New research points to how brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) affects your life and shows ways you can increase it to support emotional, cognitive, and memory health.

Several studies over the years have found that lower levels of BDNF protein have been associated with cognitive impairment, memory loss, and depression. Find out what recent research suggests you do to protect yourself.

Brain Food

A study conducted in 2017 by the Nutrition Society found that there is an association between diet quality and depression and that a healthy diet can not only protect against depression but may also halt it.

The study examined the best available current evidence on diet and depression to give these recommendations:

  1. Follow a healthy food plan such as Mediterranean, Norwegian, or Japanese diets
  2. Increase the amount of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole-grain cereals, nuts, and seeds you eat
  3. Consume more foods rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
  4. Replace unhealthy foods with wholesome nutritious foods
  5. Limit intake of processed foods, particularly "fast" foods and sweets

With these tips in mind, some readers may be wondering what foods are part of a healthy Mediterranean, Norwegian, or Japanese diet?

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Often: Vegetables (artichokes, arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, seafood, and olive oil

In moderation: Poultry, dairy, and eggs

Rarely: Red meat and sugar


Often: Vegetables (cabbage, carrots, celery, kale, onions, zucchini), fruits, whole grains, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and canola oil

In moderation: Game meats, freerange eggs, low-fat cheese, and yogurt

Rarely: Other red meats, animal fats, and sugar


Often: Vegetables (bitter melon, burdock root, carrot, cucumber, daikon, seaweed, spinach) rice, noodles, whole grains, sweet potatoes, fish, and seafood

In moderation: Red meat, egg, and soy beans

Rarely: Dairy, fruits, and sugar

A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that a relatively low dietary inflammatory index (DII) may also be associated with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms.

Foods that have a low DII include many foods that are recommended in the Mediterranean diet.

Conversely, in 2017, the psychology department at Linyi People’s Hospital in China found that eating large amounts of processed meat, sugar, and refined grains coupled with a low intake of vegetables and fruits is associated with an increased risk of depression.

Additionally, Dr. Mark Mattson, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, concluded in a 2012 study that moderation in calorie intake can reduce the risk of depression, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease from occurring.

Exercise the Blues Away

A 2009 study in Experimental Physiology reported that physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, increases BDNF production in people threefold. Besides increasing BDNF, endorphins, the chemicals that make us feel happy and reduce our perception of pain, are released when we exercise, helping to chase depression away.

Dr. John Ratey, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," dubbed BDNF "Miracle-Gro for your brain" because it increases both the quantity and quality of your brain cells.

In his book, Ratey reported that moderately intense exercise that raises the heart rate best benefits the brain. Ratey also discussed how BDNF produces many cognitive benefits including supporting more function in the hippocampus, the area of the brain where memory and cognition are housed.

According to Ratey, the sweet spot to getting the brain health support from your workout is any exercise that gets the heart rate up to 70 percent of its maximum for 30 minutes a day, approximately five days a week.

To calculate your maximum heart rate, use this formula: 220 minus your age. Example: 220 - 50 = 170. To reach your target heart rate for increasing BDNF, which is 70 percent of 170, you would need to keep your heart rate at approximately 119 beats per minute for 30 minutes.

Sleep Matters

A 2013 study published in Behavioural Brain Research found that, in animal studies, chronic sleep restriction lowers BDNF. This indicates that not getting enough sleep is detrimental to brain health. Furthermore, a 2017 study published in Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health found that impaired sleep quality increases stress and makes patients more vulnerable to depression. Also, a 2018 article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported that amyloid beta peptide, a major pathological agent in Alzheimer’s disease, increases with acute
sleep deprivation. The researchers concluded that chronic sleep disorders may increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Matthew Walker, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, has written extensively on sleep and mental health. He states that sleep disruption contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression and anxiety, and can even lead someone to suicidal thoughts and actions.