycle in women (7). 

I recommend both men and women get their hormones checked regularly. I had low testosterone and testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) really improved my brain and mental health. I no longer need TRT though. 

3. Coffee

Drinking coffee is another way to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system. 

Researchers believe that the cannabinoid system is involved in the psychoactive properties of caffeine (10). 

Regular caffeine consumption has been shown to enhance the activation of CB1 receptors by endocannabinoids (8). 

CB1 receptors are also downregulated after “social defeat stress”, but caffeine counteracts this effect (9). 

I drink one cup of this coffee most mornings.

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 huge problem! 

Because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.

And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function. 

Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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

It’s also been shown to upregulate CB1 receptors (11).

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.

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5. Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active cannabinoids in cannabis. It is not psychoactive but has a wide range of medical applications.

Research shows that CBD enhances the expression of CB1 receptors in the brain (12-13). 

It also increases levels of 2-AG by preventing it from breaking down (14-15). 

In Canada, CBD oil is illegal. But a “friend of mine” managed to buy and take this CBD oil for a while and he recommends it. 

He said it reduced his stress, made him really sleepy and knocked him out before bed. He eventually stopped taking it because it was making him too drowsy during the day and he doesn’t need to take it any more for anxiety. If you decide to get the same CBD oil, you can use the coupon code 10off406 for a 10% discount.

In the United States, federal and state laws regarding the medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids are confusing. Many states allow cannabis products high in CBD and low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be sold for medical use. Check the laws in your area before ordering.

6. Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant compounds found in almost all fruits and vegetables.

Chocolate, tea, wine, and some beans, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds also contain them. Overall, the more colorful a food is, the richer it is in flavonoids.

Fruits and vegetables that are rich in flavinoids, which are known to stimulate the endocannabinoid system.

The following flavonoids inhibit fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which is the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the endocannabinoids (anandamide) (16):

  • Genistein

  • Kaempferol

  • 7-hydroxyflavone

  • 3,7-dihydroxyflavone

I try to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible on a daily basis so that I’m consuming plenty of flavonoids. It’s best to consume fruits and vegetables in their raw forms to receive the highest number of flavonoids, as cooked fruits and vegetables have less.

Check out my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health for a bunch of flavonoid-rich foods. 

7. Tea

Tea contains catechins, which are antioxidant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.

Researchers have found that catechins in tea target and bind to cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system (25-26).

Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most well known catechin. It’s found in green tea. I take a concentrated green tea extract with EGCG to support my endocannabinoid system. 

Drinking tea can also lower cortisol, and green tea increases BDNF

8. Kava

Kava is a plant located in the western Pacific. The root of the plant is used medicinally to treat anxiety and sleep disorders because it causes relaxation without impacting cognitive performance. Some people say it feels like drinking alcohol (30-31). 

Researchers have evaluated commercially available kava supplements to see whether they bind to cannabinoid receptors. They found that yangonin, a compound in kava, binds to the CB1 receptor, and concluded that kava’s anti-anxiety effects may be because it stimulates the endocannabinoid system (32). 

I searched for kava supplements that include yangonin and found this one. I personally don’t take kava anymore because I get a weird reaction and my functional medical practitioner confirmed I’m allergic to the plant. 

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9. Osteopathy

Osteopathy is a healing modality that emphasizes the treatment of disease by manipulating and massaging the bones, joints, and muscles. 

One study found that endocannabinoid levels increased by 168% on average after osteopathic treatment. (33). 

Practitioners of osteopathy are referred to as osteopaths. I saw an osteopath in Ottawa soon after my concussions in 2010. I had been suffering from constant dizziness, and his therapy completely reversed the dizziness. And it was permanent. The dizziness never came back. I was amazed and very grateful. 

I recommend finding an osteopath in your area if you’ve ever suffered a traumatic brain injury. If you happen to be in the Ottawa area, go to this one

10. Probiotics

Research suggests that some probiotics can stimulate and support the endocannabinoid system. 

In one study, researchers found that a specific strain of probiotic, lactobacillus acidophilus, increases the expression of CB2 receptors (53). 

Lactobacillus acidophilus is included in the Optimal Biotics supplement.

Probiotics have also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and help with depression

And here are five other ways to increase the good bacteria in your gut. 

11. Dark Chocolate

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

But interestingly, it also contains the endocannabinoid anandamide (54). 

And it includes other compounds that slow down the breakdown of anandamide, increasing the amount of anandamide that stimulates your endocannabinoid system (55-56). 

This is likely why eating chocolate makes people feel so good.

Dark chocolate also increases BDNF and reduces cortisol.  

Here is my favourite high-quality dark chocolate

This one is also very good. 

12. Reduce Stress

I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress because emotional stress has been shown to downregulate CB1 receptors (57-58). 

High cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time, such as those caused by chronically stressful circumstances, also reduces CB1 receptors and significantly reduces cannabinoid binding to CB1 receptors (59-62). 

On top of this, chronic psychological stress reduces endocannabinoid levels in the brain (63-66). 

A hand squeezing a stress ball. Reducing stress can support your endocannabinoid system.

Overall, researchers say there is strong evidence that the endocannabinoid system as a whole is required in order to properly deal with stress (67). 

My favourite ways to reduce stress include neurofeedback, meditation (using the Muse headband), massage, acupuncture, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional freedom techniques (EFT), heart-rate variability (HRV) training, and this acupressure mat

Some supplements that can help you reduce stress include zinc, magnesium, ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine.

This anti-anxiety supplement also includes a number of natural compounds that have personally helped me manage my stress over the years (Use the the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount).

And here is an article with 20 other ways to lower your stress hormone, cortisol. 

13. Magnolia Officinalis

Magnolia Officinalis is a plant that has neuroprotective properties and relaxing effects.

It’s used in Chinese traditional medicine for the treatment of anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders. 

Researchers have found that Magnolia officinalis extract and its main bioactive constituents, magnolol and honokiol, can activate cannabinoid receptors (17). 

Here is a good extract

Alternatively, you can drink Magnolia tea. 

Both the tea and extract should be taken with a meal consuming fat because the active ingredients are fat soluble. 

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14. Exercise

Exercise is another great way to stimulate and support your endocannabinoid system.

Medium and high-intensity exercise has been shown to activate the endocannabinoid system (73). 

Research also shows that exercise significantly upregulates CB1 receptors and enhances CB1 receptor sensitivity, which is why exercise can protect against the consequences of stress (68, 72, 74). 

Exercise-related improvements in memory are also due to activation of the CB1 receptor. Blocking this receptor seems to prevent the memory benefits of exercise (69, 72). 

Several studies also show that exercise increases levels of anandamide and activates cannabinoid signaling (70-71). 

Illustration of people running. Exercise stimulates the endocannabinoid system.

And researchers now believe that endocannabinoids may actually be responsible for the “runner’s high” (euphoria) during exercise, and not endorphins (76-77). 

However, you shouldn’t force yourself to exercise. Forced exercise is seen by the endocannabinoid system as a type of stress, and therefore doesn’t increase endocannabinoid levels and can actually decrease CB1 signaling (75). 

So, you should find an aerobic activity that you enjoy so that it’s not a burden.

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

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

15. Palmitoylethanolamide

Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) is a natural compound that has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, and low levels of PEA can contribute to chronic brain inflammation and pain (20). 

Research shows that PEA can alleviate pain and increase mood by enhancing endocannabinoid activity (18-19, 21-24).

PEA is naturally found within the body, but it’s also available as a supplement. It's even used for medical purposes in Italy and Spain. 

You can get it here.

16. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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

Research shows that they increase the synthesis of endocannabinoids and upregulate both CB1 and CB2 receptors (78-79). 

There is also a connection between low omega-3 fatty acid intake, poor endocannabinoid function and mood changes (80). 

Omega-3 fatty acids 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

You can also get very high-quality seafood and krill oil supplements here.

And you can read more about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids here

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17. Agmatine

Agmatine is a metabolite of the amino acid arginine. It can help reduce pain, treat drug addiction, and protect the brain from toxins (27-28). 

It has been shown to enhance the painkilling effects of cannabinoids. It does this by increasing cannabinoid action and signalling through the CB1 receptor (29). 

My personal experience with agmatine is that it made me agitated, so I stopped taking it. But I don’t have any symptoms of pain. If you do, I think it’s worth trying.

You can get it here.

18. Caryophyllene

Caryophyllene is a compound found in many plants and essential oils, including clove, rosemary, basil, oregano, lavender, and hops. It also contributes to the spiciness of black pepper (34). 

Caryophyllene has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-alcoholism effects (35, 40-41). 

These effects are likely because it binds to the cannabinoid receptors (36-37, 39, 42-43). 

It can also help reduce neuropathic pain through the CB2 receptor (38). 

19. Echinacea

Echinacea is a Native American medicinal plant and one of the most popular medicinal herbs.

People often use it to reduce flu symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold. It is sometimes used to reduce anxiety and relieve fatigue as well.

Compounds in Echinacea, called alkylamides, have been shown to reduce inflammation by binding to the CB2 receptor (44, 46-47). 

Researchers have also found that alkylamides increase the effect of endocannabinoids (45). 

There are a large variety of Echinacea supplements available through Amazon.

20. Black Truffle

Tuber melanosporum, also called the black truffle, is an edible mushroom native to Southern Europe.

Researchers have found the endocannabinoid anandamide within black truffles (49). 

Black truffle peelings are available here. They can be added meals and go particularly well with mashed potatoes. 

21. Diindolylmethane (DIM)

Diindolylmethane (DIM) is an anti-carcinogenic compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale.

DIM is one of the reasons why these foods are considered so healthy. 

Studies show that DIM reduces inflammation because it binds to CB2 receptors (50-51). 

It's also available in supplement form here.

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22. Ruta Graveolens

Ruta graveolens, commonly known as rue, is a medicinal herb.

Researchers have found that a compound within it binds to the cannabinoid receptors (52). 

Rue can be taken as an extract. You can get it here.

23. Acmella Oleracea

Acmella Oleracea, also known as Electric Daisy, is a medicinal herb originating from the Amazon region. 

It contains phytocannabinoids and other compounds that can reduce pain and inflammation (81-82). 

It’s available as an extract.

24. Helichrysum Umbraculigerum

Helichrysum Umbraculigerum is a plant with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, originating from South Africa.

It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years, especially in countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal. 

It’s been shown to have antidepressant effects likely because it contains cannabigerol, a phytocannabinoid that stimulates the endocannabinoid system (83-85). 

A number of different essential oils are available through Amazon

25. Radula Marginata

Radula Marginata is a plant commonly found in New Zealand.

It contains cannabinoids and cannabinoid-like compounds that bind to CB1 receptors, activating the endocannabinoid system (86-90). 

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different ways to stimulate your endocannabinoid system besides smoking cannabis. 

And supporting this important system can lead to a number of brain and mental health benefits. 

I hope you implement some of these strategies into your regular routine and notice you feel better and live more optimally over time. 

If you think you know someone who might benefit from this article, please share it with them.

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

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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(108) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18404144

(109) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817535/

(110) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

(111) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817535/

(112) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

(113) http://thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)60935-X/fulltext

(114) http://www.nel.edu/pdf_/25_12/NEL251204R02_Russo_.pdf

(115) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

(116) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

(117) http://www.leafscience.com/2013/11/04/study-memory-benefits-exercise-tied-cannabinoid-system/

(118) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3817535/

(119) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16224541

(120) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16037095

(121) http://www.jci.org/articles/view/25509

(122) http://www.leafscience.com/2013/11/04/study-memory-benefits-exercise-tied-cannabinoid-system/

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(124) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21480865

(125) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10716447

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(129) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

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(131) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

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(135) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22265864

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(138) http://thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)60935-X/fulltext

(139) http://www.nel.edu/pdf_/25_12/NEL251204R02_Russo_.pdf

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(142) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

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(149) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685476/

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

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14 Powerful Ways to Form New Synapses in the Brain

Over the years, I’ve taken several psychiatric drugs, drank too much alcohol, and had numerous concussions – sometimes, all at once. 

In other words, my brain has taken quite the beating. 

Researchers used to think that if you damaged your brain like I did, you simply had to live with it.

But that’s no longer true. 

They now know the brain is plastic and flexible, and it can heal and recover.

You’re not stuck with the brain you have. 

You can actually change and improve it.

One way your brain repairs itself is through a process called synaptogenesis.

Synaptogenesis is the formation of new synapses in the brain.

Synapses are the connecting points between your 100 billion brain cells. You have trillions of synapses in your brain, and your brain cells communicate with one another across them (79). 

The deterioration and loss of synapses is linked to a number of neurodegenerative diseases and mental health disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, depression, poor learning and memory, intellectual impairment and other cognitive deficits (83-87). 

The good news is that researchers now know that synaptogenesis occurs in the brain throughout our entire lives (81-82). 

And there are a number of ways you can support synaptogenesis, promote the formation of new brain synapses and increase brain synapses. 

Below are 15 ways to do that.

Following these strategies can improve your mood, learning, memory and cognition.

Picture of brain and synapses.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Uridine and Choline

The formation of synapses depends on sufficient brain levels of three key nutrients – uridine, omega-3 fatty acids, and choline. These nutrients are synergistic, and if you take them taken together, they accelerate the formation of new synapses in the brain (66-67, 75-78). 

Unfortunately, most people nowadays don’t get enough of these essential nutrients through their diet because very few foods in the Western diet actually contain them.

In fact, the uridine in food is not bioavailable, and no food has been shown to increase plasma levels of uridine (1).

Picture of salmon and walnuts. Salmon and walnuts and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to form new brain synapses.

That’s why I now take this uridine monophosphate supplement sublingually to support the long-term health of my brain. 

At the same time, I take this krill oil supplement and the Optimal Brain supplement, which includes CDP-Choline and Alpha GPC (two high-quality sources of choline). This ensures my brain is getting enough of omega-3 fatty acids and choline.

Several researchers have concluded that supplementing with all three nutrients can increase synaptic formation, increase brain synapses, and improve cognition, learning and memory, particularly in people with Alzheimer's disease (68-74). 

Besides supplementation, I still encourage people to eat foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids and choline. 

The best way to get omega-3 fatty acids from food is by eating more cold-water fish such as salmon, black cod, sablefish, sardines and herring. And the best food sources of choline include grass-fed beef liver and egg yolks. These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.

Taking uridine, choline and omega-3 fatty acids together can also promote the regeneration of myelin.

2. Low Level Laser Therapy

Low-level laser therapy (LLLT), or photobiomodulation, is a treatment that uses low-level (low-power) lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to stimulate brain cells, helping them function better.

Most doctors don't know about LLLT; but not every doctor.

Man wearing LLLT helmet and using the Vielight device. LLLT and Vielight devices can help form new synapses in the brain.

Dr. Norman Doidge, a physician who teaches at the University of Toronto here in Canada, discusses the amazing effects of LLLT in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing.

One way that LLLT may help the brain is by encouraging synaptogenesis (12-15). 

Researchers have found that LLLT treatment significantly stimulates the synthesis of synapsin-1 (a marker for synaptogenesis) and increases synaptogenesis in the cortex (16-17). 

I previously wrote about my experience with low-level laser therapy here.

I use this device and shine the red and infrared light directly on my forehead. 

I also use the Vielight 810, which is an intranasal device with 810 nm of near infrared light (If you decide to try the Vielight, you can use the coupon code JORDANFALLIS for a 10% discount).

LLLT can also support mitochondria function, reduce brain fog, and increase blood flow to the brain

3. Bacopa

Bacopa monniera is an adaptogenic herb with cognitive-enhancing effects.

Several studies show that it improves cognition, learning and memory by strengthening communications between brain cells. Both healthy and elderly people who take the herb experience improved attention, learning and memory (2-5). 

Researchers believe these improvements are because bacopa increases brain synapses and increases specific neuromolecular mechanisms that encourage and enhance synaptogenesis (18). 

You can get bacopa through Amazon.

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4. Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to promote the formation of new synapses.

Researchers have found repeatedly that physical activity encourages synaptogenesis and increases brain synapses (32-33). 

Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, promotes the regeneration of myelin, and can help reverse brain damage and cognitive decline

So not surprisingly, many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health.

My usual advice is to find a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently.

5. Magnesium Threonate

Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body, including neurotransmitter and hormonal activity, which can have a huge effect on your brain function.

Researchers have found that increasing magnesium levels in the brain improves learning and memory by promoting synaptogenesis and increasing brain synapses (25-26). 

One study concluded that magnesium threonate increases the number of synaptic connections between brain cells and boosts the density of synapses (27). 

Magnesium rich foods, including spinach, avocados, bananas, almonds. Magnesium helps the brain form new synapses.

Unfortunately, lot of people are deficient in magnesium today (6-8).

But there are a number of ways you can make sure you’re consuming enough. 

First, make sure you’re eating magnesium-rich foods on a regular basis, including spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas. These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.

Epsom salt baths are another great way to increase your body’s intake of magnesium. 

But I also recommend a high-quality magnesium supplement. 

Magnesium threonate is the best form of magnesium for increasing brain magnesium levels and forming new synapses. 

I currently take this magnesium threonate supplement before bed.

Since most people are deficient, magnesium is one of the three supplements that I think everyone should be taking.

Magnesium can also help repair a leaky blood-brain barrier.

6. Intermittent Fasting

Fasting allows your digestive system to take a break and triggers a number of hormones that boost your body’s ability to repair itself.

On most days, I don’t 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.

There are many health benefits to doing this.

It can improve mitochondrial function, reduce brain fog, and help protect you from dementia

And researchers have also found that fasting can trigger and enhance synaptogenesis (28-31). 

The best way to start fasting 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. 

7. 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 herbal supplements in the world, and it’s even a prescription herb in Germany.

It’s most commonly used to improve brain health because it’s been shown to increase brain blood flow and improve memory and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and may also improve mood and mental energy (34).

Researchers have also discovered that it stimulates synaptogenesis and increases brain synapses (35). 

Ginkgo Biloba is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.

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8. Motor Learning

Motor learning is essentially when you learn something new that involves movement.

Complex processes occur in the brain in response to practicing or experiencing the new motor skill.

This results in changes to the central nervous system, which allows you to produce the movement again in the future.

Researchers have found that motor learning triggers synaptogenesis and generates new synapses in the cerebellar cortex of the brain (36-39). 

Some activities that involve motor learning include learning how to play the piano, climbing trees, juggling, and playing table tennis. 

When you engage in these activities, motor learning occurs, and you form new synapses in order to learn and solidify the new skill. 

9. Resveratrol

Picture of grapes. Grapes are rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant than help you form new synapses in your brain.

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

Resveratrol is known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.

And researchers are starting to understand why.

Resveratrol can help restore the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, support your mitochondria, and increase blood flow to the brain. But it can also increase synaptogenesis.

Research shows the resveratrol promotes and enhances synaptogenesis (23-24). 

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.

10. Piracetam

Piracetam is a nootropic (cognitive-enhancing) supplement. It provides a mild boost to brain function and has a long history of being used to treat cognitive impairment in Europe, Asia and South America. 

According to researchers, one way it improves cognition is by enhancing synaptogenesis and increasing brain synapses (9-10). 

One study found that rats treated with piracetam had a higher number of synapses than rats not treated with piracetam (11). 

Here is a good piracetam supplement from a reliable brand. I used to take it regularly but not anymore.

Phenylpiracetam is an advanced version of piracetam and I found it to be more effective. It also has impressive anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects. You can get it here.

Both piracetam and phenylpiracetam work best if you take them with a source of choline, either CDP-Choline or Alpha GPC.

Both CDP-Choline and Alpha GPC are included in the Optimal Brain supplement

11. 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 (45-46). 

Researchers have also found that it stimulates synaptogenesis (48). 

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 note that quercetin increases the absorption of resveratrol, so it’s a good idea to take them both together if you want to increase synaptogenesis and form new brain synapses (47). 

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12. Intranasal Insulin

Insulin is one of the hormones that significantly affects brain function.

It has a number of important functions in the central nervous system, and researchers have found that it passes the blood-brain barrier and acts on insulin receptors directly within the brain.

In a new therapeutic approach, commercially-available insulin (Novalin R) is prepared and added to nasal spray bottles - like these ones - and sprayed and inhaled through the nose to support brain and mental health.

Intranasal insulin has been reported to significantly enhance learning and memory, increase mental energy, reduce brain fog, improve mood, and lower anxiety and stress levels.

One possible mechanism is by increasing synaptogenesis.

Brain insulin receptors are found primarily in synapses, and insulin signaling contributes to synaptogenesis (19-21). 

And the disruption of insulin action in the brain leads to impairment of synaptogenesis (22). 

If you’re interested in learning more about intranasal insulin, I previously wrote a full article about it here.

13. 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 (40).

But many researchers have also found that progesterone promotes synaptogenesis (41-43). 

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. 

14. Antioxidant Nutrients

Some nutrients have antioxidant effects in the body, and not consuming enough of them can reduce your rate of synaptogenesis. 

Research shows that “synaptic membrane synthesis” depends on sufficient dietary intake of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and the mineral selenium (64). 

A bunch of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in heart-shaped bowls. Antioxidants can helps the brain form new synaptic connections.

One study found that synaptogenesis was significantly enhanced by supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, uridine, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium. But it wasn’t enhanced as much with omega-3 fatty acids and uridine alone, suggesting that Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium play a key role in synaptogenesis (65). 

I get these antioxidant nutrients from a number of sources. 

In addition to getting Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, I take at least 500 mg of supplemental Vitamin C every day. At one point, I was actually taking up to 10 grams of Vitamin C every day as an experiment, but that’s not necessary unless you find it really helps you.

For selenium, I make sure I eat brazil nuts regularly, as they are the richest source. But I also take some extra selenomethionine, which is the most absorbable form of selenium. 

For Vitamin E, good food sources include almonds, spinach, sweet potatoes, avocados, olive oil, sunflower seeds and butternut squash. It’s also included in the Optimal Antiox supplement.

Besides increasing synaptogenesis, antioxidants can also protect your brain from alcohol and help reverse brain damage

15. BONUS: 4 Things to Avoid

It’s not just what you do, but also what you avoid that can impact your rate of synaptogenesis. 

Researchers have found that certain compounds can impair synaptogenesis and inhibit the formation of new synapses in the brain. 

So besides trying to implement the 14 steps above, you should also try to avoid:

  • Bisphenol A – This compound is found in plastic bottles and containers, food and beverage cans, and other common consumer products, such as CDs, DVDs and sales receipts. Researchers have found that it impairs synaptogenesis in the brain (49). That’s why I recommend you only eat and drink out of glass, ceramic and stainless steel. Avoid all canned food and plastic containers. BPA-free plastic isn’t much better for you and can still disrupt hormonal health.

  • Lead – Lead is a heavy metal that can accumulate in the body and negatively affect brain function. Research shows that lead exposure can interfere with the formation of brain synapses (55-59). So it’s definitely a good idea to reduce your exposure to sources of lead. One way is by using an infrared sauna regularly.

  • Gabapentin – Gabapentin is a medication used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, hot flashes, and restless legs syndrome. Researchers have found that it halts the formation of new synapses (80).

  • Stress – Chronic stress decreases synaptogenesis and decreases the number of synapse connections (88-89). Here are 20 ways to lower cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. These two biofeedback devices are my favourite ways to reduce stress.

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental 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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25 Effective Ways to Increase Oxytocin Levels in the Brain

Man and woman kissing and increasing their oxytocin levels.

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter.

It’s often called the “love hormone" or “cuddle chemical” because it plays a key role in the emotional bond between a mother and her child.

It’s also released by both men and women when they are in love (116-118). 

But it isn’t just involved in loving relationships. 

It can also significantly affect the functioning of your brain and nervous system and impact your emotions day-to-day.

Low levels of oxytocin in the brain are associated with several mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, social phobia, autism, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, tinnitus, anorexia nervosa, and borderline personality disorder (120-135). 

And research suggests that if you increase oxytocin, it can lead to the following benefits:

Oxytocin clearly does a lot. 

Because of this, some doctors have started prescribing intranasal oxytocin spray to their patients to help them treat their symptoms (119). 

But you don’t necessarily need to run to your doctor and ask for a prescription. 

You can follow the 25 steps below and naturally increase your oxytocin levels yourself.

Best Foods, Nutrients, Herbs and Supplements To Naturally Increase Oxytocin Levels in the Brain

1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun. It can also be taken as a supplement.

Picture of the sun. The sun produces Vitamin D, which increases oxytocin levels in the brain.

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 oxytocin is directly activated and controlled by Vitamin D (13-14).

Some researchers also believe that autistic children have low levels of oxytocin likely because they are deficient in Vitamin D (15-16). 

Ideally, you should get your Vitamin D naturally from the sun. 

It’s especially important to make sure you get some sunlight in the morning to set your circadian rhythm. 

But most people still don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun, and that’s why I recommend taking a Vitamin D supplement or using a Vitamin D lamp. I personally use this lamp.

Researchers estimate that 50 percent of the general population is at risk of Vitamin D deficiency (12). 

Vitamin D also naturally increases dopamine levels in the brain, and being deficient in Vitamin D can make you more anxious and more depressed

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another easy way to optimize and increase your levels of oxytocin. 

Researchers know that Vitamin C is a cofactor in the production of oxytocin, and the synthesis of oxytocin is dependent upon Vitamin C (17-18). 

One study found that Vitamin C stimulates the secretion of oxytocin (19). 

And another study found that supplementing with a high dose of Vitamin C increases the release of oxytocin, which then increases intercourse frequency, improves mood and decreases stress (20). 

As you probably know, Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables such as green peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage.

In addition to getting Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, I take a supplement with at least 500 mg of Vitamin C every day.

I’ve taken up to 10 grams daily, and it definitely improves my mood and reduces stress and anxiety

3. Magnesium

Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body. 

Unfortunately, lot of people are deficient in magnesium today (36-38).

A collection of magnesium-rich foods, including avocados, bananas, almonds, dark chocolate, spinach. Magnesium increases oxytocin levels in the brain.

This is a shame because magnesium is absolutely essential for the proper functioning of your nervous system and optimal neurotransmitter activity.

Researchers have found that the oxytocin receptor requires magnesium to function properly, and magnesium increases the action of oxytocin at the receptor (39-42).

There are a number of things you can do to make sure you’re getting enough magnesium.

First, make sure you’re eating magnesium-rich sources of food on a regular basis, including spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas. These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Mental Health.

Epsom salt baths are another great way to increase your body’s intake of magnesium

Magnesium supplements are also a good idea if you want to produce more oxytocin

I now take this magnesium threonate supplement before bed. It’s the best form of magnesium for the brain. 

Besides supporting your oxytocin levels, magnesium can also naturally increase dopamine, reduce your anxiety, and help your overcome trauma, withdrawal and addiction

4. Taurine

Taurine is an organic compound found in food, particularly animal products. It has a wide variety of health benefits.

It can cross the blood-brain barrier, improve mood and produces anti-anxiety effects (1-10). 

Researchers believe that one of the ways it improves mood and reduces anxiety is by naturally increasing the release of oxytocin in the brain (11).

Taurine is included in the Optimal Zinc supplement

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5. Caffeine

Researchers have found that caffeine significantly increases the release of oxytocin (21-23). 

Perhaps this is one reason why people love getting together with friends for a coffee.

Coffee usually makes me sick because I’m extremely sensitive to mold and most coffee contains high amounts of mycotoxins (toxic metabolites produced by mold). 

But this coffee doesn’t. I usually drink one cup of it most mornings. I can also tolerate pure caffeine tablets.

Most people can tolerate regular coffee just fine. But if coffee makes you feel terrible and jittery, it might be the quality of the coffee. Consider trying Kicking Horse coffee, or simply take pure caffeine, and see how you feel. You’ll likely feel better than if you consumed low-quality coffee.

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.

Lastly, 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 huge problem! 

Because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.

And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function

Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement

6. Estrogen

Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone and responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system.

Estrogen has been found to increase the synthesis and secretion of oxytocin. It also increases the expression of oxytocin receptors in the brain (30). 

Other studies show that even just a single dose of estradiol can significantly increase circulating oxytocin levels and reduce anxiety (31-32).

I recommend both men and women get their hormone levels checked regularly, and then optimize them with hormone replacement therapy, especially if they want to produce more oxytocin and feel their best.

Not only can replacing estrogen increase your oxytocin levels, but it can also really improve your overall quality of life!

7. Lactobacillus Reuteri

Lactobacillus reuteri is a bacterium with anti-inflammatory effects that scientists first discovered in the 1980s. 

It’s one of the most promising psychobiotics for anxiety.

A woman holds her stomach and makes a heart shape around her belly button.

Research shows that Lactobacillus reuteri significantly increases oxytocin levels in the brain through the vagus nerve (26-29). 

Lactobacillus reuteri is usually found in the human gut. However, not all humans have it, and some people simply have very low levels of it.

Therefore, you may need to supplement with it to introduce and maintain high levels of it, especially if you want to produce more oxytocin.

One study found that the absence of lactobacillus reuteri causes social deficits in animals. By adding it back in to the guts of the animals, the researchers were able to reverse some of their behavioural deficits, which were similar to symptoms of social anxiety and autism in humans (24-25).

Lactobacillus reuteri is included in the Optimal Biotics supplement.

It's also found in breast milk, and some meat and dairy products.

8. Chamomile

You can also increase oxytocin with herbs, such as chamomile.

Chamomile is a medicinal herb that has been traditionally used for its calming and anti-inflammatory properties.

But it can also help you produce more oxytocin.

Animal studies show that chamomile contains substances that act on the same parts of the brain and nervous system as anti-anxiety drugs (47-48). 

Researchers also know that chamomile naturally increases oxytocin and lowers cortisol (49). 

This anti-anxiety supplement includes chamomile, along with a number of other natural compounds that have helped me manage my stress and anxiety over the years.

9. Oleoylethanolamide (OEA)

Oleoylethanolamide (OEA) is a molecule produced in the body. It’s responsible for the feeling of being full after meals and may help with weight loss.

Multiple studies show that OEA naturally stimulates the secretion of oxytocin and increases levels of oxytocin in the brain (50-54). 

I haven’t tried it yet, but there are OEA supplements available on Amazon.

I’m going to try it and report back on how I feel. We’ll see if it helps me produce more oxytocin.  

10. Melatonin

Melatonin is a natural hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain. It helps control your sleep and wake cycles (circadian rhythm), and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.

More than one study has shown that 500 mcg of melatonin significantly increases secretion of oxytocin (33-35). 

You can get 500 mcg of melatonin here on Amazon.

A baby sleeping. Sleep increases oxytocin levels in the brain.

Or you can 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.

Besides melatonin and sleep supplements, here are some other actions you can take to naturally produce more melatonin:

  • Expose your eyes to sun in the morning.

  • 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 getting too much 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 wear glasses that block out blue light. I wear these glasses. They block out blue light in your environment.

  • Sleep in a dark environment. Completely black out your room with curtains and 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.

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

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11. Fenugreek

Fenugreek is one of the most popular herbal supplements that has been traditionally used to enhance sex drive. 

It also demonstrates antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects in animals, and naturally produces more oxytocin in humans (55-57). 

I experimented with this fenugreek supplement and I liked the effects. It felt like I produced more oxytocin when I was taking it, but I no longer take it regularly because all my other lifestyle habits are more than enough.

Fenugreek seeds are another option. They can be eaten whole, brewed into a tea, or even made into flour and baked into a gluten-free bread.

12. Jasmine Oil (Jasminum Officinale)

Jasmine Oil is a popular essential oil derived from the Jasminum Officinale flower. 

It’s been used for hundreds of years in Asia to improve mood, manage emotional stress and anxiety, and improve sex drive and sleep.

There is lots of research that suggests that it has positive affects on the nervous system (59-62). 

And a systematic study found that aromatherapy with Jasmine Oil can increase levels of oxytocin (58). 

After living in a moldy home, I researched and experimented with a number of essential oils. I found they supported my immune system and mood as I recovered. Here is the Jasmine Oil that I took.

It can either be inhaled through the nose or applied directly to the skin. You can also diffuse it in your home using a diffuser

13. Clary Sage Oil (Salvia sclarea)

Clary Sage Oil is a relaxing essential oil derived from the Salvia sclarea plant. 

Clary Sage essential oil increases oxytocin levels in the brain.

It’s been shown to naturally relieve anxiety and depression by reducing cortisol and improving thyroid hormone levels (63-66). 

And just last year, researchers found that inhaling Clary Sage Oil increases oxytocin in women during pregnancy (67-69). 

After living in a moldy home, I researched and experimented with a number of essential oils. I found they supported my immune system and mood as I recovered. Here is the Clary Sage Oil that I took. 

Just like Jasmine Oil, it can either be inhaled through the nose or applied directly to the skin. You can also diffuse it in your home using a diffuser.

Best Lifestyle Habits, Therapies and Practices to Naturally Increase Oxytocin Levels in the Brain

14. Touch

Not surprisingly, there is a ton of research showing that interpersonal touch quickly increases oxytocin levels in the brain (107). 

This obviously includes kissing, cuddling, and sex. But non-sexual touch such as hugging and shaking hands increases oxytocin as well (105, 108-115).

A 10-second hug every day can help boost your immune system, fight infection, increase dopamine, reduce depression, and lessen fatigue (106). 

But Dr. Paul Zak, author of the Trust Factor, recommends much more than just one hug every day; he recommends eight hugs every day. 

So if you want to produce more oxytocin, get out there and start hugging people… just make sure it’s welcome by the other people. :)

15. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a meditation practice designed to enhance feelings of kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

While meditating, you repeat positive phrases to yourself, think positively of other people, and direct well-wishes and love towards them.

For example, you could close your eyes, simply think about a friend of family member, and repeat over and over that “they are wonderful”. Simply repeat this thought to yourself over and over, while pushing away any other negative thoughts that arise.

Researchers believe that you give yourself a boost in oxytocin when you do this and may even up-regulate oxytocin receptors (71). 

You can learn how to practice it here or through this video.

Loving-kindness meditation can also help you overcome trauma

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16. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to increase oxytocin levels (76). 

Research has shown that acupuncture can affect the synthesis, release and action of several neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, including oxytocin (72). 

Animal studies have also demonstrated that acupuncture elevates oxytocin concentration in certain brain regions (73-75). 

I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture for producing more oxytocin. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.

In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture. 

I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed.

Acupuncture also naturally increases dopamine, stimulates the vagus nerve and increases blood flow to the brain.

17. Pets

A cute puppy lying on a couch. Pets increase oxytocin levels in our brains.

Animals have a way of calming us, and it’s because they increase our oxytocin levels. 

Research shows that just touching your pets lowers your blood pressure and increases your oxytocin levels.

One study found that oxytocin levels increased in both humans and dogs after just five minutes of petting. This may explain the emotional bonding between humans and dogs (77). 

Even just staring into your dog’s eyes can trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain and increase your levels (78). 

So if you’re trying to maximize your oxytocin levels, you should try to hang out with animals as much as possible, and consider getting a house pet if you don’t have one.

18. Massage

Research shows that massage can significantly increase oxytocin levels and reduce stress hormones (79, 83). 

This is why I personally get a massage from a registered massage therapist every couple of months. 

It’s important to note that one study found that a light massage is more effective at increasing oxytocin than a deep-tissue Swedish massage (80-82). 

So you may want to ask your massage therapist to take it easy and give you a gentle rubdown. 

19. Listen to Music and Sing

Music is actually healing and can have a calming effect on the brain by increasing oxytocin levels. 

A woman singing with a microphone. Singing increases oxytocin levels.

In one study, patients who underwent open-heart surgery listened to soothing music for 30 minutes one day after their surgery. And they had significantly higher levels of oxytocin compared to those who were simply told to rest in bed (86).

Slow-tempo music has also been shown to increase both oxytocin and heart-rate variability (88). 

What’s even better is singing along with the music. 

Researchers have found that singing for 30 minutes significantly increases oxytocin levels in both amateur and professional singers, regardless of whether they enjoyed singing the song (87, 91).

Perhaps this explains why mothers often sing lullabies to their newborn babies – it may encourage bonding by increasing the release of oxytocin. 

Lastly, making music together in a group leads to a significant release in oxytocin and reduction in stress (89-90).

So if you play an instrument, put together a band and start jamming. You’ll started producing more oxytocin together! :)

20. Yoga

Yoga is a popular “mind-body” relaxation technique that increases the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

Researchers believe it works because it increases oxytocin levels in the brain by stimulating the vagus nerve (85). 

In one study, researchers found that yoga significantly increased oxytocin levels and improved socio-occupational functioning in patients with schizophrenia. The researchers concluded that yoga should be used to manage schizophrenia because of the improvement in oxytocin levels (84). 

If you're interested in yoga, I recommend checking out Kalimukti. They offer tailored online yoga classes taught by qualified practitioners, allowing you to practice whenever and wherever you want. 
 

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21. Socialize

I’ve already discussed how socializing can reduce cortisol and stimulate your vagus nerve

And now I’ve learned that positive social interactions can also increase oxytocin levels (93). 

Researchers have found that your brain releases more oxytocin during social contact and social bonding, and this can actually speed up healing from disease (92). 

So if you want to produce more oxytocin, my advice is to talk to people whenever you get the chance, and hang out with your friends and family as much as possible. I should probably be taking my own advice here because I’m an introvert and don’t socialize too much. 

22. Intermittent Drinking

You’ve probably heard of intermittent fasting. I’ve discussed it a lot in other articles. 

But you likely haven’t heard of intermittent drinking.

The typical mainstream advice is to drink eight glasses of water every day. 

A blond-haired woman drinking a glass of water. Intermittent drinking increases oxytocin levels in the brain.

I don’t follow that. I simply listen to my body and drink when I’m thirsty. 

And it appears that simply taking breaks from drinking water can increase oxytocin levels. 

Recent research shows that drought, and the “homeostatic disturbances” that lead to the “feeling of thirst”, activate specific oxytocin-producing parts of the brain (94-95). 

Researchers believe that “intermittent bulk drinking” could increase oxytocin signalling, recover human trust, and increase health by reducing stress and inflammation (94-95). 

If you think of it from an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Your ancestors likely consumed as much water as they could when they got the chance, but then went longer periods of time when they couldn’t and didn’t drink any water. 

Just like intermittent fasting, intermittent drinking doesn’t necessarily mean you drink less water throughout the day though.

You can simply drink a lot of water whenever you get thirsty. And then you stop drinking any water until you are thirsty again. 

That’s how all animals and human newborns behave. But we’ve been brainwashed to think we need to be sipping on water all the time. 

Start intermittent drinking, and your oxytocin receptors will thank you.

23. Warm and Cold Temperatures

Exposing yourself to both warm and cold temperatures can also increase oxytocin levels. 

Researchers have found that hot environments, warm temperatures and increased sweating activate specific oxytocin-producing parts of the brain (94-96). 

New research also suggests that cold exposure significantly upregulates oxytocin levels in the brain (97-100). 

So if you want to optimize your oxytocin levels, try pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and expose your body to the acute stress of extreme temperatures.

What I like to do is take a warm shower, but then finish it off with 1-2 minutes of cold. 

Cold showers also stimulate the vagus nerve

24. Eat (Healthy) Food

Eating food also increases oxytocin, and it’s easily accessible by anyone. 

Food activates touch receptors in your mouth, which then stimulates the release of oxytocin (102). 

And then when food reaches your gut, a hormone is released from the intestines that activates the vagus nerve, which then stimulates the release of more oxytocin in the brain (102-104). 

This is why eating makes people feel calm and satisfied, and often opens them up for social interaction, bonding and attachment.

The obvious downside to all of this is that you may be tempted to overeat unhealthy foods to stimulate the release of oxytocin, so that you feel better and less stressed. And oxytocin is one reason why you may have a hard time breaking bad eating habits. 

But don’t worry; just stick to the healthy foods included in my free grocery shopping guide and you won’t have a problem

25. Watch a Movie

Everyone loves a good movie.

And it’s probably because it increases oxytocin.

Research shows that compelling narratives cause the synthesis and release of oxytocin (101). 

And this has the power to affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours (101). 

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental 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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How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health

By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist

Stimulation of my vagus nerve has played a key role in the management of my anxiety and mental health over the years. 

What exactly is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.

13 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve for better mental health

It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. 

In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.  

The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.

But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve.

Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. 

Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa (5).

It’s almost like yin and yang. The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.
— Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
An image of the vagus nerve.

What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels (1-3). 

Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). 

When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (53-55). 

You can increase your HRV by using the EmWave2 device

Some researchers actually use the EmWave2 to measure vagal tone in their studies. 

If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.

Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of brain and mental health conditions, including:

For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. And it works (6-9). 

But you don’t need to go down that route.

You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these 13 steps. 

1. Cold Exposure

Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways (10). 

Image of an old-fashioned, muscular, manly man. It says “Have a cold shower? You mean a shower?”

Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve (11).

I often take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water. 

2. Deep and Slow Breathing

Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. 

A woman closing here eyes and breathing deeply near the ocean. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve.

It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve (51-52). 

Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. 

The best way to know if you’re on the right track is by using the EmWave2 device. It’s a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing. I previously wrote about the benefits of using the device here. You can get it through Amazon or the HeartMath website

3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. 

Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.

And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).

I often gargle water before swallowing it. This is discussed more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?

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4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (46). 

A woman’s ear with three acupuncture needles in it. Auricular acupuncture is very effective at stimulating the vagus nerve.

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.

Research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat “neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation” (45). 

In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture. 

At the end of each appointment, my practitioner would secure these small black seeds on my ear. 

I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed. 

5. Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

A woman practicing yoga or tai chi outside. Yoga and tai chi stimulate the vagus nerve and can improve your mental health.

Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (13-18). 

Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore should be practiced by people who struggle with depression and anxiety (19). 

Despite all the great research, I’m personally not a big fan of yoga. A lot of people swear by it but it’s just not for me. I prefer tai chi. 

Tai chi has also been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can “enhance vagal modulation” (20).

6. Probiotics

It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve (27).  

Bacteria. Probiotic bacteria can stimulate your vagus nerve and improve your mental health.

In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behaviour. 

The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood (25). 

Another study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in mice by acting through the vagus nerve (26). 

Both Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum are included in the Optimal Biotics supplement

I previously wrote about some other ways you can increase the good bacteria in your gut. You can read about that here.

And here are 7 other probiotic strains that can help treat anxiety. 

7. Meditation and Neurofeedback

Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.        

Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself (22, 23). 

Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation (21). 

“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (24). 

I couldn’t find any research demonstrating this, but in my experience, neurofeedback significantly increased my heart-rate variability and vagal tone as measured by my EmWave2

Now that I’m done neurofeedback, 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.

 

8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.

They often appear in most of my posts because they are so critical for brain and mental health and affect so many aspects of wellness. 

They’ve been shown to help people overcome addiction, repair a “leaky brain”, and even help reverse cognitive decline.

But researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity (35-37, 40). 

Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve (34, 38, 39). 

And high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance” (35). 

That's why I eat lots of wild-caught salmon, as well as supplement with this krill oil

9. Exercise

I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.

But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects (28). 

A man running near the water. Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve.

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

This is my exercise routine:

  • 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)

Walking, weightlifting and sprinting are the best forms of exercise, but you should choose a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently. 

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10. Zinc

As I’ve discussed before, zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety

One study shows that zinc increases vagus nerve stimulation in zinc-deficient rats (41). 

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 (42-44).

So, if you struggle with a brain or mental health disorder, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient.  

Some of the best food sources of zinc include oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach. 

However, I still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.

I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement to make sure my zinc levels are optimal. 

Check out my previous post about zinc and copper if you’re interested in discovering more steps you can take to increase your zinc levels. 

11. Massage

Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone (31-32). 

A woman getting a massage. Massages improve your mental health by stimulating the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body.

Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response (29). 

Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures (30). 

I personally get a massage from a registered massage therapist every couple of months. 

12. Socializing and Laughing

I’ve already discussed how socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.

Two men laughing. Laughter and socializing stimulates the vagus nerve.

And now I’ve learned that they are likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. 

Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions (47, 48). 

Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood (49). 

And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another (50). 

So my advice is to hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible. Although I should probably be taking my own advice here, as I’m an introvert and often avoid socializing too much. 

13. Intermittent Fasting

On most days, I don’t 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.

An empty plate with a fork and knife beside it. Intermittent fasting stimulates the vagus nerve.

There are many health benefits to doing this. As I’ve discussed before, intermittent fasting can boost your brain’s growth hormone, improve mitochondrial function, and may help some people overcome brain fog and cognitive decline

Research also shows that fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone (33). 

The best way to start fasting 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. 

Conclusion

You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind. You have the power to tell them what to do. 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience. 

Increasing my vagal tone has allowed me to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.

Overall, I hope you implement some of the above steps into your daily life, and they allow you to live more optimally.

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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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