Intermittent fasting, long utilized by spiritual leaders and even political activists, surprisingly possesses a multitude of health benefits, from lowered risk of Type-2 diabetes to increased lean mass. Read how to manipulate your body’s biochemical mechanisms and produce beneficial results.

In a world of increasingly complexity, simple, age-old practices become lost in the sea of new information. Occasionally employed as a form of political protest or activism, fasting has been used for millennia. Its activist roots are well-documented – everyone from Plato to Gandhi utilized fasting to pacifistically forward a political perspective or simply, in the words of the former, “to increase mental and physical efficiency.” The nutritional effects of the practice are less-documented but extremely impressive.

Cognitive benefits of fasting

Mark Mattson is the current Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging. In a brilliant TED Talk, he outlined the numerous cognitive benefits of fasting. He says that there is evidence that fasting is exceptionally beneficial; it can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, increase the number of mitochondria in nerve cells, and raise energy levels. Furthermore, by fasting, energy metabolism is shifted so that fat is burned instead of glucose. After 10-12 hours of fasting, the glycogen in your liver is completely depleted, so you start burning ketone bodies, or fat.

As Mattson establishes, fasting is a challenge for the brain. The brain must work hard to counter its potentially disastrous effects. Our ancestors, on the plains of the Savannah, could not afford to be lethargic when hungry. For days at a time, starving, they had to be attentive and engaged, scouring their surroundings for predator and prey. Because of this, fasting stimulates the production of neurotrophic factors, which promote the growth of dendrites and axons – a few features in the structure of a neuron – and strengthen pre-existing synapses or the gap between neurons.

In addition to this surfeit of health benefits, fasting has also been shown to lower cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, and blood pressure. Longer bouts of fasting have been proven to increase levels of human growth hormone – responsible for building muscle, among other functions – five-fold. Meatheads around the world have long followed the six-meals-per-day doctrine, trying to cram as many calories down their throats has humanly possible. The profound health benefits of intermittent fasting, especially the increased rate of HGH secretion, may be enough evidence to shift bodybuilder ideology from nonstop eating to occasional fasting.

To effectively implement a new eating plan, start slow. Attempting a Gandhi-style, 21-day fast right out the gates is not advised. Beginning with a simple 12-hour fast, from 8 pm to 8 am, would be more prudent. After that, experiment with any length you deem beneficial. The results of this age-old practice speak for themselves; to improve cognitive function, lengthen your life and raise energy levels, adopt the simplistic, efficient practice of intermittent fasting.

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