According to a new study carried out at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, fasting for one or two days each week may help improve the condition of individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Researchers have found that stopping nearly all food intake for short periods of time triggers a protection mechanism within the brain which also works against the effects of neurodegenerative disorders.
Calorie intake impacts the brain
Professor Mark Mattson, lead author of the study and professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver that “reducing your calorie intake could help your brain, but doing so by cutting your intake of food is not likely to be the best method of triggering this protection. It is likely to be better to go on intermittent bouts of fasting, in which you eat hardly anything at all, and then have periods when you eat as much as you want. In other words, timing appears to be a crucial element to this process.”
The science team lead by Dr. Mattson discovered that reducing food intake to approximately 500 calories per fasting day yields optimal effects and can significantly improve long-term cognitive function. Foods that may safely be consumed during fasting days include an assortment of fiber-rich vegetables, unsweetened tea and water.
That calorie restriction has beneficial effect on human health and may even prolong life span is no real news. The first research into calorie restrictive diets dates back to 1934, when a Cornell University researcher noticed that guinea pigs that were fed a calorie restrictive diet maintained higher nutrient levels and lived twice as much when compared to regular guinea pigs. Later on, Dr. Roy Walford of UCLA investigated calorie restriction in greater detail, revealing that such a diet has the potential to improve a range of age-related diseases, as well as help the dieter maintain a more youthful appearance.
Fasting is like ‘exercising your brain muscles’
The scientific community is now interested in looking at the neuro-protective potential of calorie restriction. Researchers such as Dr. Mattson are convinced that fasting not only extends life-span, but also delays the onset of many conditions affecting the brain. Mattson explained that according to research, chemicals involved in the growth of brain cells are significantly boosted when food intake is dramatically reduced.
“The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells. The overall effect is beneficial,” said Dr. Mattson, who believes there’s a very sound evolutionary explanation for why our brains behave like this when deprived of food. “When resources became scarce, our ancestors would have had to scrounge for food. Those whose brains responded best, who remembered where promising sources could be found or recalled how to avoid predators would have been the ones who got the food. Thus a mechanism linking periods of starvation to neural growth would have evolved.”
Dr. Mattson draws on previous studies which analyzed the impact of fasting on general health. The next step for his team is to look at the effects of fasting on the brain using MRI scans and other computerized investigative techniques. If a definitive link between fasting and brain health can be scientifically established, Mattson believes that most people could significantly boost brain function simply going throughtwo days of “intermittent energy restriction” each week.