BDNF, Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor – if you could bottle it, you’d drink it all day!  It’s been described as “Miracle-Gro for you brain” by Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey.  BDNF is a key protein that belongs to the family of neurotrophin growth factors.  These substances are necessary to support and nurture new neural pathways and repair damaged or injured nerves.  Found throughout the body, its production is most concentrated in the brain, especially the areas associated with long-term memory, learning and higher thinking.   

Here’s what the studies are showing about BDNF: 

  • Levels of BDNF are reduced in those with Alzheimers, Parkinsons, ALS and other chronic neurodegenerative illnesses

  • Levels are also reduced in overweight and obese individuals as well as underweight, anorexic women

  • Lower levels of BDNF are associated with depression

  • Low levels of BDNF can have adverse effects on heart health

  • BDNF helps to suppress appetite

  • Higher levels of BDNF result in easier learning, better memory and improved mood

  • BDNF levels are known to increase with mental and physical stimulation

  • There’s a connection between sleep, BDNF and your circadian rhythm

  • Exercise results in higher levels of BDNF compared to those with sedentary practices (see below to learn what type of exercise is best….)

Pretty amazing isn’t it that we have the ability to grow a healthier brain and that we can produce new neural networks that allow us to create new thoughts, memories and skills as well as impact our mood, sleep/rest cycle and possibly even heart health?   And, given the current research, it’s pretty clear that we would all want to max out on our BDNF levels, right?  What’s especially exciting to me is that it doesn’t require any equipment or special devices.  And while certain supplements can help, it really is more in the domain of our daily lifestyle choices that can make the difference as far as BDNF production is concerned.   

So, here you go.  The top 10 ways to increase your BDNF production: 

  1. Get moving!
    Studies are showing that the absolutely best way to stimulate your BDNF production is with regular exercise. Any and all types of movement are beneficial but if your primary exercise goal is to max out your BDNF levels then you’ll have to exercise vigorously (80% of heart rate reserve) for 30-40 minutes at a time.

  2. Avoid sugar, processed foods and HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) 
    Many studies have now shown that rats fed the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is high in sugar, bad fats, and HFCS, have lower levels of BDNF.  Even though we frequently can’t translate the results of animal studies to humans, we do know enough about the negative impact of these non-nutritive substances and should be suspect that they may affect our brains in a similar fashion. 

  3. Intermittent Fasting
    Both caloric restriction (eating fewer calories per day) and intermittent fasting (also known as timed eating)) have been shown to support BDNF production by significant amounts.  Before you panic, know that intermittent fasting is not the same as caloric restriction.  Think of intermittent fasting as “timed eating”, not caloric restriction.  You still get in the appropriate number of calories for the day but within a specific “eating” window.  Many of the benefits of IF are the result of neurobiological influences, specifically related to upregulation of BDNF.

  4. Mental stimulation
    Challenging your brain with new tasks or skills will increase BDNF production because of BDNF’s role in memory and learning.  It can be as simple as playing brain games, like those found in Brain HQ, or learning a new skill (cooking, knitting, playing an instrument, learning a language).   Doing anything that is different or challenging can qualify as mental stimulation. 

  5. Feed your brain some oily fish
    Research working with brain trauma has shown that brain recovery via normalizing BDNF levels after trauma was enhanced with the addition of the Omega 3 EFAs.  While there are many sources of Omega 3 EFAs, it was specifically the EPA and DHA oils from cold-water, oily fish that were most beneficial.  There are several ways to increase your daily intake of EPA/DHA fish oils through your dietary choices as well as supplementation if you’re not a big fan of the EPA/DHA-rich fish. (Read my guide on selecting the best supplement here.)  

  6. Hang out with loved ones
    Meaningful social interaction that requires attention and mutuality stimulates BDNF production.  This has huge ramifications in terms of those dealing with social isolation as well as the growing addiction to superficial social interaction found with texting, tweeting and other forms of social media.  The mechanisms by which social interaction stimulates BDNF are not fully understood yet but the evidence is clear – real relationships with real people in an atmosphere of trust and respect are key. 

  7. Get out in the sun
    BDNF has been shown to increase significantly after bright light exposure.  It has also been found to increase in spring and summer, and decrease in fall and winter.  Could this have ramifications for seasonal affective disorder and depression?   In a recent study, the administration of vitamin D to obese rats diminished biomarkers of brain inflammation and raised BDNF levels.  If you are sun-phobic, avoid direct exposure for 1 hour on either side of noon when the ultraviolet rays are at their strongest. 

  8. Color for your palate and your plate
    Eating a minimum of 5 servings of those colorful veggies and fruits every day goes a long way to enhancing your antioxidant status and preserving brain function by mopping up the free radicals that can damage neurons.  And it’s no surprise that having plenty of BDNF around helps to activate those antioxidant enzymes.   A particular group of plant-based chemicals called polyphenols have been found to be particularly beneficial in preventing several neurodegenerative conditions as a result of their effect on BDNF.  Examples of polyphenols with highest phenolic content are the dark blue, purple and red berries (blueberries, cherries, blackberries, black currant), black grapes, coffee, and green tea. 

  9. Improve your stress resilience
    Excessive and constant stress actually changes how well our brain can respond to the hormonal signaling needed to recover from those stressors.  One of the mechanisms responsible for this is the downregulation of BDNF.  Regular use of stress-busting techniques can help break this cycle.  If you have techniques that have worked for you in the past, then make regular use of them.  Otherwise, explore the therapeutic effects of effective techniques like 4-7-8 breathing (downloadable doc), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or HeartMath.  

  10. Sleep, sleep, sleep
    Closely connected to improving your stress resilience is the ability to get a good night’s sleep.  Several studies are illuminating the connection between sleep disturbances like insomnia and low levels of BDNF.  Following sleep hygiene practices can help ensure a more restful and complete sleep.  By turning off all devices at least an hour before bedtime and enjoying your own bedtime rituals you can support your nervous system switching gears and getting ready for sleep.