Brain Fog, Mental Clarity and BDNF

person holding string lights photo
Photo by David Cassolato on

Everyone has had days where they felt like they were moving in slow motion. Or as I like to describe it, like my brain is full of cotton candy.  

‘Brain fog’ isn’t an official medical diagnosis or symptom, rather it’s a loose term used to describe the common feeling of poor concentration, forgetfulness, chronic mental fatigue, indecision, irritability and low energy. Mention brain fog and we all know instantly, even though there isn’t a definite definition, what it means. 

Some of us are lucky and only experience it occasionally, for a couple of days, but having persistent brain fog can become very frustrating. 

On the other side of things, there are days where we have incredible mental clarity, feel incredibly motivated, competent, level-headed and calm.

It got me thinking about the WHY and HOW I could optimise my brain to function better. My research kept leading me back to BDNF.

Please note that there are definitely other serious medical conditions that need to be excluded for persistent brain fog, such as anemia, diabetes, autoimmune conditions and hormonal disorders and this article DOES NOT COVER the DIAGNOSIS of brain fog. It is important, if you have any symptoms or conditions, to first consult your doctor and be tested and treated with TARGETED THERAPY. Having said that, everyone can definitely benefit from a better healthier lifestyle and increased BDNF. 


What is BDNF?


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a powerful protein that stimulates the production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones. More specifically, releasing BDNF activates a series of genes that develop new cells and brain pathways. Thus, having high BDNF makes you learn faster, remember better, age more slowly, and reconnect your brain quickly. 

Low BDNF has been linked to many brain-related conditions. These include anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, dementia, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout syndrome, and suicidal behaviour. It’s not clear whether low BDNF causes these disorders or is a side effect of them.

There have also been studies to show correlation between low BDNF and obesity, hypertension and insomnia.

High BDNF on the other hand counteracts the negative effects of stress on the brain and protects the brain from neurodegenerative disease by increasing the brain’s plasticity and suppressing brain inflammation. It also has a natural antidepressant effect on the brain. There has also been suggestions that hight BDNF levels are related to increased lifespan.

How do I increase BDNF?


  1. Exercise

Screenshot 2019-09-06 at 4.49.21 PMGYROTONIC at Breathe Pilates

The link between BDNF and exercise has been known for a long time, but researchers have recently discovered that exercise actually activates the gene that sends a signal to create more BDNF.

All types of exercise help increase BDNF, but some types work better than others. Mind-body movements requiring co-ordination and multi plane movements such as dance, GYROTONIC, Pilates, Yoga were associated with higher levels of BDNF. High intensity exercises, were also associated with increases in BDNF. 

The most important thing is to vary your exercises to include aerobic and anaerobic exercises and movements that challenge your balance, co-ordination and to include all three planes of motion

Tip: A favourite trick of mine mid-day when my brain needs a bit of wake up is to move my eyes side to side without moving my head. Everything we do on a day to day basis is pretty much on the same plane – up and down, forward and back. By moving my eyes side to side, it is a quick way to get my brain moving and aware of the coronal plane (horizontal plane). 

  1. Sun

Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlations with the amount of ambient sunlight. It was higher during spring and summer and lower during autumn and winter.  

A lot of people only know of sunlight as being beneficial for vitamin D absorption and production thinking that if they supplement with vitamin D, they do not need the sun. Supplemental vitamin D in a human trial did not increase BNDF and supplemental vitamin D in postmenopausal women actually showed a decrease in BNDF. 

Tip: Walk out for lunch in the sun without an umbrella and beat the afternoon slump

  1. Food & Nutrition

Screenshot 2019-09-06 at 4.47.03 PMPhoto by Sandra Lim from

Intermittent fasting has shown to increase BDNF.  Lots of other foods have had associations with an increase BDNF. Although the mechanism isn’t clear, it is likely that these food are anti-inflammatory and reduce oxidative stress on the brain which in turn increases BDNF levels. 

Some of these that are associated with increase BDNF are: 


  • cranberries
  • chocolate
  • green tea
  • olive oil
  • spices
  • black pepper
  • turmeric

Ferulic Acid

  • seeds of coffee beans
  • apples
  • artichokes
  • peanuts 
  • oranges


  • pumpkin seeds
  • avocados
  • salmon
  • almonds
  • leafy greens

Omega 3 Fatty Acids 

  • certain fishes
  • flax seeds
  • chia seeds
  • walnuts
  • spinach
  • brussels sprouts
  • purslane
  • meats from grass-fed animals


  • red onions
  • grapes
  • cranberries
  • tomatoes
  • capers


  • raw cacao
  • dark chocolate 
  • coffee

Resistant starch 

  • green bananas
  • potato starch


  • peanuts
  • pistachios
  • grapes
  • red and white wine
  • blueberries
  • cranberries
  • cocoa and dark chocolate

Foods and supplements that are associated with decreased BDNF are:

  • High dose zinc supplementation
  • High in refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup

Traditional thinking often had people spot-reducing. Patients with hypertension were suggested to reduce salt, diabetics were asked to reduce sugar, patients with elevated cholesterol levels were told not to eat eggs and seafood, and gout sufferers were told to avoid peanuts and beer.

Over the course of my research and education, I have found that most, if not all, conditions benefit from the same anti-inflammatory diet: A whole food diet consisting of dark green leafy vegetables, a variety of fruits, protein, whole grains and healthy fats. 

Tip: A really simple way to make sure you’re eating well is to think of your total daily food intake on a plate. 1/2 of it should be made up of dark green leafy vegetables, 1/4 of it complex carbohydrates from whole grains or fruits and the last 1/4 made up on high quality protein and fats.

  1. Stress Reduction and Cognitive Stimulation 

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Stess reduction and the effects of stress on our body rightfully deserves an entire article on its’ own. Apart from BDNF, stress and stress reduction can affect our health in a variety of other ways through other biochemical mechanisms which we will not be discussing for now. 

Chronic sleep deprivation, chronic or acute stress and high levels of cortisol were associated with reduce BDNF. 

Activities that provided cognitive stimulation, such as enjoyable social interactions, puzzles, learning and music showed an increase in BDNF.

We’ve always known that we should never stop learning, and that we age when we do. BDNF provides a biochemical explanation for these wise words. 

Tip: Develop good sleep habits. Maintain a regular night routine, so your body knows it’s time to wind down, and try to head to bed the same time every night (even during the weekends!). Try to wake up the same time every morning too and without an alarm clock if possible.
Make an effort to schedule in weekly downtime, for your favourite activities or to just do absolutely nothing! 

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