Intermittent Fasting for Brain Health
Dr. Rob Silverman
Intermittent fasting is one of the most exciting recent trends in health, especially brain health. When you follow this time-restricted eating pattern, you eat only during a window of 6 to 10 hours between breakfast and your evening meal. During this time, you eat your usual amount of food—intermittent fasting doesn’t necessarily mean cutting calories. But when your eating window closes, you don’t eat again until it opens the next morning—you fast for at least 14 hours and preferably longer, up to 18 hours.
A long overnight fast might seem strange, but in fact, that’s the eating pattern humans have followed until very recently. Only in modern times has food been so abundant and easily accessible that we can eat lots of it around the clock, including extensive snacking in the evening. During waking hours, most of us rarely go more than a few hours without eating.
When you’re in the fasting period, you don’t eat, but you can drink. It’s essential to stay hydrated during this time. Any noncaloric drink is OK, as long as it’s not artificially sweetened (seltzer yes, diet soda no). You can still enjoy your morning coffee after you wake up, even if your first meal of the day is a couple of hours or more away. You can also enjoy coffee in the evening after your eating window has closed. It’s best to drink it black during your fasting period. During your eating window, of course, you can have your coffee any way you like it.
Aside from tasting great, giving you a caffeine lift, and helping you with intermittent fasting, coffee has proven benefits for your brain.
In 2015, researchers from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study looked at the relationship between caffeine intake from coffee and the risk of cognitive impairment or dementia in women aged 65 and older. They found that the women who consumed the most caffeinated coffee (the equivalent of more than two cups a day) were about 25 percent less likely to develop dementia or cognitive impairment compared to the women who consumed the least (less than a cup a day). A couple of cups of coffee every day helps protect older women against memory issues and other problems that age can bring. Other studies show that coffee can help prevent cognitive impairment and can help prevent Parkinson’s disease.
At Fit Grinds, we’ve created our Focus blend to make coffee even better for your brain. We add alpha GPC, taurine, and L-theanine to our organic grinds. Alpha GPC boosts cognition and provides the essential nutrient choline, needed to build neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain. The essential amino acid taurine helps grow new brain cells, improves cognition, recall, and short-term memory, and improves focus. The amino acid L-theanine enhances mental focus and attention, improves alertness, and works synergistically with caffeine for sustained energy.
Intermittent fasting boosts your brain by increasing your levels of the critical brain protein BDNF. Often called fertilizer for the brain, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) plays a crucial role in learning and memory by making communication between neurons in the brain more efficient. BDNF stimulates the growth of new neurons and makes neurons more resistant to the damaging effects of stress. When you have plenty of BDNF supporting your brain cells, the neurons fire together—and neurons that fire together, wire together. Secure, connected neurons as you age keep your memory intact and maintain your executive function and self-regulation skills. You can better remember, plan, focus, and handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
The healthier and more diverse your gut microbiome is, the more BDNF your brain makes. The process has a lot of intermediate steps, but the result is clear: a healthy gut leads to a healthy brain. And what’s a great way to improve diversity in your gut microbiome? Drink coffee. Coffee drinkers have more diversity in their gut bacteria compared to non-coffee drinkers—and the more coffee you drink, the more diverse your microbiome. A 2019 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology shows that heavy coffee drinkers have higher levels of anti-inflammatory gut bacteria and lower levels of potentially harmful bacteria. An exciting aspect of the study is that the heavy coffee drinkers had healthier gut microbiomes regardless of how healthy their diet was in general.
Two coffee blends from Fit Grinds help your gut maintain a healthy, diverse microbiome. Our Multi Collagen blend is infused with grass-fed bovine type I and III and pastured type II chicken collagen. Your gut needs collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, for structural integrity, elasticity, and strength. Our Pre + Probiotic blend contains xylooligosaccharides (XOS), a plant fiber that helps the healthy bacteria in your gut flourish—and crowd out the unfriendly bacteria. It also contains Bacillus subtilis, a potent probiotic that supports your digestive health.
Preserving Brain Health
Returning to a more natural eating pattern through Intermittent fasting can have a profound positive effect on your health. You give your digestive system a break by not constantly piling food into it. And when you fast for at least 14 hours, you force your body to use up all the blood sugar in your circulation. To fuel your metabolism near the end of the fasting period, your body will probably need to dip into its reserves of stored glucose (glycogen) and fat. At that point, you’re in a state of mild ketosis without being on a ketogenic diet. You’re now fueling yourself with ketone bodies, including one called beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB). Burning BHB promotes division and multiplication of the epithelial cells that line the inside of your blood vessels and helps keep your vascular system flexible. Healthy blood vessels keep your brain healthy and help prevent vascular dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Overall, intermittent fasting can lower your fasting blood sugar, reduce your insulin resistance, and reduce your fasting insulin levels by 20 percent or more. Keeping your blood sugar at healthy levels is extremely important for keeping your brain healthy as you age. The metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes will rapidly age your brain through inflammation and oxidative damage. Keeping your blood sugar at normal levels will significantly lower your risk of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.
Intermittent fasting also brings down your overall level of inflammation. More and more, we realize the central role of inflammation in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries. Keeping inflammation levels as low as possible is a powerful strategy for preserving brain health.
Another great benefit of Intermittent fasting is the way it stimulates autophagy—the body’s natural clean-up process to remove and recycle damaged molecules, dysfunctional mitochondria, and worn-out cells. In the brain, the process helps remove the damaged proteins that form the characteristic tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.
The fasting part of the intermittent eating pattern puts your brain in an altered metabolic state that optimizes energy usage, builds connections among neurons (plasticity), and improves resilience. More and more research is showing that intermittent fasting can improve cognition and slow age-related cognitive decline. It can help slow the damage from neurodegenerative diseases and may even help enhance recovery from a stroke.
The ancient Athenian philosopher Plato said, “Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.” More than two thousand years later, we’ve rediscovered his wisdom. With intermittent fasting, our inner physician can help prevent or slow cognitive decline and chronic disease. Age becomes just a number.