Most of what we know of basic human health and what is healthy comes from simple word of mouth and basic “common knowledge” that most of us have been taught since childhood. For instance, everyone knows that the fundamental structure of any healthy diet consists of three meals per day with occasional snacks. But what if this assumption may not actually be the healthiest course?
That was the topic of a recent TED Talks discussion with Professor Mark Mattson. Mattson is a professor of Neuroscience at John Hopkins University, home of some of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, neurosurgeons and brain specialists. He is one of the leading researchers in the study of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. Professor Mattson has received multiple awards and accolades for his contributions to these fields including Alzheimer’s Association Zenith Award.
To put it simply, the guy knows brain stuff. During Professor Mattson’s TEDx, he described his research into fasting and the positive effects that it may have on the human brain. His findings were relatively shocking and may revolutionize our fundamental understanding of healthy eating, especially as it relates to brain health.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, 5.1 million people in the United States may have Alzheimer’s disease as of 2015. Research shows that the chance of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years over the age of 65. According to Professor Mattson, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s will triple by 2050. The disease does not only affect seniors or the elderly. It is estimated that over 500,000 people in the United States have some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This is commonly referred to as “early onset” dementia.
Although it is not as prevalent, there are similar statistics for other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Currently, nearly one million people in the United States are affected by Parkinson’s, and the number is rising. Every year, nearly 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed in the U.S. alone.
There is no known cure for either disorder, and modern science has been unable to find an effective treatment. That is why any potential method of prevention could be vital, and Professor Mattson believes he may have found just that.
The Science of Fasting
In his TEDx discussion, Professor Mattson mentions that they were able to increase the lifespan of laboratory animals by 30 to 40 percent simply by reducing how much they eat. This was due to slower degeneration of brain cells by energy intake. While he does not simply state one should eat less to live longer, Mattson does believe that periodic fasting can have a similar effect on humans.
The reason that fasting could be beneficial is due to how our brains react to stress. During periods of fasting, your brain will develop adaptive stress response pathways that help it cope with the lack of energy, and these adaptations help it remain strong and resist neurological disease. It is essentially a mechanism by which the brain is telling you to “Get me some food!”
This makes the results of fasting on your brain similar to those of exercising, and fasting creates a psychological challenge and stimulates the creation of neurotrophic factors. These prevent the degeneration of nerves cells in your brain and may even help to generate new ones. It also helps to create ketones in the brain that provide an alternative fuel source and increase brain metabolism.
What It All Means
If Professor Mattson is correct, reducing your caloric intake at times may help the way your brain functions on a daily basis and could even prevent neurological diseases. But that does not mean that you should go for 40 days on the mountain; there are many programs and books about healthy fasting techniques, and as with any major health change, you should always consult with your doctor before you attempt fasting for brain power.