Looking For A Cognitive Enhancer? Skip The Drugs And Try Fasting Instead
In my recent interview with Dr. Jason Fung, a Canadian nephrologist who has just published The Complete Guide to Fasting, we focused a good deal on fasting as a cognitive and productivity enhancement tool.
I didn’t research fasting because I was looking for a weight loss: I ran across it in research about cognitive enhancement. A few years ago, I suddenly developed a health problem which involved low blood pressure, bradycardia (low heart rate), dizziness, occasional blackouts, and severe mental fog. At first, the doctors were somewhat perplexed about these symptoms all appearing at the same time, and it was not clear that any solution would be found. So, I decided to see what I could do to restore at least some modicum of my former cognitive capacity. This led me into the world of nootropic supplements and various other ‘bio-hacks’. The research on fasting looked promising: increased neuroplasticity (ability to ‘rewire’ neurons), neurogenesis (creation of new neurons), memory improvement, and various neuroprotective benefits. What’s not to like? Well, other than the not eating!
Eventually, my doctors and I puzzled out the nature of my ailment (an unusual form of Dysautonomia) and through some meds, and the implantation of a pacemaker, I was able to get back pretty much to normal. But I still retained an interest in ways to enhance cognitive capacity, especially fasting, and I found Dr. Fung’s work particularly well-documented. Fung had worked his way through a vast volume of academic research. He integrated the research of others with his own experience running what may be the world’s largest practice using fasting to treat diabetes, to become one of the leading experts on medical fasting.
In our recent interview, Dr. Fung explained why it made sense that fasting should enhance cognition. Our ancestors were adapted to an environment of scarce food. If conditions of starvation decreased problem-solving ability and memory, they would tend to lead to death (which really does interfere with reproduction). In other words, when we are hungry, we need to be smarter. We need to recognize patterns better. We need better memory to recall information which might help us to find out where the food is. We need drive to push us out into the world to find sustenance.
And that’s what the research shows happens when we fast: norepinephrine (closely related to adrenaline) levels increase which enhances mental focus, and increases memory storage and retrieval in the brain. Dr. Fung recounts a story from the book Unbroken, which is a memoir of American soldiers condemned to starvation conditions in a Japanese prison camp. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, recounts how one prisoner found himself able to recall entire books from memory alone. Another prisoner managed to learn Norwegian in a single week. Interestingly, the author mentions as an aside that such feats of mental enhancement were well known as side-effects of starvation.
The employees of Nootrobox, a Silicon Valley start-up focused on providing nootropic supplements, regularly fast together in the beginning of the week. They’re young and skinny, not looking to reverse obesity; instead, they’re looking to increase cognition. They’re looking for a mental edge.
In addition there are the benefits of ‘ketosis’. Eventually, once the easily-accessible stores of energy in the form of sugars are exhausted, fasting leads to a state known as nutritional ketosis. In ketosis, metabolism is based mainly on burning of fat stores rather than sugar stores. There is some evidence that the brain runs more efficiently on ketones (the product of ketosis), especially in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. Interestingly, ketogenic diets, before they were recommended for weight loss and diabetes, were known chiefly in the medical field as a treatment for epilepsy, where they had shown significant decrease in seizures.
Dr. Fung says that the research on the cognitive benefits of ketosis has focused more on ketogenic supplements, which means it is not yet definitive. He shares his own experience and that of people he has worked with, that this way of eating increases focus and work output. He quotes a friend who said that when he is fasting “it feels like my mind is on fire.”
Such knowledge is not new: it is just forgotten. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras required fasting of their students in order to help them improve mental focus. Medieval monks and other scholars combined frequent fasting with lifestyles of astonishing intellectual output.
My own experience matches the research and anecdotes above. Ketogenic fasting has increased my work output. I, myself, was able to write a 240 page masters-level thesis on the Hebrew text of Genesis 1-3 (on top of my rather considerable number of ‘day jobs’ in finance and economics), which was accepted by the Collegium Augustinian with a grade of Magna Cum Laude, the awarding of a Sacred Theology Licentiate, and an invitation to modify the thesis and submit it as doctoral work. I did much of that work in a fasted state.
There have been some downsides for me: somewhere around hour 22 of a fast, my energy does tail off for a little while, and fasting does interfere somewhat with my sleeping. I find that breaking longer fasts (two or three days) can be bothersome to my digestive system. And, there is, of course, the hunger. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be: hunger passes, but fasting does take some effort. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even the lunches you skip. But at least for now, and with my doctors’ blessing, I’m sticking with it. If you want to try it, of course, get your own doctor’s blessing. Please don’t think of this column or interview as medical advice, because it isn’t.
I sat down across a Skype line with Dr. Fung recently to talk about The Complete Guide to Fasting. You can listen to the entire thing here and you can read a partial transcript (edited for clarity) below:
Jerry Bowyer: Can we talk a little bit about the nootropic or cognitive benefits of fasting? Because I think a lot of my Forbes readers are always looking for an edge.
Dr. Fung: Yeah.
Jerry Bowyer: I work in a highly quantitative, highly analytical field. Computer programmers are always looking for that edge. They’re popping a lot of stuff from like Russian pharmacies and a lot of artificial compounds, like the racetams. And I keep saying to people like this, “Hey, instead of putting some really untested chemical into your body, how about just fasting, which is very well tested?”
So talk a little bit, if you would, about the nootropic or cognitive benefits of fasting.
Dr. Fung: Yeah, so there’s actually a group of people out in Silicon Valley who do exactly that. It’s a group called WeFast. And what they do is they meet after a fast — they fast together and then they meet to break their fast and so on. And they’re all kind of young skinny guys.
And they do it for exactly this reason: for this kind of cognitive boost that you get with the fasting. And it’s very interesting, because it’s been described for a long time.
So what most people think is that food makes you concentrate better, and if you fast, you can’t concentrate. But it’s totally the opposite, because again, you can think about it and you’ll realize how wrong it is. If you eat a huge Thanksgiving meal, are you really sharp, like mentally sharp? Not really. All you can do, practically, is sit on the couch and watch football.
Jerry Bowyer: Right.
Dr. Fung: Because all that blood kind of goes into your digestive system and you really don’t have much mental capacity to do anything else. And people call it “food coma” and things like that, because they recognize that eating a lot does not give you more mental capacity.
But now think about the opposite, for when you haven’t eaten for a while and — or if you think about something — you’re hungry for something, hungry for power, hunger for a promotion, hungry for something, does that mean you’re like lying on the couch with no energy? Not really. It means you’re energized and pumped up to go.
Jerry Bowyer: Right.
Dr. Fung: And that’s what the hunger does to you. It actually gives you a mental edge.
So you can look at studies, for example, with memory: There’s lots of different facets to this. If you look at memory, you can look at caloric deprivation and fasting, and there’s lots of studies in animals and a few studies in humans where this sort of thing boosts memory.
A lot of people talk about it in terms of prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. So, fasting is a way to get the ketones in your body up, and it’s felt that your brain works better on the ketones, so maybe your thinking is better. And the other thing is that this autophagy — so Altzheimer’s disease is characterized by all this abnormal protein in your brain. So if you’re fasting, and you’re breaking down all this junky old protein and getting rid of it, hey, maybe you could actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which is fascinating. The drugs for Alzheimer’s disease have pretty much all failed. I read a study that said that 99.4 percent of drug trials for Alzheimer’s disease fail, because they’re all looking for other ways to get around it. But maybe there’s actually an all-natural, free solution to this.
So that’s memory. If you look at mental capacity, much of this is just anecdotal evidence, but if you go back to the ancient Greeks, the ancient Greeks actually did not fast for weight loss. They fasted to boost their mental capacity. So all the great Greek thinkers were fasting to get that edge that you’re talking about, because they wanted to be a better philosopher, a smarter thinking, better mathematician. So they all fasted to get that edge.
There’s a story that Pythagoras would make his students fast for like forty days before coming into his classes, because he needed them kind of right on top of their game. And from people who have done it, they say that well, you really get this kind of buzz almost. You feel like you’re just mentally right on top of things and feel like you’re sharp as a tack there.
If you look in the literature, there’s a book by Laura Hillenbrand called Unbroken. It got made into a big movie. And I was reading it, and it was very interesting, because they are talking about the American prisoners of war in Japan, and they were starved, so they had really very little to eat.
And I was actually struck by one part where they’re
talking about their mental capacity. And they’re saying that one man, one prisoner, would be reading books entirely from memory. And there’s another fellow who learned Norwegian — all of Norwegian in like a week.
And his comment was, these are some of the astonishing mental performances well-known, in starvation. And I thought, wow. This is fascinating that in a place where everybody is starving, and doesn’t have enough to eat, the brain’s kind of like on hyper-drive and can do incredible, incredible things. And it’s so commonplace that everybody’s so blasé about it. Like oh, yeah, we all knew about it, because he’s starving, right? Wow, that is incredible.
And now we’re all searching for that mental edge, and it’s like what you say. It’s right there with us all the time. Now obviously they’re starving to a much, much larger degree than we would ever do.
Jerry Bowyer: Right. They might have had problems with refeeding syndrome, and frequently prisoners of war do.
Dr. Fung: Yeah.
Jerry Bowyer: As I recall, as you were telling the Pythagoras story, I remembered that he had a prohibition among his followers against eating beans. So I think the carbohydrate fog seems to have been something known.
This is something that you read ancient history, and it’s called the philosophical lifestyle. The Greeks and then later the Stoics are known for their philosophical lifestyle, which involves a lot of fasting.
And people think of that as something they did because they wanted to rise above the body and just mere physical considerations. But I think they’re missing the metabolic aspect of this.
I can tell you that when I go into ketosis, I just feel it. I feel this click in my mind, and all of a sudden, a pile of work that I couldn’t get through, I just blow through like that. It’s just a high energy.
Downside: less patience. There’s a little bit of hey, I’m moving fast; everyone else should be moving fast. I haven’t read this in your books, but there’s almost like a ketosis grumpiness that I think one has to look out for.
Dr. Fung: There is a bit of that. I call it snappy, as in I snap at people a lot.
Jerry Bowyer: Right. You’re not a rage monster, but it’s a little bit of, “I just said that.”
Dr. Fung: Yeah, exactly. Keep up. Let’s keep up here, guys.
Jerry Bowyer: I guess there’s some evidence that ketones are a more efficient fuel for the brain than glucose, that the brain just runs better on ketones?
Dr. Fung: Yeah. Then there’s a lot of interest in that. So there’s a couple of researchers: Dominic D’Agostino and so on, there’s a few people who are really looking into that.
They’re looking more into the exogenous ketones, for example: taking ketones to get into a state of ketosis. Because there is evidence from, for example, treatment of seizures, you can use a ketonic diet or a ketogenic diet to prevent seizures. So that’s getting the brain to use ketones and therefore it’s not as seizure-prone. There is good evidence for that already.
But that’s probably the only well-accepted treatment in terms of modern medicine. But there is this thought that you can actually perform at a higher level with the ketones. And there’s a lot of ongoing research into that area, but not all of it is well proven, or there’s just not a lot of data on it.
But a friend of mine, he was trying to lose a lot of weight, so he did some fasting and went into ketogenic dieting. He said, “It’s like my brain’s on fire. It’s like I can do anything. It’s like it’s incredible.”
And you think this is worth a lot of money, right?
Jerry Bowyer: Yeah.
Dr. Fung: Because if you can perform at a higher level — and it’s not just the brain, but also the body, because your noradrenaline levels go up, your growth hormone levels go up, your cortisol level goes up, which is not always a good thing. But you’re actually going into a state of activation.
So if you think about what happens during when you eat: your insulin goes up; and your blood sugar goes down. So when you don’t eat, insulin falls, and glucose falls. So in order for the body to prevent it from falling, it produces these so-called counter-regulatory hormones, meaning they counter the effect of insulin. And those hormones are the cortisol, noradrenaline, and growth hormone.
But you’re getting a big boost of adrenaline, that’s probably why you’re getting a little snappy and a lot more energy. You can feel that surge of energy coming through you. And it’s not just your brain, but also physically your body. And some people can’t sleep. They go on these longer fasts and they say you know, I’m sleeping only three hours a night, and I’m totally like fine with it.
That’s probably because your body is being activated by the fasting. Everybody thinks that not eating will slow you down so you can’t do anything. It’s actually the opposite. You could do way more.
You get the extra time, right?
Jerry Bowyer: Right.
Dr. Fung: So if you’re not eating breakfast and lunch, for example, you’re saving yourself an hour or two hours a day, between the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning and the prepping. Two hours a day, that’s like ten hours a week, forty hours a month. That’s a lot of time.
Originally published on Forbes.