Ask the Dr.

How BDNF keeps your brain healthy—and how to boost yours.
Swap sugary breakfasts for hearty avocado toast to raise BDNF levels.  Photo: Adobe Stock

by Dr. Frank Lipman

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 keep 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 health span, 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.

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. If you must sweeten, use a very light hand and opt for healthier alternatives like raw stevia or monk fruit sweeteners.

When it comes to lifestyle habits, you can thank 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. Although THC can boost BDNF levels in occasional cannabis users, low BDNF levels are common in both habitual cannabis smokers and heavy drinkers.

A turmeric-infused latte is an excellent brain-healthy beverage. Photo: Dani Rendina

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: Move 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 website’s 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 up 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 seven-to-eight-hours nightly groove.

Intermittent fasting: Shortening your daily eating window—as in, eating breakfast late and dinner early, versus all-day grazing—helps give your body time to rest and repair, as well as tame inflammation, which, left untamed, can decrease BDNF levels.

Social connections: Social isolation is a surefire route to loneliness, depression and anxiety, all of which suppress BDNF.

Responsible sun exposure: That means a little regular time in the sun, exposing your skin but stopping before you turn pink, and absolutely no burning. Another no-brainer, super-easy-to-incorporate way to boost your BDNF? Drink a daily cup or two of green tea.

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 are:

Almonds: Raw, unroasted, unblanched organic almonds are rich in polyphenols, which are great for BDNF levels.

Avocados: They’re loaded with antioxidants and polyphenols.

Berries: Opt for organic red raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.

Blueberries: Choose wild blueberries in particular, and always buy organic.

Coffee: To increase BDNF, be sure to choose your brew wisely. Look for certified organic, non-GMO, sustainably farmed and/or shade-grown, Fair Trade Certified beans, and check that they’re free of toxins, pesticides and heavy metals.

Eggs: Look for pasture-raised eggs from healthy animals for the biggest BDNF boost.

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO): Ideally, opt for cold-pressed oil stored in dark glass bottles.

Extra-dark chocolate: While 70% cocoa or above is great, going even higher to 90% or 100% is even better when it comes to boosting benefits.

Fish: The best choices are wild-caught “fatty fish”—anchovies, herring, salmon and sardines, all of which are loaded with omega-3s, which helps boost BDNF.

Green tea: Choose one that’s certified organic and non-GMO.

Olives: A close-to-perfect food rich in polyphenols, which is good news for your BDNF levels.

Turmeric: It’s packed 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.

Can supplements boost BDNF?

You can also stimulate BDNF with 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 augment BDNF levels.

Boost BDNF right now—with your feet.

Make your brain bigger and stronger 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.