How to Increase BDNF, Key Protein for Healthy Brain Cells

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) encourages the formation of new brain cells and protects existing ones. Learn how to boost your BDNF level.

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Until fairly recently, it was thought that you were born with a set number of brain cells and could never grow new ones.

But in the early 1980s, researchers discovered and isolated a protein that was found to encourage the growth of new brain cells.

To their amazement, when researchers sprinkled it onto neurons in the lab, they spontaneously sprouted new branches.

They called it brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or simply, BDNF.

Effects of BDNF

BDNF gets its name from “neuro” (of the nervous system) and “trophic” (growth-promoting).

But this protein does much more than cause new brain cells to grow.

It also keeps existing brain cells healthy via a number of mechanisms.

BDNF increases brain plasticity, suppresses brain inflammation, acts as a natural antidepressant, offsets the negative effects of stress on the brain, and protects the brain from neurodegeneration. (1, 23, 4, 5)

There’s evidence that it may even play a role in controlling lifespan. (6)

It’s easy to see the value of maintaining optimal levels of BDNF.

Let’s take a look at exactly how you can do that.

Causes of Low BDNF

Doctors and researchers can measure BDNF levels with blood tests or saliva assays. (7, 8)

A low level of BDNF has been linked to a wide range of brain-related conditions including: (9, 101112)

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • anxiety disorders
  • burnout syndrome
  • dementia
  • depression
  • eating disorders
  • epilepsy
  • Huntington’s disease
  • obesity
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • suicidal behavior

It’s not clear whether low BDNF causes these disorders or is a side effect of them.

But the evidence clearly indicates that BDNF levels are negatively impacted by an unhealthy lifestyle.

A diet high in processed foods, especially one that combines high levels of sugar and fat, decreases BDNF. (1314)

Stress is a disaster for your brain health and mental well-being.

One of the many ways stress causes such damage is by lowering the level of BDNF.

The stress hormone cortisol halts the production of BDNF, resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed. (15)

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of stressors you are facing, they all reduce BDNF production.

Chronic daily stress, the occasional acute stress, chronic insomnia due to stress, and the burnout experienced by high achievers all contribute to a decrease in BDNF. (16, 17, 18, 1920, 21, 22)

Surprisingly, there’s evidence that if your mother was stressed out when she pregnant with you, you could have a lifelong propensity to subpar BDNF levels and be more prone to psychiatric disorders. (23, 24, 25)

And finally, like many other things that change as you grow older, BDNF levels naturally decline with age. (26)

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How to Increase BDNF

With all of these great potential benefits derived from BDNF, it would be great if it came in a pill, but unfortunately, this is not a viable option.

When BDNF is taken either orally or by injection, it doesn’t cross the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier. (27)

As you might imagine, researchers are actively looking for ways to help BDNF enter the brain.

But for now, the best ways to increase BDNF involve upgrading your lifestyle by making healthy changes to your exercise, sleep, and dietary habits.

There are also a handful of foods and supplements that will raise BDNF levels.

Let’s start with the most important way of all to encourage the production of BDNF — physical exercise.

Increase BDNF With Physical Exercise

If you do only one thing to increase BDNF, it should be getting regular physical exercise.

Increasing BDNF levels via exercise can make your brain more resistant to damage from oxidative stress, injury, and disease. (28)

The hippocampus, the part of the brain most associated with learning and memory, is especially receptive to new brain cell formation brought about by exercise. (29)

The link between BDNF and exercise has been known for a long time, but researchers were excited to recently discover that exercise actually turns on the gene that sends a signal to create more BDNF. (30, 31)

A review of 29 studies that involved over 1,100 participants found that even a single session of exercise measurably elevates BDNF. (32)

And if you struggle with insomnia, exercise can also offset some of the negative impact of sleep deprivation on BDNF levels. (33)

The Best Exercises to Increase BDNF

All types of exercise are good to increase BDNF, but some kinds are better than others.

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the connection between brain health and physical exercise.

He is the author of the game-changing book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and, in fact, coined the expression that BDNF is like “Miracle-Gro for your brain.”

He is so convinced of the benefits of exercise for the brain that he makes this thought-provoking statement in his book: “Physical exercise really is for our brains. It turns our brains on.

He says that as little as 10 minutes of exercise has positive effects on your brain.

Dr. Ratey believes in varying your exercise routine and in performing sprint bursts for maximum cognitive benefit.

Here’s the exercise pattern Dr. Ratey recommends whether you are running, biking, swimming, or doing some other aerobic activity: (34)

  • Sprint as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds.
  • Slow your speed to a gentle pace for the next five minutes.
  • Sprint again.
  • Repeat for a total of five sprints.

Other forms of exercise that have been found to increase BDNF include yoga, dancing, resistance training, and high-impact running. (35, 36, 37, 38)

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Increase BDNF With Healthy Lifestyle Activities

Ideally, you should exercise regularly, but let’s be realistic, not everyone has the time, energy, or inclination.

If you are among those who don’t, there are other ways to promote BDNF formation.

Here are three ways that are not hard and you will probably find them more enjoyable than jogging!

1. Spend Time Outdoors in the Sun

It’s common knowledge that sunshine is beneficial because it triggers vitamin D synthesis.

But it’s not widely known that sun exposure also stimulates the formation of BDNF. (39)

Research confirms that taking a vitamin D supplement does not impact BDNF levels, so there’s no getting around it — if you want more BDNF you must get out in the sun. (4041)

It’s speculated that people who have the winter blues may be low in BDNF.

2. Listen to Music

It’s well known that music can lift your mood and reduce cognitive decline.

One of the mechanisms for this may be that listening to music impacts the production of BDNF. (42)

3. Spend Time With Friends and Family

The mental health benefits of spending time with people you care about are well recognized and are usually credited to the hormone oxytocin.

But it seems that another way socialization, and especially intimate relationships, might improve brain health is by raising BDNF levels. (43, 44)

Social isolation is a particular problem for the elderly whose brains could most benefit from a boost of BDNF.

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Increase BDNF With the Right Diet

If you want to optimize your BDNF level day in and day out, avoid the typical Western or standard American diet (SAD).

Diets high in sugar and saturated fat decrease BDNF. (45)

Instead, follow a Mediterranean diet.

Researchers found that following a Mediterranean diet, especially one that includes generous amounts of nuts, resulted in significantly higher BDNF levels. (46)

The Mediterranean diet is based on delicious, unprocessed high-quality foods — fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, poultry, nuts, whole grains, and legumes topped off with a little red wine.

Healthy versions of many popular ethnic cuisines such as Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian meet the requirements of a Mediterranean diet.

To further optimize BDNF, don’t eat too much since calorie restriction has been shown to increase BDNF. (47)

If you are overweight, you now have another reason to achieve a healthy weight since there’s a link between low BDNF and being overweight. (4849)

Oddly, the act of chewing promotes BDNF synthesis. (50)

So prepare foods that need chewing and skip diets that involve a lot of juicing or smoothies.

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Specific Foods That Increase BDNF

Next, let’s look at the specific foods known to increase BDNF.

These foods have one thing in common — they are high in compounds called flavonoids. (51)

Flavonoids occur naturally in plants and offer many health and cognitive benefits to humans.

Besides being potently antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, they stimulate the production of BDNF.

Foods whose flavonoids have been studied and found to increase BDNF include: (5253, 5455, 56, 57, 58)

  • black pepper
  • blueberries
  • chocolate
  • chokeberries
  • green tea
  • olive oil
  • turmeric

Prebiotics are foods that contain insoluble fibers that probiotic (good) bacteria feed on.

Interestingly, prebiotic foods have been found to promote BDNF production. (59)

Top prebiotic foods include asparagus, bamboo shoots, bananas, barley, chocolate, leeks, garlic, jicama, lentils, mustard greens, onions, and tomatoes. (6061)

Supplements That Increase BDNF

There is no BDNF supplement that you can take directly, but there are a surprising number of supplements that encourage BDNF formation.

This is a pretty long list and you certainly don’t need to take all of these.

But you may find it helpful to know if any supplements you already take are doing double duty by increasing BDNF too.

Traditional herbal remedies that have been found to work, in part, by boosting BDNF include:

  • ashwagandha (62)
  • Asian ginseng (63)
  • bacopa (64)
  • cordyceps (65)
  • gotu kola (66)
  • magnolia bark (67)
  • Rhodiola rosea (68)

BDNF-boosting supplements made from compounds that are extracted from plants include:

  • coffee fruit extract (69)
  • curcumin (70)
  • olive leaf extract (71)
  • quercetin (72)
  • resveratrol (73)

Certain core nutrients, i.e., vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids, can help increase BDNF:

  • l-theanine (74)
  • magnesium, especially magnesium l-threonate (75, 76)
  • niacin (77)
  • omega-3 essential fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) (7879)
  • taurine (80)
  • zinc (note that too much zinc can reduce BDNF) (81, 82)

There’s also one probiotic supplement, Lactobacillus plantarum, that’s been found to increase BDNF. (83)

Drugs That Increase BDNF

The most common drugs for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

It’s not fully understood how they work, but it’s generally accepted that they increase the amount of serotonin available or reduce brain inflammation.

But another potential mechanism may involve BDNF.

People with depression have low levels of BDNF and it seems that SSRIs can offset this decline. (84, 85)

How to Increase BDNF: Take the Next Step

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that encourages the formation of new brain cells and protects existing ones.

A subpar level of BDNF is linked to a long list of common mental disorders and diseases.

Fortunately, boosting BDNF doesn’t have to be complicated and is largely under your control.

Healthy lifestyle habits such as frequent physical exercise and adequate sleep, spending time outdoors, and eating a diet of unprocessed foods are key to producing more of this important brain chemical.

Additionally, there are several supplements you can try that are known to increase BDNF.

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