The Science of BDNF: Your Guide to the Brain Molecule

Fact Checked By: Dr. Brendan Courneene, ND

It’s an unfortunate truth that as your brain ages, mild cognitive decline, loss of neurons and brain volume, and low-level inflammation occur — and that’s if you’re one of the lucky individuals who doesn’t experience a serious degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s dementia.[1]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32951541/

New research suggests that levels of a molecule called BDNF are associated with brain function and memory.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/ In studies, higher levels of BDNF predict better brain function, including memory, while lower levels appear to be associated with greater cognitive decline and other issues with brain health.[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/

While BDNF levels tend to decrease during the aging process, the good news is that living a brain-friendly lifestyle helps support BDNF production regardless of your age.[4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/ In other words, focusing on BDNF-boosting habits may help support a healthy brain with the ability to heal itself, produce new neurons, and create synaptic connections.[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/

In this guide, you’ll learn the science behind BDNF, how it works, answers to frequently asked questions, and safe, natural, research-backed steps you can take to support your BDNF levels starting today.

What Is BDNF?

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein molecule that plays an essential role in learning, memory, neuroplasticity (the ability to form new connections and pathways), and adult neurogenesis (the ability to grow new brain cells in adults whose brains have reached full maturity).[6]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5713281/[7]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2019.00363/full

It’s mainly found in the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system. Studies show people with higher levels of BDNF have healthier brains and better cognitive function.[8]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/

The BDNF gene is responsible for encoding the BDNF protein in your body. The expression of this protein is highly regulated, which means it can vary significantly from one individual to another depending on personal history, lifestyle, and health status.[9]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6692714/ As a result, evidence suggests that BDNF levels may be helpful for measuring brain health, and that increasing BDNF levels could be one way to support the brain.[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6692714/

What Does BDNF Do?

In your body, the primary functions of BDNF are to stimulate growth of new neurons (neurogenesis), support maturation and survival of neurons, and protect the neurons you already have (neuroprotection).[11]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/

BDNF works by binding to BDNF receptors, activating neurotrophic pathways, and participating in signaling cascades that protect cells and potentially reduce inflammation.[12]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/

According to recent peer-reviewed studies, BDNF is directly involved in the brain health benefits of healthy lifestyle practices including a healthy diet, exercise, fasting, and more.[13]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6692714/ For example, several animal experiments have shown that blocking BDNF actually prevents exercise-induced cognitive improvements.[14]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6692714/

Apart from its primary role in the central nervous system, BDNF also acts as a signaling molecule in the heart, retina, kidneys, and bladder.[15]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5853162/[16]https://journals.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/ajprenal.00386.2017

How Do You Increase BDNF Naturally?

Living a healthy lifestyle is an excellent starting point toward achieving high levels of BDNF, but research suggests that how you exercise, eat, fast, and even sleep can also affect BDNF expression.[17]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32171785/[18]https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2020.1865758[19]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28713531/ Additionally, studies link specific foods and dietary supplements with higher BDNF levels.

In this section, you’ll learn about the latest scientific findings to help you optimize your lifestyle for better brain health through elevated BDNF expression, including:

  • BDNF-supporting foods
  • Sunlight
  • Omega-3s
  • Curcumin
  • Exercise
  • Fasting
  • Ketosis
  • Sleep
  • Social connections
  • Stress management
  • Clean air
  • Vitamins and minerals

BDNF Supporting Foods

Eating a nutrient-dense diet high in fruits, vegetables, and high-quality protein is associated with healthy brain function, higher levels of BDNF, and lower risk of mental health problems.[20]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6836211/[21]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5035589/

In particular, eating fruits and veggies high in polyphenol antioxidants appears to support BDNF production.[22]https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2020.1865758

Coffee, coffee berry, and resveratrol (found in grapes and peanuts) are also linked with BDNF expression in research.[23]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31829793/[24]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33856273/[25]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28261618/

Sunlight

According to a 2012 study with over 2,800 participants, BDNF concentrations are highest in spring and summer, and decrease in autumn and winter.[26]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3487856/ Digging deeper, the researchers also found that the number of hours an individual spent in sunshine correlated directly with BDNF levels — more sunshine was linked to higher BDNF.[27]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3487856/

You may be thinking vitamin D is the answer, but the 2012 study didn’t account for D levels. However, a 2019 rat study did demonstrate that vitamin D supplements helped mitigate age-related BDNF decline.[28]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31524100

For the best of both worlds, focus on sensible sun exposure – 20 minutes a day, avoiding sunburn – as well as maintaining adequate vitamin D levels.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 deficiency is associated with higher inflammation levels and lower BDNF expression.[29]https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-019-05258-4

To help prevent deficiency, you can use omega-3 supplements or eat at least 8-12 ounces per week of fatty fish, as recommended by the National Institutes of Health.[30]https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

Curcumin

Curcumin is a bright golden-yellow compound with powerful antioxidant properties found in turmeric (Curcuma longa).

In 2019, a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) found that curcumin dosages ranging from 200-1,820 milligrams per day, for durations of 8-12 weeks, were significantly supportive of BDNF levels†.[31]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31279955/

For reference, one teaspoon of fresh ground turmeric contains about 200 milligrams of curcumin,[32]https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02815475 so you can opt to add it to your food or take a supplement.  

Exercise 

Scientists have long known that physical activity is highly beneficial for brain health, and it now appears that BDNF could be a major reason for these effects.[33]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32171785/

Some evidence suggests aerobic training sessions of 30 minutes or longer are the most effective type of physical activity to increase BDNF levels.[34]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568163719303058

Fasting 

Fasting is a winning strategy for boosting your BDNF, and both of the popular styles of fasting (daily “intermittent fasting” and more prolonged but occasional fasts) appear to work well.

A four-week study of men and women fasting daily during the holy month of Ramadan found that BDNF levels were significantly higher at 2 weeks compared to baseline, and had increased still further by the end of the month[35]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28713531/

A separate study found that a single 48-hour fast increased BDNF expression in skeletal muscle by a remarkable 350% — findings that could potentially translate to the central nervous system as well.[36]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25494871/

Ketosis or Ketogenic Supplements

Achieving a natural state of ketosis (the production of high-energy ketone bodies by your liver), via restricting carbohydrates or following the ketogenic diet, is linked with higher BDNF levels in studies.[37]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33530512/

According to research, ketone production also increases dramatically after 24-48 hours of fasting, which is one reason why fasting could be beneficial for BDNF.[38]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5913738/

If you don’t want to change your diet or skip meals, some evidence also suggests that supplements like MCT oil or beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) could also support BDNF expression.[39]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29966721/[40]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33192276/[41]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33013465/

Sleep

Sleep deprivation and a lack of restorative REM (rapid eye movement, a sleep stage) result in BDNF deficiency, which could help explain why poor sleep is linked with depression and anxiety[42]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31782101/

Getting plenty of high-quality sleep and avoiding alcohol before bed (and other bad habits that can interfere with REM sleep) are essential for achieving high BDNF levels.[43]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4666864/

Social Connections

In an analysis of over 3,000 participants, social connections and available social support predicted higher levels of BDNF and lower levels of stroke and dementia.[44]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5651441/

Other evidence suggests that social interaction can directly increase BDNF levels.[45]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6692714/ Making and maintaining social connections is incredibly important for your health and wellbeing, especially as you age.

Stress Management

Chronic stress can lower your BDNF levels.[46]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/[47]https://www.pnas.org/content/115/15/3742 

But stressful events are a part of life, so rather than try to avoid stress altogether, your best bet is to manage your stress response.

A study published in 2017 found that yoga and meditation are effective for increasing BDNF levels, but other methods like deep breathing are also likely to work.[48]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/

Fresh, Clean Air

Low air quality can decrease your BDNF levels and negatively impact your brain health[49]https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-014-0222-6 One study even found people who exercised in polluted urban air didn’t experience the same exercise-related BDNF boost as people who were in cleaner rural air.[50]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23073213/

Consider an in-home air purifier for your bedroom if you live in an urban area, and get outside in nature whenever you have the opportunity — not only do trees increase air quality, but one study found that organic compounds from forests also help support BDNF levels.[51]https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/18/6506

Vitamins and Minerals

Obtaining certain vitamins and minerals from food or supplements may help support BDNF, especially if you’ve got a nutritional deficiency in any of them.†

Ensure you’ve got adequate levels of these nutrients to support BDNF expression:

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About BDNF

Do BDNF Supplements Work?

Preliminary evidence suggests that BDNF supplements may help support BDNF expression, but only as part of a healthy lifestyle. Supplements like MCT and BHB work by increasing ketone levels, while antioxidant supplements work through other pathways.[57]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33013465/[58]https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2020.1865758 Vitamin, mineral, or omega-3 supplements may boost BDNF levels in deficient individuals.

Remember, you can’t supplement your way out of a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and unhealthy sleep patterns.

What Exercises Increase BDNF?

Although scientists still debate the relative value of different types of exercise for boosting BDNF levels, the type of exercise with the strongest evidence is endurance exercise.[59]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32171785/ It not only results in an immediate (acute) increase in BDNF, but long-term aerobic training also increases resting levels of circulating BDNF.[60]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772595/

How Does Fasting Affect BDNF?

Evidence suggests intermittent fasting increases BDNF levels. Current research shows that short daily fasts and occasional extended fasts are both capable of upregulating BDNF.[61]https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2020.1865758[62]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25494871/ Among other mechanisms, endogenous ketone production during fasting appears to play a role in these effects.[63]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5913738/

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