Over the past year or so, I’ve had several friends try intermittent fasting in hopes of shedding a few pounds, and they have all had good results. Curious, I started researching how it works. Apparently, intermittent fasting is currently one of the world’s most popular health and fitness trends, and it involves alternating cycles of eating and fasting. But what impressed me most about this trend is the potential health benefits, especially the prevention of various diseases.
The most popular type of intermittent fasting is the 16/8 Method, which involves fasting for 16 hours each day, such as eating only between noon and 8pm. Another fast is the Eat-Stop-Eat, wherein once or twice each week, fasting occurs from dinner of one day until dinner the next day (a 24 hour fast).
While many are fasting as a simplified way to lose weight and improve metabolic health, fasting from time to time can have other major health benefits. Research suggests that it can help protect against disease, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
The impact that fasting has on brain function is particularly impressive. Historically, the great thinkers of Ancient Greece would fast for days on end, not because they needed to lose weight, but because they believed that fasting would improve their mental agility. In modern times, we still marvel at the ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians.
Studies have shown that fasting has potentially incredible benefits to various brain functions. In one study, mice maintained on intermittent fasting showed less age-related deterioration of neurons and less symptoms in models of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. In humans, the benefits to the brain can be found both during fasting and during caloric restriction. In a study of 50 normal elderly subjects, memory test improved significantly after three months of caloric restriction.
One theory suggests that fasting may prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s correlate closely with the accumulation of two classes of proteins – amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles (tau protein). It is believed that these abnormal proteins destroy the synaptic connections in the memory and cognition areas of the brain. In mouse models, alternate daily fasting increased the levels of certain proteins that act to prevent damage and the misfolding of the tau and amyloid proteins. Misfolding occurs when the protein folds into an incorrect three-dimensional shape that is resistant to breakdown. Autophagy, a cellular cleansing process, is stimulated by fasting as well and removes the tau and amyloid proteins when they become damaged beyond repair. Since Alzheimer’s disease may result from the abnormal accumulation of tau or amyloid protein, fasting may provide a unique opportunity to rid the body of these abnormal proteins.