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

 

 

 

 

 

Heavy weights and wild waves

Recently, someone said to me, “Cam, you are so brave”.  I said at the time, “That is so interesting, because I don’t feel brave”.

The person who said this is actually the new owner of the business I founded, MooMoo Kids, and she was referring to the risk I took buying towelling from a supplier in India, that I had never dealt with up until that point.  At the time, I didn’t feel brave, but rather, determined- determined to develop a reliable source of beach towelling and thereby secure the business’ ability to dependably fulfil the demand for our best-selling kid’s beach gowns.

But her comment made me think.  Perhaps I am brave.  That was a risky, brave thing to do.  Joining Toastmasters was a brave thing that all of us have done.  Being up here speaking is another brave thing.

So, in preparing for this speech, I thought, what the heck!  Let’s do another brave thing today.  This shouldn’t have to be brave.  But there is a stigma relating to disclosing this.  A stigma, I am hoping to reduce a TINY bit, today.

I want to announce to you all, that I suffer ………………..from depression.  And anxiety, too.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, or SADAG (love that it has the word SAD in it!) and the latest data I could find- released in 2013- as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety and/or depression (and this statistic does not include other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.).

That means that there are probably 2 other people in this room who relate to my struggle.  And yet, I hesitate to disclose this about myself.  I fear it will affect how you all treat me, what you think I am capable of.  That you will write me off as weak, or worse still, a complete loony-tune.

What suffering from depression- or having depressed tendencies means is that life is a bit harder for me.  If anything, I have to be stronger, and braver, rather than weaker.

In my world, it feels a bit like I am dragging a heavy load along with me in my life.  A load that tugs on me- holding me back, dragging me down.  On any one day, in any particular situation, I need to use more energy to do the same amount as someone else, because of this weight.  The weight is the depression.

And then there is the anxiety.  The smallest thing can happen- something really insignificant- like an email from someone who I suspect may be angry with something I did- and I can feel this rising panic, like a big wave rising up and crashing over me… it is scary.  I don’t get panic attacks, which is known as a panic disorder, but I have what is called generalised anxiety disorder.

Through the day, I oscillate between struggling to carry the heavy weight of depression and trying to steady my nerves and calm myself down with deep breaths as a wave of anxiety crashes over me.  And not all days are quite this bad.  Hormonal fluctuations definitely play a big role.  At some times of the month I feel pretty good.  Positive, full of energy.  And then at other times it feels like my world is crashing down around me and it would be best to hide in bed.

According to Dr Nichols from Stanford University, my chances of having depression were always going to be high.  Two times as many women as men are depressed.  Children of people with recurrent depression – and both my parents were clinically depressed throughout their lives- are up to 5 times more likely to develop depression.  Sure enough, of my parents 3 children, 2 of us (the girls!) are on treatment for depression.

Strategies I use to cope range from anti-depressants- which I accept I will probably need to take for the rest of my life- I am definitely not functional without them- to sessions with a psychologist (most recently,  a cognitive behavioural therapist, which I can recommend)- to exercise (a great one)- to meditation and yoga.

Right now, my new strategy is not to ignore the weight of depression, but to acknowledge it. I read a book in the holidays about creative living beyond fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she describes fear and creativity as conjoined twins. She says- and I quote- “I allow my fear to live and breathe and stretch out its legs comfortably.  It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back”.

I am trying that approach with depression at the moment.  Depression and my life go hand in hand.  I have stopped fighting it and we are conversing a bit like this:

“Ok, depression, I feel you.  You want me to stay in bed.  You feel tired and scared.  That is OK.  I am going to do what I need to do anyway.  You can come along with me, I acknowledge your existence, but you can’t ruin my day by taking over”.

I am hoping this open acknowledgement of my mental challenges, will mean I learn to carry that extra weight, and swim through those wild waves of panic, more skilfully.  I am also hoping that by sharing this shameful label with all of you today, I make the label of depression less shameful.

What a week!

This week:

  • I did a NIA dance class on Monday. I have been doing NIA for years, so that is not newsworthy in and of itself.  It is just that this particular Monday class is taken by the teacher that I started doing NIA with and I have been longing to do one of her classes for ages (but it happens during work hours, so have not been able to do it up until now).  I had perhaps put too much anticipatory pressure on this, because it was nice, but not amazing.
  • On Wednesday, I did a yoga class for essentially the very first time (I did one or two yoga classes at the gym in my 20’s, but didn’t really “get it” then). Now, this, was amazing.  The yoga teacher was recommended (here is a link to her site) to me and I came away from it feeling simply incredible.  Calm, centred, positive.  On filling in the health-check form, I hesitated, but then inputted depression, anxiety and being on anti-depressants.
  • I took open disclosure to a whole new level on Thursday, when I did a speech at my Toastmasters club  about depression, anxiety and me.  This took guts to do, but was just SO rewarding.  More about that later.
  • On Friday, I faced my demons and tackled clearing up my office space. It is not finished, by no means perfect, but an important start has been made.  The clearer surfaces reflect the calmer mental space I am feeling.
  • I dealt fairly well with a tantrum on Saturday morning, but there is a lot of work still needed here. A topic for another day.

Wow, looking at all of that, it feels like I achieved many things!

Back to the speech on Thursday.  For a written version , please click on this link.  What is just so uplifting and powerful about having stood up and done this speech, is the overwhelming support, love and sense of not being alone with this battle that I came away with.  Not only that, I came away with hope.

At our Toastmasters club (and at many others, but not all), everyone has the opportunity to write a “woohoo” note to any of the speakers.  I got sent many beautiful notes (see pic of some of them above).  Some people were identifying with depression and/or anxiety themselves, and offering advice on what worked for them; one mentioning their husband is battling and how hard it is for the rest of the family because he is so irritable; others simply supportive.   It all confirmed that this is a condition that is far more prevalent than I think even the statistics suggest.  To give you an idea of the prevalence, my GP has mentioned (quite a few years ago, and to my mom, not me) that he prescribes more anti-depressants than antibiotics these days.

A little aside:

I only realised when I didn’t get “best speaker” and felt a bit tearful, how much I had wanted to be acknowledged as such!  I guess that is my competitive streak coming through.  The person who was awarded best speaker was admittedly far better prepared than I was, and her speech better fulfilled the criteria of the project (that of researching your topic) we were both completing .  She is probably also just simply a more talented speaker.  Get over it, Cam!

Things that came out of this speech:

  • People who are now the most inspiringly centred and successful among us have often had turbulent times in their past, where they battled depression. There is hope.  This condition can be overcome.
  • I want to try TRE- Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises.
  • I am considering doing “The Journey”. Highly recommended as a turning point for another depression sufferer
  • While at the moment, I am in acceptance mode about my mental health, I am daring to have hope that I can heal. This is almost too scary to contemplate.  Is it possible for me to move through this and out the other side?  Neither of my parents have been able to do this.  Can I?