Fasting for regular periods could help protect the brain against degenerative illnesses, according to US scientists.
Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore said they had found evidence that shows that periods of stopping virtually all food intake for one or two days a week could protect the brain against some of the worst effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other ailments.
“Reducing your calorie intake could help your brain, but doing so by cutting your intake of food is not likely to be the best method of triggering this protection. It is likely to be better to go on intermittent bouts of fasting, in which you eat hardly anything at all, and then have periods when you eat as much as you want,” said Mark Mattson, head of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences.
“In other words, timing appears to be a crucial element to this process,” Mattson told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.
Cutting daily food intake to about 500 calories — which amounts to little more than a few vegetables and some tea — for two days out of seven had clear beneficial effects in their studies, said Mattson, who is also -professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Scientists have known for some time that a low-calorie diet is a recipe for longer life. Rats and mice reared on restricted amounts of food increase their lifespan by up to 40 percent. A similar effect has been noted in humans. However, Mattson and his team have taken this notion further. They say that starving yourself occasionally can stave off not just ill-health and early death, but delay the onset of conditions affecting the brain, including strokes.
“Our animal experiments clearly suggest this,” Mattson said.
He and his colleagues have also worked out a specific mechanism by which the growth of neurons in the brain could be affected by reduced energy intake.
Amounts of two cellular messaging chemicals are boosted when calorie intake is sharply reduced, Mattson said.
These chemical messengers play an important role in boosting the growth of neurons in the brain, a process that would counteract the impact of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells,” Mattson said. “The overall effect is beneficial.”