Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting: What We Know
A number of studies have been published concerning nervous system or brain regeneration thru fasting (caloric restriction). Here is an overview of those studies. While the results are preliminary, they seem to be promising.
Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting: Spinal Cord Injuries in Mice
Like most of the studies, the one published recently in 2008 was conducted using lab rats. Although some may claim otherwise, mountains of scientific research prove that rat responses are very similar to those seen in humans.
The study was conducted in Canada and published in the Journal of Experimental Neurology, a peer-reviewed publication. The researchers begin by explaining that spinal cord injury typically results in limited recovery of many bodily functions. The spinal cord and the brain are the major components of the central nervous system.
The researchers were interested in whether or not dietary restriction would improve recovery and normal function after a spinal cord injury. The reason for their interest has to do with a “well-established notion” that caloric restriction can and does lead to longevity in animals.
A long-term study involving a group of human volunteers who purposefully restrict the number of calories they consume every day is currently ongoing. The study was mentioned in a 60 Minutes episode several years ago. Some of the volunteers appeared on the show and explained what they were doing. The main focus of the 60 Minutes episode was a calorie restriction mimetic called resveratrol.
Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting or Caloric Restriction Activates Part of the DNA
Calorie restriction mimetic is a relatively new term that bears defining here. When scientists talk about brain regeneration thru fasting or any other health benefits that may accompany calorie restricted diets, they are well aware that most people would be unable or unwilling to stick to these restrictive diets long enough to make a difference, which in the case of the volunteers mentioned above is their whole lifespan.
From what scientists currently know, calorie restriction increases longevity and aids healing by “turning on” specific parts of the genome. It affects the genes, the basic components of life. Each cell in the body has a genome. It is tiny amounts of damage done over the course of a person’s lifetime that lead to cellular damage that results in aging and the vast array of symptoms associated with the aging process.
Calorie restriction mimetics are nutrients found in specific foods that in test tubes and animal studies have been shown to have the same effect on the genes. They turn on those parts of the genome that allow for healing and are likely responsible for the benefits seen to the nervous system and brain regeneration thru fasting.
The calorie restriction mimetic resveratrol is a nutrient found in the seeds of red grapes and a few other foods but only in very small amounts. Scientists are still investigating the benefits of resveratrol and other mimetics.
Getting back to the Canadian study related to spinal cord and brain regeneration thru fasting, the researchers fed the rats every other day. They called the diet “every-other-day-fasting”. On the days of the fast, the rats were allowed to drink as much water as they liked, but no other nutrients were given.
Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting Appears to Result in Neuronal Protection and Neuroplasticity
According to the researchers, the diet protected neurons and promoted neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a complicated subject discussed in another page on this site. The rats recovered faster than would normally be expected from the spinal cord injuries. They were able to walk better and their gait was close to normal. They were able to cross ladders and explore their surroundings in ways that would be considered nearly normal in a non-injured rat.
Examination of antioxidant levels and other compounds that are known to be neuro-protective was conducted. The number of those compounds circulating in the bloodstream on the fast days was two to three times what they were on the days the rats were fed.
Does this research mean that humans could achieve brain regeneration thru fasting? The researchers are not proposing that the technique could be beneficial for coma patients or others with significant brain damage. At this point, they are focusing strictly on spinal cord injuries.
What most people would be interested in is whether or not an occasional fast could improve their memory or their learning ability. It is very important not to take this evidence too far. Brain regeneration thru fasting may be possible because the neurons in the spinal cord are protected by the same compounds that protect brain cells and promote the neuroplasticity mentioned above.
Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting and the Issue of Malnutrition
But prolonged fasts could lead to malnutrition. On the days that the rats were fed, scientists were careful to plan their diets to include optimal nutrient levels, something that could be difficult for humans to do.
Since ancient times, people have talked about the health and spiritual benefits of fasting. It could be that scientists will soon be able to explain why yogis and other frequent fasters experienced those benefits.
Another study related to brain regeneration thru fasting focused on the effects of malnutrition. From an evolutionary perspective, the muscles of the body may be more important than the brain’s cells. That study showed that the healing process of wounded muscle was not impaired by malnutrition, which could occur if a person fasted too frequently or for too long a period of time.
The body does recognize the importance of the brain’s cells, but only so far as to ensure that there is adequate fuel to support the brain’s functions that are essential to continued life. Building new cells or forging new neuronal pathways, which is a part of neuroplasticity, requires extra fuel that might not be available in a severe calorie-restricted diet.
To date, the subjects of studies concerning brain regeneration thru fasting or calorie restriction have been the aforementioned lab rats and dogs. Some observations of human patients have been reported in the literature. While there are still many things we do not know, one thing is clear: over-feeding or eating is unhealthy. It does not promote healing or support immune system function.
The subject of brain regeneration thru fasting is interesting to scientists and lay people alike. We can expect more information as research is ongoing.
Additional Resource on Brain Regeneration Thru Fasting