The road to a healthier brain may not be via what you eat, but by what you don’t eat—that is, through intermittent fasting. An increasing amount of research shows that intermittent fasting can, in addition to improving digestion, help brain function.
Intermittent fasting can be practiced in various forms. For example, some people eat regular meals five days a week and then reduce their caloric intake significantly on the other two days. For others, it means limiting their food consumption every day to a specific four-, six-, or eight-hour window.
Intermittent fasting does not involve starving yourself, and you are encouraged to eat healthy foods in reasonable amounts. What it does do is help the body with a number of processes:
- Allows the body to shift into fat-burning mode
- Promotes production of human growth hormone, which helps slow aging
- Reduces your levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood
- Modulates your sensitivity to insulin and leptin, which play a role in diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases
- Normalizes levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin
- Reduces inflammation and the degree of cell damage associated with free radicals
Intermittent Fasting and the Brain
Among the numerous health benefits associated with intermittent fasting is improved brain health and protection against dementia. According to Mark Mattson, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Aging, research in animals has shown that “if we start an intermittent fasting diet at what would be the equivalent of middle age in people, we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
For example, a December 2015 study in the journal Biogerontology looked at the effects of 12 weeks of intermittent fasting on middle-aged rats. The authors observed an improvement in the rats’ motor coordination and learning response, along with a decline in oxidative damage to proteins. They also saw a downregulation in a factor involved with inflammation.
The researchers believe their findings provided insight into how modest intermittent fasting during middle age can slow down or prevent disruption of brain function and can promote healthy aging.
According to Mattson, the reason intermittent fasting benefits the brain is that it is associated with a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Mattson’s research suggests that when you fast every other day and consume only about 600 calories on fasting days, production of BDNF significantly increases. This protein triggers brain stem cells to transform into new brain cells and activates other chemicals associated with neural health.
If you combine intermittent fasting with exercise, you can reap even more benefits for your brain. This combination activates muscle regulatory factors, a type of growth factor that causes brain stem cells and muscle satellite cells to transform into new brain cells and new muscles cells, respectively.
Yet another way intermittent fasting can improve brain health is through your gut. It’s been shown that the microbiota (microorganisms) in the gut have an impact on brain function, including cognition, mood, and pain.
Intermittent fasting helps support and enhance the beneficial bacteria living in the gut. Not only does this support improve the digestive and immune systems, but also brain functions including attention, concentration, clarity, and memory.
If you would like to adopt an intermittent fasting lifestyle, you should consult with your health care provider first, especially if you have any chronic health conditions such as diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, or thyroid problems, or if you are taking any medications. Devise a plan that meets your needs and then start slowly. Intermittent fasting can be an effective way to support brain health and function, as well as promote overall health.
Deborah Mitchell is a health writer who has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. This article was originally published on NaturallySavvy.com