Brain ageing - can Intermittent Fasting and Stress Reduction help?


Brain ageing - can it be avoided?

By Jayney Goddard MSc, FCMA, FRSM

President, The CMA


There’s no doubt that one of the most terrifying aspects of ageing is the possibility of developing cognitive problems - senile dementia (SD) - or even Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).  The good news is that certainly senile dementia is largely avoidable - and great strides are being made in the early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease and its treatment.  Interestingly, the solutions to both SD and AD lie largely within the remit of holistic healthcare - there is a great deal that we can do - to prevent and even slow down the progression of these conditions by making simple, sustainable and even enjoyable lifestyle changes.


As you’ll know I’m a huge advocate for following an anti-inflammatory, alkaline forming diet, incorporating mind/body work such as meditation and Qi Gong, maintaining a healthy proactive outlook and mind-set and I’ve written lots on the huge importance of socialisation and healthy sexuality in remaining youthful and even turning back our ‘biological clocks’.  But this month I wanted to take a bit more of an in-depth look at two very new and extremely important pieces of research in the brain ageing field:


1) Intermittent fasting:

Dr Mark Mattson and his team at the USA’s National Institute on Ageing have undertaken research on mice who were genetically ‘programmed’ to develop AD - in the same way that humans would.  These trials have demonstrated that it is possible to speed up or slow down the development of AD by changing eating patterns and dietary items.  Dr Mattson’s research shows that the onset of AD can be delayed by the equivalent of 30 years in mice fed on an intermittent fasting regime - this translates to postponing the age of onset in humans from 50 years to 80 years of age.  “Intermittent Energy Restriction” - the correct term for Dr Mattson’s protocol consists of normal feeding and restricted feeding on alternate days - in humans this would equate to eating normally on one day and then eating 4-500 calories for women or 5-600 calories for men on fasting days. It is fascinating to note that Dr Mattson has extended his research to look at the effect of feeding mice with a high fat/high fructose diet - and in doing so he has accelerated the development of AD - the equivalent in humans would be onset at 30 to 40 years old.  Dr Mattson claims that the evidence for Intermittent fasting working in humans is “very good to excellent” - which is scientist speak meaning: “Yep - it works - do it”.


My personal take on this is that there are other things that would make this protocol even better - I would like to see more of an emphasis on healthy food consumption - ideally a plant based diet - given the vast evidence coming from the burgeoning field of epigenetics -that these diets can manipulate our genes into switching on health giving functions and switching off deleterious ones.


So why might intermittent fasting actually make us smarter and protect our brains? 

Scientists have discovered that sporadic bouts of hunger trigger the growth of new brain cells - we’re not sure why this happens - but it is hypothesized that this could be an adaptive function that is a hang over from our pre-historic ancestry - ‘body senses hunger - brain receives signals and assumes that times are lean - so produces extra brain cells to give us the cognitive boost that we need to go out and cleverly find new food sources’. 


2) Stress reduction and brain anti-ageing

Cortisol - the stress hormone produced by our adrenal glands that sit just on top of our kidneys is a useful and necessary hormone - when it is produced in the right quantities at the right time - however, given that so many of us are exposed to chronic on-going stressors, messages get mixed up and our adrenal glands go into overdrive.  This has a direct impact on our brains - particularly on our hippocampus - part of the limbic system - seated deep in the centre of our brain and which is a primary locus of memory formation.  Severe ongoing stress is connected to poor cognitive performance and even memory loss.  Any stress reduction technique is going to be helpful - mindfulness meditation, laughter yoga, tai chi - take your pick.  However the very exciting news is that scientists have recently trialed a new compound containing phospholipids - these are naturally occurring specialised fats that are essential components of cell membranes and are particularly implicated in brain health. There are several varieties available and it is important to look for a vegetarian source that contains ‘PAS Complex’ (phosphatidylserine, phosphatidic acid and other phospholipids) as the research shows that these can improve concentration and have a stress dampening effect due to their ability to modulate cortisol production. The optimum dose in the trial was 400mg - doses higher or lower did not have such a beneficial effect.



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