The human body has an extraordinary ability to heal itself. We often look for external solutions to our problems or symptoms, but often, the body actually knows what to do– and our job is to support the process. Intermittent fasting is a technique that focuses on this principle. Forgetfulness and brain fog are often signs that our bodies are off balance and overloaded with dead and damaged cells, toxins, and other gunk that impedes optimal function. Fasting is a strategy that allows the body to tackle this problem.
It’s important to understand that intermittent fasting is not about restricting our overall intake of food or calories. Instead, it’s about organizing when we eat during the day, so that we can lengthen our overnight fasting period and give the body time to detoxify, heal, and recharge.
In order to achieve this longer fasting period, we generally recommend skipping breakfast in the morning, and enjoying the first meal of the day around noon. If you then finish your second (and last) meal by 8 PM, and start the cycle again, you’ve given your body a 16 hour fasting period, which it will use to clean and repair itself, and detoxify. You can find more suggestions for a healthy and sustainable intermittent fasting protocol here.
The health benefits of fasting are far-reaching and include reducing inflammation, assisting in weight loss, blood sugar regulation, and improving cognitive function and alertness. Along with enhancing overall cognition and mental energy, fasting has been shown to have a positive impact on memory, and may help to prevent age-related memory loss and neurodegenerative disease (1).
How Does Fasting Improve Memory and Cognitive Function?
One of the most common (and exciting) effects of intermittent fasting that we hear about from our patients is feeling more alert, more awake, and mentally sharper. Many describe feeling “like themselves again”, with brain fog lifting away and the ability to remember and concentrate returning.
A growing body of scientific research supports this experience (2). Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can improve brain health and function (3), and reduce the effects of age-related cognitive decline and memory loss (4).
So, what exactly is going on in our bodies during periods of fasting to allow for this to happen?
Fasting reduces inflammation in the brain. One of the biggest benefits of fasting is its ability to reduce inflammation in the brain and the rest of the body (5). Inflammation underlies chronic illnesses of all kinds, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Fasting changes our energy source from sugar to fat. Most of the time, our body uses sugar/carbohydrates for energy. But when we’ve gone without food for long enough, we run out of sugar to use as fuel, and our bodies break down fat for energy instead. This is, of course, a helpful strategy for those who are looking to lose weight, but the benefits of burning fat for fuel extend way beyond weight loss.
Fat, which is broken down into chemicals called ketones in order to create energy, is a more efficient fuel source for the brain. Fat is also a cleaner source of energy for the brain and the whole body, meaning that it produces less harmful and inflammatory waste in the form of unstable cells called free radicals. This means an overall decrease in inflammation (in the brain and beyond), and reduced oxidative stress.
With reduced inflammation and oxidative stress, our cognitive function and memory are enhanced.
Fasting stimulates autophagy. When old, diseased, damaged, or dead cells linger in the body, they trigger inflammation, and cause the whole body to function at a suboptimal level. Autophagy, which literally means “self-eating”, is the body’s process of finding these dead or damaged cells and clearing them out (yes, by eating them). Fasting stimulates autophagy (6). This cleansing and repairing process is the essential healing mechanism at the heart of fasting, and along with a myriad of other benefits allows us to think more clearly and remember more vividly.
Fasting increases our levels of BDNF. Ketones, the byproducts of fat used to make energy, signal our nerve cells to produce more of a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) (7), which helps us to create new brain cells. In addition to the growth of new brain cells, BDNF helps with their healthy development, with the protection of existing brain cells, and to enhance connections and communication within the brain. The effects of an increase in BDNF and increased rates of brain cell growth and development include improvements in memory, mood, concentration, resilience, and learning.
Fasting boosts levels of neuroprotective Human Growth Hormone. Intermittent fasting boosts levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) (8), which has powerful neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects, and has been shown to improve cognition and preserve brain health and function.
Fasting leads to increased development of mitochondria. Intermittent fasting leads to increased development of new mitochondria, which are the energy producing components of all of our cells. Increased mitochondria = enhanced brain function and energy.
Fasting helps to regulate insulin levels, and boosts IDE. What many of the benefits of fasting to come down to is the time that we give our bodies to rest and recover. In the case of insulin resistance, when our bodies are given some breathing room after digesting everything we’ve eaten, and when we’ve used all of our sugar stores, our bodies can re-sensitize to insulin.
Fasting also boosts our levels of IDE (Insulin Degrading Enzyme), which in turn lowers our levels of insulin. Another major contribution of IDE to the cleansing process that goes on while we’re fasting is its ability to break down and clear away amyloid plaques, which form around our nerve cells, cause sluggishness and forgetfulness, and lead to neurodegeneration.
Tips For Getting Started With Intermittent Fasting
It may take a little bit of time to adjust, but intermittent fasting is generally not too difficult to incorporate into your regular lifestyle. Of course, all of us are already fasting while we’re asleep, so the easiest way to structure a regular fast is to extend that overnight fasting period. This may mean eating dinner earlier (and not snacking after dinner), skipping or delaying breakfast, or a combination of both.
To reap all of the benefits, we want our intermittent fasting period to last for at least 16 hours. If this seems like too much, you may want to start out with a 12-14 hour fast a few times a week and work your way up. And, once you’ve worked your way up to a 16 hour (or longer) fast, it is still not necessary to do it every single day– a few days every week is great.
Before you start fasting, it’s a good idea to evaluate your current diet. Jumping straight into intermittent fasting if you’ve been eating a lot of sugar, grains, or processed foods can be a bit of a shock to the system. In order to stabilize blood sugar and prepare for a fasting lifestyle, start by eliminating as much sugar and grain as possible. Eat lots of healthy fats, clean protein, organic vegetables, and fiber.
A well-designed fast takes into consideration not only the time spent fasting but also the importance of making high quality, nourishing food choices when the fast is broken. I recommend two meals spread out within the 8-hour eating window, and both should include lots of healthy fats, a large serving of clean protein, and plenty of vegetables, ideally organic, as well as a small helping of starchy carbohydrates. These meals provide the nutrients necessary to keep us alert and energized throughout the day. After the second meal, you’ll begin fasting, consuming only water and clear liquids. Snacking between meals should be avoided, in order to enhance healing and detoxification.
You can find more practical advice about intermittent fasting here. It may be a bit of an adjustment at first, but incorporating fasting into your lifestyle has major benefits, and when you start to get your mojo back and see improvements in your memory and cognition, you’ll thank yourself for taking the plunge!
Fasting may not be for everyone, and should be discussed with your practitioner. For more personalized guidance and to help you get started, request a consultation at our office.