Did you know that in order to learn something new, the brain actually needs to experience physical growth to allow neurons to fire more easily? This growth is carried out by your brain’s “miracle-gro” hormone, a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). High levels of BDNF make you learn faster, remember better, age slower, and can increase neuroplasticity. This means that when your brain cells get damaged or face a stressful situation, BDNF protects them and helps them come back stronger!

Here are the top 9 ways to increase this hormone naturally:


Exercise is the easiest and by far most effective way to boost BDNF levels in order to improve learning, memory and mood. A 2013 study found that just 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise increases BDNF in the blood by 32% [1]. Another study found that in just 5 weeks, mild-intensity exercise significantly increased BDNF levels and reversed cognitive decline in older rats [2]. Lately I’ve been saving my most difficult work tasks of the day for the slot of time directly after my workouts, and my productivity has gone through the roof! Use that bloodstream boost of growth hormone as a motivator to get your exercise in.


Stress is one of the biggest BDNF inhibitors (I mean, can you think straight when it feels like your world is chaotic?!) Meditation on the other hand, used to manage and lower stress hormones, is shown to increase BDNF. It specifically strengthens areas of the brain that are associated with perceived pain and pain tolerance, mind/body connection, meta-thinking (awareness of how you think), memory, emotion, mood, and focus [3,4].


Polyphenols are a specific type of antioxidant that not only provide a favorable environment for the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, but can also stimulate BDNF production and protect your brain from stress [5]. The best sources include green tea, blueberries/blackberries, coffee, dark chocolate, spinach, broccoli, and colorful veggies.


A study carried out in the Netherlands found that serum concentrations of BDNF increased in the spring and summer and decreased in the fall and winter among both men and women [6]. They also found that serum BDNF levels correlated with the number of hours each participant was exposed to sunlight. Moreover, the participants with the lowest BDNF levels were more likely to be depressed! I suspect that BDNF levels matter more than we know in the battle against both seasonal depression and major depressive disorder, as exercise (the #1 BDNF promoter) is so effective in improving mood. It’s also interesting to note there’s some evidence that SSRIs, the #1 drug prescribed for depression, are actually able to increase levels of BDNF directly. Could this be part of why they’re so helpful for some?


In studies performed on chicks, both cold AND heat exposure increased BDNF levels [7,8]. A great way to get your brain going and feel invigorated is to take a contrast shower where you start with 3 minutes of hot water and finish with 1 minute of cold water. You repeat this 3:1 minute ratio for 3-4 cycles and always end on cold water. You can also take a plain old cold shower if you’re short on time! This will improve circulation, increase BDNF levels, burn fat, and increase your energy. My doctor also quite literally prescribes “heat stress” to me via weekly sessions in an infrared sauna, a) for the detox benefits and b) because sometimes the body needs to be exposed to a mild form of physical “stress” to get stronger!


Fasting, whether it’s for a set window during the day or a full 24 hours+, allows your digestive system to take a break and triggers a number of hormones that boost your body’s ability to repair itself. My favorite form of this is “time-restricted eating,” where you eat the same amount of food as you usually do, just within a shorter window of 8-10 hours. I have a blog post about it here! This practice burns fat like a charm and increases BDNF signaling. An increase in BDNF signaling has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, brain function, as well as help regulate blood sugar [9,10].


Sugar has been found to directly limit BDNF production in rats [11] and is linked to a decline in the cognitive function of humans [12]. If you recently quit sugar and are going through the withdrawal period, waiting for the benefits to kick in… be patient! Research suggests that it can actually take up to 2 months before BDNF levels either increase OR decrease in response to diet changes. However, over time, reducing refined sugar can produce notable structural changes in the brain [13].


Curcumin is the most widely researched active compound in turmeric, with benefits that range from increasing circulation all the way to improving depression (there’s that depression/BDNF connection again!) Studies show that curcumin can directly increase BDNF production in the brain, leading to improved cognition and mood [14,15,16].


Did you know that even making a simple effort to engage in conversation with the cashier at the grocery store can protect your brain as you age? Some interesting research has shown that those who are friendlier to strangers have higher BDNF levels [17]. This doesn’t just happen with strangers though – quality time with your loved ones matters more for your brain than you may realize! Several studies show that a consistently stimulating social environment increases BDNF and reduces both depression and anxiety [18,19].

Even if you incorporate just a few of these things per day, you’re giving your brain the protection it needs to age with grace. Exercise is by far the most important and has changed my life and mood for the better this year as I’ve been more consistent with my daily walks. I’ve found that it’s easier to stick to when I focus on the cognitive/mood benefits rather than physical changes… and in the meantime, those changes do come! See if brain health works as workout motivation for you (and treat yourself to some polyphenol-rich dark chocolate after) 😉


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