What is BDNF and why is it so important?

What Is BDNF?

BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that is primarily found in the brain and spinal cord.

BDNF is responsible for the survival and growth of neurons, as well as neuronal plasticity, which is essential to learning and memory.

Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinsons, Alzheimers and multiple sclerosis are all associated with low levels of BDNF (1).

The great news is, BDNF is not just something our body makes on its own. We have control over the production of BDNF and therefore have control over the health of our brain!

How do we increase BDNF naturally?

BDNF production is affected by various factors like exercise, nutrition, supplements, sleep and stress. A study comparing rats who were sedentary versus exercising aerobically throughout their lifespan found that the rats who exercised aerobically had significantly increased levels of BDNF which improved their cognitive function and increased their hippocampal neurons (2).

In addition, heat stress use has been shown to increase the expression of BDNF when used in conjunction with exercise. Heat stress refers to exposing the body to extreme temperatures like when using the sauna. Heat stress increases the production of beta-endorphins which has been known to enhance BDNF expression (3).

What can lower BDNF?

Research shows a diet high in sugar and saturated fat can lower the production of BDNF and therefore prevent synaptic plasticity and cognitive functions. On the other hand, foods that are high in flavonols like cocoa, fruit, tea and beans have shown protective effects on the brain (4).

BDNF can also be decreased due to stress levels. BDNF levels decrease when your central stress response is chronically activated. Physical and emotional stress can decrease your bodies production of BDNF (5).

What supplements can help boost BDNF?

One study found that dietary curcumin was able to mitigate the effects of oxidative stress and increase BDNF levels in patients with traumatic brain injury (6).

In addition, fish oil supplements that contain omega 3’s are being studied for their therapeutic effects on promoting neuronal plasticity and increasing BDNF (7). While more research needs to be conducted to understand how certain nutrients affect BDNF production, there is promising development connecting anti-inflammatory properties in food or supplements with improved brain health.

Comment below with how you boost your BDNF levels!

Special thanks to my research assistant Nutrition by Pasia

Learn more about optimizing your brain health here!


1. Bathina, S., & Das, U. N. (2015). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Archives of medical science : AMS, 11(6), 1164–1178. doi:10.5114/aoms.2015.56342

2. Pietrelli , A. (2018, May 23). Aerobic exercise upregulates the BDNF-Serotonin systems and improves the cognitive function in rats. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074742718301205?via=ihub

3. Pedersen, B. K. Muscle as a Secretory Organ. Comprhensive Physiology (2013).

4. Meeusen, R. (2014, May 3). Exercise, Nutrition and the Brain. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-014-0150-5

5. Monteiro, B. C., Monteiro, S., Candida, M., Adler, N., Paes, F., Rocha, N., … Machado, S. (2017). Relationship Between Brain-Derived Neurotrofic Factor (Bdnf) and Sleep on Depression: A Critical Review. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH, 13, 213–219. doi:10.2174/1745017901713010213

6. Wu, A., Ying, Z., & Gomez, F. (2005, December 20). Dietary curcumin counteracts the outcome of traumatic brain injury on oxidative stress, synaptic plasticity, and cognition. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014488605003274

7. Pawełczyk, T., Grancow-Grabka, M., Trafalska, E., Szemraj, J., Żurner, N., & Pawełczyk, A. (2019, May 17). An increase in plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor levels is related to n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid efficacy in first episode schizophrenia: secondary outcome analysis of the OFFER randomized clinical trial. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-019-05258-4