Intermittent Fasting for Brain Optimization

Intermittent fasting, or IF, is a trending topic right now in the health and wellness community, and for good reason. The benefits of this little dietary trick are far ranging, from weight loss and muscle gaining to overall health, to higher cognitive functioning. This last bit is what I want to focus on in this installment of the Emergent Writer, because what it offers has a clear and easy to grasp benefit for those who do cognitive, creative labor.

But first, let's address the elephant in the room. You don't want to do intermittent fasting. I get it. It's hard. Food is delicious. And you might even have developed a relationship with food that feels like it's helping you with creative work. Perhaps a bowl of popcorn or nuts beside your computer as you write. Maybe you don't even feel like you can start writing until you've had something to eat.

These concerns have some validity, and I'm not going to tell you that IF is easy. I will tell you that I have curated some tricks to make it easier (there are great sources on the web if you know what to look for) and that the more you do it, the easier it gets. I'll also tell you that the benefits are almost always enough to convince people to keep up with it once they start. The main reason that I'm doing this as only my second article in the Emergent Writer series is that despite how difficult it may seem, it's actually one of the easier ways to get started on a mind/body program, and once you get into it, you'll probably be addicted to it. In a good way, of course.

There are a lot of misconceptions about IF, and as there often is with trending health and wellness topics, there is also a lot of bad information out there about it. One of the bad habits people fall into, which is actually encouraged by a lot of health bloggers, is fasting every day. This is not only unnecessary, it frequently leads to confusion in your body that can cause metabolic problems. Fasting every other day, or in my case, three times per week, is much more sustainable and healthy in the long run. Another problem people fall into is not actually fasting. See, general caloric restriction - when you cut way back on the total number of calories you're consuming - is a totally different beast from IF. With IF, you're not necessarily cutting back on total calories; instead, you're just confining when you eat to specific windows.

So, what is IF? The short story is, IF is the practice of fasting - going without calories - sporadically for lengths of time. Why do this? Well,in order to get a handle on it, let's talk about the opposite, which is what most Americans do. We get up, we eat a meal, and then we snack until our next meal, snack again, eat another meal, and probably have at least one more snack before bed. When we eat like this, our bodies are in a constant state of storing everything we put into them. When you eat, your body releases insulin. Insulin, in the simplest terms, is a hormone that tells your cells to open up and let nutrients in. But our bodies, being a collection of processes and hormones, have to shift a whole bunch of priorities around in order to accommodate this. As such, when you are in storing mode, you are not burning the energy you've already stored, and when you eat frequently, your insulin levels tend to remain higher for longer, exacerbating the problem. This means we go through most of our lives packing away energy for a later time and never actually use it. We're like energy hoarders.

So, when you fast for relatively longer periods, say sixteen to twenty hours, your insulin levels go way down, and you start burning these stores of energy you've been hoarding.

Okay, great, you say. But that sounds like a weight loss thing, right? How does this help me write better?

Well, this is a little complicated, but the shortest explanation is that when your body stores fuel, it stores it in a form that burns cleanly, with little leftover toxic waste. The food you eat, especially sugary, bready foods, are fundamentally different from the energy that your body is best designed to burn, and when you are running on donuts and popcorn, there's an exhaust that is expelled into your system that can cause your brain to run slower. This is all extremely simplified and metaphorical, but it is the gist of what is happening.

Additionally, after several hours, usually sixteen or more, of cleanly burning stored energy, the individual cells of your body begin going through a really cool process called autophagy. For those of you with a background in Greek, you might make a pretty good guess as to what this word means. Auto = self, phage = to eat. Self eating. This is literally what is going on, but don't freak out. It's a good thing.

As you go through life, your cells reproduce and die millions and millions of times, making copy after copy of your genetic information. Over time, they start to build and accumulate extra parts that weren't in the original directions and don't really serve your overall system. When you shut off the flow of external sources of energy, even when your body has plenty of stores, it goes into a cleanup mode where each individual cell takes an inventory, and if it finds parts that are unnecessary or not working properly, it breaks them down for energy or uses them to build newer, healthier parts that it does need.

This starts to happen in your tissues fairly early on, but starting at sixteen hours, it begins working in your organs as well, most notably, your brain. The benefits of this are fairly straightforward, but it's worth taking a moment to think about. If you are over twenty-five, and you haven't gone more than sixteen hours at any time in your life without consuming any calories, your brain could be full of extra junk that's just lying around and clogging up synaptic traffic. And even if you have, this is a process that gets more refined and more targeted the more often you do it.

So, you wanna do it? Well, like I said, it isn't easy. At least, not at first. The best tip for getting into it is to start by kind of practicing IF. Just do twelve hours, two or three days a week. This is even easier than it sounds, because you can schedule it so that eight or so of those hours are while you sleep. You could start with, say, eight in the evening until eight in the morning. Unless you have a tendency to sleep-walk, you probably don't eat while you sleep anyway. Once this feels natural and easy, push it another hour. Then another. I wouldn't recommend going past twenty hours unless you want to try periodic prolonged fasting which is another topic for another post (but it is really good for writers too, and I will talk about it).

Oddly, one of the things that makes IF harder is the human tendency to try to cheat. After the first few hours, your body will naturally fall in line and understand what's going on, but if you feed it any calories at all (with some exceptions that I'll clarify before I wrap up), it'll eat these up and it won't get what's going on. It'll try to keep carrying on with its normal practice of storing instead of burning, and you will feel incredibly hungry. So if you mess up and cheat and break your fast, the best thing to do is to abort the whole mission and try again tomorrow. Otherwise you're just suffering needlessly with no benefit.

Another tip is to stay active while you fast. It may seem contradictory, but if you like to have vigorous workout days, these are the days you want to fast. For one, it makes the effects that much more enhanced, but it also keeps you from being bored. You really don't want to be bored and hungry. It's a terrible combo. If you want to take advantage of the cognitive boost and write while fasting, it may be difficult at first, but in my experience, the fasting actually increases my ability to focus and causes me to get completely sucked in to my story, making me forget about eating altogether. (I'll have a whole post later about working out fasted, but it needs a whole post, so let's not go there today.)

The next tip to make this easier has to do with what happens to your minerals when you go without new calories. Your muscles store energy in the form of glycogen, and as you go about your day in a fasted state, you burn this up. Because of the way this glycogen is stored, it also causes water to be stored in your muscles, and when you burn the glycogen, it releases the water. This causes you to urinate a lot more than normal. The obvious solution to this is to drink water, and you'll be doing that, because you will want to be consuming something, and most beverages do have calories, but the problem here isn't hydration. The problem is that when you're urinating this much, you are leeching minerals from your entire body, primarily sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

Most Americans have magnesium deficiencies regardless of whether they fast, and if you don't eat a lot of raw greens, you might have potassium problems as well. But sodium, despite its bad rap as something that causes high blood pressure, is an extremely important mineral as well, and is most often the primary reason you feel like you can't make it through a fast. In fact, no matter how much substrate your body has available to burn for energy, it won't matter if you are low on sodium. There is a mechanism, called the sodium-potassium pump, that is at the core of how your muscles work. It's a lot to go into, but suffice to say, you need sodium, and when you don't have enough, you'll feel sluggish, foggy, lethargic, and may exhibit flu-like symptoms. A lot of people trying to fast will mistake these symptoms as being related to hunger and calories, when really, a small amount of salt will offer quick relief.

Now, I'm not a doctor, and if you have high blood pressure, or if a medical professional has told you to cut back on sodium, I don't want you to think that I know better than they do. Listen to your doctor. But for most of us, during a fast, drinking salt water will quickly bring our bodies back into balance and make us feel amazing. You don't need to go overboard and make your water so salty you don't want to drink it, but a little dash in your water throughout the day will work wonders. I'd only suggest that you invest in a quality salt that also contains other trace minerals. Himalayan pink salt is great, for instance.

So, what can you consume while fasting, besides (salt)water?

Coffee. I can hear you thanking your lucky stars for that. Technically black coffee does have five to ten calories, but we can ignore these because the benefits far outweigh the risk. Just be careful and don't put creamer or sugar in it. That will immediately negate any of the benefits of fasting and you'll be hit with massive hunger pains pretty quickly. The only thing you can really get away with putting in your coffee is stevia, but even that is pushing it because not all stevia is created equal, and some has malto-dextrin in it, which is even worse than sugar. For best results, just go black. You're a badass faster anyway, you can take it.

The great thing about coffee is that the caffeine will help keep the hunger at bay, and there are polyphenols in it that will help your body break down fat into its lipid form, freeing it into your bloodstream where your cells can quickly burn it for energy. It's great. All hail coffee. Just try not to overdo it, because you can easily end up jittery and anxious, and this presents some other problems that might make your fast less effective.

You can also drink tea. Lots of the same benefits, and less risk of overdoing it. But as with coffee, no sugar or milk.

Apple cider vinegar. This stuff is like steroids for your fast. It just kicks all of the benefits into high gear.

Lemon juice is great right when you start your fast. It'll help with gut motility - moving things out of your stomach and getting the fast into gear quickly. Later on, the benefits go down and the downsides increase (because it does have a not-insignificant caloric impact), so what I like to do is have my last meal of the day and follow it with a mix of lemon juice, ACV, and a few drops of liquid stevia diluted in about a liter of water. It's like lemonade, and it's amazing.

So lastly, let's talk timing. There are a few things to consider, but here's what I do. I like to have a meal at around 2pm on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and then I don't eat again until after I workout and run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, usually around nine in the morning. After my workouts I break my fast with bone broth and then write for about an hour before I have a meal. This hour is usually insanely productive, but even after I eat, the benefits seem to continue for a while. If you are going to follow this schedule though, I would highly recommend you stay away from sugar and carbs for this meal. The sudden influx of glucose can and will make you pretty sluggish.

Alternatively, you can eat dinner, then have your fasting lemonade before bed, and skip breakfast the next day altogether, keeping it going until mid-afternoon. To start with, this is the schedule I would probably recommend, especially if you like to write in the mornings. When you wake up fasted, you will feel full of energy and ready to go (have some coffee and whoa! Look out!), and your brain will be like an engine that has just been lubed and rebuilt from the ground up. There are complicated reasons why I don't do this schedule anymore, but it is super optimum for writers and easy to adopt for new fasters.

This has been much longer than I thought it would be, and I still didn't cover everything, so I'm sure I'll revisit this topic in the future. Until then, you can contact me on my website, or visit me on twitter if you would like to ask me anything about this or any of my other posts.

As always, happy writing!

And happy fasting!


Keep your eyes on this space for more specific tips and strategies for how to take care of the most important tool of your craft; your brain, and the body it is inextricably linked to and dependent on. I'll also continue to post in my other category, also available from the home page. There you'll find my short stories and updates on my current work in progress: a horror/noir novel called The Octopus about an injured war vet and the interdimensional cosmic octopus that haunts his dreams and forces him to witness brutal murders through the eyes of the victims as it seeks the one soul it desires above all others; his.

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