Your gut is connected to your brain in mysterious ways. More and more connections between the two are starting to emerge in scientific research. Here’s another conclusion, from the research team at Swansea University in the UK: controlled hunger, like fasting, promotes the growth of new brain cells. So fasting is healthy when it’s not taken to the extreme.
Or at least that’s what we know so far. The key is ghrelin, a stomach hormone which stimulates appetite. It’s also called the hunger hormone because it activates when you’re hungry. Now, what can I say? I usually go from hungry to hangry in the span of 10 seconds, and my mental acuity seems to drop from a cliff. But other people, according to newscientist.com, say that fasting makes them feel mentally sharper. Which seems to support the results of the Swansea team.
Ghrelin is produced by the stomach when it gets empty and if you go a few hours without food, the ghrelin levels in your bloodstream tend to rise. But it seems that it also promotes the growth of new brain cells and keeps them from the ravaging effects of aging. Studies conducted on animals have found that subjects with low-calorie diets have better mental abilities. Mice injected with ghrelin had improved performances in learning and memory tests, not to mention more neuron connections in their brains.
Divide and multiply brain cells: why fasting is healthy
The Swansea research team, led by Jeffrey Davies, added ghrelin to mouse brain cells grown in a dish and that lead to the hormone switching on a gene called fibroblast growth factor. This particular gene triggers the process of neurogenesis, which means that the brain cells start dividing and multiplying. The next step of the research is to see if ghrelin has the same effect in actual animals. But this would explain why mice had better a better performance when it came to memory tests.
The application of ghrelin could be stunning in the field of neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by losing a certain type of brain cell. The hormone tends to protect brain cells and Davies’ team already observed this in a series of experiments. In one of them, brain cells were encouraged to mimic Parkinson’s disease in a dish. Ghrelin was injected and it protected the cells from dying.
In another study of 28 volunteers, the researchers found that people with Parkinson’s dementia – a type of cognitive impairment caused by the main disease – have lower levels of ghrelin in their blood than people who don’t suffer from that condition.
How does the fasting go?
First of all, the mental acuity you might be looking for will not spontaneously appear when you start fasting, because the newly-formed brain cells would need a few days to start working, according to Nicolas Kunath of the Technical University of Munich, Germany.
Also, the fasting should be intermittent so that it works. That's the situation where fasting is healthy. People trying to get the most out of fasting are following something called the 5-2 diet, which means they eat normally for five days and for the next two they consume about 500 calories a day. This acts like a jolt of energy to your brain. The research in fasting is still young, but it’s a promising direction so far.