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Wellness Club

What is BDNF and How to Increase It

By: Kayla Barnes


As a certified brain health coach, I often work with clients to improve their overall cognition and brain health. BDNF is one topic in particular that comes up fairly often in my practice. 

What is BDNF? Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a growth factor for the brain and peptide (long-chain protein).

The name comes from the Greek word "neuro" for nerve and trophies pertaining to food, nourishment, or growth."

BDNF is often touted as a "fertilizer" for the brain. Due to the fact that it supports the survival of neurons and brain cells, promotes synaptic connections between neurons, and is essential for learning and long-term memory storage.

For adults, BDNF also plays a vital role in neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons from stem cells.)

How to boost your BDNF naturally:

Exercise: Studies have shown that intense aerobic activity can boost your BDNF levels. Intermittent exercise can increase BDNF even further, but outcomes are best when exercise is performed regularly.

Foods: What you eat is more than calories, it is information for your cells. Your brain thrives on a high-protein diet (amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are necessary for the production of neurotransmitters— including BDNF) along with foods rich in antioxidants such as low glycemic berries (blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries), organic, lab-tested coffee, and dark chocolate. The brain also loves healthy fats such as avocado, EVOO, ghee, MCT oil, and wild-caught fish or caviar (if you're extra fancy) for Omega 3's. Eating a brain-healthy diet will nourish your brain and boost the production of essential brain chemicals, including but not limited to BDNF.

You can also supplement with Omega-3 fish oil, curcumin, niacin, zinc, and magnesium. These supplements may boost BDNF, but it's always better to get your vitamins from food. (please begin supplementation under the supervision of a practitioner.)

Limit chronic stress: Chronic stress can lead to inflammation. Inflammation is problematic for the brain and body in general but has also been linked to lower BDNF levels. A few ways to limit stress: take a daily walk outside and expose your skin to the sun (Vitamin D); even better, walk barefoot in the grass or sand to ground yourself to the earth and benefit from its frequencies. Meditate daily and begin a gratitude journaling practice. Carving out time to be alone and center the mind and body will always pay off. Lastly, monitor your breath throughout the day. Light shallow breathing will activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), whereas deep, controlled breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax.) 

Fasting - Intermittent fasting can boost BDNF levels, but periodic prolonged fasts boost BDNF even more. For example, in one study, a 48-hour fast increased skeletal muscle BDNF levels by 350%. Be sure to work with a medical practitioner if you plan to partake in a longer fast; these are not for everyone and require oversight by a practitioner to ensure your safety.