Research over the last several years has shown that our brain has the remarkable ability to re-wire itself throughout life.
Every time we have a new thought, encode a new memory or learn a new skill, we are building a new neural network in our brain.
And these tiny neural networks are dependent on an ample supply of BDNF.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a naturally occurring protein that is responsible for the growth, maintenance and survival of neurons.
BDNF prevents apoptosis (brain cell death), induces the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and synapses (synaptogenesis), and supports cognitive function.
Higher levels of BDNF can increase cognition, mood, productivity and memory. And decrease the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
In this post we investigate why BDNF is so critical for optimal cognitive performance. And how you can increase BDNF naturally.
Table of Contents
How BDNF Works in Your Brain
BDNF is a protein that is encoded in humans by (oddly enough) the BDNF gene. BDNF is part of the neurotrophin family of growth factors which are related to Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).
BDNF regulates whether cells live or die, neurogenesis, axon growth, dendrite pruning, and the expression of proteins critical for normal brain function such as neurotransmitters and ion channels.
BDNF also controls the function of synapses and synaptic plasticity. All while continuing to modulate neuron survival.[i]
When BDNF is released, new connections form in your brain by attracting new dendrites from neurons to connect to other neurons or synapses.
This wiring together of new neural networks is how memory is formed and consolidated. A thought, memory or new skill you learn is the result of a new neural network.
When BDNF levels decline, you experience problems with memory and learning, and depression. This is why nootropics like Bacopa monnieri, L-Theanine, and Rhodiola Rosea exhibit antidepressant activity in your brain. They each have the ability to increase BDNF in your brain.
Here we’ll explore many of the nootropics available that can be easily added to our stack to increase BDNF at any age.
Nootropics to Boost BDNF
Ashwagandha is one of the most powerful adaptogens and has been used since ancient times to help the body adapt to stress. In the brain, Ashwagandha has been shown to help regenerate axons and dendrites, reconstruct synapses, and restore neural networks affected by neurodegenerative disease.
Ashwagandha performs some of this magic in the brain by boosting levels of BDNF. And research shows that Ashwagandha can also prevent the decline of BDNF levels in the brain.[ii]
Bacopa monnieri helps increase levels of BDNF in your brain. Bacopa has been used to boost memory and as an antidepressant for millennia. The ancient Ayurvedic texts recommended Bacopa to devotees to help memorize long passages of text.
Studies show that Bacopa monnieri improves word recall, increases attention, improves focus and reduces anxiety. A study conducted in India showed that Bacopa monnieri extract promoted hippocampus neurogenesis by elevating BDNF levels in the brain. And as an antioxidant defense against oxidative stress.[iii]
DHA (Omega-3) helps increase levels of BDNF in your brain. DHA makes up much of the gray matter in your brain. DHA regulates signaling in your brain, and gene expression. DHA influences neurotransmitters which affect memory, learning, focus and attention.
One study conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that DHA could restore BDNF levels to normal, even after traumatic brain injury.[iv]
Ginseng as long been used to improve memory and learning. Most neurohackers using ginseng report feeling more alert. We know that stress can reduce BDNF levels in the brain. This is where ginseng comes in.
One study showed that ginseng extract affected memory and learning by boosting nerve growth factor (NGF) and neurite growth in the brain.[v] Another study showed that ginseng extract (GRb1) prevented a decline in BDNF levels in animal brains that were subjected to stress.[vi]
Gotu Kola is often called the “student herb” in Bali because it sharpens the mind. Gotu Kola extract increases dendrite and axon growth in the brain which helps boost memory.
This was demonstrated in a study conducted in China. The researchers found that Gotu Kola extract significantly increased BDNF concentrations in the brain.[vii]
L-Theanine, which naturally occurs in green and oolong tea, is an amino acid. L-Theanine is used as a nootropic for anxiety, learning, mood, and focus.
A study in Tokyo investigated the mechanism of action L-Theanine exerts in the brain. And why it provides “antipsychotic-like” and “antidepressant-like” effects. The research team concluded that L-Theanine provides antianxiety and antidepressant effects “through induction of BDNF in the hippocampus and the agonistic action of L-Theanine on the NMDA receptor”.[viii]
Magnesium is critical to all of your body’s electrical and electrochemical activities. It’s involved in muscle contractions, heart rhythm, nerve function and brain cell activity.
Research shows that Magnesium L-Threonate easily crosses the blood-brain barrier (compared to other forms of magnesium). And once in your brain, magnesium increases NMDA receptor signaling, BDNF expression, and synaptic plasticity in the pre-frontal cortex. Increasing learning and memory while impairing fear memories.[ix]
N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)
N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC) is a powerful anti-oxidant that can boost mood, lower anxiety, improve memory, and reduce compulsive behavior. There is a growing body of scientific literature exploring the use of NAC in the treatment of psychiatric illness.
Research has shown that NAC helps boost dopamine release. NAC reduces inflammatory cytokines. And NAC acts in the process of glutathione synthesis.
Scientists believe this convergence of mechanisms in the brain are due NAC’s ability to promote cell survival and growth factor synthesis, leading to increased neurite sprouting. Partly through activating the BDNF/TrkB signal pathway.[x]
Noopept is an ampakine nootropic similar in action to the racetam-class of compounds. And is known for boosting cognition, memory, learning, perception, logical thinking and mood.
A study published by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow shows that Noopept stimulates Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).[xi]
Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogenic herb and nootropic that has been used in traditional medicine in Russia and Scandinavian countries for hundreds of years. This herb is known for improving alertness, energy, memory and mood, is anti-anxiety and anti-depressant, reduces fatigue, and boosts cognition and concentration.
Scientists found that Salidroside, the primary bioactive compound found in Rhodiola Rosea extract, significantly increases BDNF levels in the hippocampus.[xii]
Pterostilbene (PTE) is a naturally derived polyphenol antioxidant found in blueberries, grapes, and in the bark of the Indian Kino Tree. This potent antioxidant stimulates BDNF, promotes neuroplasticity, is anti-anxiety, boosts dopamine, and helps cognition, learning and memory.
In several studies, Pterostilbene has been shown to modulate gene expression. PTE up-regulates those genes that stimulate apoptosis (programmed cell death). And down-regulates those genes that allow cancer cells for example, to invade and metastasize.
And this gene modulation is linked to increases in CREB and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). An increase in BDNF helps long-term potentiation needed for the development of long-term memory.[xiii]
Resveratrol is a polyphenol stilbenoid and phytoalexin that certain plants produce in response to stress, such as injury or fungal infection. This potent antioxidant boosts BDNF, increases cerebral circulation, improves energy and memory, and potentially promotes longevity.
Researchers in Iran found that Resveratrol significantly boosted mRNA and BDNF in the hippocampus. And concluded “that the neuroprotective effects of Resveratrol may be at least partly due to its inducing effects on the expression levels of the BDNF mRNA”.[xiv]
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been shown to increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), fight depression, improve cognition, focus and libido, and protect the brain from inflammation.
Curcumin, the primary bioactive compound found in Turmeric, produces its neuroprotective effects in the brain by increasing BDNF. And mediating the BDNF/TrkB-MAPK/PI-3K-CREB signaling pathway in the brain.[xv]
In this post we’ve covered the nootropics we can use to boost BDNF levels in our brain. But the latest research shows several other natural ways to boost BDNF. And they include:
- Intermittent Fasting
- High-Intensity Resistance Training
- Sunlight or Vitamin D
- Restricting sugar intake
The Optimized Brain
Higher brain levels of BDNF helps support the survival of existing neurons, encourages the growth new neurons (neurogenesis) and new synapses (synaptogenesis), better memory, learning and cognition, and less depression.
BDNF is Miracle-Gro® for your brain. Use any one or more of the nootropic supplements detailed above to increase BDNF naturally for a highly optimized brain.
Or save some money and get effective amounts of Bacopa Monnieri extract, L-Theanine (as Suntheanine®), and Rhodiola Rosea 3:1 extract in Mind Lab Pro®.
You can get DHA in Performance Lab® Omega-3s (600 mg DHA & 300 mg EPA) which is an ultra-clean Omega-3 made with life’s™ OMEGA algae.
And get Magnesium in Performance Lab® Sleep which contains 100 mg Magnesium (as Magnesium Bisglycinate, Magnesium Taurate, NutriGenesis® Magnesium) combined with 500 mg CherryPURE® Montmorency Tart Cherry, and 250 mg TryptoPure® L-Tryptophan.
[i] Reichardt L.F., Huang E.J. “Neurotrophins: Roles in Neuronal Development and Function” Annual Review of Neuroscience. 2001; 24: 677–736. (source)
[ii] Konar A., Shah N., Singh R., Saxena N., Kaul S.C., Wadhwa R., Thakur M.K. “Protective Role of Ashwagandha Leaf Extract and Its Component Withanone on Scopolamine-Induced Changes in the Brain and Brain-Derived Cells” PLoS One. 2011; 6(11): e27265. (source)
[iii] Kumar S., Mondal A.C “Neuroprotective, Neurotrophic and Anti-oxidative Role of Bacopa monnieri on CUS Induced Model of Depression in Rat.” Neurochemistry Research. 2016 Aug 10. (source)
[iv] Wu A., Ying Z., Gomez-Pinilla F. “Dietary omega-3 fatty acids normalize BDNF levels, reduce oxidative damage, and counteract learning disability after traumatic brain injury in rats.” Journal of Neurotrauma. 2004 Oct;21(10):1457-67. (source)
[v] Nishiyama N., Cho S.I., Kitagawa I., Saito H. “Malonylginsenoside Rb1 potentiates nerve growth factor (NGF)-induced neurite outgrowth of cultured chick embryonic dorsal root ganglia.” Biological and Pharmalogical Bulletin. 1994 Apr;17(4):509-13. (source)
[vi] Kim M., Kim S.O., Lee M., Park Y., Kim D., Cho K.H., Kim S.Y., Lee E.H. “Effects of ginsenoside Rb1 on the stress-induced changes of BDNF and HSP70 expression in rat hippocampus.” Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. 2014 Jul;38(1):257-62 (source)
[vii] Xu C.L., Qu R., Zhang J., Li L.F., Ma S.P. “Neuroprotective effects of madecassoside in early stage of Parkinson’s disease induced by MPTP in rats.” Fitoterapia. 2013 Oct;90:112-8. (source)
[viii] Wakabayashi C., Numakawa T., Ninomiya M., Chiba S., Kunugi H. “Behavioral and molecular evidence for psychotropic effects in L-theanine.” Psychopharmacology (Berlin). 2012 Feb;219(4):1099-109. (source)
[ix] Abumaria N., Yin B., Zhang L., Li X.Y., Chen T., Descalzi G., Zhao L., Ahn M., Luo L., Ran C., Zhuo M., Liu G. “Effects of elevation of brain magnesium on fear conditioning, fear extinction, and synaptic plasticity in the infralimbic prefrontal cortex and lateral amygdala.” Journal of Neuroscience. 2011 Oct 19;31(42):14871-81. (source)
[x] Zhou H., Zheng X.Q., Zhang Z.J., Teng G.J. “[Effects of N-acetylcysteine upon methylglyoxal-induced damage in hippocampal neuronal cells].” Zhonghua Yi Xue Za Zhi. 2009 Oct 27;89(39):2789-92. (source).
[xi] Ostrovskaya R.U., Gudasheva T.A., Zaplina A.P., Vahitova J.V., Salimgareeva MH., Jamidanov RS, Seredenin S.B. “Noopept stimulates the expression of NGF and BDNF in rat hippocampus.” Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine. 2008 Sep;146(3):334-7. (source)
[xii] Yang SJ, et al. “Antidepressant-like effects of salidroside on olfactory bulbectomy-induced pro-inflammatory cytokine production and hyperactivity of HPA axis in rats.” Pharmacology and Biochemistry of Behavior. 2014 Sep;124:451-7. (source)
[xiii] Ferrer P., Asensi M., Priego S., Benlloch M., Mena S., Ortega A., Obrador E., Esteve J.M, Estrela J.M. “Nitric oxide mediates natural polyphenol-induced Bcl-2 down-regulation and activation of cell death in metastatic B16 melanoma.” Journal of Biological Chemistry. 2007 Feb 2;282(5):2880-90 (source)
[xiv] Rahvar M., Nikseresht M., Shafiee S.M., Naghibalhossaini F., Rasti M., Panjehshahin M.R., Owji A.A. “Effect of oral resveratrol on the BDNF gene expression in the hippocampus of the rat brain.” Neurochemistry Research. 2011 May;36(5):761-5. (source)
[xv] Wang R., Li Y.H., Xu Y., Li Y.B., Wu H.L., Guo H., Zhang J.Z., Zhang J.J., Pan X.Y., Li X.J. “Curcumin produces neuroprotective effects via activating brain-derived neurotrophic factor/TrkB-dependent MAPK and PI-3K cascades in rodent cortical neurons.” Progress in Neuro-psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 2010 Feb 1;34(1):147-53 (source)
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Would there be such a list in general for NGF, BDNF, in general for growth and regeneration of all neurons, receptors, etc.
A list of all nootropics for neurogynesis.
David Tomen says
Gene, since I published this article I’ve discovered another 6 or 7 nootropics that also increase BDNF. You can find all supplements that boost BDNF or are otherwise involved in neurogenesis by using the search function top right of the top menu.
Thomas Crespin says
Which is better for the brain NAC or EGCG, should I take both? Also, curious what dose of theanine is safe recommended for high blood pressure? Lastly is theanine safe for bipolar ie mania?
David Tomen says
Thomas, I suggest using both NAC and EGCG. L-Theanine can lower blood pressure. So if you are using blood pressure meds be careful because your blood pressure could go too low.
And I have not seen any problems with L-Theanine with Bipolar or mania.
Berta Roscher says
Isn’t Lion’s Mane considered very effective for BDNF?
David Tomen says
It’s not. Lion’s Mane boosts Nerve Growth Factor but not BDNF.
One group learned more.
“Western blot analysis also showed the increased protein expression of NGF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and synaptophysin (SYP) in C6-N2a cells.”
–“Neurotrophic isoindolinones from the fruiting bodies of Hericium erinaceus”, Se et al., 2020
David Tomen says
I stand corrected. Good find Zha. Here is the link to that study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33246107/
amino a says
Good evening David, to the best of your knowledge, what are the best supplements to repair the brain and help with the withdrawal of antidepressants
David Tomen says
Amino, no easy answer to this one because depending on the antidepressant. For example, detoxing from a true SSRI, you need to avoid anything that affects serotonin receptors. Which are very likely desensitized.
Really the only thing you can do is increase BDNF and Nerve Growth Factor which boost neurogenesis and helps your brain repair itself. The other problems like alterations in gene expression and messed up ion channels cannot be addressed by using supplements.
No mention of coffee fruit extract? By far the most effective IMO
David Tomen says
Aria, I discovered another 6 or 7 nootropic supplements that also boost BDNF since I published this article. Including caffeine which is why coffee fruit extract would increase BDNF.
If you dig for a very long time, you can find out that the bdnf hobby provokes almost all useful food for the brain))
I read somewhere else studies that more than 13 mg of lutein per day increases bdnf and generally helps the brain, research on the effect of lutein on the brain is enough. Will this page be updated? I really like your project, I would like it to constantly develop and be filled with accurate data))
David Tomen says
Danie, the only research I’ve done on Lutein is how it is beneficial for your eyes: https://nootropicsexpert.com/performance-lab-vision-review/#performance-lab%c2%ae-vision-ingredients
I should update this page because since I published it I’ve since reviewed another 6 or 7 nootropic supplements that also boost BDNF.