In “The Story So Far” I listed 20 points showing how science validates and explains spiritual practices, including information about how fasting somehow ramps up the signalling chemicals and neurotransmitter activity in the brain, helping decisions and magnifying the power of thought.
Fasting has always been part of spiritual disciplines, and in the Bible it’s related how the disciples always fasted before important decisions. But fasting has never been explained in scientific terms – if we don’t count Richard Dawkins’ criticising any religious idea as nonsense! But enough about the 19th century – so let’s turn our attention to genuine science.
Here is a detailed article on how fasting seems to offer defences against degenerative brain disorders (which were reported recently in to be a direct result of mental stress) from the Guardian in February.
Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore said they had found evidence which 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 Professor 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 around 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, claimed 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%. A similar effect has been noted in humans. But Mattson and his team have taken this notion further. They argue 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,” said Mattson.
He and his colleagues have also worked out a specific mechanism by which the growth of neurones in the brain could be affected by reduced energy intakes. Amounts of two cellular messaging chemicals are boosted when calorie intake is sharply reduced, said Mattson. These chemical messengers play an important role in boosting the growth of neurones 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,” said Mattson. “The overall effect is beneficial.”
This model has been worked out using studies of fasting on humans and the resulting impact on their general health – even sufferers from asthma have shown benefits, said Mattson – and from experiments on the impact on the brains of animals affected by the rodent equivalent of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Now Mattson’s team is preparing to study the impact of fasting on the brain by using MRI scans and other techniques.
If this final link can be established, Mattson said that a person could optimise his or her brain function by fasting. In other words, they could cut their food intake to a bare minimum for two days a week, while indulging for the other five. “We have found that from a psychological point of view that works quite well. You can put up with having hardly any food for a day if you know that for the next five you can eat what you want.”