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The Little-Known Factor that Acts Like Fertilizer for Your Brain (Plus: How to Boost it with Diet)

By Kelley Herring

The rate of brain-related diseases is on the rise. In fact, more than 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s. And that number is expected to triple by 2050 to 16 million.i,ii

And while Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to certain genetics, traumatic brain injury and increasing age, research shows that the primary risk factors risk for Alzheimer’s come from modifiable lifestyle factors, including unhealthy weight, high blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as smoking, excess alcohol consumption and lack of exercise.iii

In other words, the vast majority of Alzheimer’s disease cases are NOT the result of an unavoidable genetic “roll of the dice” that originates in the brain. Rather, it is a metabolic disease that impacts the brain. In fact, many researchers now call Alzheimer’s “Type-3 Diabetes”, while implementing metabolic approaches to treat and prevent this devastating condition.iv

The good news is that by making wise decisions about your diet and lifestyle, you have tremendous capacity to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline.

And in today’s article, you will discover a little-known metabolic “factor” that can improve your cognitive function, boost mental health and increase short and long-term memory… and protect your brain from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. The benefits of this compound are so profound, one Harvard doctor calls it “Miracle-Gro™ for your Brain.”

You will also discover the lifestyle factors that dial this protective factor UP or down… and one unique way of eating to dramatically boost this brain-sharpening compound.

But first, what is this miraculous compound?

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): Fertilizer for Your Gray Matter

The word “neurotrophic” refers to the growth (trophic) of brain and nervous tissue (neuro). Neurotrophic “factors” are unique proteins, produced in your brain and gut, which promote and regulate the growth of brain and nerve tissue.v

If a developing neuron obtains an adequate amount of these neurotropic factors, it will survive. But without enough of these proteins it will die or become impaired. Neurotrophic factors are to the brain what “healthy soil” is for crops and pasture-raised animals. Just like a plant or animal on nutrient-devoid soil will fail to thrive, so too will a brain deprived of neurotrophic factors.

Researchers have discovered a number of these neurotrophins, including nerve growth factor (NGF), neurotrophic factor-3 (NT-3), neurotrophic factor-4/5 (NT-4/5) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Of these, BDNF has special clinical significance. You see, BDNF is not only essential for the survival of developing neurons, it also has neuro-protective effects under adverse conditions, including oxygen deprivation, exposure to toxic chemicals and even brain

In fact, BDNF is such a powerful protector of brain tissue that doctors can predict the severity and ability to recover from traumatic brain injury, based on the patient’s levels of BDNF at the time of the accident!

In the Journal of Neurotrauma, researchers reported that while healthy people averaged 60 nanograms per milliliter of BDNF in the blood, patients with brain injuries had less than one-third of that amount. And those with the most severe TBIs had even lower levels (around 4 nanograms per milliliter). This indicates that BDNF is used by the brain in the process of recovery.

The study also found that patients with higher levels of BDNF had mostly recovered from their injuries six months later. Those with the lowest levels of BDNF had more lingering symptoms at follow-up.vii

Similar research, published in the American Academy of Neurology, found that people with the highest BDNF expression in the brain had a 50% reduction in the rate of cognitive decline, compared to those with the lowest BDNF.viii

Given this information, it is no surprise that BDNF levels are used to evaluate brain health and to diagnose (and treat) Alzheimer’s.ix In fact, a number of Alzheimer’s drugs, including cerebrolysin and donepezil, are intended to help increase BDNF.x

But you don’t need to take a prescription to enhance your levels of this brain-boosting compound…

bdnf, chronic fatigue, keto, sun exposure, omega-3 fats

Lower Carbs, Higher BDNF

In previous articles, I’ve shared how your brain works differently when it is fueled by glucose (from a carb-rich diet) compared to how it works when fueled by ketones (from a fat-rich, low-carb diet).

Not only do ketones burn cleaner and produce more “energy currency” (or ATP), fueling your brain with ketones can increase BDNF expression, decrease brain inflammation and even improve mitochondrial function.xi

Conversely, a diet rich in carbohydrates promotes higher blood sugar and brain glucose. This has been shown to reduce levels of BDNF in animal studies.xii

A recent randomized control trial (RCT) evaluated the effects of a carb-restricted diet and exercise on twelve subjects with metabolic syndrome. The carb-restricted diet had beneficial effects on levels of BDNF and executive function. This finding was independent of exercise, although exercise did enhance those benefits. BDNF was also inversely correlated with body fat, fasting glucose, triglycerides and insulin sensitivity.xiii

BDNF, brain health, autophagy

Boost BDNF Naturally for a Sharper Brain & Happier Life

The ways to boost BDNF are the same healthy-lifestyle techniques that reduce just about every other chronic disease. In addition to cutting carbs, here are seven more ways to help optimize your levels of BDNF for a healthy, happy brain:

1. Achieve a Healthy Weight:

Obesity is associated with reduced levels of BDNF and mutations in the BDNF gene, while weight loss has been shown to increase levels of BDNF.xiv,xv

2. Engage in Regular Vigorous Exercise:

Vigorous exercise is a powerful way to boost BDNF.xvi One study showed that BDNF in the hippocampal region of the brain increased significantly with aerobic exercise!xvii This is vital as the hippocampus is involved with the creation and storage of memories and decreases in volume with age. Another recent study conducted in obese adolescents found that exercise boosted BDNF and reduced key risk factors for diabetes.xviii

3. Get Regular Sunlight Exposure:

Your level of sun exposure is directly correlated with BDNF levels. Serum BDNF was analyzed in almost 3,000 people who took part in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Researchers found “pronounced seasonal variations” in BDNF – with increased concentrations in the spring-summer and decreased concentrations in the autumn-winter. Seasonal depression is also correlated with BDNF.xix

4. Engage in Intermittent Fasting:

Research shows intermittent fasting increases the production of BDNF, helping to protect neurons against degeneration.xx

5. Optimize your Omegas:

Omega-3 fatty acids, from wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, halibut and clean-sourced fish oil boost BDNF. In fact, a controlled trial evaluated the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on BDNF in schizophrenic patients. The patients taking fish oil for 12 weeks enjoyed significant increases in BDNF and reductions in markers for inflammation.xxi

6. Get Restorative Sleep:

Sleep disturbances and insomnia are associated with decreased levels of BDNF.xxii For optimal health, aim for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.

7. Consider Brain-Boosting Supplements:

In addition to the healthy lifestyle modifications noted above, curcumin (from turmeric), green tea and resveratrol (found in grapes, wine, dark chocolate and berries) have all been found to boost levels of BDNF.xxiii,xxiv,xxv

If you struggle with depression, “brain fog”, or cognitive impairment – or just want to take action today to prevent brain-related dysfunction tomorrow – boosting your levels of BDNF can go a long way to improving the quality of your life and keeping your brain sharp for years to come.

Read more of Kelley Herring’s Health & Wellness articles on our Discover Blog.

kelley herring


Kelley Herring is the author of the brand new book Keto Breads – which includes more information you need to know about why it is so important to avoid wheat and grains in your diet, plus how to use healthy replacements for these foods to create all the breads you love… without the gluten, carbs and health-harming effects. Click here to learn more about Keto Breads


i Brookmeyer R, Gray S, Kawas C. Projections of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States and the public health impact of delaying disease onset. Am J Public Health. 1998;88(9):1337-1342. doi:10.2105/ajph.88.9.1337

ii Galvin JE. Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease: Lessons Learned and Applied. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017;65(10):2128-2133. doi:10.1111/jgs.14997

iii O’Donnell CA, Browne S, Pierce M, McConnachie A, Deckers K, van Boxtel MP, Manera V, Köhler S, Redmond M, Verhey FR, van den Akker M, Power K, Irving K, In-MINDD Team.Reducing dementia risk by targeting modifiable risk factors in mid-life: study protocol for the Innovative Midlife Intervention for Dementia Deterrence (In-MINDD) randomised controlled feasibility trial. Pilot Feasibility Stud. 2015; 1():40.

iv Kandimalla R, Thirumala V, Reddy PH. Is Alzheimer’s disease a Type 3 Diabetes? A critical appraisal. Biochim Biophys Acta Mol Basis Dis. 2017;1863(5):1078-1089. doi:10.1016/j.bbadis.2016.08.018

v Bathina S, Das UN. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Arch Med Sci. 2015;11(6):1164-1178. doi:10.5114/aoms.2015.56342

vi Maisonpierre PC, Le Beau MM, Espinosa R 3rd, Ip NY, Belluscio L, de la Monte SM, Squinto S, Furth ME, Yancopoulos GD. Human and rat brain-derived neurotrophic factor and neurotrophin-3: gene structures, distributions, and chromosomal localizations.

Genomics. 1991 Jul; 10(3):558-68.

vii Korley FK, Diaz-Arrastia R, Wu AH, et al. Circulating Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Has Diagnostic and Prognostic Value in Traumatic Brain Injury. J Neurotrauma. 2016;33(2):215-225. doi:10.1089/neu.2015.3949

viii A. S. Buchman, L. Yu, P. A. Boyle, J. A. Schneider, P. L. De Jager, D. A. Bennett. Higher brain BDNF gene expression is associated with slower cognitive decline in older adults. Neurology, 2016

ix Tanila H. The role of BDNF in Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Dis. 2017;97(Pt B):114-118. doi:10.1016/j.nbd.2016.05.008

x Alvarez XA, Alvarez I, Iglesias O, et al. Synergistic Increase of Serum BDNF in Alzheimer Patients Treated with Cerebrolysin and Donepezil: Association with Cognitive Improvement in ApoE4 Cases. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2016;19(6):pyw024. doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyw024

xi Masino SA, Rho JM. Mechanisms of Ketogenic Diet Action. In: Noebels JL, Avoli M, Rogawski MA, Olsen RW, Delgado-Escueta AV, eds. Jasper’s Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies. 4th ed. Bethesda (MD): National Center for Biotechnology Information (US); 2012.

xii Guzzardi MA, Sanguinetti E, Bartoli A, et al. Elevated glycemia and brain glucose utilization predict BDNF lowering since early life. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2018;38(3):447-455. doi:10.1177/0271678X17697338

xiii Gyorkos A, Baker MH, Miutz LN, Lown DA, Jones MA, Houghton-Rahrig LD. Carbohydrate-restricted Diet and Exercise Increase Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor and Cognitive Function: A Randomized Crossover Trial. Cureus. 2019;11(9):e5604. Published 2019 Sep 9. doi:10.7759/cureus.5604

xiv Sandrini L, Di Minno A, Amadio P, Ieraci A, Tremoli E, Barbieri SS. Association between Obesity and Circulating Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) Levels: Systematic Review of Literature and Meta-Analysis. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(8):2281. Published 2018 Aug 3. doi:10.3390/ijms19082281

xv Lee IT, Fu CP, Lee WJ, et al. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, but not body weight, correlated with a reduction in depression scale scores in men with metabolic syndrome: a prospective weight-reduction study. Diabetol Metab Syndr. 2014;6(1):18. Published 2014 Feb 13. doi:10.1186/1758-5996-6-18

xvi Wrann CD, White JP, Salogiannnis J, et al. Exercise induces hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 pathway. Cell Metab. 2013;18(5):649-659. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2013.09.008

xvii Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(7):3017-3022. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015950108

xviii Walsh JJ, D’Angiulli A, Cameron JD, et al. Changes in the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Are Associated with Improvements in Diabetes Risk Factors after Exercise Training in Adolescents with Obesity: The HEARTY Randomized Controlled Trial. Neural Plast. 2018;2018:7169583. Published 2018 Sep 30. doi:10.1155/2018/7169583

xix Molendijk ML, Haffmans JP, Bus BA, et al. Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlations with the amount of ambient sunlight. PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e48046. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048046

xx Mattson MP. Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: a neurobiological perspective. Annu Rev Nutr. 2005;25:237-260. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.25.050304.092526

xxi Satogami K, Takahashi S, Yamada S, Ukai S, Shinosaki K. Omega-3 fatty acids related to cognitive impairment in patients with schizophrenia. Schizophr Res Cogn. 2017;9:8-12. Published 2017 May 18. doi:10.1016/j.scog.2017.05.001

xxii Schmitt K, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Eckert A. BDNF in sleep, insomnia, and sleep deprivation. Ann Med. 2016;48(1-2):42-51. doi:10.3109/07853890.2015.1131327

xxiii Liu D, Wang Z, Gao Z, et al. Effects of curcumin on learning and memory deficits, BDNF, and ERK protein expression in rats exposed to chronic unpredictable stress. Behav Brain Res. 2014;271:116-121. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.068

xxiv Gundimeda U, McNeill TH, Fan TK, et al. Green tea catechins potentiate the neuritogenic action of brain-derived neurotrophic factor: role of 67-kDa laminin receptor and hydrogen peroxide. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2014;445(1):218-224. doi:10.1016/j.bbrc.2014.01.166

xxv Rahvar M, Nikseresht M, Shafiee SM, et al. Effect of oral resveratrol on the BDNF gene expression in the hippocampus of the rat brain. Neurochem Res. 2011;36(5):761-765. doi:10.1007/s11064-010-0396-8