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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20 Effective Ways to Overcome Brain Fog

An image of a face and cloudiness.

I used to suffer from massive brain fog, especially after I suffered multiple concussions in 2010.

I had to drop out of school temporarily because it was so bad. 

I couldn’t read. I had trouble writing. And my memory was impaired. 

I walked around all day with a cloud over my head. 

But since then, I’ve learned that there are a number of ways to overcome brain fog, and you can implement them so that brain fog doesn’t slow you down and chip away at your quality of life.

Below are 20 steps that will help you clear away brain fog and regain your mental clarity. 

What Is Brain Fog and What Causes It?

Charlie Brown cartoon: “I’m afraid my brain has left for the day.”

Researchers describe brain fog symptoms as “an interaction of physiological, cognitive, and perceptual factors” (1). 

People suffering from brain fog describe it as feeling “forgetful,” “cloudy,” and “difficulty focusing, thinking and communicating” (2). 

Brain fog symptoms are actually quite common, but that doesn’t mean they are normal and you should accept them. They are an important sign that something is wrong.

Brain fog can be caused by a number of things, including medication, poor diet, too much exercise, not enough sleep.

But the underlying mechanism is usually the same – inflammation. 

Datis Kharrazian, author of the book “Why Isn’t My Brain Working?”, says that brain fog is often a sign of underlying brain inflammation and oxidative stress, which slows down neuronal communication. A number of studies also demonstrate this (38, 39).

When you experience brain fog acutely, it’s because your body is experiencing an increase in inflammation and oxidative stress. If you experience persistent brain fog, it’s because your body is chronically inflamed. Chronic inflammation is also linked to a number of mental disorders, including depression and dementia.

So a lot of my recommendations focus on reducing your overall systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.

On top of this, you may also have lower levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) if you struggle with brain fog. NAD is an enzyme that can be found in every cell of your body, and it helps your cells properly utilize the energy you get from food. Without enough of it, your body and brain won't function optimally (6, 7). 

NAD levels decline as you get older, but they can also be depleted from eating foods that cause high blood sugar levels (3-5).

And that leads us to my first recommendation…

1. Limit Refined Carbohydrates

If you want to prevent brain fog, the first thing you should do is avoid processed food that contain refined carbohydrates (particularly flour and sugar) because they increase inflammation and cause blood sugar fluctuations.

Crackers and candies. Refined carbohydrates can contribute to brain fog.

Chronically elevated blood glucose leads to insulin resistance and diabetes, which have been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. A lot of researchers and experts are discovering that dementia should actually be called Type 3 diabetes (9-11). 

Following a low-glycemic, low-grain diet will not only help you control your blood sugar, but it will also reduce inflammation that contributes to brain fog. 

You should try your best to avoid refined sugar. Breakfast cereals, fruit juice and sport drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup are your brain’s worst enemies. 

2. Eat Healthy Sources of Carbohydrates Instead

Even though you should avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar, that doesn’t mean you should avoid all carbohydrates. 

Going on a long-term low-carbohydrate diet can backfire and eventually increase your brain fog. 

Aim to get your carbohydrates from starchy vegetables and fruits instead.

My Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health contains plenty of healthy options. 

A whole sweet potato and a cut up sweet potatoe. Sweet potatoes are a healthy course of carbohydrates that can support your health and help you fight brain fog.

I make sure I eat a decent amount of carbs every day, usually from:

  • Yams

  • Squash

  • Potatoes

  • Carrots

  • Other root vegetables

  • Berries

  • Apples

  • Bananas

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3. Eat Healthy Fats 

Low-fat diets can be detrimental to brain health and contribute to your brain fog. 

Your brain is mostly made up of fat and requires a steady supply of essentials fatty acids to run properly and smoothly (15). 

Foods that contain healthy fats, including avocados, nuts, salmon and olive oil. Healthy fats are essential for optimal brain health.

The best sources of fat for your brain are:

And you don’t need to worry about the cholesterol in these traditional foods. You brain depends on cholesterol. Too little of it actually increases your risk of mental illness and Alzheimer’s (62). 

Furthermore, an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to systemic inflammation. Today, most people get way too many inflammatory omega-6 fats from refined vegetable oils (corn, soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola). And they don’t get enough anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from fatty fish, which are critical for optimal brain function.

So make sure you avoid vegetable oil, and eat enough wild salmon and grass-fed beef and/or supplement with krill oil. Doing so will reduce overall inflammation and brain fog symptoms over time. 

4. Optimize Your Sleep and Circadian Rhythm

Not surprisingly, lack of high-quality sleep is one of the main causes of brain fog. 

This is because poor sleep lowers your glutathione levels and increases oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain (40-43). 

Disrupting your circadian rhythm also increases inflammation and oxidative stress (53-55). 

Here are a few things I do to maintain my circadian rhythm and maximize the quality of my sleep:

  • Supplement with magnesium and collagen before bed. This pre-made bone broth is a good source of collagen.

  • Lie on this acupressure mat for 10 minutes before bed

  • Wear blue blocking glasses for 1-2 hours before bed. These block out blue light from your computer and devices, allowing you to more efficiently produce melatonin before bed.

  • Go to bed at the same time every night

  • Don’t eat for 3 hours before bed

  • 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.

I will discuss more sleep tips in future posts.

5. Support Methylation

Methylation is one of the most important processes in your body and brain.

It plays a role in the formation of almost all of your neurotransmitters, and methylation abnormalities often lie behind many brain and mental health problems (77). 

Vitamins B6, B12 and folate are critical to the methylation process, and deficiencies can lead to poor methylation. So you can improve your methylation by making sure you get enough of them.

I take this B complex every day. It contains the most bioavailable forms of all the B vitamins, including methyl-B12, methylfolate and P-5-P. And every time I take it, I experience a boost in brain function and clarity. You can get it here.

Trimethylamine and SAM-e are two other critical nutrients in the methylation cycle that you could try to increase energy and mental clarity.  I take them after drinking any alcohol.

6. B Vitamins

Besides supporting methylation, a number of the B vitamins have been shown to help combat brain fog.  

Fruits and vegetables in the shape of the letter B. B vitamins can help reduce brain fog.

Vitamin B1 (benfotiamine) helps turn glucose, the fuel for your brain, into energy. So brain fog and fatigue are often the first symptoms of vitamin B1 deficiency. Research shows that low levels of B1 are correlated with poor cognitive function in young adults, and even without a deficiency, supplementation with B1 leads to faster reaction times and reports of feeling more clear-headed (16, 17). 

Vitamin B3 (niacin) is used by your body to form NAD, which I mentioned earlier is lower in people who struggle with brain fog. 

Lastly, in my experience, vitamin B5 (pantethine) does a remarkably good job at clearing mental fogginess.

This supplement includes B1, B3 and B5. 

It's also important to note that a number of psychiatric drugs have been shown to deplete B vitamins, and brain fog is a common side effect of these drugs. I've discussed this before. You can learn more here

7. Increase Acetylcholine (Citicoline) and Dopamine (Tyrosine)

Another way to overcome your brain fog is by increasing production of acetylcholine and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are critical for optimal brain function. 

Acetylcholine is important for memory and learning, and dopamine increases mood, motivation and focus.

Citicoline (also known as CDP-Choline) is an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective nutrient that enhances the synthesis of acetylcholine and dopamine, and increases the number of acetylcholine and dopamine receptors in your brain. It also increases blood flow and mental energy in the frontal cortex of the brain, which is often compromised in people who suffer from chronic brain fog (80-85). 

If that’s not enough, Citicoline has also been shown to improve cognitive speed and attention in young adults, stoke patients and elderly individuals with dementia (86-88). 

Citicoline is the most bioavailable form of choline, an essential nutrient that most people don’t consume enough of because very few foods in the Western diet contain it. That’s why I recommend supplementing with it. It's included in the Optimal Brain supplement

You can also find some choline in beef liver and egg yolks. That's why I'm a big fan of eating these foods regularly. 

Unfortunately, many prescription drugs are anticholinergic, meaning they reduce acetylcholine in the brain.

The commonly-prescribed antidepressant Wellbutrin is anticholinergic, meaning it inhibits the physiological action of acetylcholine. I took it for multiple years, and I experience gradual cognitive decline during that time. 

Once I got off Wellbutrin, I started supplementing with Citicoline and noticed a remarkable improvement in cognitive function since it increased my levels of acetylcholine and dopamine. I still take it today to help clear brain fog.

Tyrosine also increases the production of dopamine.

It is an amino acid and precursor to dopamine

Coffee and stimulants increase dopamine in the brain. So if you rely on them to get through the day, you likely have low dopamine, and increasing your natural production by supplementing with tyrosine may help you overcome brain fog.

Check out this article for other ways to increase dopamine. 

I don’t take it regularly anymore, but this tyrosine gives my brain a huge boost when I need it. I still use it sometimes, particularly if I don’t get enough sleep. It's also helpful for depression. You can get it here.

You should take tyrosine with vitamin B6 and vitamin C, as they are also cofactors in the production of dopamine

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8. Limit Pharmaceutical and Recreational Drugs 

A number of different pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs cause brain fog and forgetfulness as side effects, including:

Three bottles of prescription medication. Prescription medications can sometimes cause brain fog as a side effect.

Benzodiazepines are probably the worst for brain fog, as they’ve been linked to cognitive impairment and the development of dementia (79). I regret ever taking them for anxiety and sleep. Along with antidepressants, they caused me serious brain fog and cognitive impairment. Withdrawal from these medications can also cause brain fog. 

Anticholinergic medications block acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for learning and memory. There are more than 100 drugs that fall into the anticholinergic category. So if you’re taking an anticholinergic drug, make sure to take a choline supplement. The Optimal brain supplement includes two high-quality sources of choline (78). 

But it’s not just pharmaceutical drugs that can be a problem. 

Not surprisingly, alcohol is also known to increase inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, and also lower NAD levels, so you should avoid it as much as possible to prevent brain fog (56-60). 

9. Hydrate with Clean Water

Your brain is 75% water by volume, so it makes sense that dehydration could cause brain fog (72). 

Being dehydrated by just 2% has been shown to impair performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills (73). 

But you also want to make sure you’re drinking the purest water possible. Otherwise, the water itself could be contributing to your brain fog.

Tap water contains fluoride and copper that could be contributing to your inflammation and brain fog. 

There are also hundreds of other compounds in tap water, including trace amounts of pharmaceutical medication, which can affect your brain function. 

I use this Berkey water filter to make sure I’m drinking the purest water available. It filters everything out of the water. 

10. Elimination Diet

A study published in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry showed that food allergies and sensitivities could trigger a number of mental symptoms, including severe mental blankness and loss of motivation. Wheat, milk and eggs produced the most severe mental reactions (37). 

If you struggle from brain fog (or any mental illness), you should eliminate the most common food allergens from your diet for at least two weeks, and then add them back in one by one and see how you feel:

  • Wheat, spelt, rye, barley, oats (gluten)

  • All dairy (casein, lactose)

  • Eggs

  • Soy

  • Corn

  • Nightshade vegetables

  • Nuts

  • Yeast

  • Shellfish

If cutting out all those foods seems overwhelming, start by eliminating all flour and gluten grains, including bread, cereal and pasta, and see how you feel. Don’t eat gluten-free junk food instead, as they are full of sugar and just as bad for brain fog.

Wheat grain. Wheat can often cause brain fog in many people.

Dr. Kenneth Fine, a pioneer in gluten intolerance research, has demonstrated that 1 in 3 Americans are gluten intolerant, and that 8 in 10 have the genes that predispose them to developing gluten intolerance. And research has also shown that gluten can contribute to ADHD, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s (74-76). 

Unfortunately, when you are gluten intolerant, you will often “cross-react” with other proteins similar to gluten. Plus, there are many other proteins in wheat other than gluten that can cause brain fog. 

A lot of people who suffer from brain and mental health problems are also allergic or sensitive to lactose or milk protein (casein), which cause inflammation in the body and brain. So you should avoid all milk, cheese and yogurt, especially when you're trying to overcome brain fog. 

I will never eat wheat and dairy again in my life. It’s just not worth it because my mood, energy and mental clarity are remarkably more consistent when I avoid them. I’m also intolerant to egg whites. I have to throw them away and only eat the yolks.

11. Forskolin

Forskolin is an active compound found in the roots of the Indian coleus (Coleus forskohlii).

It has been used by traditional cultures to treat various conditions and diseases (67). 

I notice it increases mental energy and clarity for me.

This is because forskolin increases cyclic AMP (cAMP), which lowers inflammation (61). 

Forskolin is included in this supplement

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12. Get Sun and Vitamin D3

I’ve discussed Vitamin D many times before, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. 

But Vitamin D significantly affects your brain function, and turns on genes that support the production and release of dopamine and serotonin.

Yet most people are deficient (an estimated one billion people worldwide), and being low in Vitamin D can lead to chronic brain fog, low energy, poor memory, and depression (19).

It’s worth getting your levels checked and supplementing with it if you’re low. 

Vitamin D levels above 40 ng/mL (100 nmol/L) reduce the risk of cognitive impairment, and low vitamin D levels are linked to higher risk of dementia (20).

Most people need to take at least 2000IU every day. I take 5000IU of this supplemental source of Vitamin D every day. 

Using a Vitamin D lamp and getting enough sunlight can also help you with brain fog as they decrease inflammation (52). 

13. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is a neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing amino acid.

It is often used as a brain booster because it increases alertness and provides support to brain cells. It’s also been shown to be very effective at alleviating neurological decline and chronic fatigue (68-71). 

I personally find ALCAR gives me a huge boost in brain energy and clarity. That's why it's included in the Optimal Brain supplement

And as I discussed previously, it can protect your brain from alcohol.

14. Exercise Properly 

I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). 

Two women running on the beach. Exercise can help reduce brain fog. Too much exercise can cause brain fog though.

But it also reduces foggy thinking by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, improving blood flow to the brain, controlling blood sugar, and raising NAD levels (12). 

But it’s important to note that chronic endurance exercise can actually increase inflammation, so be careful (13, 14). 

That’s why I'm convinced that walking, weightlifting and sprinting are the best forms of exercise. 

Overtraining and lack of rest will lead to hormonal imbalances and brain fatigue. 

So when you engage in endurance cardio, make sure you don’t overexert yourself and always take long enough breaks between workouts to recover. Otherwise, you can physically and mentally exhaust yourself.

15. Increase Good Gut Bacteria

I’ve discussed this before, so I won’t go too in-depth here. 

But there are approximately 100 trillion microorganisms and 500 known bacterial species living inside of you. Your digestive tract holds a lot of these bacteria, and cutting-edge research suggests there is a connection between your brain and your gut. Therefore, the makeup of these bacteria in your gut can affect how you feel mentally (50-52).

An illustration of the gut and the bacteria within it. Increasing your good bacteria can help you overcome brain fog.

Unfortunately, a lot of people today have out-of-balance and dysregulated gut bacteria, which can increase inflammation and oxidative stress in the gut and brain, leading to brain fog and other mental symptoms.

Not surprisingly, research has shown that people with irritable bowel syndrome often have chronic fatigue syndrome. This is because both conditions often result from bacterial imbalances and gut inflammation (48).

Here are some steps I recommend to improve the composition of your gut bacteria, which can help eliminate symptoms of brain fog:

Overall, you need a healthy gut for a healthy brain. You can read my previous article “5 Ways to Increase Your Good Gut Bacteria for a Healthier Brain” for more tips and information.

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16. Take Adaptogens (Rhodiola, Ginseng)

Adaptogenic herbs help normalize the body and help you reach a state of mental balance (21, 22, 23).

I’ve weaned off psychiatric medications more than once. The very last time I did, I used two adaptogens – rhodiola and ginseng – and I noticed they reduced withdrawal symptoms, including brain fog.  

Many studies show that rhodiola can clear brain fog and improve mental function by increasing cognitive energy and improving connections and communication between brain cells. It’s also been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, which is linked to brain fog (24-29). 

I wrote about rhodiola before if you’re interested in learning more. 

I still use both rhodiola and ginseng regularly, especially if I’m dealing with brain fog for some reason. 

I take this rhodiola.

17. Intermittent Fasting and Ketosis

Short-term fasting and ketogenic dieting are great ways to enhance your mental clarity and reduce brain fog. 

I fast for at least 12 hours every day, and sometimes follow a ketogenic diet to improve my cognition. 

A ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet. When there is limited access to carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy, your body enters ketosis – a metabolic state in which your body and brain run on fatty acids and ketones. Ketones are an alternative source of fuel, which can quickly recharge your brain cells and improve cognitive function. (33). 

A pie chart demonstrating the macronutrient breakdown of the ketogenic diet. It is 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbs. A ketogenic diet can help clear brain fog in some people.

This advice clearly contradicts my earlier advice that you should be eating plenty of healthy carbohydrates. 

But some people notice their brain fog completely disappears and their cognition is very sharp if they fast or follow a low-carb ketogenic diet. But it’s not for everyone. Others feel much worse and need to eat enough carbs to feel mentally well. So I suggest you experiment with both and see what works for you. 

You can get into ketosis more quickly by taking Optimal Ketones, which are exogenous ketones that are easily digested by the body. They readily cross the blood-brain barrier, and provide instant energy to brain cells, helping you quickly overcome brain fog (30, 31).

If I'm struggling with brain fog, I take Optimal Ketones and they immediately increase my mental clarity. This happens even when I eat plenty of carbs. 

18. Low-level Laser Therapy (LLLT)

Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is about as cutting-edge as it gets. It’s even more unconventional that neurofeedback. And it works. 

Low-level laser therapy, or photobiomodulation, is a treatment that uses low-level (low-power) lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to stimulate brain cells, helping them heal and function better (63). 

A man wearing an LLLT helmet and the Vielight intranasal device. LLLT can help with brain fog.

LLLT increases blood flow to the brain and appears to have an effect on damaged brain cells, which can produce clearer, sharper thinking. It's important to note that the brain and mental effects of LLLT are limited to a specified set of wavelengths (18, 64, 65). 

Most doctors are clueless about LLLT; but not every doctor. 

Dr. Norman Doige, a physician who teaches at the University of Toronto here in Canada, discusses the amazing healing effects of LLLT in his book “The Brain’s Way of Healing.” I highly recommend the book.

I first tried LLLT with a practitioner here in Ottawa. I noticed a boost in cognitive energy, brain function and mental clarity.

I now use these devices at home:

  • Platinum Therapy Lights Bio-450 (Combo Red/NIR) - This is a powerful all-one-device that shines 660 nm of red light and 850 nm of infrared light. I shine it on my forehead for 5-10 minutes every day or every other day. I also shine it on other parts of my head, and on my thyroid, thymus gland and gut. If you decide to get this device, you can use the coupon code OPTIMAL for a 5% discount.

  • Vielight 810 – This is an intranasal device with 810 nm of near infrared light that I use regularly. It penetrates deeper into brain tissue and is absorbed better by the central nervous system. If you decide to get this one, you can use the coupon code JORDANFALLIS for a 10% discount. Some research has shown a 20-fold higher efficiency of light delivery to the deep brain through the nose instead of transcranial application.

In my experience, applying the light directly to your forehead (prefrontal cortex) will help with brain fog.

This may seem strange and dangerous, but don’t worry – LLLT is very safe (66).

You can read about my experience with LLLT here

19. Avoid Environmental Mold and Mycotoxins

Environmental mold is a silent killer, as most people aren’t aware that it’s in their home and workplace and affecting their brain function. If you’re genetically susceptible, it can wreak havoc on your brain, and your cognitive abilities and mental health can deteriorate for no apparent reason.

After I lived in a moldy home, I became extremely sensitive to any environmental mold and mycotoxins (toxic metabolites produced by mold). 

Black mold on a wall. Environmental mold and mycotoxins can cause brain fog.

I now use this air filter in my apartment. It removes any mold spores and smoke that may be in the air.  

Low amounts of mycotoxins are often found in some seemingly healthy foods, such as tea, nuts, coffee and chocolate. So if you’re sensitive to mycotoxins like I am, you’ll likely experience brain fog and fatigue after eating low-quality versions of these foods. I recommend finding the freshest, highest-quality, organic versions of these foods.

Lastly, if exposed to mold or their toxins, I supplement with activated charcoal or bentonite clay.

Activated charcoal and bentonite clay are potent natural treatments that can trap toxins and chemicals, allowing them to be flushed out of your body.

I take activated charcoal every time I eat something bad for my brain and mental health (mycotoxins, gluten, dairy), as it binds to problematic proteins and drags them out of my body. I notice I don’t feel as sick when I do this, and recover much more quickly than without it. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to toxic mold. I’ll be writing more about it soon, but I recommend this website if you suspect you live in a moldy home. 

20. Increase Testosterone

This one applies to men only. 

Low testosterone levels can contribute to your brain fog. 

When I lived in a moldy home and suffered multiple concussions, my testosterone plummeted. 

A muscular man lifting weights. Testosterone can help with brain fog.

No conventional doctor tested my testosterone because they assumed every 20-year-old man would have healthy levels. 

But they were wrong. 

Eventually I saw an integrative physical and he found out that I had the testosterone levels of an old man.

I was put on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) for almost one year to get my levels back to normal. And over that time, I saw a huge increase in my mental sharpness. I’m now off TRT and my testosterone remains at optimal levels because of my healthy lifestyle. 

I recommend getting your levels checked and then consider TRT if necessary, especially when you’re older.

I will also discuss how to increase testosterone naturally in an upcoming article. 

 

Conclusion

Clearly, there are a lot of causes and solutions to brain fog. 

You don’t need to accept it as “normal.”

You may need to try a combination of these methods, and it may take some time to finally get to the bottom of it. But it can be done. And you can experience mental clarity again. 

Do you struggle with brain fog? What helps you manage it? Have you overcome it for good? 

Let me know in the comments, as your personal experiences could help someone. 

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

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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

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

Just like some people are able to drop massive amounts of weight and never gain it back, you can drop your chronic depression, anxiety and poor cognition and never have it consume you again. 

One way to do this is by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor, also known as BDNF.

BDNF is a naturally-occurring protein in the brain that improves brain function and lowers your risk of mental disease. 

BDNF protects and repairs your brain cells, increases the growth of new brain cells, and improves learning, memory and mood. In fact, many researchers consider it a natural antidepressant (12-17, 66).

Research suggests that if you struggle with mental illness or poor brain function, you likely have reduced levels of BDNF. But luckily, there are ways to boost it. And by doing so, you can reverse depression and protect yourself from Alzheimer’s disease (46-50, 31, 64-65, 67).

After suffering two concussions, living in a moldy house, and falling into a deep depression in 2010, I started searching far and wide for ways to boost BDNF and heal my damaged brain.

Below are 31 ways that significantly helped me recover, and they likely will help you too.

 

Foods, Nutrients and Natural Supplements to Increase BDNF Levels in the Brain

 

1. Coffee Fruit Concentrate

Whole coffee fruit has a number of brain health benefits.

It includes the flesh of the berry that surrounds the coffee bean. 

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

But this is a problem because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.

After years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases BDNF in humans. 

One study found that 100mg of whole coffee fruit concentrate increases BDNF by an astounding 143%.

And another study found that it doubles the amount of BDNF in the blood.

Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement

 

2. Curcumin

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

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

Studies show that it can increase BDNF production in the brain, leading to improved cognition and mood (18- 20, 22). 

It also protects the brain by activating BDNF (21). 

There are several different forms of “bioavailable” curcumin and I've tried most of them. 

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

 

3. Green Tea

Drinking green tea is another way you can increase BDNF. 

The antioxidants within it have been shown to increase BDNF (25). 

You can either drink green tea on a regular basis or consider supplementing with a concentrated green tea extract.

 

4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

A large number of people are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids today, and they are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system (70). 

They've been shown to improve mood, sleep, learning and memory, and protect against psychiatric disorders including depression, mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease (31-33).

This is likely because they've been shown to increase BDNF levels (71). 

After traumatic brain injury, omega-3s normalize BDNF levels in rats. Without supplementation, levels did not return to baseline (68). 

And omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help patients with bipolar, likely because they support optimal BDNF levels (69). 

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

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

I take this one

 

5. Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a beneficial antioxidant compound found in red wine. 

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

And science is starting to understand why. 

For one, it has neuroprotective effects by elevating BDNF (37). 

Because of this increase, it can be effective at improving fatigue (38). 

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

 

6. Prebiotics and Resistant Starch

Prebiotics are substances that humans can't digest, so they pass through our gastrointestinal tract and promote the growth of many different strains of good bacteria in our lower bowel.

Essentially, they are food for the good bacteria in our intestines.

Bacteria convert prebiotics into butyrate, a substance that has been shown to increase BDNF (43, 44) 

Prebiotic-rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus and squash. These foods are included in my free grocery shopping guide for optimal brain health and you should try to eat them as much as possible.

Resistant starch is one of the most potent ways to boost your prebiotic intake. 

A convenient way to incorporate more resistant starch into your diet is by using Bob’s Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch. I take it on a regular basis and you can get it through Amazon. It's one of the easiest and cheapest ways to incorporate more resistant starch into your diet. It is bland so you can simply add it to beverages, smoothies and meals. It has to stay raw though, so don’t cook it.

I discussed prebiotics and resistant starch in this previous article.

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

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

 

7. Magnesium

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

It’s one of the three nutrients that everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient. 

The good news is that you can easily correct magnesium deficiency yourself. Supplementation is cheap and can restore the mineral to healthy levels. 

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

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

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8. Lithium Orotate

Lithium is predominantly known as a medication given to bipolar patients to manage their symptoms. 

However, it’s also an essential mineral.

Bipolar patients are often given high doses of lithium carbonate.

But low doses of lithium orotate has been shown to improve mood and have neuroprotective effects in people without bipolar disorder, and some studies have shown that it increases BDNF (54, 55). 

I don’t take it anymore but I did feel calmer and more stable when I supplemented with it.

If you’re interested in trying it, you can get the one I took here.

 

9. Dark Chocolate

I’m sure you're smiling right now.

Everyone loves chocolate.

And thankfully, it’s really good for your brain.

The antioxidants in dark chocolate (not milk chocolate) trigger neuroprotection by activating the BDNF survival pathway (56). 

You should try to eat high-quality, organic dark chocolate with the least amount of sugar. 

 

10. N-Acetyl-Cysteine

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

It has personally played a huge role in my recovery from mental illness and post-concussion syndrome, which is not surprising, considering that it’s been shown to boost BDNF (57). 

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

 

11. Theanine

L-Theanine is a relaxing amino acid found in tea.

It’s known to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Unlike prescription anti-anxiety medication, it does not cause sedation and drowsiness.

One study also found that theanine increases BDNF (58). 

My personal experience with theanine is that it mixes really well with caffeine. Coffee can make a lot of people jittery and unfocused. But theanine reduces that side effect. I still take it from time to time when I drink coffee. 

You can get it here.

 

12. Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are plants and herbs containing bioactive compounds that can support your brain.

They increase your resilience to physical and mental stress, calm you down, or increase your energy, depending on what your body needs.

Rhodiola is one of my favourite adaptogenic herbs, and it’s been shown to increase BDNF expression in the brain (59). 

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

Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb I take every so often.

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

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

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

I take ginseng daily to support my mood and cognition.

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

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

 

13. Zinc

Supplementing with zinc can also increase your BDNF levels.

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that activates several hundred enzymatic reactions, including brain and nervous system function and neurotransmission.

Several studies have shown that zinc has antidepressant effects because it causes a significant increase in BDNF levels and BDNF gene expression (76-79). 

But unfortunately, it’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (72, 73, 74).

If you struggle with depression or anxiety, you are likely deficient in zinc, and therefore likely to have depleted BDNF levels. 

I used to suffer from anxiety and depression, and increasing my intake of zinc is one of the most impactful actions I have taken to overcome them. You can read more about my research and experience with zinc here. 

I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement every day so that my zinc levels are optimal.

 

14. Blueberries

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a great idea if you want to improve your brain health and cognitive function. 

But blueberries are particularly potent because of the flavonoids within them. 

Research shows that supplementing with the pure blueberry flavanols for 6 weeks, at levels similar to what is found in blueberries, significantly improves memory by increasing BDNF levels and BDNF expression (85). 

I buy wild blueberries every time I go grocery shopping. 

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

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

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

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15. Progesterone

Progesterone is a natural steroid and sex hormone involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.  

It has a variety of important functions in the body, and even plays an important role in brain function.  

Research shows that progesterone supports the normal development of brain cells and protects them from damage. 

Researchers have also found that it increases BDNF release (86).  

In addition to its role as a natural hormone, progesterone can be taken as a medication, usually by women during menopause as part of their hormone replacement therapy. 

 

16. Dehydroepiandrosterone

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is one of the most abundant circulating steroid hormones in humans. It’s produced in the adrenal glands, the gonads, and the brain, and it’s a precursor to other hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. 

It's also available as a supplement

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

In one study, it increased acetylcholine and BDNF expression (87).  

You can get DHEA here.  

It's also one of the best supplements for reducing depression.  

 

17. Quercetin

Quercetin is a bioflavonoid found in fruits and vegetables.  

It is one of the most widely consumed flavonoids in the human diet.  

Quercetin has potent antioxidant action and is “neuroactive”, meaning it can affect brain function.  

As a result, it can protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inhibit the pro-inflammatory molecules that are associated with many progressive brain disorders. 

Researchers have also found that it increases BDNF (89).  

Red apples, onions and tomatoes have the high levels of quercetin. But you can also supplement with it if you want.  

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

 

18. Coffee and Caffeine

Drinking coffee is another great way to increase BDNF levels.

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

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

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

Caffeine can disrupt sleep though, so make sure you don’t drink it later in the day. I have my last cup sometime between 10 in the morning and noon. If I have it any later than that, it disrupts my sleep.

 

19. Niacin

Niacin, also known as nicotinic acid or Vitamin B3, is an essential nutrient. 

Evidence suggests that niacin supplementation up-regulates the expression of BDNF (91).  

In one study, treatment with niacin significantly increased BDNF expression (92).  

Years ago, I took this niacin supplement after reading that it could help with addiction, withdrawal and energy. It did, but I don’t take it individually anymore. I now take this all-in-one B complex instead. 

 

20. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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

Oleuropein, a polyphenol found in olive oil, has been shown to induce autophagy and reduce cognitive impairment. As a result, many researchers propose that a diet with extra virgin olive oil might have potential benefits for Alzheimer’s patients.  

Researchers have found that it also increases BDNF in important areas of the brain (93-95).  

This is why I add olive oil to my salads and sometimes even just take a tablespoon of it straight.  

Be careful though. A lot of cheap extra virgin olive oil in grocery stores are not actually “extra virgin.” 

Investigations have found that there is a lot of fraud within the olive oil industry and many so-called extra virgin olive oils contains other cheaper, refined vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn and canola. 

This is discussed more in the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

 

21. Taurine

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

It has a wide variety of health benefits.  

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

Taurine is included in the Optimal Zinc supplement

 

22. Saffron

Saffron is a spice derived from the Crocus sativus plant.  

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

Saffron is one of the best supplements for reducing depression

And researchers have found that it has antidepressant effects because it significantly increases BDNF levels (97).  

 

Lifestyle Habits, Therapies and Practices to Increase BDNF Levels in the Brain 

 

23. Exercise

Exercise is the fastest and most effective way to boost BDNF levels, and improve learning, memory and mood (1, 2, 3, 4). 

In just 5 weeks, mild-intensity exercise significantly increased BDNF levels and reversed cognitive decline in old rats (62). 

And it’s not just old brains that benefit from regular exercise. High-intensity exercise increases BDNF and improves memory in young sedentary men (63). 

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

I plan on discussing my exercise routine in more depth soon, but for now, this is the general gist of it:

•    Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week
•    High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week
•    Walk as much as you can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)

Exercise has a number of benefits besides increasing BDNF. Many of the experts I’ve interviewed think it’s the most important thing you can do for your brain.

So you should try to exercise as much as you can. 

 

24. Sunlight

Exposing yourself to sunshine each day can also increase BDNF. 

One study found that BDNF increased in the summer and spring, and decreased in the fall and winter. They also found that participants with the lowest BDNF levels were more likely to be depressed, which likely explains why some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (5). 

I try to get 30 minutes every day during the spring and summer months here in Canada. 

On top of increasing BDNF, the sun also provides Vitamin D, which is very important for optimal brain and mental health. 

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

 

25. Intermittent Fasting

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

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

I personally do not eat breakfast at all, and then "break my fast" by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window. 

That may sound ridiculous and shocking to you. But there are huge health benefits from doing this. 

One benefit is that it increases BDNF signalling, which can improve heart and brain health (7, 8). 

And studies show that limiting yourself to only 600 calories every other day boosts BDNF up to 400 per cent (9, 10).

You don’t necessarily need to be this extreme and fast for 16 hours like I usually do. Even a 12-hour fast shows some benefits (11).

All you need to do is avoid eating anything after dinner, and then eat a regular breakfast the next day. 

 

26. Avoid Processed Food and Refined Sugar

While some habits can raise BDNF, others can lower it.

Many studies suggest that if you eat processed food and sugar (The Standard American Diet), you'll have lower levels of BDNF and neurotransmitters, and impaired cognition (23, 24). 

Ideally, you should stick with the whole foods from my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health and you can be sure that you’re supporting optimal BDNF levels. 

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27. Lose Fat 

The fatter you are, the lower your BDNF levels will be.

Research shows that BDNF levels are lower in obese adults and children (26, 27, 28). 

This may be because overweight and obese individuals are less likely to eat healthy and exercise. 

Regardless, if you’re holding onto extra weight, it’d be best to lose it.

Your BDNF will increase as a result, which will lead to improved brain and mental health. 

One study showed that weight loss in obese men improved depressive symptoms by increasing BDNF levels, and females with higher levels of BDNF are in better shape and perform better on cognitive tests (29, 30). 

 

28. Socialize

Talk to people whenever you get the chance. If you suffer from anxiety, push yourself outside your comfort zone and try starting a conversation with a stranger – even if it’s just the cashier at the supermarket. 

Your brain will thank you. 

I'm an introvert, so I find this difficult. But I try to socialize as much as I can. 

Research has shown that a stimulating social environment increases BDNF and reduces depression and anxiety (34, 36). 

Women who are friendlier to strangers also have higher BDNF levels (35). 

 

29. Deep Sleep

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

Getting high-quality, deep sleep is critical for the health of your brain.

My sleep used to be terrible and it was one of main factors that contributed to my poor mental health.  

Not surprisingly, sleep deprivation reduces BDNF (39). 

And it’s been shown that insomniacs have lower BDNF levels, and higher levels of BDNF are often a sign that a person is sleeping well (41, 42). 

Luckily, regular exercise can maintain BDNF levels when you’re not getting enough sleep (40). 

You should aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night.

But it’s not just the amount of sleep you get that’s important. It’s also the quality of sleep. In fact, the quality of your sleep is more important than the length of your sleep.

I'll be writing more about how to improve the quality of your sleep soon.

In the meantime, I recommend this sleep supplement, which contains magnesium and a number of other natural compounds that I’ve used over the years to promote the production of melatonin. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.

 

30. Reduce Stress (Neurofeedback/Meditation)

People who experience a lot of stress produce less BDNF, and both acute and chronic stress has been shown to significantly decrease existing BDNF levels (45-48). 

Stress can also ruin your sleep, which as I mentioned earlier, decreases BDNF (41).

As you can see, everything is connected. Ignoring one area of your health will often affect other areas.

I highly recommend you try to do something every day to manage your stress

The most effective way to significantly reduce stress and anxiety is neurofeedback. It’s advanced, guided meditation that you need to do with a qualified practitioner. I previously wrote about my experience with it here

If you can’t access neurofeedback, taking up a daily meditation practice is an excellent idea. 

I’m also a big fan of the Muse headband. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback while you meditate. I’ve used the Muse for the past few months, and I've written an entire review about it. You can get it through Amazon or the Muse website

I often use this acupressure mat as well. Lying on it for just 10 minutes can relax your entire body and mind. I also use it before bed. It helps me fall asleep faster. 

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

 

31. Ketogenic Diet

Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your body runs on fatty acids. This happens when there is limited access to glucose, the body’s main source of energy. Ketosis often results from following a very low-carb diet (49). 

To get into ketosis, you need to eat less than 50 grams of carbs per day, meaning you have to avoid grains, sugar, and even potatoes, legumes and fruit.

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

I don’t recommend following a low-carb ketogenic diet for long periods of time, unless you witness huge beneficial changes in your health.

However, going in and out of ketosis may have some beneficial effects on your brain. One study found that it can increase BDNF (50). 

Taking exogenous ketones can help you get into ketosis very quickly.

I take Optimal Ketones and they immediately increase my mental clarity, even when I'm eating plenty of carbohydrates. 

 

Conclusion

A picture of a brain.

As you can see, there are so many ways to increase your brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to promote healing and the growth of new brain cells

I’ve implemented and experimented with all these treatments with good results. My brain wouldn’t be as healthy today without them. 

It’s been tough to overcome my chronic depression, anxiety and concussion symptoms. I’m not going to act like it’s been very easy. But you (and your brain) can definitely grow stronger over time. 

If you liked this article, please share it with family and friends because there are still a lot of people who feel hopeless and aren’t aware that they can protect and heal their brains, and strengthen their mental health, without a doctor or prescription.

And let me know what you think in the comments. 

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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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