The key to good brain health is not only about choosing the right diet (one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and nutrients), but also determining when to eat and how often. The practice of eating at specifically designated periods of time is referred to as “intermittent fasting” and is growing in popularity.

According to a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFICF), intermittent fasting was the most popular way of eating in 2020, edging out gluten-free and low- carb regimens.

INTERMITTENT FASTING SHOULD NOT BE THOUGHT OF AS A FAD DIET PROGRAM NOR SHOULD IT BE CONFUSED WITH DEPRIVING YOURSELF OF FOOD. RATHER, FASTING REQUIRES THE ACTIVE INTAKE OF NUTRITIONAL CALORIES OVER SPECIFIC, RECURRING PERIODS OF TIME.

This practice has been recognized by many cultures and religions for centuries. While the duration and reasons differ across the globe, the appreciation of cleansing, sacrifice, and rejuvenation are common. Fasting has also been recognized by the scientific and research community, with various studies finding significant links between fasting, aging, brain health, and cognitive function.

IMPACT OF FASTING ON THE BODY

Fasting triggers a shift in the resources that our body uses for energy. As a result, fasting activates metabolic changes in the body from using glucose to ketones for energy. This back-and-forth activity throughout the fasting process is referred to as “metabolic switching” and scientists believe that the process may not only build the brain’s resilience and productivity, but also boost its support system.

Neurologist Dr. Matthew Phillips of Waikato Hospital in New Zealand is one of many doctors using this “metabolic strategy” as part of his treatment plan for patients to help with brain cell generation, building resilience to neurological conditions, and increasing cognitive and psychological benefits. As he explained, “it is thought cells go into a survival and repair mode during the fasts, followed by growth and regeneration during the refeeding phase.” 

When glucose and insulin levels decrease in this metabolic process, it also causes autophagy – meaning that the body is detoxifying itself of old damaged cells and increasing the regeneration of newer, healthier cells.

THE RESULT IS ONE OF THE GREATEST ADVANTAGES OF INTERMITTENT FASTING
ON THE BRAIN: INCREASING BRAIN HEALTH AND COGNITIVE FUNCTION.

Unfortunately, since most people consume three meals and multiple snacks every day, their bodies never experience (nor reap the benefits of) these metabolic changes.

FASTING & INFLAMMATION

Several studies have also indicated that intermittent fasting can cause a decrease in inflammation (including, for example, a 2012 study published in Nutrition Research, which explored the ways in which intermittent fasting and caloric restriction practiced during the month of Ramadan positively affected the inflammatory state of the participants).

The connection between fasting and inflammation is critical because chronic inflammation is one of the links to many brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, as well as Parkinson’s disease. It can also greatly impact individuals with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and multiple sclerosis.

According to Dr. Stefan Jordan, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Oncological Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City,

“CONSIDERING THE BROAD SPECTRUM OF DISEASES THAT ARE CAUSED BY CHRONIC INFLAMMATION AND THE INCREASING NUMBER OF PATIENTS AFFECTED BY THESE DISEASES, THERE IS AN ENORMOUS POTENTIAL IN INVESTIGATING THE ANTI-INFLAMMATORY
EFFECTS OF FASTING.”

Dr. Jordan’s research team not only found that fasting reduces inflammation and improves chronic inflammatory diseases, but also that the process can occur without affecting the immune system’s response to acute infections.

FASTING & THE BRAIN

Other studies have focused on how fasting affects the mind and body with significant changes to cognitive functioning. In one study (published in the April 2007 issue of Neurobiology of Disease), mice that had been altered to have Alzheimer’s-related genes were put on an intermittent fasting schedule. As the mice aged, they exhibited less cognitive decline and damage, and performed better than the other mice following a free-eating regime. The researchers concluded that their findings provide direct evidence that intermittent fasting can ameliorate age-related impairments in learning and memory tasks.

Director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC) Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Dr. Valter Longo, who earned his doctorate in philosophy in biochemistry, is often referred to as “the fasting evangelist.” Dr. Longo’s research efforts have focused on how fasting-like diets extend life and help treat and prevent disease.

Dr. Longo and his colleagues have clinically demonstrated that short durations of periodic fasting can have several benefits on aging and risk factors for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other age-related disorders in mice and in humans. More recent studies have also shown promise for treating multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

His early research revealed that yeast cells that were starved of nutrients tended to live longer and were more resistant to stress. “If you starve them, they become very protected, so I started thinking, what would this be useful for? And the first idea was chemotherapy.” With that in mind, Dr. Longo set out to conduct a study that has helped change some of the thinking of cancer treatments.

He discovered that fasting for two days protected healthy cells against the toxicity of chemotherapy, while the cancer cells stayed sensitive. The results of the study also led to the creation of the first fasting-mimicking diet, which Dr. Longo developed to put patients with cancer, or mice in the laboratory, in a fasting state while still allowing them to eat.

Critical when evaluating if fasting is right for you is to consider why you are doing it. Registered dietician Cary Kreutzer, Director of the Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity Program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, gives advice for those considering forgoing food, even for a short time.

FASTING IS FOR LIVING LONGER, NOT FOR LOSING WEIGHT. FASTING GETS RID OF WEAK CELLS IN THE BODY, LETTING THEM DIE OFF BY BRIEFLY NOT GIVING THEM ENERGY. THIS GIVES ROOM FOR STRONGER CELLS TO GROW AND THRIVE AFTER THE PROCESS, POSSIBLY IMPROVING THE CHANCES OF LIVING A LONGER LIFE. FASTING IS NOT INTENDED FOR WEIGHT LOSS. HAVING THIS INTENTION MIGHT LEAD TO UNHEALTHY FORMS OF FASTING.

A recent study out of the University of Toronto reported that 220 healthy adults who participated in intermittent fasting and maintained a restricted caloric diet for two years showed signs of improved memory and performed well on cognitive tests. The researchers noted that although more research needs to be conducted to prove any effects of intermittent fasting on learning and memory, fasting (or a pharmaceutical equivalent that mimics it) may be an intervention that can stave off neurodegeneration and dementia.

Although consuming fewer calories can likely contribute to overall weight loss, fasting should not be used as a means of dieting, but rather as a measure to help to optimize your overall health and well- being. Research conducted to date suggests that fasting offers a wide array of health benefits, including improving cognition and stalling age-related cognitive decline.

As a strategy for achieving and maintaining optimal brain health, the practice of fasting is self-managed and cost-free, making it an easy addition to your integrated health and wellness plan, provided you do the necessary research and consultative work. Fasting could be worth the wait!

BENEFITS OF FASTING

  • INCREASES STRESS RESISTANCE
  • PROMOTES HEALTHY AGING
  • INCREASES LONGEVITY
  • ASSISTS WITH WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
  • REDUCES INFLAMMATION
  • LOWERS BLOOD SUGAR AND REDUCES INSULIN LEVELS
  • IMPROVES CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH (BLOOD PRESSURE AND RESTING HEART RATE)
  • DECREASES RISK OR INCIDENCE OF DISEASES, INCLUDING CANCER, DIABETES, AND OBESITY

DANGERS OF FASTING

  • EMOTIONAL IMBALANCE: 
    • Too much too soon can be challenging on your body – causing mood swings and cravings.
  • UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: 
    • It takes time for the process to work. Be patient. Both your brain and your body need to adjust to the practice of fasting.
  • MODERATION: 
    • Fasting, no matter what the form, should not be used to permanently diet. It is best to gradually increase the duration and the frequency of the fasting periods, but in moderation.
  • CONFLICTING MEDICAL CONDITIONS: 
    • Most importantly, speak with your doctor before engaging in any kind of program, especially if you have particular medical conditions that may respond negatively to the effects of fasting.

This article is also available to read in Mind Over Matter Magazine on page 61.

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