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(Published 6 July 2015 in The Advertiser)
Could it be that the brain, the human command centre that makes up only 2 percent of our total body weight but requires 20 percent of the calories we consume, is actually better off when we deprive ourselves of food altogether? Scientists at the National Institute on Aging, led by Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine, think so. He says that depriving ourselves via fasting twice a week could significantly lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's.
The findings resonate with decades-old studies that show a link between caloric intake and oxidative "rusting"—the stress on cells that comes when people get older and take in food. "One of the only ways to slow down the progression of aging that involves disease or organ malfunctions is to reduce energy intake. As is similar to what happens when muscles are exercised, the neurons in the brain benefit from being mildly stressed. To achieve the right kind of stress, people might benefit from minimizing their food intake.
Mattson and others have tested their theories on animal models and small groups of human subjects. In studies involving experimental mice, neurons in the brain become more active when the rodents are hungrily searching for food. What's more, fasting animals develop protective measures against damage from stroke and other mechanisms that cause degeneration in the brain. They discovered in both animal and human studies that it's good to submit your brain to challenges, especially in the short term.
But why fasting? Wouldn't reducing calorie intake overall also help the brain? Apparently not, or at least not as much. Sticking to an intermittent crash diet, with no more than 500 calories two days per week, primes the brain for protection, he says. Studies show that keeping calories at around that level stimulates two messaging chemicals that operate at the cellular level and are key to the growth of brain cells in animals and humans. The shock of fasting leads the brain to create new cells. As neurons are coaxed to grow, the brain becomes more resistant to the effects of protein plaques that underlie cases of Alzheimer's, or the damage inflicted by Parkinson's.
Fasting imposes more stress on the cells, but in a good way. There's an increase in adaptive stress responses when people intermittently fast that is good for maintaining the brain.
Intermittent fasting may improve brain function by boosting production of brain-derived neurotropic factor, which activates brain stem cells to convert into neurons and triggers other chemicals that promote neural health.
Seek health advice from your GP before commencing any fasting. It isn’t recommended for very young people or people over 70 whose brains seem to derive little benefit from intermittent fasting.
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