The effect of Intermittent Fasting on the brain, or Fixing My Head

This is the written version of my speech on Intermittent Fasting I prepared for my Toastmasters Club.

I know it is hard to see it when I am up here- at my most animated, full of energy and nerves, but I suffer from depression- and have done so for the vast majority of my adult life. In my last speech- and Verity would have heard it at the Westlake club- I opened up about my mental health, with the aim of de-stigmatising depression- and found doing so gave me such a sense of relief, of total acceptance of where I am mentally, but also- most importantly- a huge amount of hope that I will be able to improve on the status quo.  That the traditional fixes that I have been relying on up until now- i.e. medication, exercise, healthy eating may not be the only avenues worth exploring.

Today, I thought I would share a recent- and in my opinion- potentially completely life-changing practice I am experimenting with-

Intermittent Fasting

Yes, I see your eyes rolling- you are thinking oh golly, what an anti-climax!  All we need is another speech about another new-fangled diet!  SIGH!

But wait. Hear me out.  I am not really interested in fasting for weight loss.  Although I do believe that it does work for that.

What I am wanting to share with you today, is the potentially very important effect fasting can have on the brain. More specifically, the effect fasting is having on MY BRAIN.

I am going to firstly run you through WHY intermittent fasting could be good for the brain- the science bit; and then touch on HOW to fast- or at least, the fasting method that is working for me.

WHY fast?  It makes a lot of sense, in terms of our evolution, to assume that our ancestors would have experienced hunger a lot more frequently that we do nowadays.  No fridge, no shops, no conveniences like a toaster would have meant you would probably have aimed to have one proper meal a day.  Perhaps eating as regularly as we do nowadays is not quite what our bodies were designed for.

I stumbled on a youtube video of Prof Mark Mattson, where he is advocating intermittent fasting as an extremely effective enhancer of brain capacity, performance and probably most important for me at this stage- its positive impact on mental health issues.  He looks specifically at the positive effect it has on degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

But I am wanting to take this a step further today, and suggest that- certainly in my case- I am experiencing a marked reduction in symptoms of depression intermittent fasting.

What happens in the body, when you fast, is that all the glucose supplies that are stored in the liver and blood eventually become depleted and the body then switches to the burning of ketone bodies.  This is very desirable for weight loss, because we are essentially tapping into our fat stores and burning that stored energy.  But what is the impact on the brain?

This is where it gets interesting.  Prof Mark Mattson suggests that perhaps ketosis is for the brain what exercise is for the muscles- in other words, it triggers neuronal repair and growth.  He has been able to show in rats that intermittent fasting results in brain stem cells forming new nerve cells- this is known as neurogenisis- in the hippocampus of the brain.

Interestingly, the hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with learning and memory, as well as mood and emotion.  It is the part of the brain that a brain scan will show the first signs of damage from diseases such as Alzheimers- where memory loss is the first indication of the disease.  Another effect of Intermittent Fasting that has been noticed in the hippocampus, is that it increases the levels of what is known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.  BDNF is best described as FERTILISER for neurogenisis.  Depression is strongly linked with low levels of BDNF in the brain.  So, it seems logical that the effect I am feeling on my mood since I have started Intermittent Fasting a few times a week, could well be as a result of the improved levels of BDNF in my brain.

 

In the wild, you can imagine that this mechanism was very useful.  Picture Cam the Cavewoman.  If I have not eaten for a while, being more alert, more aware with enhanced cognitive abilities triggered by ketosis, would make me more likely to have a successful hunt, or develop a new way of digging for roots, or doing whatever it takes to get my next meal.

 

So now the HOW of intermittent fasting.  The 16/8 method I am playing with, means, essentially, that on most days, I skip breakfast and only eat at about 1pm.  By doing this I am “fasting” for 16 out of 24 hours and only eating within an 8 hour window each day.  I also believe in eating healthy, real foods, but have always been fairly good with that- I don’t have a very sweet tooth- so that has not changed.  Those are the – very simple- mechanics of the “diet”.  I often exercise in that fasting time period, and I don’t restrict my fluids at all- drinking water, tea and coffee, but with very little milk.

In conclusion, Intermittent fasting is not new.  People have been fasting for mental clarity, spiritual enlightenment or simply because they hadn’t had a successful hunt since the dawn of human existence.  It seems to me that perhaps  my brain- and possibly yours- functions far better if it has to use ketones as fuel from time to time- thereby stimulating increased levels of BDNF, that brain fertilizer and creating new nerve cells in the important hippocampus section of the brain.

Thank you.

The very act of eating can be exhausting; it takes a lot of energy to digest food. When the body is freed from that chore, it naturally feels lighter and much more vibrant. ~Allan Cott

I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency. ~Plato

 

 

 

 

 

Phew!

I am extremely relieved to report that I am feeling a LOT better now. The withdrawal effects coming off the anti-depressents were truly dreadful- it felt like I was living in some kind of horrible, alternative reality- but they have subsided now.

So much has been happening, I thought it would be best to list things:

  • We have new addition to the family- a ridgeback puppy.  His name is Ernest and he is simultaneously the cutest creature on the planet and the most hectic.  We got him because he is one of the best kinds of dogs to run with and will make running in the forest and greenbelts a lot safer for me. He will also add to our security because ridgebacks are fairly intimidating, large breeds.  It is a long-term project, though, because Ernest will not be able to run with me until he is over a year old, without the risk of getting terrible arthritis later.  This means that at the moment, I need to walk the puppy and Benji AND run on separate occasions, which makes for lots of time outside, which is not a bad thing!
  • I am doing a lovely parenting course, called Roots and Wings.  I love the other moms doing the course and feel excited that some significant shifts will be made in our family as a result of the course.
  • I have done 2 Toastmasters speeches on Intermittent Fasting and want to post a detailed post on this practice, which really seems to be helping me.
  • We had the most incredible holiday over the long weekend at the end of April.  I can highly recommend a visit to Victoria Falls and this will definitely be a full blog post for another day.
  • I joined a #100gratefuldays challenge, where I am posting a pic each day and writing about what happened on that day that sparked gratitude.  It is a powerful practice that keeps one focused on finding those special moments throughout the day.

It feels like I am almost managing my depression and anxiety without medication, but I am not under any illusion that I am healed.  For example, I am struggling with feelings of victimisation and I have to remind myself all the time that I am the master of my own destiny and not a victim of circumstances.  That, for example, I chose to get a puppy and getting up in the night because of him is a consequence of my own decision.  A decision I do not regret, especially when snuggling him and breathing in all his precious puppiness!  Negative thoughts are present almost constantly, even as I search for my grateful moments and enjoy so much of my day!  The word “battle”, when used referring to depression is a truly apt one.  I battle ALL THE TIME.  But I don’t think I am losing the battle.  I am exhausted by it, but I feel I am making progress.

My hope is that my brain will adjust and strengthen in time and things that “push me over the edge” right now, will no longer do that and my capacity for stress, anxiety and anger triggers will improve.  Please, please, please let it be so.