The Big Idea
From the 5:2 to fasting apps, you simply can’t fail to notice that fasting is in fashion! As you know at The52Project we are keen to separate the fast from the fiction (sorry bad joke!!!) and we also like to keep things super simple. So whilst there is great science behind fasting for both weight loss and mental health, we weren’t entirely sure about featuring it, because even 2 days fasting per week or 16 hours per day seemed pretty hardcore to us.
Luckily, one the the numbers on Dr Iain’s speed dial is for Katie Maycock who founded and runs the most brilliantly titled Get Your Sh*t Together (Literally & Figuratively)! Part coaching, part bootcamp part consultant genius. Not only is Katie an expert on fasting and the connection between gut and brain health, but she is a super down to earth Aussie – who had some ways to make fasting simple and easy to incorporate into our lives – and really knows her stuff (ahem: sh*t)!
Katie shared with us that she came across fasting after having a couple of real health scares and burn-outs. And whilst she herself is now an absolute convert to not eating for 16 hours a day and then munching happily in the 8 that remain, she had some great tips for those of us who simply feel that would be too much of a radical commitment to make.
The wisdom of intermittent or occasional fasting is a millennia old and idea built into many faith, belief and cultural practices – but why? Well it seems that fasting not only helps you keep the pounds off, it actually helps your brain and body to function better. As animals we have evolved to go periods of time without food, and then still be able to up our game in order to get food (hunt or forage) and keep ourselves safe. A problem with most of our modern lifestyles is our all too available 24/7 access to food, which we take advantage of – usually without really thinking about it or what it might be doing for us – aside from increasing our waistlines of course. In fact even ‘healthy’ eating cultural norms still suggest that we must have 3 square meals evenly spaced across the day, every day.
Research now suggests that incorporating intermittent or occasional fasting, like delaying or occasionally missing breakfast, can actually:
- Significantly reduces your chances of a premature death!
- Make you mentally sharper and smarter.
- Reduce the mental (cognitive) signs of ageing including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Make your body leaner and more efficient with your body’s fuel.
- Make you look younger for longer to boot!
Just to be clear food is absolutely necessary for our lives, for all of our health and wellbeing. But what happens if we are just having too much of a good thing all of the time? Katie helps us to see that for many of us, showing a bit of restraint and delaying when we eat, as well as what we eat, can have game changing impacts on our quality of life.
As so many of our #Tips this is all about habit stacking and starting with small steps. For example Katie suggests that we can start by say replacing our first cuppa of the day – that most of us would take with milk and sugar – with say a green or fruit tea instead or even just water (#Tip7 – Power of a Pint). Dulcie tried this for a week and found that actually, having thought that this was going to be a definite “pay” option for her (given that she is so committed to her morning brew) she actually found that she now really likes green and pomegranate tea! Given that she is now an absolute #Tip7 convert, Dulcie has actually found that once she had quenched that thirst for something with a different sort of cuppa, actually hanging on and having a brunch rather than a breakfast was actually a breeze. And made her feel better too!
Katie also suggested we avoid the evening grazing habit. If you are like us, it is all too easy to pick up a biscuit on your route between the kitchen and the TV – but once you apply #Tip8 ‘Pay Attention’ and come off auto-pilot and ask yourself if you really want that biscuit or would holding off do you even more good than you might actually think…?
This habit also has some other real healthy habit forming benefits, like making it easier to get out of the ‘boom and bust’ of sugary snacks that we can all get tempted by to kick start our day.
So doing without food for just a bit longer in a day can really change your life!
Got it…What’s the Science
So what is fasting really? Fasting is doing without eating or drinking substances with a calorific content for a significant number of hours. So when we sleep, we are actually fasting. Hence of course the term breakfast for breaking our night fast. (Side point: those in Tudor times would often go to bed earlier with sundown, especially in the winter months, spending a portion of the night actually awake, working and eating). Here we are saying fasting is going without food for 12 or more hours. Rahul Jandial is a world renown brain surgeon who, like Katie, speaks and attests to the cognitive and general health benefits of regularly extending his morning fast (so including sleep time to give around 14 – 16 hours) on his ability to function and operate as a surgeon.
Historically animals that can function well during periods of fast, especially while also exercising, do better and survive to pass on these abilities to their offspring and subsequent generations.
When we fast (and / or have exercised intensively), and once our bodies have used the available glucose (from glycogen stores), it switches to another stored energy source: fat (adipose tissue). When fat is being broken down in the liver to provide energy it releases substances called ketones. It is these ketones that whizz around our body and which we now know have can bring serious health and performance benefits. The transition from getting energy from using carbohydrates and glucose to fatty acids and ketones is called the ‘G-to-K switch’ and comes with some nifty adaptations at the cellular and molecular (sub-cellular level) that include changes in brain cells and their networks that enhance their functioning and improve their resistance to stress, injury and disease.
More than 2,400 years ago Hippocrates taught that fasting can help reduce the severity, even prevent, an illness that was called “the sacred disease” – which we now call epilepsy. Even today, especially in poorer countries, an effective way of controlling epilepsy is to have patients on fat rich diets – known as ketogenic diets (although such diets can obviously come with some cardiovascular downsides). Epilepsy is used to refer to a number of conditions and symptoms where certain brain cells get too ‘excited’ and which ‘fire’ inappropriately. This can be very damaging to these neurones and debilitating to brain function and so the sufferer. It seems that ketones, particularly BHB, upregulate GABAergic (a neurotransmitter) tone, which can protect the brain against seizures. Ketones do this by reducing the over excitability of neurones as well as protect them from damage caused by being toxic effects of being overstimulated.
Ketones don’t just seem to protect neurones they also seem to improve the ability of neurones to make and sustain synapses by stimulating neurite outgrowth (neurone ‘branching’), synaptogenesis (making points of signal transmission between neural cells) and synaptic plasticity (neuroplasticity). These allow brain cells to make the connections necessary for networks (neural networks) that makes it possible for the billions of neurones in our head come together to work as a brain.
Ketones are know to do this by inducing the release of stimulating and protective neuropeptides such as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF1) and Fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2). These individually and collectively give cells increased resilience to the damaging effects of metabolic, oxidative and excitotoxic stress – i.e. they project cells from ‘wear and tear’ and ageing.
It also seems that fasting (and sustained exercise) stimulates a process called autophagy which is like our cells’ internal hoover system, which safely gets rid of cellular rubbish and debris. This is important because a messy cell is not a healthy cell. Neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as brain traumatic injury, are often the result of neuronal cells not being able to process certain debris and proteins that then build up – sometimes to become ‘plaques’. The thing is our neurones are so specialised that they need careful maintenance – like a high performance or classic car. Debris interferes with neuronal network (brain cell and brain) function as dirty oil can ruin an engine.
Fasting, including Intermittent Fasting (IF) (occasional fasting days), also improves our bodies’ cells ability to deal with sugar – which means it can help with reducing the likelihood of you developing diabetes. In fact research has shown that by having a more Mediterranean like diet (high in fresh vegetables, fish and whole grains, while limiting red meat and processed grains) – and which combines fasting – can massively reduce you chances of having a debilitating brain disease or a premature death.
So fasting activates the G-to-K metabolic switch which leads to the release of ketones, then neuropeptides, that in turn protects and makes our brain cells actually work more healthy as a high functioning brain. This includes improving our brain’s ability to be adaptable, creative and ‘plastic’ (neuroplasticity). This means ketones actually improves our ability to learn new skills as well as gain, retain and recall information – which are all essential for our us making and keeping new habits.
Watch our #Tip29 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With special guest and expert from Get Your Sh*t Together (Literally & Figuratively) – Katie Maycock:
Intermittent Metabolic Switching, Neuroplasticity and Brain Health (2018) – Nature Neuroscience Review Paper
Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon by Rahul Jandial
Firstly please, please consider if this is a healthy or sensible #Tip for you to try. If you have had issues with food, like eating disorders, in the past – please consult your doctor before trying this #Tip. To be clear we are not talking about overall daily calorie reduction in this #Tip – merely the hours when you eat during a day (24 hours period).
Also do keep in mind that one of the curious things about the brain is that we are wired to pay more attention and give more credibility to negative things than we are positive ones (remember what Dave Rogers shared with us in #Tip28 ‘Mood Hoovers’). It is often called Negativity Bias. Interestingly, this bias is so strong that when comparing two people where one is highly critical and the other is hugely positive, our brains will make an assumption that the more negative person is smarter than the positive one! This is of course, not true. But it’s another of those amazing facts that help us to realise that the habits we have and the assumptions that we make, may not be accurate and may instead be our brains playing a trick on us!
So when we are trying to lose weight or feel good about ourselves, we need to bear in mind that when we do well, or have a good day, our brains might neatly gloss over that. However, if you have a bad day, perhaps you gain a little weight or #Tip13 TreatYourself don’t be surprised if you give yourself a hard time about it – your brain is wired to notice when you fail! This shouldn’t stop you on keeping at it. We strongly suspect this could be particularly relevant for this #Tip.
It is also important to remember that to get the best benefits from this #Tip requires also including regular exercise as well as making more positive diet choices on foodstuffs and drinks. Fasting but then having a box of doughnuts, although tempting and yummy at the time, is going to undo so much of the hard work you have given to fasting in the first place.
Bringing it together: it seems that sometimes less, or at least postponing, can give you and your brain more. People who occasionally fast, once they get used to it, say that they really notice the benefits that also include increased alertness and energy levels. So this could be a bit like our very first #Tip1 ‘Cold Showers’: it may seem impossible to start but actually once you get used to it, it can really work for you. Also start small and see what works for you.
As ever, we’d love to hear how you get on with this #Tip – you can fill in our feedback form or DM or email us directly: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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