Some years ago, I decided to undertake a 72-hour fast as something of a spiritual exercise and a way of getting in touch with my deeper self. The experience was both exhilarating, but also surprisingly challenging. For three days I subsisted on little more than organic rice cakes and lemon water. I felt the process enabled greater mental clarity, but I definitely I had less physical energy.
Fasting may boost productivity in the workplace
My interest in fasting has been piqued once again as I’ve come across numerous reports that the practice has become very popular among celebrities. For instance, Hugh Jackman, Jimmy Kimmel and Beyonce are among a roster of stars who have used fasting techniques to slim down and tone up. In addition, executives and workforces in Silicon Valley are employing fasting diets as a way of improving creativity, mental prowess and productivity in the workplace.
Can fasting really boost your brainpower and your physical fortitude? Let’s look at the science and see how periodic fasting might improve your mental and physical powers.
1. Periodic fasting can boost the immune system
According to Dr. Valter Longo of USC, “When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.” Studies involving lab animals tend to confirm this view. In particular, mice that were put on calorie-restricted diets had stronger immune systems and tended to live longer.
Of course, when your body’s defenses are more robust you will be better protected against disease and illness, which means (presumably) that you’ll have more energy available to be productive.
2. Fasting counteracts metabolic disorders
There’s little question that metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity can drain your energy resources. A study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that diabetics have to expend far more energy to accomplish everyday tasks than their non-diabetic counterparts.
As Professor Neil Reeves explains about the findings, “Previous studies have shown diabetic patients make biomechanical alterations to their gait to reduce demands and naturally adopt a slower walking speed, but this is the first time we are able to understand the impact diabetes has on actual energy expenditure. What may seem like a manageable stroll to those without the condition could be an impossible task to patients with diabetes due to the higher energy cost of walking.”
Numerous studies have shown that fasting can improve metabolic functions that are related to both diabetes and obesity. Of course, by improving the speed of your metabolism you not only help prevent diabetes and obesity, but you also become more efficient at burning excess fat.
3. Fasting helps you rid the body of toxins
Processed foods and environmental toxins can all take their toll on the body. The result can be oxidative stress and inflammation, which is the root causes of heart disease, dementia, cancer and numerous other diseases.
Studies show that fasting is correlated with lower levels of IGF-1, a hormone that scientist believe promotes disease and aging. In addition, research shows that fasting can help reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammatory responses.
Conversely, one study found that subjects who practiced intermittent fasting had greater amounts of antioxidants (which help reduce the impact of toxins) available in their bodies.
4. Fasting can stimulate the production of new nerve cells
According to Dr. Mark Mattson, professor of aging at John Hopkins University, fasting is good for your gray matter. As he puts it, “Challenges to your brain, whether it’s intermittent fasting [or] vigorous exercise… is cognitive challenges. When this happens neuro-circuits are activated, levels of neurotrophic factors increase, that promotes the growth of neurons [and] the formation and strengthening of synapses.”
Now, who couldn’t use a little more brainpower? You can see Dr. Mattson’s talk about the link between fasting and neural health in his TED lecture (below):
5. Periodic fasting improves mitochondrial health
Recent research suggests that fasting can improve the health of your mitochondria. These cellular workhorses help supply energy at the most fundamental biological level. If they are impaired, then your body may generate more free radicals and be subject to greater oxidative stress. Therefore, it stands to reason that increasing the capacity and efficiency of mitochondria can boost your overall health and energy levels too.
First, check with your doctor
Fasting is not for everyone and the practice has its risks. Therefore, be sure to consult with your physician before altering your caloric intake substantially. Also, be sure to check out a comprehensive overview of the topic that includes sensible safety considerations.
— Scott O’Reilly