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8 Ways To Increase BDNF Levels (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)

BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is considered an important protein that influences brain function as well as the peripheral nervous system. BDNF influences a variety of functions including: preventing death of existing brain cells, inducing the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and synapses, and supporting cognitive function. Low levels of BDNF are often problematic and have been linked to: Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, poor neural development, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, and even schizophrenia.

BDNF is one of many neurotrophins in the brain that helps stimulate as well as manage the process of neurogenesis. Although there are a variety of neurotrophins at work in the brain, BDNF is regarded as being among the most active as well as universally important. Therefore maintaining satisfactory levels of BDNF results in optimal neurotransmission and potentially prevents a myriad of physical as well as mental diseases.

How To Increase BDNF (Brain-Derived Neutrophic Factor)

If you suspect that you may have low levels of BDNF and/or want to increase your current levels, there are some specific ways this can be done.  It should also be noted that many methods that increase BDNF simultaneously increase neurogenesis.

1. Intense Exercise

If you don’t exercise much, your brain may not be producing sufficient BDNF. To increase it, you’ll want to engage in an intense exercise; the greater the intensity, the more likely BDNF production will increase. It has also been suggested that the more frequently you engage in high intensity exercise, the greater the production.

Exercising just one day at a high intensity may have an effect, but to reap the benefits, you’ll want to make it fairly consistent. By engaging in intense exercise to increase your BDNF levels, you’ll simultaneously reap the benefits associated with neurogenesis or the growth of new brain cells. Realize that there are many psychological benefits of exercise on the brain besides just increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

Most specifically, aerobic exercise within the 60% to 75% of your max heart rate should be maintained for approximately 30 minutes. Don’t expect a huge boost in BDNF after just one gym session. Some hypothesize that it may take up to a few months before you’ll experience a noticeable increase. Don’t think of BDNF like “endorphins” from exercise – think of it as a protein that increases after months of consistent effort.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21282661
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21722657

2. Intermittent Fasting or Caloric Restriction

In recent years studies have demonstrated that engaging in intermittent fasting and/or caloric restriction can likely increase a person’s lifespan and general health. One way intermittent fasting and caloric restriction help is by increasing the amount of BDNF signaling within the brain. An increase in BDNF signaling has been shown to improve cardiovascular functioning, brain health, as well as regulate glucose levels.

The mechanism by which reducing calories or fasting are able to elevate BDNF is thought to be similar to that of intense aerobic exercise. If you want to raise your BDNF levels without hitting the gym frequently, you may want to consider cutting back on the food and/or taking up a fasting protocol. Understand that intermittent fasting and caloric restriction probably won’t elevate BDNF immediately – it’s going to take some consistent effort for you to get results.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16011467
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15741046

3. Dietary modifications

One way you could be sabotaging your efforts to increase BDNF is by eating a diet high in both refined sugar and saturated fat. Research has demonstrated that both high levels of refined sugar and saturated fat can produce structural changes in the brain, particularly via neurotrophins like BDNF. Those that are on a high saturated fat and refined sugar diet tend to demonstrate noticeable reductions in both spatial learning and hippocampal functioning.

  • Cut refined sugar: It’s difficult for most people to give up refined sugar due to the fact that it is addictive. Many people have reported severe sugar withdrawal symptoms, suggesting that it is likely a good idea to gradually wean yourself off of sugar rather than quitting cold turkey.
  • Cut saturated fat: This is a type of fat that contains triglycerides with only saturated fatty acids. Foods with high saturated fats include: cheese, fatty meats, lard, and butter. While healthy fats may improve certain measures of health, there appears to be a negative effect from saturated fat on BDNF.

It appears as though it takes some time for a good or bad diet to affect BDNF. Studies suggest that it can take roughly 2 months before levels increase or decrease in response to diet. Not only was cognitive performance impaired as a result of high refined sugar and saturated fat, but synaptic plasticity and neurotransmitter levels took a plunge.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12088740

4. Sunlight (Vitamin D)

Another way you may be able to increase BDNF is by getting sufficient sunlight, which your body converts to Vitamin D. Adequate sunlight exposure is the single most efficient way to increase your level of Vitamin D. One study demonstrated that different seasons tend to have different effects on BDNF due to differences in ambient sunlight intake.

In an analysis of 2,851 individuals in the Netherlands, it was found that serum concentrations of BDNF increased in the spring and summer and decreased in the fall and winter. This significance in decrease was established among both males and females and upon further analysis, researchers discovered that serum BDNF levels were related to the number of hours a person was exposed to sunshine.

Year-long exposure to sufficient sunlight is thought to keep concentrations of BDNF high. However, those who do not get sunlight throughout the year may experience a decrease in BDNF levels in the months when they fail to get sunlight. While Vitamin D supplementation may not be as beneficial as direct sunlight exposure, some speculate that it could help increase levels of BDNF among those who don’t get enough sun.  This may be tied to depressive feelings in winter months as well.  (Read: Link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression).

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3487856/
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25138265

5. Supplements

If you’d like to consider supplements to beef up your BDNF production, there are several options. In fact, there are likely more supplements than those included on this short list that support BDNF, but here are a few popular ones to consider.

Curcumin: Some studies have demonstrated that curcumin may promote BDNF production in the hippocampus, especially among those with brain injuries. In rodent studies, it was thought that curcumin elevated BDNF production in the hippocampal region, which created antidepressant effects and improved cognitive function. Another study demonstrated that curcumin supplementation increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24914461
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24712702

Green tea: Those with neurodegenerative diseases typically have reduced levels of BDNF. In attempt to increase BDNF, researchers supplemented low concentrations of unfractionated green tea polyphenols as well as EGCG (their active ingredient) resulted in an increase in BDNF. An easy way to increase BDNF would be to drink green tea on a consistent basis and/or consider supplementing green tea extracts.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24508265

Omega-3 fatty acids: Many people fail to get sufficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. These “essential” fatty acids can only be obtained in sufficient quantities by eating seafood and fish. Unless you are eating fish at least a couple times per week, you may want to consider taking a fish oil supplement. I’ve written about the best fish oil supplements if you need some help picking one out.

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil include DHA and EPA, but it is specifically the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) responsible for increasing levels of BDNF. In rodents with traumatic brain injuries, supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids increased levels of BDNF within a normal range. Without supplementation, those who’ve endured brain injuries may fail to regain adequate BDNF production.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15672635
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21721919

Resveratrol: This is a supplement that has been studied for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases as well as aging. In one study, researchers examined the effects of resveratrol supplementation on the encoding of BDNF in the hippocampal region of rats. They discovered that supplementation of resveratrol resulted in increased levels of mRNA BDNF expression. The researchers concluded that the increased expression of the BDNF mRNA may result in neuroprotective effects.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21221775

6. Lose weight

There are several studies linking high body weight and obesity to decreases in production of BDNF. This may be due to the fact that those with elevated bodyweights are not engaging in fasting, caloric restriction, and/or intense cardiovascular exercise. Studies have shown that among those with metabolic syndrome, increasing the level of BDNF results in improvement in depressive symptoms.

It appears as though making lifestyle changes to reduce weight not only increase BDNF, but also improve mood. In females, there is a direct relationship between plasma levels of BDNF and bodyweight. Females with higher levels of BDNF not only tend to be in better shape, but they perform better on cognitive tests of Total Recall and Delayed Recall.

Yet another study on morbidly obese children demonstrated that BDNF may play a direct role in childhood obesity. Those that become obese as children tend to have deficiencies in BDNF. It is thought that by making behavior changes, dietary changes, and restricting calories – that BDNF levels can increase to normal or higher levels. If you are obese or have a high body-weight, losing weight will likely improve your production of BDNF.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24524285
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22768299
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24548578

7. Certain drugs

There are a variety of different drugs that help increase levels of BDNF in deficient individuals. It remains unclear as to whether the BDNF levels are maintained with long-term administration of these drugs. It does appear as though short-term, low dose treatment may be the best option.

Ampakines: Some studies have compiled evidence suggesting that ampakines or positive modulators of AMPA-glutamate receptors also increase BDNF expression. Researchers believe that this class of drugs may help decrease the likelihood of neurodgenerative diseases in part via action on BDNF expression.

That said, if you are taking ampakines, you should know that both AMPA and BDNF receptors tend to decrease with prolonged activation. Therefore there is some concern as to whether pharmacological intervention with ampakines is a feasible long-term strategy. It may only elevate BDNF levels in the short-term, while actually decreasing them as well as glutamatergic function in the long-term.

Researchers have found that BDNF expression in particular is mostly induced by low doses of ampakines for short treatment durations. Therefore using these drugs for a short-term at a minimal dose may be the best option for BDNF enhancement. Other studies have found that administering ampakines to mice with neurodgenerative diseases normalizes BDNF levels.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746455/
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19141314
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19264961

Cystamine: This is a drug that has shown to elevate levels of BDNF among those with neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s. Many consider Cystamine to act as a neuroprotective agent by stimulating various clathrin-coated vesicles that contain BDNF. Researchers found that Cystamine is capable of increasing secretion of BDNF within the Golgi region that counteract certain faulty neural mechanisms induced by neurodegenerative diseases.

Cystamine has also been established as increasing serum levels of BDNF in both rodents and primates. Some researchers have gone as far as to suggest that Cystamine could provide antidepressant properties directly as a result of its ability to increase central BDNF levels. It should also be mentioned that certain drugs (e.g. antipsychotics) decrease BDNF levels, but administration of Cystamine prevents the drug-induced decrease.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16604191
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16797865
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18582526
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25430473
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18786174

Nootropics: There is some evidence that various nootropics such as piracetam may increase BDNF content in rodents. Other nootropic agents such as: phenotropil, meclophenoxate, and semax may also increase BDNF levels within the hippocampal regions of the mice with cognitive deficits.

  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20095391

SSRIs: There is some evidence that selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are able to increase levels of BDNF. SSRIs function by increasing extracellular levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin to treat depression. These drugs are classified as antidepressants and should really only be utilized by those with debilitating psychiatric illnesses (e.g. major depression and anxiety).

One benefit that users of SSRIs get is that the drugs increase serum levels of BDNF. It is unclear as to whether the increase in BDNF is maintained for individuals taking SSRIs over a long-term. While SSRIs tend to have many unwanted side effects, one beneficial effect is that of a BDNF increase.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21749907

8. Social Enrichment

If you want to increase your BDNF, one of the best ways to do it is by staying socially engaged. If you want your children to maintain high levels of BDNF, it is likely a good idea to keep them in a socially-enriched environment from a young age. Early experiences in childhood can result in lasting neural and behavioral changes.

While we already know that an enriched environment is beneficial for human brains, the effects of social enrichment may be what is likely to elevate BDNF. Researchers discovered that in rodents, being raised with social enrichment resulted in lifelong increases in BDNF levels as well as positive social behaviors. BDNF increases were noticeable in mice raised in a socially-enriched environment, particularly in the hippocampus and hypothalamus regions.

Rodents with high levels of BDNF as a result of social enrichment tend to display less anxiety as well as depression later in life. It has been speculated that positive early social stimulation increases neuronal plasticity during adulthood. This plasticity increase is likely a direct result of high BDNF levels, which makes them more resilient to depression.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16533499
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16477619

Why should you increase your BDNF levels?

You should care about your BDNF levels because low levels are associated with development of a variety of diseases. Nearly every abnormal state of cognitive functioning is associated with low levels of BDNF. While normalization of levels may not fully cure or prevent any diseases, having normal levels is associated with increased cognitive performance and better overall brain functioning among those who do have certain diseases.

In regards to physical health, low levels of BDNF are associated with development of obesity and impaired physiological functioning. Preliminary evidence suggests that high levels of BDNF may even help prevent the development of conditions like cancer. In the past we weren’t sure as to whether BDNF crossed the blood-brain barrier, but new studies clearly demonstrate that it does.

Further research is warranted on the beneficial effects of BDNF for cognitive functioning and mental health. Newer studies have been able to show that it improves short and long-term memory. Virtually all measures of favorable physical and mental health are associated with normal or above-average levels of BDNF. Therefore if you suspect your current BDNF level is low, you may want to utilize some of the options listed above to increase it.

Keep in mind that your levels will not dramatically rise overnight. Most researchers highlight the fact that it can take several months before deficient BDNF levels normalize. Keep putting forth consistent effort with the methods listed above and you’ll not only increase BDNF production, but improve your overall health.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24782766

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Charlie March 8, 2016, 8:41 am

    This was brilliant. Thanks for including sources. Very helpful!

  • richard May 3, 2016, 10:07 am

    Excellent article!!! Well written and referenced.

  • Prof, A.Francis Devaraj May 19, 2016, 3:10 pm

    Very much beneficial.

  • krisko June 7, 2016, 7:43 pm

    OK, but… I’ve read many articles about this or that brain chemical, but the important question missing an answer here is HOW DO WE MEASURE these levels? How do we measure BDNF levels and know if it is low or high?

  • Health Vibed July 22, 2016, 6:27 am

    Great overview of BDNF, thanks! do you think low BDNF levels would have anything to do with a serious case of brain fog, to the point where one feels spaced out/depersonalised all the time? Thanks, Nick

    • Lisa Ficker August 2, 2016, 7:22 pm

      Nick, Perhaps! But the experiences you describe would also be typical of other factors such as food sensitivity (check out the book Grain Brain) or even a suppressed trauma (to learn more, see the book The Body Keeps the Score). Changes in diet, yoga, exercise, mindfulness, EMDR therapy for trauma, biofeedback may all be helpful tools to try. Best of luck to you! Lisa

  • CZgator August 14, 2016, 4:38 pm

    Don’t forget you can get omega 3 fatty acids from certain nuts, especially walnuts and pecans, flaxseed and more. It is the ALA form, but if you don’t like fish, have a problem with fish oil or are worried about mercury intake, you still have options.

  • Dennis August 28, 2016, 7:33 pm

    I’m presenting on processes that may be used to increase cognition in high school students — I am a high school teacher. Nice.

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