How to Increase BDNF for a Sharper Brain: Neuroplasticity & Neurogenesis

Do you want a sharper brain? Do you want to improve cognitive function and protect your brain against age-related decline? If so, then you need to know about BDNF, and how functional medicine can help boost your brainpower. BDNF is a protein that plays a major role in neuroplasticity and neurogenesis—the two processes that are responsible for forming new neurons and strengthening existing connections between neurons. 

Increasing BDNF can have profound effects on cognitive function, memory, mood, and overall mental health. Let's find out how to maximize the benefits of BDNF for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and how you can increase BDNF levels naturally with a few simple changes.

Learn how you can protect your cognitive health with Brain Boost at CentreSpringMD.

First, what's BDNF?

BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It's a protein that's produced by the body in response to activity and stimulation. BDNF helps to keep existing neurons healthy and promotes the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis). It also helps to strengthen connections between neurons (synapses), which improves communication between different parts of the brain.

BDNF has been shown to play a role in neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to adapt and change over your lifetime. In functional medicine, proactively supporting the brain is one of the best ways to protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

As the brain continues to adapt, BDNF expression helps the central nervous system compensate for injury and adapt to new situations or changes in the environment.

Benefits of BDNF expression

In the brain, BDNF is active in the hippocampus, cortex, and forebrain—areas vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking. Hence, researchers concluded that BDNF is important for long-term memory. BDNF may also:

  • Increase brain plasticity (neuroplasticity). When the brain is faced with a challenging or stressful situation, BDNF helps protect brain cells from damage.
  • Improve depression. Some research suggests that certain forms of depression may be due to a decrease in neural plasticity, or the inability of the brain to protect cells from damage and inflammation (1). While more evidence is necessary to determine the role BDNF plays in depression, adequate BDNF production may help protect brain cells from damage and alleviate some symptoms of depression. 
  • Promote quality sleep. BDNF may improve sleep quality, especially for those who have depression and often struggle with getting adequate sleep (2). 
  • Protect against neurodegenerative disease. Research suggests that high BDNF may lower your risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. One study tracked a group of adults for ten years, and found that those with the highest levels of BDNF were the least likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease (3). 

Unfortunately, as you get older, your levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor naturally start to fall.

BDNF decreases significantly with age

As we age, BDNF declines, which may help to explain why the elderly are more susceptible to age-related cognitive decline, in addition to being more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. (In one study, researchers found more than 70% decrease in BDNF levels in the hippocampus of patients with Alzheimer's) (4). 

In addition to age, there are also genetic and environmental factors (which are more in your control) that decrease BDNF, such as:

All of these factors lead to reduced BDNF gene expression and brain function, and increased risk for cognitive decline.

There are some basic lifestyle rules (plus dietary supplements) that help boost production of BDNF to enhance cognitive function and protect the neuroplasticity of a healthy, thriving brain.

Related: Shop high-quality mood-boosting supplements.

10 things you can do to boost BDNF


Regular physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain health. Exercise has been shown to increase BDNF levels, and it also promotes neurogenesis, which is the formation of new neurons In fact, just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (think a brisk walk) once per week was enough to prompt a noticeable increase in BDNF levels (5).

HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, has also been shown to be effective in increasing BDNF (6). A HIIT workout alternates between periods of all-out effort and active recovery.

Read: 10 Simple Actions for Optimal Health


Getting enough quality sleep is critical for maintaining cognitive function and protecting against age-related decline. Research shows that just one night of poor sleep can decrease BDNF levels and make you more vulnerable to negative effects of stress (7). 

To ensure you’re getting the most restful sleep possible, aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, and create a dark, quiet, cool environment in your bedroom.

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Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet

What you eat has a direct effect on BDNF levels. Diets high in unhealthy fats and sugar (like the Standard American Diet) have been shown to decrease BDNF.

On the other hand, diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins have all been shown to increase BDNF.

Some of the best brain-healthy foods include:

  • Wild-caught salmon
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans and legumes
  • Berries
  • Green, leafy veggies
  • Dark chocolate
  • Green tea
  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kimchi

Learn more about the gut-brain connection.

Reduce Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is one of the biggest enemies of a healthy brain. When you’re constantly in fight-or-flight mode, your body produces less BDNF. In functional medicine, supporting a healthy HPA axis is key to longevity and quality of life.

Unfortunately, chronic stress is becoming more and more common in our society. If you feel like you’re constantly under pressure, here are a few things you can do to bring your stress levels down.

Connect with Others

Humans are social creatures, and social connection is crucial for maintaining cognitive function. One study found that loneliness and social isolation can lead to a decline in BDNF levels.

Make an effort to connect with others on a regular basis, whether that means scheduling regular calls with friends and family, attending a group class or hobby meetup, or volunteering for a local organization.


Sunlight itself is a powerful way to increase BDNF production. In one study, BDNF levels were correlated with time spent in the sun—which were higher during spring and summer, and lower during fall and winter. During this time, researchers also noticed that during the fall and winter, depression scores were higher than during spring and summer, when participants spent more time in the sun and had higher levels of serum BDNF (8). 

So, make sure to get outside for at least 20 minutes each day, especially first thing in the morning.

Low-carb diet

A low-carb diet has been shown to increase BDNF levels, cognitive speed, and mental flexibility (9). In one study, participants who followed a low-carbohydrate diet (16% carbs, 62% fat, and 22% protein) showed increased BDNF after just four weeks. In this same study, researchers also noted improvement in cardiometabolic markers, such as reduced triglycerides and body fat percentage, and improved insulin sensitivity.

Learn more: The Keto Diet & Functional Guide to Low-Carb Eating

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness practices can not only improve BDNF levels, but also increase brain size, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (10). These activities can be either mindfulness-based exercise, which emphasizes body movement, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong, or meditation.

To get started with meditation, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to your breath. You can meditate for as little as five minutes per day.


Nootropics are cognitive-enhancing drugs or supplements that can increase BDNF levels. Some of the most popular nootropics include:

Prebiotic fiber

Prebiotic fiber is a type of dietary fiber that acts as food for beneficial probiotics that inhabit the gut. When supported properly, probiotic bacteria produce crucial byproducts such as butyrate which enhances BDNF expression (11). 

Some good sources of prebiotic fiber include:

  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Chicory root
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Asparagus

Read: Incredible Benefits of SCFA in Your Gut

BDNF is a protein that’s essential for cognitive health, and luckily, incorporating these lifestyle changes into your daily routine will help to increase BDNF levels, keeping your brain healthy and sharp well into your golden years. From following a healthy diet to taking the right supplements, these tips will help keep your brain sharp as you age. If you want an extra edge in keeping your mind healthy and performing at its best, start implementing these strategies today!




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