Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? Well, when I ‘break my fast’ after not eating for 16-20 hours, it is! We’ve been told that small meals spread throughout the day are the key to good health, but new research is showing that this may not always be the case.
Intermittent fasting is more than just a trend; there is mounting evidence showing that it can help our bodies in ways that are almost unimaginable. Not only does it often prevent us from overeating, but it also sets off an avalanche of genetic and molecular changes that can help our brains perform optimally and decrease aging.
It may sound too good to be true, so let’s get into what scientists have found.
Intermittent fasting can…
- Reverse metabolic syndrome and all of its negative consequences.
- Increase brain strength and your ability to learn by boosting synaptic plasticity.
- Save your brain from the harm of oxidative damage from free radicals.
- Grow neurons and protect them by bumping up levels of neurotrophic factors.
- Decrease inflammation and avoid chronic diseases that come with it.
- Increase metabolism by growing brown fat (yes, there is a good kind of fat).
- Activate proteins that clean up your brain and again protect it from harm.
- Put you into ketosis and boost white fat metabolism.
- Help your mitochondria use energy more efficiently.
- Increase the body’s production of NAD, an essential molecule for metabolism and longevity.
- Boost stem cell production to provide more neuronal growth and recover from brain injuries.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting doesn’t mean that you are starving yourself, but rather it means that you are going approximately 14-48 hours without eating. Most people who utilize this tactic in everyday life will simply restrict their eating to a 4-10 hour window every day. The goal isn’t to limit calories, but this will most often naturally occur the shorter your eating window is.
For me, I will abstain from eating until I get home from work. This means I only eat from 4:00 PM to about 8:30 PM. Aside from the plethora of health benefits, I also save a lot of time because I don’t have to make breakfast or lunch and then take a half hour break to eat lunch. Then, when I get home, I have a large meal and snack for about 4 hours.
How Intermittent Fasting Benefits The Brain
When doing research on this topic, I was expecting it to be difficult to find good studies. Instead, I was inundated with what science has found. Intermittent fasting has a massive amount of research showing that it is beneficial for the whole body, but for now, let’s focus on the brain.
Intermittent Fasting Can Reverse Metabolic Syndrome By Increasing Insulin Sensitivity
Metabolic syndrome is possibly the source of many chronic diseases that plague modern society. In short, it is a conglomerate of the many consequences of leading an unhealthy lifestyle, including abdominal obesity, poor cholesterol, blood lipids in the unhealthy range, high blood pressure and high fasting glucose .
“The Metabolic Syndrome has been called a global epidemic by the World Health Organization and is considered a major public health problem, with 34% of Americans over the age of 20 estimated to be affected”
It is typically defined as a cluster of risk factors associated with Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular disease which we also know from a previous article is associated with dementia. Aside from the risk of age-related disease, general cognitive dysfunction occurs as well .
Essentially, people with Metabolic Syndrome have brains that start to function sub-optimally, their risk for stroke goes up, brain structure changes and energy depletion is seen. This is all thought to stem from a reduction in insulin sensitivity which is better known as insulin resistance .
Metabolic Syndrome has also been associated with a loss of cognitive power including lower information processing speed, shortened attention span and decreased ability to achieve goals.
How We Get Metabolic Syndrome
In a nutshell, when we eat too many processed carbohydrates, our blood becomes flooded with glucose and the pancreas has to pump out copious amounts of insulin to clear it out and store it in cells. As time goes on and this abuse continues, our cells begin to lose the ability to grab onto insulin and take in the glucose, hence the name insulin resistance.
This has dire consequences for the entire body, but the brain specifically loses the ability to get enough energy and also becomes inflamed. There is also an increase in oxidative damage which leads to accelerated age-related decline.
“Metabolic Syndrome has been linked to deficits in memory, visuospatial abilities, executive functioning, processing speed, and overall intellectual functioning”
This is a lot of information so let’s summarize the key points about Metabolic Syndrome:
- Metabolic Syndrome is a tremendous health crisis that is likely caused by living an unhealthy lifestyle.
- The underlying cause of the ‘outside’ symptoms is likely insulin resistance.
- Insulin resistance doesn’t allow the brain to get enough energy, causes inflammation and increases oxidative damage, among other ailments.
- This condition is associated with cognitive dysfunction and cognitive decline in general.
Intermittent Fasting Comes To Save The Day
Now, in comes intermittent fasting to save the day. When we are in a fasted state, the body isn’t overflowing with glucose because we aren’t eating. This means that when we are fasting, glucose doesn’t have to be shuttled around so blood glucose levels AND insulin levels both go down .
This gives our cells a break from the constant bombardment from insulin which results in reduced insulin resistance when done for extended periods of time. Along with this comes a decrease in age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s [3,4].
Put another way, the research is clear in saying that intermittent fasting may be a natural cure for Metabolic Syndrome, one of the most widespread health conditions of our time. The implications for day-to-day health and longevity are massive.
In one study ” Overweight subjects maintained for 6 months on a twice-weekly intermittent fasting diet in which they consumed only 500–600 calories on the fasting days, lost abdominal fat, displayed improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced blood pressure.” 
Furthermore, another study showed that overweight subjects who were put on intermittent fasting for one year had better working memory, improved mood, and higher cognitive processing speed when compared to their baseline test .
It seems that intermittent fasting was able to reverse some of the cognitive dysfunction caused by Metabolic Syndrome. The brain can get the energy it needs, lower inflammation, and reduce oxidative damage.
The benefits of intermittent fasting don’t end here. Let’s see what else it can do for the brain.
Intermittent Fasting Helps You Learn Faster
It has been shown in multiple studies that intermittent fasting increases synaptic plasticity [4,5]. Synaptic plasticity is essentially the brain’s ability to change. It allows the brain to grow stronger, learn new skills, and keep memories.
An example of synaptic plasticity is when blind people develop a stronger sense of smell to compensate for their lack of eye site. Other more common examples would be the ability to learn a new language or anything that is kept in memory.
Use Intermittent Fasting to Make Your Neurons More Resilient
Another part of the intermittent fasting story is that is has been shown to keep the brain safe from harmful attacks by free radicals. Free radicals like reactive oxygen species occur through natural processes in our bodies and luckily the body is able to clean up almost all of them.
The key word in the last sentence is ‘almost’. The ones that escape the body’s natural defenses go on to do harm to cells including brain cells which causes aging. Living an unhealthy lifestyle can increase the amount of free radicals, but by incorporating tactics like intermittent fasting into a healthy lifestyle, you can also reduce oxidative stress and decrease your rate of aging .
This all happens because intermittent fasting puts a small amount of stress on neurons and other cells of the brain. Not enough to do damage, but enough to strengthen the cells’ mechanism of protecting themselves .
One interesting example of this was among asthmatic study participants. After doing intermittent fasting for just 4 weeks, oxidative damage and inflammation went down as well as their symptoms of asthma .
Neurotrophic Factors: A Molecular Juggernaut
Another major change to the brain when undergoing intermittent fasting is that brain-derived neurotrophic factors are released in response to the slight stress. Neurotrophic factors are a large class of molecules and the word itself simply means brain and nervous growth .
Neurotrophic factors are important because they can stimulate new neuronal growth. There aren’t many ways that this can be done and more neuronal growth means more brain power and slower aging. I don’t know about you, but these are both things that I’m looking for.
In addition to growing new neurons, neurotrophic factors also protect neurons from outside damage and have the ability to repair damaged neurons. One other duty of neurotrophic factors is to optimize energy intake and expenditure of the brain . In other words, they give your brain the juice it needs to keep you smart, focused, and aging well.
“intermittent fasting modifies brain neurochemistry and neuronal network activity in ways that optimize brain function”
Get a Huge Decrease in Inflammation
Many studies have shown that intermittent fasting reduces inflammation, especially in the brain [4,5]. This is important because many chronic diseases of the body and the brain may have inflammation at their roots. If the disease isn’t caused by inflammation, it will at least be made worse.
In one study done on overweight men and women, intermittent fasting led to improved mood, lower oxidative stress, and lower inflammation . All of these changes are bound to have a profound impact on their quality of life.
Want to Boost Metabolism?
We normally think of fat in a negative way, but brown fat is actually very healthy as opposed to white fat. It has been shown that intermittent fasting boosts brown fat which is another way the body regulates metabolism. Brown fat allows our bodies to utilize energy more efficiently which is good news for the brain.
Commonly brown fat is only formed through cold exposure. Instead of sitting in an ice bath for an hour, you can just fast instead! In my opinion, that is a much better option.
Powerful Proteins Activated by Intermittent Fasting
In addition to activating neurotrophic factors, intermittent fasting has been shown to activate heat shock proteins and glucose-regulated proteins . These are like your body’s street sweepers. They clean up misfolded proteins and make sure that other proteins are folding properly.
This is important because misfolded proteins cause harm to cells and are typical in the brain-plaques of diseases like Alzheimer’s. Misfolded proteins are also present in some forms of brain cancer, so getting rid of them is crucial. So, in the end, this is another way that intermittent fasting helps out our neurons.
Like attaining brown fat, the most common way to activate these proteins is through a temperature extreme, except the heat-shock proteins require (you guessed it) heat rather than cold. Now you have another method in your molecular activation toolbelt.
Intermittent Fasting Results in Ketosis and Fat Metabolism
When we are eating a diet that contains carbs, our bodies utilize glucose as it’s main fuel source. However, through dietary changes like eating a high-fat diet with low carbs or through intermittent fasting, the body no longer has any glucose to use and turns to fat for energy.
This change in metabolism is called ketosis. Many studies have shown that this switch results in fat loss , which leads to less insulin resistance and alleviates the problems of metabolic syndrome like we talked about earlier even more .
Intermittent fasting and ketosis are both used in patients with epilepsy to prevent seizures and also to protect neurons from damage . It has also been shown in these cases that this metabolic switch can protect brain cells from outside harm.
Use Energy More Efficiently
While we are on the topic of how our body uses energy, studies also show that intermittent fasting forces the brain to use energy more efficiently . This makes complete sense because although we consciously know we will eat after a given amount of time, the underlying protocols held by our body still act as if we don’t have any more fuel and need to use the rest of our energy more efficiently.
This is specifically shown in our mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Most of our energy comes from these little machines in our cells called and intermittent fasting has been shown to help them function, survive, and grow [5,6]. In the brain, this is crucial for optimal function and longevity.
Fasting Increases NAD
NAD, otherwise known as nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, is a molecule that is essential for energy utilization in mitochondria. This magical molecule is increased by intermittent fasting as well . So, not only does intermittent fasting make mitochondria grow faster and survive longer, but it also increases molecules that help them function.
People take extreme measures to boost NAD, even to the point of paying hundreds of dollars to have it injected via IV. With intermittent fasting, you can boost your own supply naturally for free!
Keep Those Stem-Cells Growing
Stem cell research might be the next revolutionary step in modern medicine. Throughout the body and brain, we have many different types of cells, and stem cells are a special type that can grow into any type.
Intermittent fasting increases stem-cells which are thought to be another reason why we see increased neuronal growth and faster recovery from brain injuries [4,6].
How to Start Intermittent Fasting
The best part about all of this is that intermittent fasting is fairly simple and straightforward. You just restrict your eating (of hopefully healthy, nutritious foods) to 4-10 hours every day, or sporadically go up to 48 hours without eating. The experts say that you don’t even really need to decrease overall calories, just regulate the timing of the calories .
I still allow myself to drink calorie-free beverages like coffee and tea. Sometimes I’ll even add some cinnamon to my coffee or drink a spiced tea to give myself some flavor.
“IF can be achieved in with a minimal decrease in overall calorie intake if the refeeding period in which subjects overeat is considered. Thus, fasting cycles provide a much more feasible strategy to achieve the beneficial effects”
The hardest part and maybe the downfall of intermittent fasting is that it requires a large amount of discipline. An amount of discipline that needs to be cultivated by the ‘hangry’ mobs out there in order for it to be successful.
When you have food at your fingertips and feel your stomach begging for you to hit the snacks, you must overcome the urge and know that you are doing your brain (and the rest of your body) a huge favor.
Get Your Fasting Habits Into Rhythm
For most people, this urge comes from your body being in a rhythm of eating frequently throughout the day . When your body is expecting food and you neglect it, the hunger pangs will start, and they might be ferocious. However, research has shown that your body will readjust over a period of about 3-6 weeks to your new eating schedule .
This isn’t to say that you won’t still get hungry after your body has adapted. Once I get close to my eating window, I sure do, but the hunger is far less than when I first started. As a long-term diet, however, intermittent fasting has been shown to be easier to maintain than simply reducing overall calories every day .
“there is great potential for lifestyles that incorporate intermittent fasting during adult life to promote optimal health and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, particularly for those who are overweight and sedentary”
Something You Should Try
In the end, intermittent fasting is a natural approach that can drastically change the lives of many people if implemented in a healthy way. Science shows that the effect it has on the brain and health in general is undeniable.
Start off just by not eating 2 hours before and after bed and work your way up. Ease your body into it. The longer your fast goes, the stronger the effects become. You get to decide how far you want to go. Just remember to refeed your body completely with nutritious foods afterward.
With all of this said, if you have any medical conditions that may be affected by this diet, contact your primary health practitioner before starting. While the diet may help children and the very old, there has not been nearly as much research done in these areas so proceed with caution.
So, give it a try, stay disciplined, stay healthy, and change your life.
What is your experience with intermittent fasting?
Let us know below!