What is BDNF?
BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor and it’s a protein that acts on neurons in your central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. It’s best to think of BDNF as “fertilizer for your brain.” BDNF helps your brain develop new connections (synapses), repair damaged brain cells, protect healthy brain cells, and even helps develop new brain cells.
In other words, BDNF protects and enhances your brain. When you have high BDNF levels, your memory improves, it’s easier to learn new things, and it even makes you happier. The reverse is also true. When you have low BDNF levels, you have trouble learning new things, retaining memories, and you might feel more depressed.
Your BDNF levels naturally drop as you age. And about 1 in 3 Americans have a gene mutation in the coding for BDNF where their levels drop more rapidly than normal with age.
In this guide, we’ll look at the other benefits having high levels of BDNF have on your health, the top 10 ways to boost your BDNF levels, and 3 ways you’re blocking your BDNF levels.
Benefits of BDNF
There are many benefits of BDNF in regards to your health and wellbeing.
1. Increases brain plasticity
Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is one of the most important functions of your brain. It’s the ability for your brain to modify connections and rewire itself. Without brain plasticity, your brain would be unable to develop from infancy to adulthood or recover from brain injuries.
When you face stressful situations or your brain cells get damaged, BDNF protects them and helps them come back even stronger than they were.
2. Critical for a healthy heart
BDNF isn’t just important for your brain, but it’s critical for your heart too. BDNF is required for your heart to fully contract and relax.
A study from John Hopkins University (1) genetically created a mouse that didn’t have BDNF receptors on its heart. They found that the mice without the BDNF receptors on their heart quickly developed heart failure. Since heart failure is common in elderly people, researchers wonder if heart failure could be due to declining levels of BDNF as we age.
Also, depression is a common cause of heart failure, which reinforces the idea that BDNF is important for your heart health. Which leads me into my next benefit of high BDNF levels…
3. Eases depression
4. May improve sleep
There is a link between insomnia and depression. Which led researchers to speculate the relationship between BDNF and sleep. A study found(4) that BDNF levels influence sleep patterns in individuals with depression. Following, they postulate that increasing BDNF may improve sleep quality — especially in depressed people.
5. Protects against neurodegenerative diseases
Current research suggests that high levels of BDNF can protect you from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease(5). Another study followed participants for 10 years and found that each standard-deviation increment in BDNF was associated with a 33% lower risk for dementia and AD(6).
Also, researchers speculate that BDNF could be a key regulator for your lifespan since some studies showed a correlation between BDNF levels and lifespan(7). But this needs to be researched in more depth.
Top 10 Ways To Boost BDNF
Now that you have a better understanding about how important BDNF is to your overall health, let’s look at the top 10 ways to boost your BDNF levels.
1. Aerobic and endurance exercise
Research shows that aerobic and endurance exercises significantly boost BDNF in your brain(8). The reason why aerobic and endurance exercises work so well is because you need a dramatic change in your blood flow to create BDNF.
Weight training also creates this dramatic change in your blood flow, but it stimulates production of growth factors in your muscles, and it stays in your muscles rather than getting transported to your brain.
The best way to stimulate BDNF through aerobic and endurance exercises is to fit in a 20 to 45 minute jog, bike ride, or other aerobic activities such as dancing. Also, it’s important not to push yourself too hard because you will release more cortisol, which has been shown to reduce BDNF.
2. Intermittent Fasting
I’m a huge fan of intermittent fasting as a tactical way to aid in weight loss. But intermittent fasting looks also promising for boosting your levels of BDNF(9).
Intermittent fasting is where you fast for part of the day, usually between 12-18 hours leaving a 6 to 12 hour “feeding window.”
Intermittent fasting is easier than you probably think — especially if you don’t overcomplicate it. Even 12 hours of fasting each day can improve your levels of BDNF. And 12 hours is simple — you only have to avoid eating late-night snacks and wait until breakfast the next morning. If you do try intermittent fasting, I would try to work your way up to 16 hours of fasting with an 8 hour eating window, but listen to your body and do what’s best.
3. Ketogenic diet
I’m also a big proponent of the ketogenic diet for promoting a healthy lifestyle. When your body enters ketosis (either from fasting or following the ketogenic diet), your BDNF levels increase(10).
4. Meditation and other forms of mental stimulation
Try making meditation and yoga a daily habit by spending 10-30 minutes each. Or you can do other mentally stimulating activities such as Sudoku. Or you can try searching the app store on your phone for “brain exercise games.”
5. Get more sunlight or infrared light
Sunlight is the best natural way to boost your BDNF levels(13). It’s best to spend at least 15 minutes per day in direct sunlight. If you can’t do that, supplementing with Vitamin D is another great way to boost BDNF because low Vitamin D levels is associated with both obesity and depression(14).
Another great way to boost your BDNF is with infrared lights, such as an infrared sauna session.
6. Deep sleep
Your body produces BDNF during deep sleep — which happens during stages 3 and 4 of sleep, where you get deep, restorative sleep(15). Your body goes through 4 stages of sleep roughly every 90 minutes. So try to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, to maximize how much BDNF your body produces during deep sleep cycles.
7. White noise machines
White noise is often recommended for sleeping difficulties and disorders, such as insomnia. Since BDNF is produced during deep sleep, white noise machines can aid in your body’s production of BDNF(16).
8. Other nutrition hacks
We already covered how intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet aid in BDNF production. But there are a few other nutrition hacks to boost your BDNF levels:
Polyphenols are micronutrients that are packed with antioxidants that stimulate BDNF and help ward off stress(17). The best types of polyphenols include coffee, green tea, dark chocolate, blueberries, colorful veggies, and curry and turmeric.
2. Oily fish
A diet high in omega-3’s can improve your BDNF levels and boost overall brain function(18). The best way to get your omega-3’s is by eating a diet high in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and trout (to name a few).
Or if you don’t like fish or can’t get enough omega-3’s from eating oily fish, you can always supplement with fish oil supplements. Find the one I recommend here.
Hypoxia, or the practice of depriving your brain from oxygen for a short period of time, can boost your BDNF levels(19). The best way to do this is with deep breathing exercises, such as the Wim Hof breathing method.
The Wim Hof breathing method is the practice of taking 30 quick, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then, you take a deep breath and hold it for as long as possible. After, you inhale as deep as you can and hold it for 10 seconds. You can repeat this method as much as you’d like.
10. Taking Nootropics
Nootropics are supplements designed to improve cognitive function, such as memory, creativity, and motivation. Nootropics are usually made with a combination of neuro-vitamins, antioxidants, adaptogens, and amino acids.
But all nootropics aren’t the same!
My personal favorite nootropic is Qualia Mind by Neurohacker Collective. You can order them here!
And there you have it — the top 10 hacks to boost your BDNF levels. Now, let’s discuss the 3 biggest blockers of BDNF.
The 3 biggest blockers of BDNF
Just like there are certain things that will boost your BDNF production, there are certain things that will block BDNF production. Try to avoid these 3 things as much as possible.
Stress and BDNF are mortal enemies. The higher your stress levels, the lower amount of BDNF your body produces(20).
Try to reduce your amount of daily stress by eliminating known stressors from your life, practicing mediation, yoga, and being mindful.
2. Sugar and processed foods
The Standard American Diet is full of sugar and processed foods. In a study, rats were fed the Standard American Diet and had lower levels of BDNF(21).
If you need help avoiding sugar and processed foods — or need a nutritionist in your corner to help create a healthy diet for you, sign up for my Clean Keto Slimdown or book an initial consultation with me here.
3. Social isolation
Social isolation can actually lower your levels of BDNF. Close nurturing relationships either with friends or family have been shown to boost your BDNF levels in your body(22). Spending time with people you love is also a great way to reduce stress.
So don’t forget to make time for your friends and family 🙂