How Fasting Improves Mental & Brain Health

By Dr. Will Cole

The brain is no doubt one of our most important organs. Not only does it control our basic movements and bodily functions, it allows us to think, feel, and recall information. All of these things are vital to the human experience and when one of these functions goes awry, it can make life a lot more difficult and a lot less enjoyable.

And sadly, brain problems are on the rise at a rapid pace. In fact, The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that close to 20% of American adults currently suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. That doesn’t take into account the many people struggling through brain fog on a daily basis or those with autoimmune brain problems like dementia, autism, or multiple sclerosis. Something has to be done.

As a functional medicine practitioner and the author of the new book Intuitive Fasting, I am always on the search for the most effective, natural way to optimize your health - including your brain. Intermittent fasting has some serious next-level health benefits that are backed up both scientifically and anecdotally. Here’s exactly what fasting can do for your brain health.

Lowered Brain Inflammation

Chronic inflammation plays such a role in brain health that an entire area of research known as  “the cytokine model of cognitive function” is dedicated to studying how inflammation, specifically inflammation of the brain, is correlated with brain problems.

Elevated inflammation levels increase the microRNA-155 molecule that ends up creating gaps in the blood brain barrier that let bacteria and other toxins slip through causing your brain’s immune system to work in overdrive to fight off these invaders. This ends up creating a cascade of inflammation to your brain in order to try to protect it. This inflammatory oxidative stress in the hypothalamus of the brain is the underlying cause of brain fog.

Fasting has been shown to reduce the release of pro-inflammatory cells called monocytes, which when circulating at high levels - as a result of the eating habits humans have acquired over the last few centuries - can cause series tissue damage. Studies have shown that in periods of fasting, these cells go into a type of “sleep mode” and turn off. This means that fasting works essentially as an antidote to the high-sugar, processed food-filled standard American diet. Which brings me to my next point.

Clean Brain Energy

Intermittent fasting helps push your metabolism into a state of ketosis where your body utilizes fat, in the form of ketones for energy instead of sugar in the form of glucose. As fasting continues, deeper ketosis develops, you mobilize more stored fat to use as fuel, and ketones including beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetoacetate (AcAc), and acetone (BrAce) end up replacing glucose as the primary energy source for the central nervous system.

BHB is particularly important to brain health because when BHB is produced, it activates the AMPK pathway, which is involved in regulating energy balance and inflammation, and inhibits the NLRP3 inflammasome an inflammatory protein that activates the inflammatory response and has been connected to various inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

This ketone acts as a more effective fuel source for your brain considering it gets transported straight to the brain and enters the mitochondria of brain cells where it is used to make energy. It’s suspected that the production of BHB is responsible for the increased focus and concentration - and the lack of brain fog - many ketogenic dieters report.

BHB also acts as a signaling molecule in brain cells and can induce the expression of proteins. One such protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is known for promoting cellular resilience and synaptic plasticity. More specifically, BDNF works to support the survival of existing brain cells and encourages the growth of new, healthy ones. Lowered synaptic plasticity has been shown to contribute to a range of brain health, psychiatric, and neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia.

De-Stress Your Brain

If there’s one thing we can all probably agree upon, it’s that we’re all chronically stressed. And, unfortunately, chronic stress does a number on our mind and body. In fact, studies have found that chronic stress can actually cause long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain that can contribute to mental health issues. Another study even found an association between chronic stress and an increased risk of insomnia and dementia.

You see, chronic stress triggers a chain reaction in your brain’s hypothalamus, which then sends a message to your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline, which are two of your stress hormones. Unfortunately for us, cortisol release also causes our blood sugar to rise, which means it can contribute to chronic inflammation in a feedback loop: The more stressed you are, the worse your inflammation; and the worse your inflammation the more stressed you get.

As you begin to quell inflammation, support autophagy (cellular renewal), stabilize blood sugar, balance the gut microbiome as well as increase BDNF and stem cells through flexible intermittent fasting, you’ll be able to see and feel the results of being less stressed and way more zen. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of what fasting can do for your health. If you want to take your brain health to the next-level and experience the overreaching benefits of fasting, pre-order my book Intuitive Fasting to receive access to my private online fasting group, shopping guide for the meal plan in the book and a sneak peek of the book right now. 

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