Intermittent fasting (IF)—not eating for up to 16 hours at a time (usually breaking the fast around lunch)—is trending in the wellness world today, with some experts believing IF can help you shed unwanted pounds as well as improve cognitive function. Weight loss makes sense, but could fasting really have an impact on your brain? It’s possible. Let’s take a deep dive into understanding what happens in your body, and how your systems work together, when your body consumes food.
When examining how IF can impact brain health, it’s important to understand what happens with that critical organ during the digestive process. Because your brain is the main communication center for your body, a key element to note in this relationship is how your brain works to produce hormones.
Your endocrine system is responsible for hormonal production and balance, which helps your body to grow and develop. However, the initial communication for hormonal regulation is triggered by your brain. Your hypothalamus, more easily referred to as the “control center,” scans your hormone levels multiple times per day. The hypothalamus is in constant communication with your pituitary gland to stimulate hormone production from either the adrenal, thyroid or parathyroid glands.
Your thyroid is responsible for many crucial functions in your body as well; it regulates body temperature, heart rate, growth, and metabolism, to name just a few. Your metabolism (or your body’s ability to break down food and convert it into energy) is crucial for survival. Your thyroid produces two types of hormone to regulate system function: T3 and T4 (one active, one inactive). They help to directly regulate your metabolism. These are constantly in flux due to the signals your brain is communicating. Your thyroid works in a feedback loop with your brain to keep your metabolism running smoothly.
However, consuming excessive amounts of food, particularly of the sugary and starchy variety (which will elevate your blood sugar rapidly) or processed foods (which your body has a hard time recognizing as immediate fuel), can all impact that feedback loop, thus causing your brain and your thyroid to become sluggish. This leads to a slowing of your metabolism; what that means, is weight gain.
Keeping all of that in mind, it’s important to explore ways that we can keep our brain fresh, healthy and not over-burdened with unnecessary duties so that we can think clearly, respond quickly, and live a healthy, happy life. This is how intermittent fasting can produce incredible, brain-boosting benefits to your cognitive health.
So how does IF help? When food is consumed, excess fuel that isn’t immediately used by your body is stored by the hormone insulin in the form of glucose, which is typically released when there is excess sugar in your bloodstream. Sensitivity to insulin can decrease over time if you continue to overeat—especially excessive amounts of sugar. Excess glucose that is unable to be stored by your cells winds up getting stored as fat in your muscle and tissues.
The IF technique can be done in a variety of ways, but—as mentioned earlier—the theory is that you go for prolonged periods of time between meals (hence, the term fasting). Periods of fasting can last anywhere from 12 hours (typically the average time between dinner at night and breakfast the next morning), 16 hour fasts (between dinner and lunch the next day is common), or going a full 24 hours in between meals. The latter method is recommended by some doctors who believe intermittent fasting is a beneficial seasonal exercise, detoxifying the body from the previous season and getting it ready for the new equinox.
It should be emphasized that when you are going through a period of abstaining from food, it is strongly encouraged by wellness professionals to drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest, so that your body can do the work it needs to do to detoxify, repair and recover.
On average, your body takes about 4 to 5 hours to digest a meal. Your body will use that digested food as immediate energy, burning it as the first line of energy defense. However, it’s during the hours that follow that your body will begin to dip into its stored glycogen. This is also call your fuel reserve, and it’s typically fat stored in your muscles and tissues.
Thus, a short-term effect of intermittent fasting is that stored fuel gets depleted and so a rapid loss of fat is a common result. People will often see instant results with fasting, like initial weight loss, a feeling of lightness, and relief of bloating, constipation, and other digestive issues. But in addition, there are also incredible cognitive benefits to undergoing periods of IF. Because your body is not introducing new food during a period of fasting, it goes through a period of recovery. During this time it will work to eliminate inflammation and repair the areas where it occurred. Inflammation has been proven to be the precursor of many debilitating diseases—including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. Most recently, it has been correlated with the occurrence of Alzheimer’s.
Fasting for more than six hours allows your body to go into the “cleansing” phase, cleaning up damaged cells, recycling waste products produced by damaged cells, and repairing and strengthening the remaining ones to improve your state of health. These types of genetic repairs are stimulated by the release of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH works to strengthen and improve the function of your body’s muscles, organs and internal systems. Research also suggest that HGH helps the brain with neural processing and synaptic functioning, stimulating your brain’s memory and efficiency of thought processing. Studies from the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute have shown that men who fasted for 24 hours had a 2,000 percent increase in circulating HGH, and women had a 1,300 percent increase.
Fasting, of course, may not be for everyone (especially those with serious health conditions) but if you’re fit, healthy, and interested in the process, it is absolutely worth experimenting with on your own or with the support of a practitioner. This technique could be the key to resolving both your mental struggles, and your weight loss woes.
Jamie Forward is a Holistic Health Coach based in the Jersey City/ NYC area. She works with clients to help educate them on functional nutrition, and behavioral/psychological hacks for a healthy, happy life. Jamie holds an educational background in Psychology, and is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is continuing her studies in Women’s Hormonal Health, and is also a classically trained dancer and dance fitness instructor in the Greater NYC area.