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 was 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. (1)
And one of the most exciting and important recent discoveries is that brain cells 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
Your brain can make thousands of new neurons every day and maintains this ability well into old age. (2)
By the time you turn 50, you will have replaced all the original neurons in your hippocampus, your brain’s “memory center,” with new neurons! (3)
It seems likely that neurogenesis will be found in other areas of the brain as research continues.
A number of major neurotransmitters are involved in adult neurogenesis, including serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and glutamate. (9)
But the two most important chemicals for promoting the formation of brain cells are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF).
BDNF is one of the most active substances involved in neurogenesis.
It has been called “Miracle Gro” for the brain because it helps your brain grow and flourish.
Nerve growth factor (NGF) was the first growth factor to be discovered. (16)
NGF heals and protects your 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.
Increasing brain cell production in seniors can help counteract age-related cognitive decline. (19)
A wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including depression, substance use disorders, epilepsy, stroke, brain tumors, traumatic brain injury, and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, have been linked to dysfunctional neurogenesis. (20, 21, 22, 23)
Abnormal levels of BDNF or NGF are associated with anxiety disorders, dementia, depression, autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (24, 25, 26, 27)
Certain medications restrict new neuron growth; actively promoting neurogenesis may help.
For example, antibiotics don’t just kill bad bacteria, they halt production of new brain cells. (28)
Some cancer patients have been known to get depressed even after they’ve been pronounced cured.
Apparently, the drugs that stopped their cancer cells from growing also stopped 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 they increase brain cell growth in the hippocampus. (29)
So when these drugs work, it may not be for the “right” reason!
How to Increase Brain Cell Production with Your Diet
Researchers have discovered some unexpected ways that diet affects brain cell regeneration. (30)
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 often can help grow new brain cells. (31)
Calorie restriction has been linked to increased neurogenesis.
This seems to work by decreasing inflammation and increasing BDNF. (32)
Another trick with food is to practice intermittent fasting.
This involves increasing the time between meals, usually 16 hours.
It’s not as hard as it sounds since you can be asleep half of those hours.
If you have dinner at 5:30 pm and breakfast the next day at 9:30 am, you’re fasting intermittently.
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. (33)
And while healthy fats are essential for brain health, a diet containing excessive amounts of saturated fat can slow down neurogenesis. (34)
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Foods and Supplements That Enhance 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. (35)
Omega-3 fats are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish or you can take a fish oil or krill oil supplement.
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. (36)
Resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, increases brain cell growth, but alcohol decreases it.
This inspired neuroscience researcher Dr. Sandrine Thuret to call red wine a “neurogenesis neutral” drink. 😉
Apigenin is a phenolic compound that promotes neurogenesis. (41)
It is found in many fruits and vegetables, but its best sources are parsley, celery, and chamomile tea. (42)
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 black, white, and oolong teas as well.
L-theanine is highly regarded for its unique ability to induce a desirable state of “relaxed focus.”
You can get l-theanine from tea, or take an l-theanine supplement.
Citicoline is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body.
It protects and repairs existing brain cells while promoting the growth of new ones. (46)
It’s found mainly in foods that few find appealing.
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So unless you’re up for eating liver and brain, you’ll probably want to use a citicoline supplement.
Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a culinary delicacy that tastes like shrimp or lobster.
These unique compounds encourage the formation of nerve growth factor. (49)
Lion’s mane mushrooms are not readily available, so most people take lion’s mane as a supplement.
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 can boost your production back to normal. (52)
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.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for storing and organizing memories and for spatial navigation.
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15 Brain Exercises to Keep Your Mind Sharp
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 assures that new ones stick around. (55)
For the brain, as for muscles, “use it or lose it” applies.
Any brain cells or neural connections that are not regularly used are allowed to die.
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. (56)
This would include exercises like jogging, biking, hiking, power walking, or swimming. (57)
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, is a leading authority on how exercise impacts the brain.
He 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. (58)
BDNF levels in humans vary widely with the seasons, having the highest concentrations in the spring and summer and lowest in the fall and winter.
If aerobic exercise sounds too demanding, there’s a less strenuous alternative.
Mind-body exercises, such as yoga, can increase new brain cell production in the hippocampus.
How Sleep Affects Brain Cell Regeneration
Getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your brain and your mental well-being.
Sleep works by a number of mechanisms to promote brain health.
Chronic lack of sleep can stop formation of brain cells, but fortunately, the occasional sleepless night seems to have little effect on brain cell regeneration. (66)
Try this though: When you have a bad night, be sure to get some exercise the following day.
Exercise offsets the negative effects of poor sleep on BDNF levels. (67)
Brain Cell Regeneration: The Bottom Line
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 your supply of brain cells.
And 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.