How Fasting Allows The Brain To Recharge Itself

When done correctly, it could even ward off cognitive decline, research finds.
Fasting may improve cognitive function, a new study suggests.
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
Fasting may improve cognitive function, a new study suggests.

We know that fasting can be great for the body, with benefits including improved metabolic health, increased longevity and better heart health, but we’re still figuring out what kind of role it could play in a healthy lifestyle. Preliminary research shows it could also do your brain good ― especially if you’re at risk for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging have shown, for the first time, how fasting benefits the brain on a neurological level.

There are many different techniques and schools of thought on fasting, but the practice usually involves abstaining from food (or following a very calorie-restricted diet) for anything from 24 hours to a few days.

While starving yourself is the last thing any health expert would recommend, fasting done in moderation (and under the guidance of a physician, if you have a health condition) can confer a number of physical and neurological health benefits.

Previous research has suggested that fasting can improve cognitive function, stimulating faster learning and better memory. The new findings, published last week in the journal Neuron, shed light on how the practice may work to benefit brain health.

In their study on fruit fly larvae, the researchers found that the brain responds to nutrient scarcity (like that which occurs during fasting) by reducing synaptic activity. (Synapses are the connecting structures that allow chemical signals to be passed between neurons.) This may essentially be the brain’s way of conserving energy and giving itself a little reboot.

“Perhaps it’s a good thing that when nutrients are unavailable, an organism reduces neurotransmitter release and thus saves a good proportion of its overall energy expenditure,” Dr. Pejmun Haghighi, a professor at the Buck Institute and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

Within only a few hours, dietary restriction triggered a response from molecular pathways that govern synaptic activity, or neurotransmitter release. By reducing the release of neurotransmitters from synapses in the brain, fasting may also give the nervous system a break, the researchers note.

“The process of neurotransmitter release is an energetically costly process,” Haghighi explained in an email to The Huffington Post. “Because of this high requirement for energy, it also generates waste including reactive oxygen species, that could lead to oxidative damage in cells including neurons. ... Tuning synaptic activity as a result of fasting might help limit the unwanted oxidative damage in the nervous system.”

Neuroscientists have linked overactive synaptic activity with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease, and therefore fasting could be an effective preventative measure.

“We believe that tuning of synaptic activity as a result of acute fasting might be beneficial for people who are at high risk for neurodegeneration,” Haghighi said.

The current findings remain theoretical until more studies on humans are conducted. However, combined with other research on the potential cognitive benefits of fasting, they do suggest that the practice might hold promise for improving brain function and perhaps even preventing age-related cognitive decline.

The bottom line? It can’t hurt to try. When done correctly, fasting carries the promise of many physical and cognitive health benefits, with little risk of adverse effects.

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