Last updated November 17, 2021.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.
Many mental health conditions are linked to an impaired ability to regenerate brain cells. Learn how you can stimulate cell growth to boost brain health.
In the last 20 years, there’s been a complete reversal in one fundamental concept about the human brain.
Previously, it was believed that new brain cells were no longer created once you reached adulthood.
This is a grim thought, since so many things, including simply getting older, kill brain cells.
But with the development of more sophisticated tools, the depth and breadth of our knowledge of the brain has skyrocketed.
And one of the most exciting and important recent discoveries is that brain cells DO regenerate throughout your entire life.
We now know that neurogenesis — the formation of new brain cells — is not only possible, it happens every day.
This is not simply a fascinating piece of information, it’s news you can use.
Researchers have identified ways you can actively promote the growth of new brain cells.
How to Boost Brain Cell Regeneration
The brain can make thousands of new neurons every day and maintains this ability well into old age.
By the time you turn 50, you will have replaced the original neurons in your hippocampus, your brain’s “memory center,” with all new neurons!
Initially, adult neurogenesis was found to occur in only two regions of the brain: the hippocampus and the striatum.
But now there’s evidence that new brain cells can also grow in the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the olfactory bulb, and possibly the cerebral cortex.
It seems likely that neurogenesis will be found in other areas of the brain as research continues.
" The saying “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as it does to muscles. Any brain cells or neural connections that are not regularly used are allowed to wither and die due to a process called synaptic pruning.
A number of major neurotransmitters are involved in adult neurogenesis, including serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and glutamate.
But the two most important brain chemicals for promoting the formation of new brain cells are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF).
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Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of the most active substances involved in neurogenesis.
It has been called “Miracle-Gro” for the brain because it helps the brain grow and flourish.
It encourages the growth of new brain cells and helps keep existing brain cells healthy via a variety of mechanisms.
BDNF has many benefits:
Nerve growth factor (NGF) was the first growth factor to be discovered.
NGF heals and protects nerve cells, and stimulates the growth of new ones in both the brain and the nervous system.
When Neurogenesis Is Critical
Virtually everyone can benefit from having more brain cells, but there are some situations where neurogenesis is critical.
Living with a high level of stress leads to a decrease in BDNF and an increase in cognitive impairment, making brain cell regeneration especially important.
Increasing brain cell production in seniors can help counteract age-related cognitive decline.
A wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders have been linked to dysfunctional neurogenesis, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- brain tumors
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- substance use disorders
- traumatic brain injury
Additionally, abnormal levels of BDNF or NGF are associated with:
- anxiety disorders
- bipolar disorder
- burnout syndrome
- eating disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- sleep disorders
Certain medications restrict new neuron growth, but actively promoting neurogenesis may offset their effects.
For example, antibiotics don’t just kill bacteria, they also halt the production of new brain cells.
Some cancer patients have been known to get depressed even after they’ve been pronounced cured.
Apparently, the drugs that stop their cancer cells from growing also stop the formation of new neurons, triggering their depression.
Antidepressants like Prozac are believed to alleviate depression by increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin.
But there’s evidence that antidepressants increase brain cell growth in the hippocampus as well.
So when these drugs work to alleviate depression, it may be due to this unintended affect.
How to Increase Brain Cell Production With Your Diet
Researchers have discovered some unexpected ways that diet affects brain cell regeneration.
It’s not just what you eat, but how much you eat and how often you eat that matters as well.
Eating fewer calories and/or eating less frequently can help grow new brain cells.
Calorie restriction has been linked to increased neurogenesis.
This seems to work by decreasing inflammation and increasing BDNF.
Another strategy for increasing neurogenesis with food is to practice intermittent fasting.
This involves increasing the time between meals, up to 16 hours.
It’s not as hard as it sounds since you can be asleep half of those hours.
So, having dinner at 6:00 pm and breakfast the next day at 10:00 am qualifies as intermittent fasting.
Strangely, eating foods you must chew vigorously increases brain cell formation.
This makes a crunchy salad better for brain cell growth than juicing or making a smoothie with those same vegetables.
And while healthy fats are essential for brain health, a diet containing excessive amounts of saturated fat can slow down neurogenesis.
Foods and Supplements That Encourage Brain Cell Growth
Certain nutrients actually have neurogenerative properties.
Most of these nutrients can be obtained directly from food and are also available as supplements.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids promote the production of new neurons.
Omega-3 fats are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish.
You can also get them from fish oil or krill oil supplements.
Flavonoids are highly potent antioxidants that occur naturally in some plant foods.
The flavonoids found in blueberries, cocoa, and green tea are particularly effective at stimulating the formation of new brain cells.
Curcumin is the main bioactive component in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).
It provides many brain benefits, including increasing BDNF and stimulating neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
Resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, increases brain cell growth, but alcohol decreases it.
This inspired neuroscience researcher Sandrine Thuret, PhD, to call red wine a “neurogenesis neutral” drink.
So you may be better off getting resveratrol from non-alcoholic sources such as grapes, pistachios, peanuts, peanut butter, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, and chocolate.
Skip resveratrol supplements which don’t work very well.
They have a low bioavailability and a short half-life once consumed.
Olive oil may encourage the growth of brain cells by boosting levels of both brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor.
For maximum brain cell regeneration, use a high-quality, extra virgin olive oil.
Apigenin is a phenolic compound that promotes neurogenesis.
It is found in many fruits and vegetables, but its best food sources are parsley, celery, and chamomile tea.
While not common, apigenin supplements are available.
L-theanine is a compound found almost exclusively in all true teas (Camellia sinensis).
It’s mostly associated with green tea, but is found in comparable amounts in black, white, and oolong teas as well.
L-theanine is highly regarded for its unique ability to induce a desirable state of “relaxed focus.”
It increases BDNF and NGF to stimulate the growth of new neurons.
You can get l-theanine from drinking tea, or by taking an l-theanine supplement.
Citicoline, a precursor of choline, is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body.
It protects and repairs existing brain cells and promotes the growth of new ones.
It’s found mainly in foods that few find appealing.
So unless you’re up for eating liver or brain, you’ll probably want to take a citicoline supplement instead.
Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a culinary delicacy that tastes like shrimp or lobster.
So far, approximately 70 bioactive compounds have been identified in lion’s mane, including two groups of compounds not found anywhere else — the hericenones and the erinacines.
These unique compounds encourage the formation of nerve growth factor.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are not readily available, so most people ingest lion’s mane as a supplement.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is an herb that activates the release of BDNF and NGF.
It also contains other compounds that promote the growth of neurons.
Gotu kola is both an important traditional herbal remedy and a versatile cooking ingredient in Asian countries.
But in most Western countries, it’s available only as a supplement.
And finally, certain nutritional deficiencies can impair new brain cell growth.
Inadequate intake of vitamin A, B vitamins (thiamine and folate), and zinc can decrease the production of new brain cells and make them less likely to survive.
But supplementation with a high-quality multivitamin can help boost your brain cell production.
Grow and Maintain New Brain Cells With a Mental Workout
One of the most fascinating examples of neurogenesis in action has been observed in the brains of London cab drivers.
London cabbies give their brains a tremendous workout by memorizing the streets and landmarks of London.
Using MRIs, researchers discovered that the hippocampus of a typical London cabbie is significantly larger than normal.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for storing and organizing memories and for spatial navigation.
But, you don’t have to memorize the 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London to grow your hippocampus.
Any time you challenge your brain with something that’s new and complex, it helps build your brain in two ways.
It stimulates the formation of new brain cells, and it ensures that new ones stick around.
The saying “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as it does to muscles.
Any brain cells or neural connections that are not regularly used are allowed to wither and die due to a process called synaptic pruning.
Stimulate Neurogenesis With Physical Exercise
Any kind of physical exercise is good for your brain and mental health, but, so far, the evidence points to sustained, moderate-intensity, aerobic exercise as the best for growing new brain cells.
This includes exercises like jogging, biking, hiking, power walking, or swimming.
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, is a leading authority on how exercise impacts the brain.
Dr. Ratey recommends performing aerobic exercise according to this routine for maximum cognitive benefits:
- Sprint for 30 to 40 seconds.
- Exercise at a gentle pace for 5 minutes.
- Repeat for a total of 5 cycles.
If possible, exercise outdoors.
Researchers have noted a strong correlation between the production of BDNF and sunlight.
BDNF levels in humans vary widely with the seasons, with the highest concentrations occurring in spring and summer and the lowest during fall and winter.
If aerobic exercise sounds too demanding, opt for a less strenuous alternative.
Mind-body exercises, such as yoga, can increase new brain cell production in the hippocampus.
These type of exercises also reduce stress, a known disruptor of brain cell regeneration.
How Sleep Affects Brain Cell Regeneration
Getting adequate quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your brain and your mental wellness.
Sleep works by a number of mechanisms to promote brain health.
While you sleep, your brain is busy:
Chronic lack of sleep can stop the formation of brain cells, but fortunately, the occasional sleepless night seems to have little effect on brain cell regeneration.
But when you have an occasional bad night, be sure to get some exercise the following day.
Exercise offsets the negative effects of poor sleep on BDNF levels.
Brain Cell Regeneration: Take the Next Step
Until recently, it was believed that growing new brain cells was impossible once you reached adulthood.
But it’s now known that the brain constantly regenerates its supply of brain cells and that there is much that you can do to stimulate the process.
While literally everyone can benefit from growing more brain cells, it is of particular importance if you have certain psychiatric or neurological conditions.
Every day, give both your brain and body a good workout, get adequate sleep, and eat foods that promote growth factors like BDNF and NGF.
Additionally, you can experiment with various supplements that promote brain cell regeneration.
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