How Can I Improve My Brain Health Naturally?

What is neuroplasticity?

As we age, we can relate to that moment when we cannot remember a word or need to ask someone to repeat a sentence. Because of this, it is common for people to want to strengthen their cognition and brain health. Training in medicine formerly taught that the brain could not repair itself after a certain age. Now researchers have shown that the brain can create new brain cells and change synapses connecting brain cells. This ability of the brain to change is called neuroplasticity. Fortunately, there are lifestyle factors and targeted herbs and nutrients that can support brain health by promoting neuroplasticity.

What is BDNF, and does it matter for my brain health?

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a brain and central nervous system growth factor. The function of BDNF is to promote the growth of new nerve cells, nerve function, and synaptic connections. 1,2  In other parts of the nervous system, other growth factors, such as Nerve Growth Factor, support the sensory and sympathetic/parasympathetic nerves. By promoting the growth and development of neurons, BDNF is responsible for neuroplasticity.2 Supporting BDNF is an important way to support brain health, cognition, and mood.

How can I increase my BDNF levels to improve neuroplasticity?

Since BDNF is tied to neuroplasticity, anything that increases BDNF will support neuroplasticity. The adage “if you don’t use it, you lose it” is true for building BDNF. Learning new skills and continuing to engage intellectually helps improve BDNF levels. As BDNF increases, there is an improvement in cognition.3 Similarly, exercising the body is one of the most significant factors in improving BDNF in the brain.4 Sleep is known for being a time of repair for the body. Restful and adequate quantity of sleep is associated with an increase in BDNF. 5  Diet and herbal support can also be supportive for neuroplasticity. Research has shown some improvement in BDNF from intermittent fasting. 6 The mechanism for improvement from fasting is unclear. Still, hyperglycemia adversely affects brain health, so that may be a possible mechanism.

What lowers BDNF and neuroplasticity?

One of the most significant factors that decrease BDNF is stress. The stress can be physical or psychological, with increased cortisol leading to an abnormal HPA axis. 7,8 Stress in the body leads to inflammation, including neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation is associated with many pathological brain diseases and downregulation of BDNF. 9,10 Therefore, infections and toxins that cause neuroinflammation can negatively impact BDNF. Traumatic brain injury (TBI), which has both acute and long-term adverse effects on mood and cognition, has been associated with decreased BDNF levels. 11 The lower BDNF level at the time of the TBI has been associated with a worse outcome for cognition and mood six months post-TBI. 12

Does BDNF impact my mood and cognition?

BDNF levels have a significant impact on depression and mood disorders. That is partly mediated through genetic polymorphisms (SNPs) in the BDNF gene. Specifically, the BDNF Valmet gene increases the risk of lifelong depression, which is thought to be mediated by poorer responses to stress.13 Research has shown associations between low BDNF levels in schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder. 14 Anti-depressants, as one of their mechanisms, help improve BDNF levels.1 5 Learning issues such as ADHD, which impact attention and cognition, have also been associated with lower BDNF levels. 16  Lower BDNF levels have been shown to correlate with cognitive function.17 Those who suffer from diseases that cause cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s, have lower levels of BDNF. 18

Does my diet impact my brain health?

A typical Western diet associated with increased saturated fat, processed carbohydrates and sugars, and high calories is associated with poorer brain function. 19 Elevated blood sugar leading to an increased risk of type 2 DM is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia long-term. 20  Increased levels of omega- 3 fatty acids have been associated with higher levels of BDNF. 21  Research has shown them also to be neuroprotective for depression and neurodegenerative disorders22

Can herbs and nutrients help improve BDNF levels and brain function?

Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a promising adaptogenic mushroom that has been shown to have neurotrophic properties. 23 This neurotrophic effect helps support neuroplasticity and BDNF. 23 Research on this mushroom has shown improvement in cognitive function and depression. 24-26 American Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an herb that supports the nervous system and BDNF. 27 Calming of the nervous system with American skullcap has been shown through its anti-convulsant effects. 28 Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera ) has become well known in recent years as an adaptogenic herb that is beneficial for supporting healthy stress and cortisol levels. 29,30 Maintaining a healthy cortisol level helps improve BDNF levels. Ashwagandha is also used to support cognitive functioning.31 Bacopa is another herb shown to support cognitive function, including attention and memory, so it is often used in supplements that support ADHD. 32,33

Phospholipids are a large part of cellular and mitochondrial membranes. The most common ones are phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine. The choline component of phosphatidylcholine is involved in forming the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential to our ability to learn. 34

A particular form of phosphatidylcholine called Citicholine has research demonstrating its ability to help support cognitive function.35 Phosphatidylserine also has research indicating support of cognitive function. 36,37 It helps nurture healthy cortisol levels, decreasing stress and supporting brain function. 38


The fear of deteriorating brain function is universal as we age. Luckily, because of neuroplasticity, the ability to improve our brains and increase BDNF is possible at any age. Our lifestyle influences our cognitive function. Focusing on improving our diet, exercising our minds and bodies, and targeting herbs and nutrients can go a long way toward protecting and improving our brain health.


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