Cyprus Mail
Opinion

Does intermittent fasting benefit the brain?

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Intermittent fasting has become a popular dietary approach to help people lose or manage their weight. It has also been promoted as a way to reset metabolism, control chronic disease, slow ageing and improve overall health.

Meanwhile, some research suggests intermittent fasting may offer a different way for the brain to access energy and provide protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This is not a new idea – the ancient Greeks believed fasting enhanced thinking. But what does the modern-day evidence say?

Our diets are factors in our lifestyle we can change. People do this for cultural reasons, desired weight loss or potential health gains.

Intermittent fasting consists of short periods of calorie (energy) restriction where food intake is limited (usually 12 to 16 hours per day), followed by periods of normal food intake. The intermittent component means a re-occurrence of the pattern rather than a ‘one off’ fast.

The brain accounts for about 20 per cent of the body’s energy consumption.

Here are four ways intermittent fasting can act on the body which could help explain its potential effects on the brain.

Ketosis

The goal of many intermittent fasting routines is to flip a “metabolic switch” to go from burning predominately carbohydrates to burning fat. This is called ketosis and typically occurs after 12–16 hours of fasting. Ketones – chemicals produced by this metabolic process – become the preferred energy source for the brain.

Due to this being a slower metabolic process to produce energy and potential for lowering blood sugar levels, ketosis can cause symptoms of hunger, fatigue, nausea, low mood, irritability, constipation, headaches, and brain “fog”.

At the same time, as glucose metabolism in the brain declines with ageing, studies have shown ketones could provide an alternative energy source to preserve brain function and prevent age-related neurodegeneration disorders and cognitive decline.

 

Circadian syncing

Eating at times that don’t match our body’s natural daily rhythms can disrupt how our organs work. Studies on shift workers have suggested this might also make us more prone to chronic disease.

Time-restricted eating is when you eat your meals within a six to ten-hour window during the day when you’re most active. Time-restricted eating causes changes in expression of genes in tissue and helps the body during rest and activity.

 

Mitochondria

Intermittent fasting may provide brain protection through improving mitochondrial function, metabolism and reducing oxidants.

Mitochondria’s main role is to produce energy and they are crucial to brain health. Many age-related diseases are closely related to an energy supply and demand imbalance, likely attributed to mitochondrial dysfunction during ageing.

Rodent studies suggest alternate day fasting or reducing calories by up to 40 per cent might protect or improve brain mitochondrial function.

 

The gut-brain axis

The gut and the brain communicate with each other via the body’s nervous systems. The brain can influence how the gut feels (think about how you get “butterflies” in your tummy when nervous) and the gut can affect mood, cognition and mental health.

In mice, intermittent fasting has shown promise for improving brain health by increasing survival and formation of neurons (nerve cells) in the hippocampus brain region, which is involved in memory, learning and emotion.

Some research has suggested calorie restriction may have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation and promoting vascular health.

Studies in mice support a role for intermittent fasting in improving brain health and ageing, but few studies in humans exist, and the evidence we have is mixed.

Rapid weight loss associated with calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can lead to nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss, and decreased immune function, particularly in older adults whose nutritional needs may be higher.

Further, prolonged fasting or severe calorie restriction may pose risks such as fatigue, dizziness, and electrolyte imbalances, which could exacerbate existing health conditions.

If you’re considering intermittent fasting, it’s best to seek advice from a health professional such as a dietitian who can provide guidance on structuring fasting periods, meal timing, and nutrient intake. This ensures intermittent fasting is approached in a safe, sustainable way, tailored to individual needs and goals.

 

is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence

 

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