The other morning I mentioned writing this article to a barista, who, based on his hipster demeanor, I (mis)judged would be all over the topic:
Optimizing health & cognition through the periodic rejection of consumption.”
His response was brouhaha.
As in that’s what he literally said: “That’s brouhaha.” (Who the hell says that? Hipsters, man..) Ironically, it’s not the hipsters or hippies who are intermittently fasting these days (I say “these days” given the deeply historical & ceremonial fasting traditions across the world) but rather the business-geared techies & propellerheads.
“Stay hungry” went from a metaphorical catchphrase used by entrepreneurs who find un-ironic instructive value in The Wolf of Wall Street to a literal fasting routine. And the nootropic practice makes bro-scientifical sense, but is there actual-factual science to back it up?
Intermittent Fasting vs. Caloric Restriction
The first question that we need to address: Is intermittent fasting (IF) simply a contrived method of caloric restriction (CR)?
For those new to the party, the definitions of both practices are:
The catch-all term for any regimented cycle of periodic fasting & feeding as a form of health optimization. Depending on the fasting length & feeding intake, benefits may encompass a range anywhere from weight loss to weight gain, enhanced cognition to improved immunity to saved money.
A dietary regimen that calls for a reduction in calorie (or energy) intake (by 20-40%) while maintaining proper nutritional measures, i.e., without cutting the essential nutrients. The concept dates back to the 15th century, linked to the Venetian nobleman Luigi Cornaro’s book Discorsi della vita sobria (or Discourses On the Temperate Life), in which he described the healing effects of a diet reduced to 350 grams of food and 414 mL of wine daily.
Essentially, intermittent fasting may be used as a tool of caloric restriction, yet you don’t necessarily need to restrict your overall caloric intake to partake in intermittent fasting. For example, IF bodybuilders may fast for a 24-hour span, then more than double their usual daily caloric intake the following day. This is because, theoretically, the benefits lie in the adaptive changes that occur during the fasting period more so than the calories consumed during the feeding stages.
In most cases, maintaining the same energy intake is literally half the battle. As such:
Intermittent fasting is not dieting, it’s scheduling.
And, of course, adhering to that schedule. To understand why anyone would ever possibly want to do this, we’ll need to take a look at the body’s adaptive states to feeding & fasting, the molecular mechanisms at play, and how they might benefit our health, cognitive & otherwise.
How Intermittent Fasting Maybe Supposedly Works, Most Probably
When you eat, you’re in a metabolic Fed State, which generally involves the digestion, absorption, & breakdown (or storage) of food. The state begins on first bite, lasting anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, during which insulin levels spike, blood rushes to the gut (does not affect the tightly regulated brain bloodflow), and, depending on how much you ate, relaxation becomes a near-must.
The need for relaxation, or postprandial somnolence, is the recognized state of drowsiness that follows a meal, marked by low energy, urged by the parasympathetic “rest-&-digest” activation of the nervous system. In response, brainwaves shift to sleep-time frequencies, insulin prevents fat burning, & mental task performance dips.
Conversely, a Fast State, which follows the fed state, reverts the parasympathetic activation, allowing the body to burn fat for energy — i.e., ketogenesis — and enhance cognitive functions through the following stress-adaptive molecular pathways:
During the fast state, the brain reacts by adapting to the “stress” of fasting: e.g., brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels increase, promoting neurogenesis & repair in the hippocampus; the production of signaling molecules (e.g., glutamate, GLP-1) increases, upregulating cellular communication in the brain, effectively priming the brain to deal with this “stressful” situation. The result may be neuroprotective in the long-term, keeping the brain fresh & active as opposed to its condition under perpetual postprandial stagnation.
Check out this TED Talk by Dr. Mark Mattson, the Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging at NIH:
With regards to IF’s neuroprotective potential, one mice study found dietary restriction (DR) to improve neuroprotection against stress, indicated by a reduction in serum glucocorticoids (i.e., stress hormones). On the human plane, a separate study hypothesized IF to be superior to CR in its sustainability, concluding the practice to be “acceptable in healthy individuals” with the potential upshot of increasing the body’s natural antioxidant defense mechanisms.
Exciting stuff, yet what we know about IF & human health remains predominantly preclinical, a point frequently mentioned in IF research. Even so, the preclinical findings corroborate with several standing theories on evolutionary human physiology, pointing to a variety of cognitive benefits that practitioners often categorize as “nootropic.”
The Cognitive Benefits of Fasting
The molecular pathways mentioned above — increased BDNF, ketogenesis, antioxidant capacity, more — combine for a variety of cognitive benefits, most notably:
- Improved memory
- Clearer thinking
- Increased stress resistance
- Energized mental output
- Optimized mood balance
Animal studies indicate that IF may bolster resistance to neurodegeneration, i.e., age-related cognitive decline — however, long-term human studies will be required before this can be viewed as clinical fact. On that point, IF is popular among the anti-aging community for its general enhancement on healthy living. While I try to keep it real on “fountain-of-youth” longevity claims, IF makes a strong case for its life-stretching potential.
Other Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
In the article “Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications”, the descriptor underlying the figure above states:
The brain communicates with all of the peripheral organs involved in energy metabolism. IF enhances parasympathetic activity (mediated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) in the autonomic neurons that innervate the gut, heart and arteries, resulting in improved gut motility and reduced heart rate and blood pressure. By depleting glycogen from liver cells, fasting results in lipolysis and the generation of ketone bodies resulting in a reduction in body fat. IF enhances insulin sensitivity of muscle and liver cells, and reduces IGF-1 production. Levels of oxidative stress and inflammation are reduced throughout the body and brain in response to IF.”
The interplay between insulin sensitivity & energy metabolism particularly elevates IF as a potentially superior option to traditional dieting for weight management.
Intermittent Fasting with Nootropics
Are nootropics “cheating” the fasted state?
This is a recurrent question on /r/Nootropics, and for good reason: Even if you’re not quote-unquote “feeding,” you don’t want to trigger the feed state pathways (e.g., insulin activity) by consuming anti-fast state compounds. Whatever those may be.
Conversely, enhancing fast state functionality via nootropic, or even non-nootropic, substances carries mass appeal among IF enthusiasts. I personally believe there are nootropics that not only maintain healthy cognition but bolster IF cognition. Admittedly, this belief comes with slight trepidation, at least until more clinical research on IF + supplementation becomes available, yet there are a few specific substances I am confident help the IF process, starting with:
Alpha Lipoic Acid
This entry is predicated on the article “Dietary lipoic acid supplementation can mimic or block the effect of dietary restriction on life span.” This is tricky: ALA mimics or blocks the effect of DR. That’s not very assuring. However, the study clarifies that supplementing ALA immediately post-fasting extends the fast benefits, whereas supplementing ALA immediately pre-fast inhibits the fasting characteristics. Thus, ALA potentially supplies mimetic benefits of DR when consumed at the start of the feed period, extending the “survival characteristics of DR” beyond the fast’s termination. More on Alpha Lipoic Acid.
Resveratrol or Pterostilbene
Resveratrol and, to an even greater extent, pterostilbene, a polyphenol that’s 4x more bioavailable than resveratrol, enhance the body’s antioxidant capacity, aiding the brain & body’s defense against free radical damage. In animal samples, the compound maintains homeostasis via autophagy, a physiological process that turns over damaged cells for new cell formation. With IF, the bioeffect delivers a double benefit of creating new cells while fueling the process with the elimination of old, inefficient cells & organelles. More on Pterostilbene.
Rather than simply providing antioxidants, Gotu Kola benefits the brain’s antioxidant capacity by increasing natural brain levels of glutathionine & catalase, defense compounds synthesized against free radical damage. While that’s cool & all, Gotu Kola takes it even further by aiding neurite growth through the increased release of BDNF. This bioeffect is not only unique to herbal nootropics but illustrates Gotu Kola’s significant therapeutic potential in IF & general cognitive wellbeing. I began doubling down on this herb when I took to IF, and the experience can only be described as positive. More on Gotu Kola.
Here’s the idea: IF benefits catecholamine release (dopamine, norepinephrine) to engage the body’s awake & alert mechanisms. L-tyrosine converts to catecholamines, potentially potentiating IF’s catecholaminergic effect. Tyrosine is particularly known for its conditional support during stress states, which essentially sums up the body’s fast state. On that note, I’m hesitant to include tyrosine on this list — does it chemically interrupt the body’s natural adaptive stress response? — yet I’m willing to include the amino for its demonstrated benefits on energy metabolism (when mixed with caffeine). More on L-Tyrosine.
Similar to Gotu Kola, Rhodiola rosea toes the line on “cheating” during the fasting phase, particularly if you’re supplementing the herb in raw plant or powder form. Even so, Rhodiola’s anti-fatigue mental boosts have been a godsend in my IF experience, an advantage evidenced by this rat study‘s findings of Rhodiola ameliorating insulin resistance, i.e., supporting insulin sensitivity. With regards to IF, no research has yet to demonstrate Rhodiola’s effects on fasting or feeding, although the anecdotal evidence in support of IF + Rhodiola is almost unanimously positive. More on Rhodiola.
Straight, old-fashioned, leafy green tea. Not green tea extract but the real deal, and lots & lots of it. This is my personal suggestion: Drink lots of green tea while practicing IF. Many IF enthusiasts recommend coffee, and this is fine (coffee is great for a suppressed appetite & detoxed liver), but nothing beats a full pot of green tea to: A) tide over your appetite until feasting time, B) relax & sharpen your focus, and C) fulfill your self-satisfaction in consuming a hefty supply of brain healthy antioxidants (e.g., EGCG). And tossing in additional L-theanine may further optimize the cognitive experience. More on L-Theanine.
Citicoline + Racetams
If citicoline & racetams (e.g., piracetam, Noopept) do nothing to inhibit the IF process, go for it. This is a powerful, well-backed stack that, judging by sparse research on citicoline’s neuroprotective effects on brain damaged states, may actually benefit the IF cause. Alpha-GPC or any other racetam may also work as stand-ins for either citicoline or piracetam/Noopept, although the former duo is my personal preference. More on Citicoline.
Bonus: Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
Do not supplement BCAAs while fasting. These protein-building aminos are highly insulinogenic, overriding the metabolic benefits of IF. Rather, wait until the feeding state to consume BCAAs, which in turn may require for you to workout only during the feed states as well, to maximize the aminos’ muscle-building benefits. On that note, the increase in insulin sensitivity & growth hormone should theoretically potentiate the benefits of BCAAs in the long-run.
My Experience with Intermittent Fasting
The primary benefits I experienced with IF: Lean muscle & energy.
The secondary benefits ranged from free time in the morning (I habitually skipped breakfast), extra money in my pocket (breakfast burritos with sides of guac, potatoes, & bacon are expensive), clearer thinking throughout the day, to the motivational spikes that come with the feeling of getting your life together & organized.
With that in mind, you may attribute any cognitive or health benefits to the generally cleaner, healthier habits I peripherally obtained through the IF process. My inner pragmatist tells me that ultimately doesn’t matter.
My IF schedule ran as follows:
- Day 1 – Fast 24 hours.
- Day 2 – Feed from 12 – 8p, double the normal intake.
- Day 3+ – Feed from 12 – 8p, normal caloric intake. Repeat next day.
Naturally, I quit booze beyond 8p, which means I quit the late-night binge-drinking, a major offense to brain & body health in general. As a consequence, my body leaned up, I gained an additional 10 lbs (from 205 to 215 lbs) in strength-trained muscle, and my morning grog turned into “get-up-and-go” energy.
And in turn that energy translated to more productive, profitable days. Not that I didn’t/don’t have my worries (Am I screwing up my metabolism? heart? etc?) but as I’m continuing the practice: So far so good.
Intermittent Fasting Schedules
Essentially cooking (or buying) one less meal during the day: Breakfast or dinner. I prefer the more common method of skipping breakfast, saving the 8-hour eating period for 12 to 8p — or 2 to 10p, if you’re the eat-before-bed bodybuilding type. Usually, skipping breakfast makes the most sense, given it’s a meal that requires less social obligation to partake with others.
Take note: Skipping one meal per day is a much more subtle change than what the next two schedules entail, requiring an initially conscious effort to eat more during the feeding periods.
Alternate Day Fasting
Eat for a day. Fast for a day. Eat for a day. So on & so forth.
An easy pattern to remember, yet one of the harder schedules to follow for a couple reasons:
- The fasting periods are long
- Doubling intake on feeding periods can be a chore
Particularly if you’re a “healthy” eater, even moderately so (I assume you are if you’re interested in IF), there’s a habitual resistance built-up to “excessively” feasting throughout a day. I personally avoid this method, despite its frequent use in research. More enthusiastic IF participants enjoy the longer, and thus hypothetically more beneficial, fasting periods. I’m not that hardcore.
Pick a day of the week. Don’t eat that day, i.e., 24-hour span. Then resume your normal eating habits throughout the remaining days of the week. Ditto for Monthly Fasting, except replace “week” with “month.”
Many IF enthusiasts view this as an easy introduction to the practice. Perhaps this is true. I personally still find the fasting for 24-hours less sustainable than regularly skipping breaking/not eating late, even if it’s only a once-per-week 24-hour fast. Also, this is the least efficient “weight loss” method of IF, which may actually make it appealing to bodybuilders or weight-gaining athletes who would like to reap the occasional benefits of IF while maintaining their demanding weight goals.
I’m not the first, nor last, to cover Intermittent Fasting, and I expect there’s much we still don’t know about it. Even so, the term has almost become synonymous with “nootropics” in certain health circles: Even the Nootrobox doods couldn’t help but to mention it on their ABC’s Shark Tank appearance.
On that note, there are certain angles I failed to address in this article: e.g., What are the differences between men & women? How does IF interact with pharmaceuticals? Do I still need to go on a quote-unquote “diet”?
I intended to remain comprehensive on simply the basics of IF. For the specific details, feel free to ask your questions below and I’ll do my best to provide answers. Otherwise, stay tuned for more geek-outs from the Geek on everything nootropic-related.
For more on the subject of nootropics that get ur geek on, check out my Best Nootropic Supplements to Buy in 2017 list. And be sure to comment any thoughts, questions, personal anecdotes, haikus, snafus, etc. down below!