Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about what you should eat and the supplements you should take to boost your cognitive performance.
But on the contrary, consuming absolutely nothing at all has been found to hold many brain-boosting benefits — and best of all, it costs you nothing!
You see, from an evolutionary perspective, when we don’t eat for extended periods of time our brain’s survival mechanisms kick in and make us more alert. This served us well ten thousand years ago on the African savannah when, if food was scarce in the winter months, cognitive function was actually elevated and made it possible to hunt for food.
An oft-cited 2018 study on on intermittent fasting, published in Nature, found a that intermittent fasting was strongly linked with the following benefits.
The study also found that lifestyles characterized by little to no fasting (e.g. three meals a day plus snacks) and negligible exercise result in suboptimal brain functionality and an increased risk of major neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders.
A separate 1988 study found that fasting enhances growth hormone secretion which has anti-aging properties and helps maintain, build and repair healthy tissue, speed up healing, boost muscle mass and metabolism, and burn fat.
Fasting also stimulates autophagy, which is a bodily process that recycles damaged cells and cleans up cellular waste. Ben Greenfeld, human guinea-pig and founder of holistic health company Kion, says that fasting for as little as 12 hours can have benefits insofar as this cellular cleanup is concerned.
Autophagy helps to regenerate and detoxify the body. It can help to reduce inflammation and increase neuroplasticity and cognitive functions. In fact, Ancient Greek philosophers were known to fast to improve their mental agility.
Perhaps the most common form of intermittent fasting is 16/8, fasting for 16 hours a day, and only eating during the other eight hours.
I personally try to fast about 5 to 6 times a week between the hours of 8pm and noon. As a result of this heightened state of alertness, and the fact that I’m an early bird, I reserve much of my writing and deep work for the early hours.
Other common variations include 14/10, 24-hour alternate day fasting, and spontaneous meal skipping.
But ultimately, it’s about experimenting to see what works for you. And before you start any fasting protocol, it’s best to speak with your doctor.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.