If you are a health or fitness enthusiast and like to stay up to date on all the latest wellness trends, it's likely that you've heard talk about intermittent fasting and its health benefits. Fasting is definitely not a new concept and has been a theme in many cultures and religions throughout history. But lately, scientific research on the biological benefits of fasting has really taken off, drawing connections between periodic calorie restriction and the prevention of diseases.
And now, a new study published in the journal Neuron takes current knowledge to a whole new level by describing not only the health benefits of intermittent fasting on the body but the specific mechanism by which it works in the brain. This is a big deal, so we are listening up!
We've known how intermittent fasting can help prevent disease.
The beneficial effects of fasting on health and bodily function, at this point, are well-known in the scientific and medical community. We know that fasting can decrease the risk of heart disease, help with glycemic control and weight reduction, and even offer some protection against the causes of Alzheimer's disease. However, little has been known about the actual molecular mechanisms that fasting uses to influence the body's physiology, especially when it comes to the brain. Until now, that is.
New research study shows how fasting clears mental clutter.
A group of Canadian scientists recently studied the brain activity of fruit flies and found that acute fasting directly influences the stability of neuronal circuits, a type of wiring that dictates the flow of information in the brain and nervous system. According to their paper, the cellular stress and lack of nutrition catalyzed by fasting blocks the synaptic activity of neurons that normally occurs in the brain, which essentially means that the brain slows down.
And although a brain "slowing down" sounds undesirable generally speaking, it may actually be beneficial for brain health. In fact, overactive synaptic activity has been associated with diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other degenerative diseases. So in a way, when we slow down our brain activity, it's possible that we are protecting the organ by allowing it to recharge.
Results also showed an increase in ketone bodies due to fasting, which are compounds known to be neuroprotective, essentially guarding brain cells against degenerating to the point of disease. The ketogenic (low-carb and high-fat) diet has been used since the 1920s as an extremely effective treatment for epilepsy, even though the mechanism by which is works was mostly unknown.
This study is really worth our attention because it doesn't just draw a connection between fasting and the brain—or describe an association between calorie restriction and a lower risk of disease—it describes the actual mechanism of slowing down the communication between neurons to conserve energy during nutrient deprivation.
What does this mean for modern food culture?
Sometimes we forget how much energy it takes to digest food, and if we are eating every four hours—which is totally commonplace in modern culture—we are constantly activating our body and requiring its attention. It makes sense to us that giving our digestion a break might give our body, brain, and nervous system a chance to also recharge.
This gets us thinking: Were humans even designed to eat so regularly, or are we designed to be able to withstand long periods without food? Could this be another way our modern food culture is harming us? We aren't exactly sure, but we are willing to test it out and see how we feel.
If you are thinking about experimenting, do your research first! There are a lot of different types of intermittent fasting, and the general consensus seems to be that you should talk to your doctor first, especially if you have a pre-existing health condition.