The science-backed reason skipping breakfast can help keep your mind sharp

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Given that the bulk of my days are spent exercising my noggin at the computer, I tend to think of my breakfast from a brain-food perspective, as in, “What can I eat to best fuel the organ that works overtime to earn me a living?” But according to author and filmmaker Max Lugavere, who literally wrote the book on brain-boosting foods, my approach, while well-intentioned, is setting me up for failure.

The best thing to eat in the a.m. to really get a jumpstart on your to-do list, Lugavere says, is nothing. While speaking on a panel at the Livestrong Stronger Weekend event in Los Angeles, Lugavere admitted to skipping breakfast in order to optimize his cognitive performance. “When we are fasted, our brains are actually primed to be at their most clever,” he said, “because as hunter-gatherers, we wouldn’t have made it very far as a species if we became less intelligent when food ceased to be readily available.”

This makes sense logically, but it’s been a long, long time since humans needed to bring down a mammoth to feed their families. (And I know that when I’m hungry, all I can think about is food.) So I called up Lugavere to ask, is there more than an evolutionary explanation behind his anti-breakfast claims? He certainly thinks so. When we are in a fasted state, Lugavere explains, the levels of a number of neurotransmitters involved with focus, attention, alertness, and memory—including orexin-A and norepinephrine—increase.

When we are in a fasted state, the levels of a number of neurotransmitters involved with focus, attention, alertness, and memory increase.

Mark P. Mattson, PhD, senior investigator at the National Institute on Aging’s Laboratory of Neurosciences, corroborates this intel while caveating that, as of yet, brain-specific intermittent fasting studies have only been conducted on animals. (He’s currently at work on a human study.) “There’s a lot of evidence from animals that fasting—intermittent fasting—can enhance cognition, and there’s quite a bit of info emerging on what might be the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms—the signals, the hormones,  and the neurotransmitters involved,” he says. That the body kicks into ketosis during intermittent fasting—wherein it switches from using calories and carbohydrates as an energy source to burning fat—may also play a roll in helping the brain perform at optimal levels, his research shows.

These brain boosts, as Lugavere mentioned on the panel, likely helped primitive humans survive (and, says Dr. Mattson, evolution likely selected for those who operated at their peak when they were hungry as a result). Now that food is less scarce (for many populations) and we “don’t need these heightened senses of awareness in our daily lives” to survive, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, this advantage can be hacked for other purposes: like say, exams, interviews, or, in Lugavere’s case, morning meetings.

Dr. Mattson points out, however, that you can’t just show up to the Bar exam hungry and expect to perform optimally. “You would have to be adapted to an intermittent eating schedule,” he explains. His research on humans who followed a 5:2 intermittent-fasting diet (where caloric intake is restricted to 500 calories per day two days of the week) showed it took them three to four weeks to stop feeling hungry, distracted, and irritable (AKA “hangry“) on fasted days. So, if you’re interested in reaping the brain benefits of a fasted state for a particular event, you’ll need to “train” by practicing intermittent fasting regularly in advance.

It’s also important to note, all three experts agree, that fasting loses all its benefits when taken to the extreme. “If you were to be food-deprived for too long a period, then you’d start to go into starvation mode, which adversely affects the brain and body,” says Dr. Mattson. “What we’re talking about with our research is shorter fasts.” So if you have a tendency to over-regulate your eating habits, this strategy is decidedly not for you.

If you can’t handle going hungry, try this more pleasurable method for boosting brain power. Plus, here are 6 ways to hack your habits for optimal brain health (spoiler alert: multitasking, bye). 

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