Top 10 Foods to Boost Your BDNF

by Lacy Kuester MS, MPP, RDNNutrition

What is BDNF?

BDNF (the acronym for brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein produced in high quantities in the central nervous system. It plays a part in regulating the structure, function, and development of the neurons and synapses that form your brain’s internal communication network. While BDNF levels are highest in childhood when the brain is rapidly developing, it remains a key player in the adult brain. It is responsible for neuroplasticity (your brain’s ability to grow and form new connections) and for your long-term memory (1, 2, 3).

Why You Should Be Interested in BDNF

BDNF levels naturally fall across the lifespan, causing a decline in memory and cognition (1, 2, 3). While all individuals experience lower levels of BDNF as they age, people with Alzheimer’s disease have been shown to have significantly lower levels compared to healthy individuals. (3, 4, 5). Fortunately, you have the power to increase your BDNF production naturally through diet and lifestyle choices. If you care about your cognitive health, then BDNF should be on your radar.

Ten Foods that Increase BDNF

If you want to improve your memory, cognition, and neuroplasticity, then incorporate the following BDNF-boosting foods into your diet (5-9):

  • Green tea. Look for one sourced from Japan, not China. Most Chinese green tea has been found to be contaminated with lead (10).
  • Blueberries. Choose organic, wild blueberries whenever possible. Wild blueberries have a higher BDNF-boosting antioxidant content (11) and organic blueberries may have fewer toxins from pesticides or soil contaminants used in cultivation (12).
  • Red grapes. Organic dark-colored grapes will give you all the benefits of resveratrol and other polyphenols with less pesticide residue than conventionally-grown grapes.
  • Olive oil. Go for cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. This comes from olives that have been minimally-processed, preserving more phytonutrients. You’ll know you’ve bought a good one if the oil is a dark gold with a slightly green tint and if it smells earthy. Some brands will even list their phytonutrient content on the bottle, which can be a good indicator that they care about giving you something high-quality.
  • Soy. Organic whole or fermented soy products are associated with positive health benefits, so choose these. Non-organic soy may contain harmful additives, damaging pesticide residues, and genetically modified fats (13).
  • Dark chocolate. Cacao contains the phytonutrients that increase BDNF, so choosing a 100% cacao chocolate is your best bet to get all the benefits this food has to offer.
  • Turmeric. The polyphenols in this spice increase your BDNF levels. If you choose to add turmeric to your foods or beverages, make sure to pair it with black pepper and a fat source. These both maximize the amount that your body absorbs (14).
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring). DHA, a type of Omega-3 fat found in these fish, is what increases your BDNF. Look for “wild caught” on the label to ensure you get fish with the healthiest fat content and the less toxins.
  • Eggs. As with fatty fish, it’s the DHA in this food that has been linked to higher BDNF levels. The eggs with the best fats are those that come from pasture-raised chickens.
  • Coffee. The caffeine in coffee has been shown to increase your BDNF, but you have to be careful to choose a coffee that is not contaminated with heavy metals, mycotoxins, or mold. Many brands now share information about their sourcing and what they test for in their coffee, so visit the websites of brands you see in your store and see which can provide you with the cleanest coffee or ask your Amos Institute dietitian for a recommendation.

Five Lifestyle Practices that Boost BDNF

  • Intermittent fasting. Practicing intermittent fasting (limiting your intake of food to a smaller window of time each day rather than grazing from morning till night) reduces the production of inflammatory molecules that lower your BDNF levels. By giving your body time to rest and repair rather than work to digest food all day long, you can increase your cognitive function (15).
  • Exercise. Any form of exercise that boosts your heart rate leads to increased BDNF levels. If you are able to engage in some form of cardio, it will have benefits for your brain (16).
  • Sun exposure. BDNF levels rise and fall with the seasons; they are naturally higher during spring and summer but lower in the fall and winter. Try to get outside each day, even if it’s only for a 10-minute stroll around your block, to get a bit of sunshine on your skin (17).
  • Sleep. Deep sleep is beneficial because it helps you rest and repair. This is also when your body naturally releases more BDNF. Ensure you get adequate sleep to boost your body’s BDNF-producing power (18).
  • Manage your stress. Stress reduces BDNF, so finding any sort of personal practice that helps you manage your stress level can improve your cognitive health (18).

References:

  1. Mcallister, A. (2002). BDNF. Current Biology, 12(9), R310–R310. https://doi.org/ 10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00825-4
  2. Bekinschtein, P., Cammarota, M., Katche, C., Slipczuk, L., Rossato, J.I., Goldin, A., Izquierdo, I., Medina, J.H. (2008). BDNF is essential to promote persistence of long-term memory storage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (7), 2711-2716. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0711863105
  3. Lu, B., Nagappan, G., Lu, Y. (2014). BDNF and synaptic plasticity, cognitive function, and dysfunction. In: Lewin, G. & Carter B. (eds). Neurotrophic Factors. Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology, Vol 220. Springer: Berlin.
  4. iao, S. S., Shen, L. L., Zhu, C., Bu, X. L., Liu, Y. H., Liu, C. H., … Wang, Y. J. (2016). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor protects against tau-related neurodegeneration of Alzheimer's disease. Translational Psychiatry, 6(10), e907. doi:10.1038/tp.2016.186
  5. Sangiovanni, E., Brivio, P., Dell'Agli, M., & Calabrese, F. (2017). Botanicals as modulators of neuroplasticity: focus on BDNF. Neural Plasticity. doi:10.1155/2017/ 5965371
  6. Gómez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(7), 568–578. doi:10.1038/nrn2421
  7. Moosavi, F., Hosseini, R., Saso, L., & Firuzi, O. (2015). Modulation of neurotrophic signaling pathways by polyphenols. Drug Design, Development and Therapy, 10, 23–42. doi:10.2147/DDDT.S96936
  8. Gupta, C., & Prakash, D. (2014). Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 11(3), 151–169. https://doi.org/10.1515/ jcim-2013-0021
  9. Sarraf, P., Parohan, M., Javanbakht, M.H., Ranji-Burachaloo, S., Djalali, M. (2019). Short-term curcumin supplementation enhances serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor in adult men and women: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition Research, 69, 1-8. doi: 10.1016/ j.nutres.2019.05.001
  10. Weiss, D.J. & Anderton, C.R. (2003). Determination of catechins in matcha green tea by micellar electrokinetic chromatography. Journal of Chromatography, 1011(1–2), 173-180. https://doi.org/ 10.1016/S0021-9673(03)01133-6
  11. Árvay, J., Tomáš, J., Hauptvogl, M., Massányi, P., Harangozo, I., Tóth, T., Stanovič, R., Bryndzová, S., Bumbalová, M. (2014) Human exposure to heavy metals and possible public health risks via consumption of wild edible mushrooms from Slovak Paradise National Park, Slovakia. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, 94(14-15), 833-843. https://doi.org/10.1080/03067319.2014.974588
  12. Dróżdż, P., Šėžienė, V., & Pyrzynska, K. (2018). Mineral composition of wild and cultivated blueberries. Biological Trace Element Research, 181(1), 173–177. doi:10.1007/s12011-017-1033-z
  13. Hyman, M. How soy can kill you and save your life. Accessed from: https:// drhyman.com/blog/2010/08/06/how-soy-can-kill-you-and-save-your-life/
  14. Olendzki, B. & Chaiken, J. (2019). Using black pepper to enhance the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric [University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Applied Nutrition]. Retrieved from: https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/ blog/blog-posts/2019/6/using-black-pepper-to-enhance-the-anti-inflammatory-effects-of-turmeric/
  15. Vasconcelos, A., Yshii, L., Viel, T., Buck, H., Mattson, M., Scavone, C., & Kawamoto, E. (2014). Intermittent fasting attenuates lipopolysaccharide-induced neuroinflammation and memory impairment. Journal of Neuroinflammation, 11(1), 85. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-2094-11-85.
  16. Rasmussen, P., Brassard, P., Adser, H., Pedersen, M.V., Leick, L., Hart, E., Secher, N.H., Pedersen, B.K. & Pilegaard, H. (2009), Evidence for a release of brain‐derived neurotrophic factor from the brain during exercise. Experimental Physiology, 94, 1062-1069. doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2009.048512
  17. Molendijk, M. L., Haffmans, J. P. M., Bus, B. A. A., Spinhoven, P., Brenda, W. J. H. P., Prickaerts, J., . . . Elzinga, B. M. (2012). Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlations with the amount of ambient sunlight. PLoS One, 7(11). doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy2.usc.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0048046
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