Eating is good, but skipping meals also has benefits
A lot of what this website focuses on is improving mental and physical performance through eating nutritionally smart. In this 2 part series however, we’ll change gears, and look at how not eating (albeit for short periods of time) can improve cognitive performance. We’ll review the science and my personal experimentations with fasting.
Fasting: practiced by religious folk, prehistoric cave people and biohackers
Fasting is a practice used within many religions (Eastern Orthodox Christian and Islam have dedicated practices1) for a multitude of reasons:
- getting closer to God
- improving resistance to gluttony
- enhancing concentration during meditation
- to purify the body
Prehistoric cave people wouldn’t have had the same reasons to fast as the religious folk. Fasting would have been a way of life for our prehistoric ancestors who lacked 24/7 supermarkets or fridge-freezers. Our friends from the cave times didn’t have the luxury of 3 meals a day – they would have lurched from famine to feast and back again on an unscheduled basis. It would have no doubt been a common occurrence to go ‘right down to the wire’ on the timing of the next meal.
Fasting over a short space of time (usually 16-24 hours) is known as Intermittent Fasting (IF). It is often done as a program of caloric restriction for weight loss, although there are are other great biohacking benefits which we’ll come on to. I’ve done IF on and off over the past couple of years and rate it for several reasons.
Intermittent Fasting – the benefits and science
In addition to being useful for weight management, IF has several mental benefits:
- Improves memory: in a small cohort study, a 3 month caloric restriction program markedly improved the memory in the elderly2.
- Building resilience against stress: in a study on rodents, IF was demonstrated to improving resilience of brain cells to stress3.
- Improvement of cognitive function: an experiment demonstrated that mice on an IF protocol outperformed a control group of mice on time taken to complete a series of tests such as navigating a maze. The brain structure of the IF mice also demonstrated structural improvements4.
There are a couple of ways through which IF improves cognitive function:
- Fasting leads to an increase in ketone bodies (fat burning and ketosis explained here). It’s healthier for brain cells to burn ketone bodies as fuel rather than glucose – thus, healthier brain cells lead to healthier brain function.
- IF improves the brain structure through neurogenesis (the building of new brain cell connections).
IF has mental and weight management benefits, but it could also help you live longer (it’s been demonstrated in other mammals5). IF also detoxes the body through a process called autophagy (the body breaks down and excretes useless or toxic proteins).
A lot of the science has been carried out on rodents and has yet to be validated in human trials. Wondering what IF is like for humans? Check out part II where I relate my experiences and protocols on IF.
That’s all for this week. In the mean time… keep cooking
I’d love to hear your thoughts – please leave me a comment below.
1.http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2001/02/Fasting-Chart.aspx ‘Fasting Across Religions’
2.http://www.pnas.org/content/106/4/1255.long ‘Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans’
3.http://www.pnas.org/content/100/10/6216.full ‘Intermittent fasting dissociates beneficial effects of dietary restriction on glucose metabolism and neuronal resistance to injury from calorie intake’
4.http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0066069 ‘Chronic Intermittent Fasting Improves Cognitive Functions and Brain Structures in Mice’
5.http://openwritings.net/sites/default/files/excerpt/files/J.%20Nutr.-1946-Carlson-363-75.pdf ‘Apparent prolongation of the life span of rats by intermittent fasting’