Destroy Brain Fog and Increase BDNF: The Ultimate Guide


Jun 09
BDNF brain sunset

Increase BDNF to level up your brain.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short, is a protein that plays a critical role in neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons.

BDNF protects existing synaptic connections while making the brain more adaptive to stress.

It’s “Miracle-Gro for your brain,” according to Harvard Neuropsychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD, who looks in detail at BDNF’s connection to exercise in his book: Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.


  • Protects and repairs brain cells(R), (R)
  • Encourages the growth of new brain cells.
  • Improves mood, memory, and learning.
  • Treats depression and anxiety.

According to Ratey, BDNF is a “crucial biological link between thoughts, emotion, and movement,” and that exercise is one of the fastest ways to increase BDNF and form new connections in the brain.

What is BDNF?

Not very long ago, the general scientific opinion was that your brain was in a state of gradual and constant deterioration from the time it fully matured in your early 20s until your death.

Today we know that the brain is plastic, meaning it grows and adapts throughout your life.

Everything you do and everything that you put in your body has some influence on the development of neurons in the brain. (R)

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In the last decade have huge strides been made in BDNF research.

Since its purification in 1982, researchers have become more focused on BDNF for the central role it plays in brain development and pathology.

BDNF is one of several proteins in the neurotrophin family, which manage the development of new nerve cells as well as the maintenance of mature ones. (R)

Think of BDNF as the gardener and groundskeeper of your brain. BDNF manages apoptosis, or cell death, and 'prunes' neurons to prevent cell mutation and the development of disease.

BDNF is found in varying levels throughout the brain and body including in your blood serum, cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), and areas of the brain like the hippocampus and neocortex. (R)

Quick Facts About BDNF

Research implicates BDNF in a host of neuronal functions, including neurogenesis, or the growth and development of neuronal tissue.

New evidence suggests that BDNF has a supporting role in learning and memory through the modulation of cellular metabolism.

Recent research indicates that the expression of BDNF may even underlie biological processes related to the inheritance of cognitive traits. (R)

BDNF is implicated with memory, learning, sleep, appetite, and neuronal survival.

Studies involving developing embryos of rodents show that to increase BDNF stimulates the growth of dendrites and increases the density of cortical neurons in the spine. (R)

Research shows that BDNF regulates the development of neural circuits that influence a range of psychiatric and mood disorders, including depression. (R)

Post-mortem analysis of human subjects suffering from depression at the time of their death displayed decreased levels BDNF in the prefrontal cortex. (R)

Many stress-induced mental disorders that are impacted by lower levels of BDNF that is itself triggered by raised levels of stress hormones.

Elevated levels of stress hormones can cause lower levels of BDNF and in turn exacerbate stress-induced mental disorders.

Animal studies show that BDNF can cause damaged cells to regenerate, an encouraging phenomenon that has potential applications in the treatment of many devastating neurodegenerative brain diseases, including Huntington's disease, Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's.

There may even be a connection between increased BDNF and insomnia, which occurs at much higher rates among depressed patients, although more research needs to be done in this area.

Exposure to stress inhibits the expression of BDNF in the prefrontal cortex as well as other areas of the brain. (R)

BDNF in the peripheral nervous system is stored in blood platelets where it's stored until you need it. (R)

The Chain of Mental Health

chain of mental health diagram

Increase BDNF with Lifestyle

BDNF and Social Life

Studies show that people who have socially enriched lives have higher levels of BDNF.

Synaptic connections related to social conditioning can have a long-term impact on the cognitive development of children.

We're social creatures.

A social life full of intimacy and variety gives your brain with the inspiration it needs to form new synaptic connections and improve learning.

The mental stimulation that comes with a vibrant social life increases BDNF expression.

Early and frequent socialization continues to have a positive effect on test subjects even into adulthood. (R)

In rodent subjects, a stimulating social environment is associated with increased neurotrophin levels in the hippocampus and hypothalamus. (R)

BDNF and Romance

New research indicates that BDNF is involved in romantic attachment, but, interestingly enough, only in female test subjects. Researchers hypothesize that estrogen increases BDNF expression in several areas of the brain. (R)

Oxytocin and vasopressin have long been associated with romantic attachment, but BDNF may now need to be added to the list.

BDNF and Sleep

Sleep deprived individuals tend to have low levels of BDNF. (R)

Quality sleep is essential to brain health, and poor sleep can be detrimental to focus and memory.

Shoot for at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. If you're having a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep, try eating 1-2 tablepoons of raw honey before heading to bed.

Regular exercise can protect against some of the negative effects that poor sleep has on BDNF expression. (R)

BDNF isn’t the only essential hormone that suffers when you suck at sleeping. Testosterone levels have also been shown to decrease by over 20% after a poor night’s sleep.

The more sleep-deprived you are, the more you need slow wave sleep to rest and restore. BDNF is the signal molecule that increases slow wave sleep. (R)

BDNF and Circadian Rhythm

BDNF has a rhythm that works in conjunction with your sleep cycle.

You have the most BDNF when you wake up in the morning, and then BDNF levels decrease throughout the day.

When light hits your retina for the first time after waking up, the neurotransmitter glutamate is activated in the hypothalamus, which then triggers BDNF expression. (R)

Evidence indicates that low levels of BDNF could be disruptive to the sleep cycle. (R)

BDNF and Sunlight

Exposure to sunlight for as little as 10-20 minutes a day can increase BDNF levels in the brain.

A recent study involving 2,851 individuals found that BDNF levels increased considerably in the spring and summer, and decreased significantly in the fall and winter, and was determined to be correlated to the number of hours participants spent exposed to sunlight. (R)

The study was directed by Dr. Marc Molendijk at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

BDNF and Stress

Lowering stress increases BDNF, and few activities are proven to be more effective at reducing stress than meditation and yoga.

Stress reduces the expression of BDNF because stress of hormones like cortisol interfere with BDNF production. (R) 

In a recent study published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience, thirty-eight participants were tested for BDNF and inflammation before and after a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat.

Indian Meditation

By the end of the retreat, participants had reduced anxiety, lower levels of inflammation, and increased levels of BDNF. (R)

BDNF and Exercise

During intense physical activity, the brain and body work in overdrive to process information and adapt to the stress, making new connections between neighboring cells.

Although BDNF levels stay raised for several minutes after an intense workout, it’s important to think of BDNF production in the long term.

What Type of Exercise is Best for BDNF?

The most efficient way to raise levels of BDNF is vigorous exercise.

According to research, sustained cardiovascular workouts and high-intensity exercise for at least 30 mins is best for increasing BDNF. (R)

The downside to high-intensity interval training is that, if you're not used to hard workouts, it could trigger stress hormone production.

Whenever stress hormone levels are raised BDNF expression decreases and cancels out any BDNF-promoting benefits.

Encouraging new reports indicate that even low-intensity exercise  can increase the expression of BDNF. (R)

man running beach sunset

Exercise and the Brain 

Exercise improves memory in stroke patient's as well as healthy adults.

In a study done on rodents with brain ischemia, moderate to low-intensity exercise was best for improving the spatial memory performance of test subjects. 

High-intensity exercise test groups had high levels of corticosterone, which was used as a marker for stress response.

The high-intensity groups also tested for lower levels of serum BDNF. Low and medium intensity groups had both higher levels of BDNF and lower levels of corticosterone. (R)

Exercise enlarges the hippocampus, the area of the brain where a large percentage of BDNF production takes place.

As we get older, the hippocampus shrinks, and we're at greater risk for memory impairment and dementia.

Physically fit adults have larger hippocampal lobes.

In a test involving 120 older adults, aerobic exercise increased the size the anterior hippocampus, which also led to an improvement in spatial memory performance

Individuals that displayed an increased in hippocampal volume also tested for increased BDNF in blood serum. (R)

BDNF and Weight

There's a convincing body of evidence connecting obesity and high body fat percentage to lower levels of BDNF.

Losing fat, something that the ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting do wonders for, can help increase BDNF expression.

Recent studies indicate that BDNF as critical to regulating energy metabolism and controlling body weight.

Obesity has neurodegenerative risk factors in addition to its more well-known cardiovascular complications.

Dementia is more common in obese patients, as is decreased hippocampal volume, a common indicator of pathological brain aging. (R)

The connection between low BDNF and obesity has been documented in a study of Japanese children. (R)

BDNF and Diet

BDNF and Digestive Health

The bacteria in your gut impacts brain function through the expression of BDNF.

Studies conducted with both rodents and human test subjects indicate that the bacterial strains Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli are especially influential to BDNF production. (R)

Administration of probiotics (beneficial bacteria supplements) and prebiotics (food for the bacteria) increased the expression of BDNF in the brain. (R)

BDNF and Sugar

In rodent tests, a diet that's high in refined sugar reduces the expression of BDNF in the hippocampal region of the brain and negatively impacts neuronal plasticity and learning. (R)

BDNF and the Ketogenic Diet

The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that triggers the body to run on ketones, or fat cells, as its primary fuel source.

When you're running on fat, you're said to bed in ketosis.

The best way to get into ketosis is either by eating very little throughout the day or by intermittent fasting. (R) 

Ketosis has many clinically proven neuroprotective properties, including increased BDNF, enhanced GABAergic neuro-transmission, improved mitochondrial function, and reduced neuro-inflammation (This is just a fancy way of saying that your brain operates more smoothly and is less inflamed). (R) 

Avoiding sugar is also part of the ketogenic diet.

Intermittent fasting leads to a bigger increase in ketone levels than restricted eating alone. (R)

food cutting board

Health Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet

  • Weight loss
  • Improved physical endurance
  • Improved focus
  • Lower blood pressure
Reduced Seizure Activity

The ketogenic diet is well recognized for its ability to reduce seizure activity due to its neuroprotective effects. (R) 

Treatment of Neurodegenerative Disease

Ketosis improves the cognitive function of patients with various neurodegenerative diseases.

After one month on the ketogenic diet, test subjects with Parkinson's disease improved their scores on the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale by a mean of 43%. (R)

The ketogenic diet also reduces symptoms in Alzheimer's patients, and early data suggests that the ketogenic diet could be beneficial to children with autism. (R)

BDNF and Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting enhances brain health by improving your metabolism.

Periods of caloric restriction (aka not eating) increase BDNF production. (R)

Before you run in fear of the word “fasting,” let’s define it in regards to BDNF production.

To benefit from intermittent fasting you only have to last 12-24 hours without food.

That means that if you go to bed at 9 pm and wake up at 6 am, you'll only have to wait 3 hours before having your first meal.

Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Improves fat-burning by regulating hormone levels. (R)
Reduces inflammation by lowering oxidative stress.
Balances nervous system activity.

Intermittent fasting also lowers blood sugar levels, improves insulin sensitivity, and reduces oxidative stress.

Caloric restriction through intermittent fasting delays oxidative damage to DNA, lipids, and proteins. Fasting increases BDNF, is the fastest way to get into ketosis and also leads to higher blood levels of ketones. (R)

In monkeys and rodents, caloric restriction extends lifespan, even when the diet's started midway through life. (R)

Intermittent fasting slows brain degeneration due to aging and chronic inflammation. (R) 

1. Improved Insulin Sensitivity

While you fast, your blood insulin levels drop significantly, promoting fat burning and improving insulin sensitivity. (R)

2. Human Growth Hormone Production

High levels of human growth hormone facilitate muscle gain, fat burning, and many other benefits.

While fasting, human growth hormone levels can increase dramatically. (R)

3. Cellular Repair

Your body initiates cellular repair and waste removal processes when you fast. Cells that fail to maintain themselves in this way are more prone to mutating and becoming cancerous.

4. Gene Expression

Protects against genetic and environmental factors that would otherwise cause cellular degeneration.

5. Weight Loss

Nothing helps you lose weight like good old-fashioned caloric restriction.

When you're eating only once a day chances are you won’t be able to take in as many calories as when you eat throughout the day.

Low insulin levels and high growth hormone levels are ideal for burning fat.

6. Type 2 Diabetes

Chronically high blood sugar levels due to a high sugar diet can cause your body to become resistant to the insulin that breaks it down.

Intermittent fasting has been shown in a laboratory setting to lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.

In one recent human study, fasting blood sugar levels were reduced by 3-6% while fasting insulin levels were reduced by 20-31%.

It’s important to note that these results are consistent only with male participants. In one study, blood sugar levels worsened in women after a 22-day fasting regimen. (R) 

7. Inflammation 

Recent studies show that intermittent fasting can help improve the body’s response to oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress involves molecules called free radicals that attempt to destabilize the structure of other important molecules like proteins and DNA. (R)

Many studies support intermittent fasting’s direct role in the reduction of inflammation. (R)

Chronic inflammation is a key factor in the development of many common diseases.

8. Cardiovascular Health

In several animal studies, intermittent fasting has been shown to improve many of the risk factors for heart disease, including total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, inflammation, blood triglycerides, and blood sugar levels. (R)

Supplements to Increase BDNF

Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil)

The essential fatty acids EPA and DHA have been linked to normalized expression of BDNF in the brain.

DHA helps regulate gene expression and protects neurons from death.

Fish oil and krill oil are the best sources of these important nutrients.

Other sources include nuts and seeds, vegetables and some fruit, and egg yolk, poultry, and meat,

In rat studies, krill oil supplementation enhanced cognitive function and displayed anti-depressant effects. (R)

Similar anti-depressant effects have been noted in human trials. (R)

Studies also indicate that DHA normalizes brain activity in subjects recovering from traumatic brain injury. (R)

Omega 3s reduce oxidative damage, promote brain development, and help regulate mood disorders. (R)

Turmeric (Curcuma longa/Curcumin)

Used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, turmeric (Curcuma longa) has anti-inflammatory properties that aid in cell repair, liver function, gut health, and chronic stress reduction. (R)

Curcumin is the active anti-inflammatory component of turmeric that studies now show has anti-depressant effects that increase BDNF expression in the hippocampus and frontal cortex. (R)

Studies also indicate curcumin’s effectiveness at improving learning and memory deficits. (R)


Zinc is an essential trace element that plays a vital role in regulating cell proliferation, apoptosis (cell death) and DNA repair mechanisms.

Take zinc regularly, especially approaching the cold and flu season to strengthen your immune system. Zinc is also an effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

It’s estimated that approximately 2 billion people in the developing world are zinc deficient, a condition that has been connected to impaired brain function in animal studies. (R)

Zinc also shows signs as being an effective treatment for depression. (R)


In a recent study elevated levels of magnesium in the brain resulted in improved learning and memory, suggesting that increased levels of magnesium increase synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus.

Further evidence also suggests that magnesium treatment increases the effectiveness of cognitive therapy for anxiety, phobias, and PTSD


Resveratrol is a polyphenol compound that has antioxidant properties, potential anti-carcinogenic effects, and reduces hippocampal atrophy in cases of chronic fatigue. It's found in red wine as well as several other plants.

Resveratrol has neuroprotective effects and encourages the expression of BDNF. (R)

Other Foods, Herbs, Supplements, and Drugs

  • Dark chocolate (R)
  • Flavonoid-rich food
  • Cocoa 
  • Green Tea
  • Prebiotics (R)
  • Ginseng
  • Bocopa monieri 
  • Coffee Fruit Extract
  • L-theanine
  • NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine (R)
  • Butyrate
  • Biacalin
  • Melatonin (R)
  • DHEA
  • Lithium
  • Niacin


Our brains and bodies thrive on variety.

Exposure to sunlight, proper nutrition, exercise, restful sleep, and a rich social life together till the soil for your growing mind.

The seed...BDNF.

Encouraging the expression of this critical hormone can lead to a healthier, happier life.

Increasing BDNF might even make you feel like a super hero.

Wear a cape at your discretion 😉


None of the statements or suggestions in this article have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Always consult with your doctor before acting on the advice prescribed at Dope.Fresh.Fit.