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No brainer

Posted 16/04/2013 by sevans

As I tucked into my tea and toast while scanning my emails this morning, my attention was grabbed by a research headline regarding feeling hungry. Now as someone who has attempted the two days out of seven fasting diet proposed by broadcaster and physician Michael Mosley in a BBC TV Horizon documentary and his book The Fast Diet, anything with the words hunger or hungry leaps out at me.

Now the intermittent fasting regime proposed by Mosley is said to work by encouraging the body and its hormone systems to go into self-repair mode, something that our modern diet seems to prevent. Fasting reduces the levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which keeps the body’s cells constantly active. In addition, a number of DNA repair genes are switched on, changing the body from its ‘growth’ mode to ‘repair’ mode.

Among the many potential results are reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol, weight loss and a generally improved cognitive function.

But on this occasion, the research focused on a somewhat surprising discovery that feeling hungry may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. The results suggest that, in mice at least, feeling mild hunger pangs, and the related impact on hormonal pathways, may be as important to the much-discussed value of caloric restriction as actually eating less ( PLOS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060437).

This latest study takes the theory of caloric restriction a stage further as the researchers believe that hormonal signals are the ‘middle men’ between an empty gut and the perception of hunger in the brain, and that manipulating them may effectively counter age-related cognitive decline.

They theorise that feeling hungry creates mild stress, which in turn fires up the metabolic signalling pathways that counter the plaque deposits that are known to destroy nerve cells in Alzheimer’s patients. They looked specifically at the hormone ghrelin, which is known to encourage the feeling of hunger, and used a synthetic form to make mice feel steadily, mildly hungry. The researchers suggest that it might be possible to develop a treatment that prevented or delayed cognitive decline without a constant feeling of hunger.

We should not be at all surprised that hunger and fasting may have such beneficial effects; after all, it is what out body was designed to do. As the human race evolved, as hunters and gatherers, humans often went through periods of limited food availability – it is only recently that we have had access to such riches of food and drink that we now run the risk of becoming obese, and all the health problems that this condition entails.

We often hanker after a simpler life, but are not really sure what this actually means. In this case, intermittent fasting offers just this, matched by overall health benefits that are proven. It is certainly a lot to take in first thing in the morning, so perhaps I had better have another cup of tea and slice of toast to think it all over.

Neil Eisberg – Editor

Have you tried this diet? How did you get on? Tell us your stories!

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