Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) encourages the formation of new brain cells and protects existing ones.
Until fairly recently, it was erroneously believed 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. (1)
It gets its name from “neuro” (of the nervous system) and “trophic” (growth-promoting).
But BDNF does much more than cause new brain cells to grow, it 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 neurodegenerative diseases. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
There’s evidence that it may even control lifespan. (7)
It’s easy to see the value of maintaining optimal levels of BDNF.
Now let’s take a look at exactly how you can do that.
Causes of Low BDNF
A low level of BDNF has been linked to a wide range of brain-related conditions including anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, dementia, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout syndrome, and suicidal behavior. (10, 11, 12)
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.
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.
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 it doesn’t.
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, make it physical exercise.
Increasing BDNF levels via exercise can make your brain more resistant to damage from oxidative stress, injury, and disease. (28)
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 Dr. John Ratey 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 “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.”
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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. (34)
Here’s the exercise pattern he recommends whether you are running, biking, swimming, or doing some other aerobic activity: (35)
- 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.
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How to Increase BDNF Through 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.
One of the main reasons sunshine is considered beneficial is for its role in vitamin D synthesis, but this is not the case with BDNF.
There’s no fooling mother nature, if you want more BDNF you must get out in the sun.
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. (44)
#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.
Social isolation is a particular problem for the elderly whose brains could most benefit from a boost of BDNF.
Increasing BDNF with Your Diet
If you want to add to your BDNF level day in and day out, follow a Mediterranean diet. (47)
When diets and eating plans are compared, the Mediterranean diet almost always comes out on top and is widely regarded as the healthiest way to eat.
It 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 like Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian meet the requirements of a Mediterranean diet.
But if you want to optimize BDNF, don’t eat too much even if you are eating healthy foods since calorie restriction has been shown to increase BDNF. (48)
And by all means avoid the typical Western or standard American diet (SAD).
Diets high in sugar and saturated fat decrease BDNF. (51)
If you are overweight, you now have another reason to achieve a healthy weight.
Oddly, the act of chewing promotes BDNF synthesis. (54)
So prepare foods that you need to chew and skip diets that involve a lot of juicing or smoothies.
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. (55)
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.
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Foods whose flavonoids have been studied and found to increase BDNF include blueberries, chokeberries, chocolate, green tea, and olive oil, and the spices black pepper and turmeric. (56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62)
Prebiotics are foods that contain insoluble fibers that probiotic (good) bacteria feed on.
Interestingly, prebiotic foods have been found to promote BDNF production. (63)
Supplements That Increase BDNF
There is no BDNF supplement or pill for you to take.
But there are a surprising number of supplements that encourage BDNF creation.
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 (66)
- Asian ginseng (67)
- bacopa (68)
- cordyceps (69)
- gotu kola (70)
- Magnolia officinalis (71)
- Rhodiola rosea (72)
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BDNF-boosting supplements made from compounds that are extracted from plants include:
Certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids also help increase BDNF:
- omega-3 essential fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) (78, 79)
- l-theanine (80)
- niacin (81)
- magnesium, especially magnesium l-threonate (82, 83)
- taurine (84)
- zinc (note that too much zinc can reduce BDNF) (85)
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There’s also one probiotic supplement, Lactobacillus plantarum, that’s been found to increase BDNF. (86)
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.
How to Increase BDNF: The Bottom Line
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.
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 many specific foods and supplements that you can include in your diet that are known to increase BDNF.
Fortunately, boosting BDNF doesn’t have to be complicated and is largely under your control.
Take a look at this short and informative video by Tony Dearing, a journalist who writes a brain health column for NJ.com and has a website, GoCogno.com, especially for people with mild cognitive impairment.
It sums up the three best ways to increase BDNF, especially for the elderly or anyone experiencing cognitive decline.