What is BDNF?
BDNF or brain derived neurotrophic factor is a very important “brain growth protein” (neurotrophin) that improves brain and nervous system function. Other neurotrophins have been identified but as far as research shows BDNF is more important than all others combined. Researchers have proved the brain continues to reorganize and renew itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This has been termed “neuroplasticity,” with the growth of new neurons from neural stem cells (neurogenesis) contributing to the equation. If you’re seeking brain-boosting benefits, uncover the natural ways to increase BDNF.
BDNF Influences Your Health
BDNF influences a variety of neural health functions including preventing the death of existing brain cells, inducing the enhancement of neurogenesis and neural connections (synapses), and supporting cognitive function.
BDNF’s role in neuroplasticity allows brain neurons to compensate for injury, new situations or changes in the environment.
In the brain, BDNF is active in the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus (memory storage center), and the forebrain—areas crucial to memory, learning, and levels of higher thinking.
Low levels of BDNF have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Huntington’s Disease in the category of neurodegenerative disorders.
However, BDNF has other functions besides helping your brain. Low levels of BDNF are associated with a variety of problems including accelerated aging, depression, schizophrenia and even obesity. Indeed, low BDNF makes you fat! Boosting BDNF has also been shown to help re-establish poor circadian rhythms to help with sleep.
To prevent health issues, let’s discuss how to naturally increase BDNF.
1. Behaviors to Increase BDNF
There are various methods to increase BDNF and therefore neurogenesis (which I’ll discuss further in the article).
People who don’t do sufficient exercise have a decreased amount of BDNF. Consistency is important; exercising intermittently will not make a difference in your BDNF level. There are far more benefits associated with exercise, but brain health is one. The least time-consuming way to reap all the benefits of exercise is through high intensity interval training. Here is the best way to do HIIT.
HIIT is the best form of cardiovascular training for mitochondrial health. Do this 5x per week (and remember it is very brief!) Since there are many mitochondria in the heart and brain, this is good for those organs, too. This hard, full-out exercise lasts only 3 minutes so you can do this on “regular cardio” days. However, don’t substitute HIIT for cardio unless you are super-pressed for time. I’ll admit, it happens on my schedule, too. Why can’t we just substitute HIIT for cardio?
To raise BDNF and reap other exercise benefits, you need cardio at the pace you’re used to or slower. For example, walk your dog for 30 minutes per day.
You can then fit in weight training in a couple of ways. If time is a true premium, you can do a “band workout” or a calisthenic workout at home, doing it at HIIT intensity; thus making 2-3 of your HIIT sessions your weight training sessions.
When I’m short on time (meaning just about always), I do this! Trips to the gym are more of a luxury.
Always do your weight training before your cardio for full muscle-building benefits. Of course, if you love your step, spin or “whatever” class, do it!
Intermittent Fasting or Caloric Restriction
Reducing your total daily caloric intake or adding intermittent fasting into your routine will increase levels of BDNF in the brain. When this occurs, you’ll notice an improvement in brain health, blood sugar levels, and even cardiovascular functioning. The best part of this practice if you can’t find time to exercise is you can still elevate BDNF levels as high as if you had done an aerobic exercise. This increase in BDNF (same as the increase with exercise) is not immediate. This is also not a cue to substitute either practice for exercise.
A diet high in a combination of saturated fat and refined sugar has been shown to decrease all neurotrophins including BDNF. It is imperative for overall health and brain health that you cut out refined sugar and eat only “good” saturated fats. In fact, several recent studies confirm a nutritional ketosis diet will increase your BDNF better than a Mediterranean or Paleo Diet.
Your body and your brain both undergo metabolic changes when you are overweight. BDNF has been demonstrated to drop when individuals have a high body weight or are obese. Conversely, it has been shown that by decreasing your weight, you’ll increase your BDNF. In turn, it will help you from re-gaining the weight if you practice BDNF-amping measures as described in this article.
In our modern, indoors-or-sunblocked world, sunlight exposure is decreasing. As a result, we are absorbing less vitamin D in our bodies. However, it is just impossible—given the new guidelines—to achieve healthy levels of vitamin D with sunlight. To get enough sun exposure to raise your Vitamin D to adequate levels (55-80 ng/ml), you are endangering your skin. However, the real secret to sunlight is just sunlight! Sunlight exposure (independent of vitamin D levels) has been demonstrated to improve mood, mitochondrial function, and levels of BDNF. In fact, just 10 minutes per day will do the trick.
As an Anti-aging doctor in sunny Florida, I’ve yet to find a patient who does not need Vitamin D supplementation. We all think the “sun is enough,” but it isn’t. Inadequate Vitamin D plunges BDNF levels down within months.
In clinical studies, both acute and chronic stress decrease BDNF in the rat hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Human studies demonstrate people under massive stress manufacture less BDNF. These drops in BDNF follow (naturally) the measured increases in cortisol. Try my “quick hot water trick” to relieve stress throughout the day. Go to the restroom, warm up the hand-washing water to “hot,” and hold your hands under the flowing water while you relax and breathe consciously for 5 breaths. By following this practice, you counteract the physiology of stress; when you get cold, clammy hands.
Get Great Sleep
In clinical studies, people suffering from all types of insomnia have lower BDNF levels compared with well-slept controls. Note that high stress and poor sleep often go hand-in-hand.
Thermal stress means you are either getting your body colder than is entirely comfortable or hotter than entirely comfortable. Cold stress has been studied using ice packs, ice baths, cryotherapy (in a tank) and cold showers. Heat stress has been studied mainly with the use of regular or far-infrared saunas.
Both types of thermal stress are beneficial for mitochondrial health which means thermal stress is good for your brain. Ice baths and other types of cold stress have been shown to increase BDNF. Saunas can also increase BDNF. Switching from hot to cold and back again several times has been shown to be beneficial to mitochondria but hasn’t been studied (yet) for BDNF. My guess is doing so will indeed increase your BDNF—What’s your opinion?
When we speak of social enrichment for people, we are talking about putting them in appropriate social pairings and social groups for maximal positive mental stimulation and support. Social enrichment for adults and children helps maintain as well as increase levels of BDNF. The concept of social enrichment was initially studied in animal populations.
A socially-enriched environment is not only beneficial for humans but animals, too. As an example, rodents placed in a stimulating and “rich” social environment all have lifelong increases in levels of BDNF as well as less anxiety, depression and short-term memory loss.
A highly stimulating early (young age) social environment in animals increases BDNF. I’m almost positive that all of the recommendations for crossword puzzles came from mice studies, in which higher levels of exploratory behavior lead to higher levels of BDNF. The exploratory behavior was linked to novelty which in humans was associated with mental or physical novelty and stimulation. How this turned into the “do crossword puzzles” recommendation, I just don’t know! However, recent studies have actually debunked the “crossword puzzle” myth. The acquisition of new skills or knowledge does stimulate BDNF production. So, as long as you’re living, keep learning.
2. Foods to increase BDNF
Although the role that “bad foods” such as highly processed, sugary, or GMO foods have in hurting your brain is well studied, there is a paucity of studies looking at foods that actually help your brain; specifically BDNF production. The best evidence for BDNF elevation is present in blue-purple fruits (blueberries and blackberries) and cocoa flavanols. Omega-3 fish oils (which will be covered under supplements) also elevate BDNF as part of their brain-healthy functions.
3. Drugs to Increase BDNF—Wait, What?
Some pharmaceuticals can raise BDNF levels. However, the long-term use of the drugs might be problematic. Note: I do NOT support the use of pharmaceuticals as nootropics to raise BDNF. I’ll reveal the mechanism of action in one class of drugs because there is a natural alternative.
Selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), known as anti-depressant drugs, work by elevating serotonin levels. Serotonin is one of the “happy neurotransmitters” necessary to stay calm and happy. SSRI’s also increase BDNF levels; a factor that wasn’t firmly linked to serotonin levels until recently. Now we know higher serotonin levels translates to higher BDNF levels. For this reason, I encourage supplementation.
A healthy alternative for increasing serotonin (if you are not on other anti-depressants and don’t have bipolar illness) is to take the building block, 5-OH tryptophan. The dosage for most 5-HTP 200 mg supplements is 2-3x daily. At night, supplementation helps sleep initiation and maintenance with dosing as tolerated by the GI tract. The nighttime dose tends to be 400-1200 mg.
4. Hormones to increase BDNF
DHEA makes the list of what you should supplement with as you age. In addition, It’s on the best brain supplements list. DHEA helps us to sprout new neural stem cells (neurogenesis) and improve our memory. We’re now also approaching surety about its role in helping us increase BDNF. Consider its anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, metabolism-boosting (keto form) and brain-boosting effects, and there’s really no argument about whether or not to use it for supplementation.
Progesterone deficiency causes anxiety, sleep disturbances, and mood disturbances. It also decreases BDNF. Enough said? Estrogen deficiency can cause a whole host of symptoms including belly fat and accelerated heart disease. Bioidentical hormone replacement should always be orchestrated by a hormone expert; not your family doctor. Lastly, a recent discovery reveals the anti-oxidant and stem-cell-sprouting hormone, melatonin, increases BDNF production as well.
5. Supplements to Increase BDNF
Curcumin is proven (in numerous studies) to increase BDNF production within the brains’ memory center—the hippocampus. In animal studies, this increase in BDNF was correlated with both improved cognitive functioning as well as anti-depressant effects.
The “active ingredient” in green tea is EGCG. EGCG both improves mental focus and increase levels of BDNF. Drinking loose leaf organic green tea (not teabag tea) or using an EGCG supplement will increase BDNF production.
The polyphenols in coffee have recently been demonstrated to boost BDNF levels. The effect is greatly dampened if milk products are added to the coffee; try additive free nut milk. My favorite nut milk (because I think it’s the creamiest) is cashew milk.
Many types of magnesium will help elevate the levels of this important mineral that is clinically deficient in about 80% of the population. However, magnesium threonate is the only form of magnesium that will penetrate the blood-brain barrier. In clinical studies, the elevation of magnesium levels in the brain increases levels of BDNF.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
I encourage you to eat healthy mercury-free wild salmon. However, you just can’t eat enough to get the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the right combination that you need for optimal health. It is the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) versus the EPA in omega-3 fat that is responsible for increasing levels of BDNF. Supplementation should be a certified mercury-free omega-3 supplement with a minimum ratio of 3:1 for DHA to EPA.
Resveratrol is one of my favorite supplements; especially now that we know, it augments the SIRT1 pathway to lower blood sugar and help you lose weight. Resveratrol benefits the nervous system in several ways. It has been studied for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease) as well as aging. Research demonstrates resveratrol supplementation (not wine-drinking) increases levels of BDNF.
This amino acid lowers blood sugar and cholesterol. It helps build muscle mass. It also helps our mitochondria to regenerate. It’s been shown to increase levels of BDNF in several clinical studies. (Another favorite!)
Although the “big fuss” is about sunshine, remember you cannot sun yourself up to an adequate level of vitamin D. If you think you can “dairy up,” the amount of dairy needed would cause too much casein ingestion and insulin release. Measure your vitamin D level and then raise it to 55-80 ng/ml. Most people require 4000-8000 IU’s of vitamin D (with vitamin K for absorption) per day.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is the precursor to the powerful antioxidant glutathione; it probably augments BDNF production because of increasing glutathione levels. Further, sound evidence is emerging for bacopa and ginseng. Early evidence is emerging for the usefulness of the glutamate-blocker, theanine, and the adrenal adaptogen, rhodiola. Lastly, although GPC is my go-to brain supplement, as of late, there’s no proof it stimulates BDNF.
A double-blind, RCT testing beneficial modulation of BDNF in middle-aged, life style-stressed subjects: a clue to brain protection?
Early social enrichment shapes social behavior and nerve growth factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in the adult mouse brain.
Dietary Levels of Pure Flavonoids Improve Spatial Memory Performance and Increase Hippocampal Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
A Markham, R Bains, P Franklin, and M Spedding
Neural Regen Res. 2016 Sep; 11(9): 1471–1479.
De-guo Jiang,1,# Shi-li Jin,2,# Gong-ying Li,2,3,# Qing-qing Li,3 Zhi-ruo Li,2 Hong-xia Ma,3 Chuan-jun Zhuo,1,3,4,* Rong-huan Jiang, M.D.,5,* and Min-jie Ye, Ph.D.6
Adv Pharmacol Sci. 2013; 2013: 506191.
Dehydroepiandrosterone Stimulates Nerve Growth Factor and Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Cortical Neurons
Anahita Rahmani, Alireza Shoae-Hassani, Peyman Keyhanvar, Danial Kheradmand, and Amir Darbandi-Azar