“Most of us are familiar with the concept of fasting, thank to detox programmes that consist of little more than water and, if you’re lucky, some steamed veg. By severely restricting the calories you eat, these diets help you lose weight and inches in days. But scientists from the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore now believe not only can help protect your brain from degenerative illnesses. By studying rats given calories-restricted diets every other day. Professor Mark Mattson, head of the Institute’s laboratory of neurosciences, found that periods of stopping virtually all food intake for one or two days a week protected the brain against some of the worst effects of Aizheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other ailments.

Description: Fruits and vegetables are a key part of calorie-restricted diets, which may increase longevity

Fruits and vegetables are a key part of calorie-restricted diets, which may increase longevity

In the studies, the protective benefits were triggered by cutting daily food intake to around 500 calories – the equivalent of a few vegetables and some tea – for two days out of seven, rather than by a continuous low-calorie diet. On the other five days, the subjects could eat what they wanted.

Why might this binge and starve pattern have such beneficial effects on our brains? The scientists don’t know for sure, but Mattson and his colleagues think it has something to do with the growth of neurons in the brain, which could be affected by a lack of energy. They hypothesise that two messaging chemicals, which play an important role in stimulating the growth of neurons, are boosted when calories are reduced. In turn, this could counteract the impact of Aizheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Restricting the number of calories you consume has other benefits, too. Research cardiologists at the Intermountain Medical Center’s Heart Institute, Utah, found fasting for 24 hours just once lowered the risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes and also caused positive changes in blood cholesterol levels of the 30 patients studied. These changes included raised levels of good cholesterol, allowing the body to use fat as a source of fuel instead of glucose, reducing the number of fat cells in the body and cutting the risk of insulin resistance.

Description: Prediabetes

But before you’re tempted to try a regular fast, be warned. Anyone with long-term health conditions, including prediabetes and diabetes, should never fast. And even for the well, severely restricting your calorie intake on a regular basis can have negative health implications, including dehydration, exhaustion and nutrient deficiencies. Remember, some vitamins, including vitamin C, need to be replenished daily as they can’t be stored in the body. There’s also the very real possibility that adhering to a strict eating regime will lead to an eating disorder.

Slashing your calorie intake for two days of every week is extreme and unnecessary. In a study carried out at Intermountain, people who fasted regularly for 24 hours about once a month were less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes or coronary artery disease.

If you want to age healthily, the best solution isn’t an extreme diet but following a simple, healthy lifestyle, including a diet high in nutrient-dense, predominantly plant-based wholefoods and low in calorie-dense refined foods and sugar. You also need daily physical activity, regular rest, relaxation and laughter, at least seven hours’ sleep most nights, meaningful activities that give you purpose, and healthy relationships. When it comes to caring for our bodies and minds into old age, there’s no magic bullet.”

Dr Mark Atkinson is a medical doctor, lifestyle medicine expert and author of True Happiness (Piatkus, $23). For a consultation or to attend his workouts, visit drmarkatkinson.com.

Q + A

I have a painful lump in my armpit. I’ve been working out a lot lately, could I have strained a muscle or is it something more serious?

Description: I have a painful lump in my armpit. I’ve been working out a lot lately, could I have strained a muscle or is it something more serious?

If you have strained a muscle in your armpit area, you might notice heat and inflammation in the area for up to 48 hours. Your sweat glands will be working hard to cool you down if you’re exercising more frequently, too. You could have a blocked sweat gland or infection in your armpit. Your doctor can identify the cause and prescribe antibiotics if there is an infection. When you train hard your immune system can become weakened. If you have cold symptoms as well, the lymph glands in your under arms will be filtering and eliminating toxins from your body and so will feel tender to the touch. If you’re concered, don’t assume the worst; visit your doctor for peace of mind.

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