Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have found that cutting your energy intake by fasting several days a week might help your brain ward off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as improves memory and mood.
According to a professor of Neuroscience and Chief Laboratory scientist of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, Mark Mattson stated that too many calories aren’t good for your waistline, and they are neither good for the brain.
Prof. Mattson, who has worked on previous studies establishing a connection between caloric intake and brain function, collaborated with other researchers on a six-month study of people practicing the 5:2 diet, which demonstrated improvement in participants wellbeing.
The study found that participants who practiced the 5:2 diet method ate 500 -600 calories on two non-consecutive days each week. Some alternate-day fasting regimens add in a third day of fasting each week. For the rest of the week, a person eats only the number of calories they burn during the day. Over time, this created a calorie deficit that allowed the person to lose weight.
“Fasting is a challenge to your brain, and we think that your brain reacts by activating adaptive stress responses that help it cope with disease,” says Mattson. “From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense your brain should be functioning well when you haven’t been able to obtain food for a while”.
Mattson explained that every time you eat, glucose is stored in your liver as glycogen, which takes about 10 to 12 hours to be depleted.
After the glycogen is used up, your body starts burning fats, which are converted to ketone bodies, acidic chemicals used by neurons as energy. Ketones promote positive changes in the structure of synapses important for learning, memory, and overall brain health.
Mattson advised that if one decides to try fasting, don’t dive in too quickly. The analogy with exercise applies here as well. If you’ve been sedentary and then all of a sudden you try to run five miles, it’s not very pleasant and you’ll likely get discouraged. It’s the same thing as if you’ve been eating three meals a day plus snacks, and then you’re not eating anything at all for two days; you’re not going to like it.
Interestingly, this is the month of Ramadan, where Muslims all over the world are engaging in their declaration of faith that involves abstaining from food and drink from dawn until dusk.
While fasting for Ramadan is down to spiritual beliefs, many others choose to fast with the belief that it is beneficial to their health. But does it? A number of studies have suggested intermittent fasting has numerous health benefits, including weight loss, lower blood pressure and reduced cholesterol.
According to Dr Michael Mosley – author of The Fast Diet books – this eating plan can not only help people lose weight, but it offers an array of other health benefits.
“Studies of intermittent fasting show that not only do people see improvements in blood pressure and their cholesterol levels, but also in their insulin sensitivity,” he added.
Another study, conducted by Dr Valter Longo, biogerontologist and cell biologist, found that longer periods of fasting 15-30 days may even “reboot” the immune system, clearing out old immune cells and regenerating new ones – a process they say could protect against cell damage caused by factors such as aging and chemotherapy.
Longo, suggested that prolonged fasting may also be effective for regenerating immune cells, he explained that when one starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.
Dr Razeen Mahroof, of the University of Oxford in the UK, also explained that the use of fat for energy can help preserve muscle and reduce cholesterol levels.
“A detoxification process also occurs, because any toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body,” he added, noting that after a few days of fasting, higher levels of endorphins – “feel-good” hormones – are produced in the blood, which can have a positive impact on mental well-being.
With the potential health benefits of fasting widely hailed by nutritionists worldwide, it is no wonder many of us are putting our love of food to one side in order to give it a try.
According to some researchers and health care professionals, there are some people who should avoid fasting altogether and who should not follow the trend. They include people who are underweight, pregnant women, people with type 1 diabetes and individuals recovering from surgery.
People who are prone to low blood sugar or easily feel dizzy or fatigued if they do not eat may not want to follow a diet that involves fasting.
Anyone with a chronic condition, such as diabetes, can consult a doctor before trying any diet that includes fasting.