Forgetting your car keys or not remembering where you parked the car. Blanking on a name when making introductions. We all experience these forgetful moments. They unnerve us and maybe they even strike fear in our hearts as we wonder if something sinister could be responsible. For most people, these blips are just that. For others, the news may be less reassuring. But the positive message for all of us is that there are things we can do right now to help lower the risk of neurological problems down the road. One of the most important may be to increase our brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), to help improve brain function and lower the risk of neurodegenerative disease. How to boost yours? Start here:
What is BDNF?
A relatively new discovery, BDNF is a naturally occurring protein in the brain that helps keeps your billions of brain cells thriving and healthy. It helps grow new cells and cell pathways, while strengthening the brain and nerve cells you already have, protecting them from damage caused by stress.
Why does BDNF matter?
If you care about your healthspan – the amount of healthy life you pack into your years, BDNF matters – a lot! Maintaining high levels helps your brain age more slowly, improves learning and memory, protects you from Alzheimer’s disease, and works as a natural antidepressant with the ability to reverse chronic anxiety and depression. By keeping your BDNF levels high, you’ll help your brain stave off age-related shrinkage, fight off neurological problems – Alzheimer’s sufferers tend to have extremely low levels – and even improve your sleep. The more of it you have working for you over the course of your life, the better your brain will work for longer.
So, what robs your body of BDNF?
On the food front, BDNF-robbers include the classic dietary demons of sugar and processed foods, just in case you needed one more reason to strenuously avoid both. Sugar has long been linked with cognitive decline in humans, and animal studies have shown a direct connection with sugar consumption and reduced BDNF production – not a lot of good news there. My advice? Ditch the stuff, no exceptions. And, if you must sweeten, use a very light hand and opt for healthier alternatives like raw stevia or monkfruit.
When it comes to lifestyle habits, you can tank your BDNF levels simply by not watching out for the classic, all-too-common health-eroders: chronic stress, exhaustion, and social isolation will all take bites out of your BDNF. Unwinding with cannabis or cocktails? You might want to dial those two down a good bit too. Though THC can boost BDNF levels in occasional cannabis users, low BDNF levels are common in both habitual cannabis smokers and heavy drinkers.
Got inflammation? Wrestling with obesity and metabolic issues? They’re all associated not only with poor overall health but also with lower BDNF levels, so get to work on turning those around too – preferably, as soon as possible.
What can I do to increase BDNF?
BDNF is stimulated by any number of the positive habits and lifestyle tweaks I recommend to my patients every day, including:
- Frequent movement – throughout the day, even just a few minutes at a time if that’s all you can spare, but shoot for at least 30 minutes a day, and check out my 10 move more tips for easy ways to weave more movement into your day
- A regular meditation practice – while stress decreases BDNF, meditation helps increase it, while helping you center and calm your mind
- A simple yoga practice – making time to de-stress regularly is essential to keeping BDNF levels high – and yoga is an excellent stress-busting way to top off your BDNF tank
- Plenty of quality rest – better sleep, particularly deep sleep, equals more BDNF release, so work on getting your sleep habits into a restful, 7-8 hours nightly, restorative groove. To re-train yourself to sleep like a baby, try my 11 ways to win at sleep
- Intermittent fasting – or shortening your daily eating window – as in, eating breakfast late and dinner early, vs. all-day grazing – helps give your body time to rest and repair, as well as tame inflammation which left untamed can decrease BDNF levels big time. To begin an intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating routine, try these how-to tips
- Social connection – social isolation is a sure-fire route to loneliness, depression, and anxiety, all of which suppress BDNF. Challenging as it may be to connect with others these days, making the effort pays big BDNF dividends for your brain. To re-socialize yourself, check out my tips on how to engage and deepen bonds with others in spite of the current limitations – your long-term brain health depends on it!
- Responsible sun exposure – as in, a little regular time in the sun, exposing your skin but stopping before you turn pink, and absolutely no burning. To do it right, try these sensible sunshine exposure tips
Another no-brainer, super easy-to-incorporate way to boost your BDNF? Drink a daily cup or two of green tea, ideally, one that’s certified organic, non-GMO, and third party tested for heavy metals like lead. Though China is among the world’s largest producers, in general, many of the best, healthiest green teas hail from Japan and Sri Lanka.
Are there foods that can help increase BDNF?
You can also help stimulate BDNF with a number of tasty foods, beverages, and spices. Among my favorite, always-in-the-pantry BDNF-boosting big guns that everyone should stock the larder with:
- Almonds – raw, unroasted, unblanched organic almonds are rich in polyphenols, which are great for BDNF levels
- Avocados –rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, creamy and delicious too!
- Berries –organic red raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries
- Blueberries – particularly wild blueberries, and always organic
- Coffee – but to increase BDNF, be sure to choose your brew wisely, looking for certified organic, non-GMO, sustainably farmed, and/or shade grown, Fair Trade and free of toxins, pesticides, and heavy metals
- Eggs – look for pasture-raised eggs from healthy animals for the most omega-3 and the biggest BDNF boost
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) – ideally, cold pressed and stored in dark bottles. (For EVOO buying tips, click here.)
- Extra Dark Chocolate – while 70% or above is great, going even higher to 90 or 100% is even better when it comes to boosting benefits
- Fish – particularly the ones known as wild caught ‘fatty fish,’ as in anchovies, herring, salmon and sardines, which are loaded with omega-3s which helps boost BDNF
- Green tea – as mentioned above
- Olives – a pretty close-to-perfect food that’s rich in polyphenols, which is good news for your BDNF levels. To buy the best, check out my buy-like-a-pro tips
- Turmeric – loaded with BDNF-boosting polyphenols, and even more powerful when teamed with a bit of fat and black pepper.
In short, whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in polyphenols will help keep your BDNF levels high. If you’re paying attention to eating right, you’re already getting a fair number of them. My advice, keep up the good work, but expand your repertoire and don’t get stuck eating the same five things all the time. Keep changing it up, branching out to get the widest variety of polys on your plate to amp up your BDNF game.
Can supplements boost BDNF?
You can also stimulate BDNF with certain supplements. One is coffee fruit extract, which is made from the berry of the coffee plant. It delivers not only polyphenols (antioxidant-rich micronutrients) but also a brain-supporting chemical called procyanidin. Other supplements, such as curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids (which you can get by taking fish oil), resveratrol and magnesium will also help boost BDNF.
Boost BDNF right now – with your feet.
If you do nothing else, remember this: you can make your brain bigger and stronger, and lower the risk of memory loss simply by walking more. Turns out, when we walk, our brains actually release BDNF – often referred to as Miracle Gro for the brain. So, lace up your walking shoes and reap the benefits! When you’re ready to take things a step further, add some resistance training and high-intensity interval training for an extra BDNF boost.