Fasting Promotes Brain Health

Confession: I skipped breakfast and lunch the day of my 8-hour comprehensive exams. In fact, I always fast or run before a big test, presentation, interview, or other monumental occasion.  I perform better while fasting or following a run; and my experiences represent the rule, not an exception. Recent advances in neuroscience illustrate that intermittent energy restriction (i.e. fasting) and vigorous energy expenditure (i.e. running) both promote brain health through similar and complementary mechanisms. Since Ramadan starts tomorrow, let’s focus on how fasting optimizes brain performance.

fasting_brainLaboratory experiments with human and animal models as well as large scale epidemiological studies indicate that fasting benefits the brain in many ways:

  • Improves performance on memory tests, as demonstrated in a trial of 50 normal elderly subjects after a 30% reduction in caloric intake for 3 months (Witte et al., 2009).
  • Resistance to age-related diseases. In Parkinson’s Disease, fasting preserves dopaminergic neurons and reduces motor impairment. In Alzheimer’s Disease, fasting prevents the accumulation of mis-folded proteins. In Huntington’s Disease, fasting normalizes levels of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which slows down the degeneration of neurons (Mattson et al., 2008; Duan et al., 2003b).
  • Slows age-related cognitive decline by maintaining long-term potentiation, an electrophysciological measure of synapse strengthening associated with learning and memory (Hori et al., 1992).
  • Preserves vision by restoring ocular dominance plasticity in the visual cortex (Spolidoro
    et al., 2011).
  • Prevents age-related hearing loss exhibited in wild-type mice (Someya et al., 2010).
  • Prevents age-related atrophy of the brain in older rhesus monkeys who began the ER (fasting) diet in early adulthood (Willette et al., 2012a).
  • Enhances energy production by protecting the mitochondria from damage associated with aging (Liu et al., 2006).
  • Improves memory, decision-making, and emotional control by preserving the volumes of brain structures involved with these processes including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex (Willette et al., 2012b).
  • Maintains optimal learning by preserves synaptic plasticity during aging (Mattson, 2012).
  • Increases neurogenesis by upregulating beneficial trophic factors such as BDNF, insulin-like growth factor 1, and vascular endothelial cell growth factor (Lee et al., 2002; Cheng et al., 2003; Joseph D’Ercole and Ye, 2008; Trejo et al., 2008).
  • Reduces inflammatory markers such as proinflammatory cytokines in the blood (Harvie et al., 2011).
  • Increases blood flow and functional connectivity to important regions of the brain including the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex (Burdette et al., 2010).
  • Improves neuronal connections by increasing electrical and synaptic activity (Voss et al., 2010).
  • Prevents the death of neurons by inducing transcription factors that are responsible for the expression of geneses involved in cell survival (Mattson, 2008).
  • Fights neuronal pathology by elevating levels of protein chaperones that prevent the accumulation mis-folded proteins, a hallmark feature of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (Rubinsztein et al., 2011).
  • Slows down a cellular feature of aging, the accumulation of reactive oxygen species, by upregulating enzymes that suppress oxidative stress (Hyun et al., 2006).
  • Preserves DNA integrity by attenuating the age-related decline in DNA base repair enzyme APE1 (Kisby et al., 2010).
  • Enables neurons to cleanse themselves by upregulating autophagy, which enhances the removal of damaged proteins and pieces of dead cells (Alirezaei et al., 2010).

For the details on the findings above, please read the following:

Mattson, Mark P. “Energy intake and exercise as determinants of brain health and vulnerability to injury and disease.” Cell metabolism (2012).

Based on the brain-findings alone, Muslims have a special opportunity during Ramadan to think our best: to be more productive than usual at work and at home; to make sound decisions with emotions in check; to experience a surplus of energy; to spend that extra energy giving back to the community; to awake each day detoxified and rejuvenated; and to see, hear, and remember more accurately. With 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population, in this fasting state everyday for a month, we ought to expect a revolution. A Ramadan Revolution would spread peace and prosperity, starting on the cellular level inside our brains and transforming us one by one. Ramadan Mubarak!