Fasting and Alzheimer’s

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.

Fasting can help protect against brain diseases, scientists say

A vertical slice through the brain of a patient with Alzheimer’s, left, compared with a normal brain, right. Photograph: Alfred Pasieka/Science Photo Library

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.”

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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7 Responses to Fasting and Alzheimer’s

  1. donsalmon says:

    After 7 years of struggling to stabilize blood pressure (in large part exacerbated by horrendous side effects from BP medication, which tends to raise the blood pressure) I found about 6 months ago that eating less (generally no more than 1400-1500 calories, with some days down to about 1200) was one of the best means to stabilize. By adding fast walking (with intervals; 5 minutes at about 4 miles an hour, alternating with about 1 minute at about 6 to 7 mies an hour – still walking, not jogging) I’ve found that I’ve been able to reduce the medication. I should be off meds altogether in about a month.

    In recent months I’ve added occasional fasts, and plan by the end of August to include 1 day a week of fasting. This is quite a common recommendation (less food in general and regular fasting in particular) in the Indian “Ayurveda” health system, which is entirely physically based. You will hear mainstream (allopathic/ie materialist) doctors claim that Ayurveda is “quackery”, yet teams of researchers in India (and elsewhere) are finding an increasing number of examples where the integrated, spiritually based Ayurvedic system – which trusts the body’s healing capacity rather than using dangerous drugs to imbalance the body’s systems – is quite valid.

    Great posting, as usual.

  2. That’s great news about your naturalistic approach; well done and keep going. Nature must have put safeguards inside the body’s mechanisms to cope with emergencies: after all the cell’s machinery there is working at a rate of millions of movements per second. That must be directed very heavily – anything random would make a mess right from the word go. Strange also how life is compartmentalised – the cells work as separate containers, and even solar systems are completely removed from other such systems.

    I guess healthwise I haven’t been so lucky. Aging like everyone else, I’ve been forced to rely on a mix of very powerful drugs – with unknown side effects – to deal with what doctors call “age-related health issues”. It sounds innocent enough but one look at my daily dosages should strike fear into those who are young and healthy:

    Where do I begin? Well, To combat neurodegeneration I’m told I need gallic and ellagic acids, so I eat a walnut. And once, sometimes even twice a day I have to ingest the anti-carcinogenic pterostilbene (phytosterol) in a teaspoon of blueberries, and the hideously powerful drug lycopene in a small tomato.

    On top of this chemical Russian roulette my condition requires me to swallow a full set of amino acids every day, in a single artichoke heart. People can’t generally imagine the misery of this drug-dependent life.. if you’re squeamish, I hope you won’t mind hearing that these molecules are all so complex, and my reliance on them so absolute, doctors say I need special machinery to chop them up at extremely high speeds (look away now) actually in the stomach. To do this I use (at my own risk – I had to sign a waiver) a chemical so powerful that a single molecule targets and precisely breaks apart 30,000 proteins in one second: bromelaine, in a slice of pineapple.

    I know people are wary of technology, but without it, what would someone like me do? I have to carry life-saving equipment at all times – a small spoon.

    In fear of gaining fat at the expense of muscles, I’m forced to eat ursolic acid (yuck) in an apple. And every now and again, potassium, in a banana. Potassium! This stuff was never meant for humans! These “challenging” health issues (they’ll never say “fatal” to a patient) affect all areas of my life: sometimes to generate oxytocin I’ll give stuff away, like a parking voucher with an hour left on it. The professionals say this chemical will clear my brain and benefit my entire body including the genes. But they’re just putting a brave face on it: those parking tickets can be fifty or sixty pence. I guess health doesn’t come cheap.

    I know it’s a lethal cocktail, and the technology is so complex nobody knows the risks of mixing all these dreadful drugs – but I’m 54 now, and without them, I might well not survive more than another 40 years

    • donsalmon says:

      it must be too early in the morning for my brain – you caught me at first; I was about to write you a note of condolence. I clicked on the “Comment” on the email and read the whole post – BRILLIANT! (and hilarious, and best of all, a fantastic parody on modern medical insanity) You should really work this up into an article and send it around. Alternet would love it. Andrew Weil would, I think, love it. Hope you don’t mind I’ll be copying it and sending ti around a bit (with full acknowledgment of the source, of course; (or as we might say, the Source which inspired you to write this:>))

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  4. By all means, copy it anywhere you want.. you don’t even have to credit it to the site if it’s awkward or adds too much baggage to the message.

    When I started reading on the molecular machinery in fruit, I was going to write a post called “For God so loved the world that he gave it fruit” but it’s still unfinished. The remarkable thing, I mean the really incredible thing, is that these little machines are tens of thousands times more powerful than what we can build or engineer into drugs.

    And even more fantastic, this stuff grows out of the ground, within arm’s reach – apples, when ripe, bend low to the ground for picking, or disconnect altogether and lie at our feet. They all have an appealing taste, and seeds which multiply the continuity of that species. The planet itself is offering this stuff to us – free of charge! Who pays for seeds? Nobody. A seed comes, eventually, only from a seed. Where did the first seeds come from? We don’t know but they seem to go back to the Carboniferous era.

    The more you think about it, the more fantastic it is. The pineapple is actually stuffed with tiny chainsaws; and all this technology is completely harmless. Completely safe! Engineers trying to make enzymes are struggling – they can get one or two reactions per second. But thirty thousand targeted hits, with precise cleaving?! It’s staggering.

    It’s probably the strongest proof that the planet is on our side and wants us to live in enjoyment and health. You have to ask the question, suppose the planet was intelligent (just suppose) and wanted to make sure we had food. How would it behave? Copy away!

    I couldn’t resist pumping it up into a post – I like the idea of someone so bent out of shape by the drugs industry that a teaspoon of blueberries is a threat!

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