Category: Nutrition

How our food choices affect neurochemistry and cognitive function.

I’m going to keep this short, because I don’t want to get all moralistic.

This is more a “just a little something I noticed” piece than a real, serious exhortation…

And before I start, let me openly admit that what I’m about to point out may have struck me only because it supports something I already believed.  So this entire post has Confirmation Bias written all over it, but, all that notwithstanding…


You (yes, you!) should stop drinking.

Why?  Because Alexander the Great couldn’t handle alcohol.

And he was Alexander the Great.  And you’re not.

I just read John Maxwell O’Brien’s excellent biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy.  The book is a fairly straightforward piece of historical scholarship about the excessively-biographied Macedonian one-time-ruler-of-all-he-surveyed… but with one fairly unique angle.

Most previous biographers have spent a lot of explanatory time on the contradictory elements of Alexander’s character: Philosopher and butcher, dreamer and tyrant, charming and polite but also someone who occasionally stabbed his friends.  Incongruous elements in the warlord’s personality were explained with appeals to his complex relationship with his dead father Philip II, or a megalomania that set in after he took over the larger part of the world, or [insert more insubstantiable psychobabble here]…

O’Brien’s more straightforward take is this: Alexander the Great was a really, really bad drunk.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

There was no conspiracy that poisoned Alexander in his prime.  There were no “puzzling contradictions endemic in this many-faceted leader’s personality.”  There was just an amazing guy who truncated his own epoch-making career for the love of one too many tankards of unwatered Grecian wine.

What am I saying?  That “alcohol is bad”?

Boo, hiss!  “Get a life, write a blog post worth a damn.”  I hear you.

But bear with me for a moment.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

If O’Brien’s propositions are correct – and he paints a darned compelling picture – isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

So who was Alexander?

Some bullet-points from his historical resume:

  • He was born a prince, and was tutored as a child by Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), so he had some advantages.
  • He was insatiably ambitious, and not content to only outdo the deeds of his kingly father, he set out to exceed the deeds of mythical figures (like Hercules).
  • He was laugh-in-the-face-of-death brave, leading his armies literally as well as figuratively.
  • He unified the Greeks, destroyed the Persian Empire (at the time, the big kids on the block), and conquered lands from Greece to Egypt to Pakistan and into modern India.  (Check out this map, and remember this was over 300 years B.C., when technology was more-or-less limited to chariots and harsh language.)
  • He founded over 70 cities.
  • Military historians class him among the greatest tactical generals of all time.

Despite all this, the guy had character flaws.  He was also a butchering mass-murderer on more than one occasion, but the point I’m trying to make is that he was undeniably, extraordinarily gifted.  A world-class bad-ass.

And yet, when it came to a one-on-one, winner-takes-all fight between Alexander and Wine*, Wine won.

* Grecian wine in Alexander’s time was different than what we think of as wine now.  The “un-watered” wine Alexander and his Macedonian boozing-buddies drank would be closer to a hard alcohol in today’s terms.

It’s not like Alexander didn’t know the powers or the dangers of drink.  As a youth, he’d courted danger by mocking his kingly father’s inability to, well, balance upright while publicly drunk.  And as king, he occasionally sponsored drinking contests with double-digit body counts (yes, as in, dead bodies) resulting from alcohol poisoning.  So he knew he was playing with fire.

Isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

And what Alexander knew anecdotally then, we know a lot more scientifically now.

Thanks to its prevalence in all societies (and despite an alcohol industry that would rather keep such information corked), the effects of alcohol on the brain and body are among the most-studied of any psychoactive substance.

Some Low-Marks on Alcohol’s Wall of Shame

  • 65% of suicides have been linked to extravagant drinking.  (Mental Health Foundation Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health, London: Mental Health Foundation, 2006.)
  • “[Brain damage from alcohol] occurs as a function of quantity and exposure; the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular. This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most effected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol.”  (from this 2014 study)
  • Mouse studies show that alcohol drunk in early pregnancy (during the period in which human mothers would typically not even know they are pregnant) changes the way genes function in the brains of their offspring – changes apparent in the brain structure of the offspring even in adulthood.

These three citations are the smallest tip of an alcohol-iceberg.  The research is out there, if you look for it; and I’ve read such stuff before – so why is it a book about ancient history, not the plumes of recent studies, prompted me to write this post?

What struck me as I read this book was the issue of scale.

Most of us are not “problem drinkers.”

Most of us will not drink ourselves to death.

Equally few of us will ever let a drunken rage engulf us, and murder our friends.

But then, very few of us will conquer Asia Minor, either.

Alexander was a genius, an amazing physical specimen, legendarily determined, and incalculably brave.

All of this was not enough to avoid being bested by drink.

If you’ve read this far (and aren’t on your second drink yet), then your drinking is not on the scale of Alexander’s.  And that’s good.

But your ambitions – and likely, your advantages – probably aren’t on the scale of Alexander’s, either.

So then: How is your less-than-biography-worthy alcohol consumption subtly undercutting you?

Maybe it isn’t.

But maybe it is.

It’s worth thinking about just a little, isn’t it?

About three months ago, I started down an intellectual rabbit hole that made me stop eating, as of midnight last Sunday night.

It’s now late afternoon Saturday as I write this. I’m closing in on six days with nothing but water going down my gullet.

This hasn’t been easy, but it has been memorable. More on that in a minute. But first, the “why,” for those of you still understandably hung up on the “why is this guy starving” part.

Why Would I Do This?

This podcast episode details the compelling science behind massive carbohydrate-restriction as a cancer ameliorator, and (possibly) a nip-it-in-the-bud prophylactic, if undertaken while a person is still largely cancer-free.  It’s worth a listen, and I won’t detail it point-for-point here.

So my initial motivation, as someone without cancer who prefers to stay that way, was just that:  If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can, very possibly, keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great.  My diet and exercise regimen should do well at protecting me against heart disease, that other über-killer, so if I can nix both heart disease and cancer from my list-of-demises, that leaves me with the less-likely and more-interesting array of Far Side deaths:  Falling grand pianos, shark attacks, assassins with too much time on their hands.

Dr. Thomas Seyfried’s specific recommendation for this potential “anti-cancer prophylactic practice” was a once-a-year, 7-day water-only fast.

So I decided that at some point in 2015, I’d tick that off my to-do list.  And if it wasn’t gallingly difficult (and assuming the scientific presumptions aren’t overturned in the next year), I’d make it an annual ritual.  I mentioned on several podcast episodes that I’d be doing this, and wound up with a head-count of 15 participants who wanted in on the starvation en masse.

My Ulterior Motive

I’ve got a deep, dark secret I’m going to put out here in public.

It may be that anti-cancer health stuff wasn’t my primary motive in doing this.  It may be that it’s just because it’s weird.

When Dr. Seyfried wowed me with the still-stunning fact that a person with average body fat can live on that fat alone (plus adequate water) for 60-70 days before succumbing to death-by-starvation, I was flabbergasted.

If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great.

I thought about it, and the longest I’d ever gone sans-calories was maybe 20 hours (and that’s a top-end estimate) to prepare for a blood test.  Kinda pathetic.

And not eating sounded so weird. Like smacking our biology in the face.  The idea that we could get away with it and even benefit from it fascinated me.

Now believe me, I’m no anorexic.  In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes, when my week is over and I can eat again, you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down.   But there do seem to be several verifiable benefits to short and medium-term non-caloric fasting.  (See this and this and this.)

I did not go in expecting this to be a joyride.  I eat a lot.

My diet is made up of natural, unprocessed foods, and no sweeteners — so the sheer volume of the food I eat is considerable.  Downshifting to nothing at the stroke of an arbitrary midnight was going to make my body wonder what the hell was going on.

I read up on this before starting, of course. But the research was a little tough, because most of the people who have written about fasting seem to have come from one of three camps, none of which I fell into:

  • Sick people, seeking to cure or alleviate some specific malady.
  • Obese people, seeking to lose weight.
  • “Spiritually-oriented” people, looking to ritualize the experience into having some deeper meaning than I found plausible.

As for me, I wanted in and I wanted out.  I like food.  I anticipated this would be a pain-in-the-ass, but one that I could draw some benefit from.  But short of being pretty sure I wouldn’t die in the endeavor, I didn’t really know how hard it would be.

The warning flags based on my reading were about:

  • Food cravings (duh)
  • Flu-like symptoms around Days 3-5 as one’s body runs out of its last sugar stores, and starts “burning fat” for energy
  • Muscle aches and pains from the release of formerly blood-borne toxins that are sometimes stored in a person’s fat
  • Lethargy
  • Insomnia

Sum total: it sounded like a pretty shitty week.  But I don’t want cancer.  And I hadn’t done anything all that weird in a while.  Something that would make the stick-in-the-muds among my friends and family cringe or ogle at me like an exotic species.

So I strategically halted my grocery shopping, and (with the fridge almost perfectly empty) last Sunday night, I ate one final guava…

Then I called an end to that whole “intake of calories” thing.

Believe me, I’m no anorexic.  In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes – when I can eat again – you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down.

Results May Vary

If there’s one thing that doing the Smart Drug Smarts podcast has taught me, it’s that person-to-person subjective results on almost anything can be all over the map.  Short of sex on the good end, and hand-on-hot-stove on the bad end, individual responses to any given stimulus are less predictable than we’d like in an orderly universe.

With that disclaimer in place, here’s what my fasting experience has been like:

Hunger

It turns out that hunger is a multi-headed beast.  There’s the feeling of hunger in your stomach, that “we could use some food down here” feeling.  Then there’s the actual rumbling, grinding stomach pain of hunger – which is a different thing.  And then there’s the joy of picking out your next meal, deciding what you’ll eat where, with whom, and in what order.  All of these are distinctly different things, when you suss them apart (as I’ve had occasion to this week).

I was lucky to experience almost no physical hunger pains.  A few growls for a few seconds, primarily on Days 1 and 2.

The psychological aspects were (as of Day 6, still are) a ton more challenging.  I apparently take a lot of pleasure out of anticipating my meals, and the let-down when I have to remind myself that the meal I’ve just started anticipating ain’t gonna happen — that really sucks.

Weakness

I was forewarned that in Day 3 and beyond, your stamina starts fading.  This was true, and I felt like on Day 5, my strength started fading too.  I haven’t tried any pull-ups in the past few days, but I’ll bet I’m way off my max.

That said, I’ve by no means been bedridden, which is what some reading had led me to semi-expect.  (Admission:  I am now laying in bed as I type this, but I just took a 30 minute walk with no fatigue whatsoever.)  It may be that since my body has now switched on the fat-burning engines, and isn’t fruitlessly scrounging for blood-sugar-that-ain’t-there, I could actually have more energy accessible than I did on Days 2 and 3, but it hasn’t felt that way yet.

Overall, there has been a pretty predictable pattern starting on Day 3:  Peppy mornings, lethargic afternoons and evenings.

Only once (on Day 5) has my vision dimmed as I stood up quickly.  This is a common thing among fasters — but still not a terribly pleasant experience.

Sleepiness

You might think that late-afternoon lethargy and sleepiness are birds-of-a-feather.  But not exactly.  The physical depletion I’ve felt hasn’t necessarily made me want to sleep.  And my biorhythms since Day 1 have been all over the place.

My second and third mornings after beginning the fast (after about 28 and 52 hours), saw me wake up at 4:30am and then 3:30am, respectively — obviously without an alarm.  I had no intention of getting up so miserably early, but sleep just wasn’t happening.  Then a few nights ago, I pulled a 10.5 hour sleep-night, which isn’t normal either.

My policy while fasting has been to cut myself slack on everything beyond not-eating and diligently hydrating, so I’ve been rolling with these sleep/wake punches.  But anyone attempting a fast should be warned about the difficulties in maintaining a predictable schedule.

Cognition

All my life, my brain cells have been powered by glucose.

As I write these words, and for the past few days, my brain cells are being powered by ketone bodies, the once-thought-to-be-toxic breakdown products from the metabolism of fat.

Since I might be “impaired” thereby, and not even realize it, I won’t judge the before/after quality at this early juncture (after all, writers will tell you that first drafts always suck) — but I frankly find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.

I have definitely felt cognitively “off” this week — although at times very “on,” too.

If I were to generalize, I’d say:

  • Mornings I’ve been clearer-headed than afternoons.
  • My afternoons/evenings haven’t been characterized by dumbness, but by “distractability.”  I’ve lacked the willpower to keep myself effortfully focused on one task.
  • This same “distractability” has often brought with it a slight euphoria.
  • I’m not completely sold on the Willpower is a Depletable Resource idea, but I have certainly felt my ability to push myself has been radically diminished this week, maybe to 30-40 percent of normal levels.  Is that because my willpower has been depleted by resisting food?  Or just because my body and brain have been discombobulated and, as my grandpa said, “you can’t push a rope”?  I leave that answer to future scientists and a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.

Weight Loss

First, losing weight wasn’t part of my goal here.  Very much the opposite; I was concerned about losing muscle mass as well as fat, as my body sought for things-internal to snack on.  (Although, over a comparatively short fast, that’s not too much of a danger.)

But I lost weight precipitously.  Mostly “water weight,” I’m told.  And all of us normally carry 2-3 pounds of  poop or proto-poop in our gastrointestinal systems, and I’ve shed all that by now as well.

I find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.

But the numbers are still shocking:  On Sunday I was 179 pounds.  Today, six days later, I’m 166 pounds.  And dropping.

Walking down the street today, I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.

(Despite these dramatic changes, I’m told to expect an equally-fast regaining of the weight once I start feeding again.)

Odds and Ends

Prior to the fast, I thought that seeing food while I was fasting, and the unencumbered people eating it, would cause me rage, despair, envy, etc.

The truth is very much the opposite.  Seeing food, smelling it — rather than being torturous, is actually a real pleasure.  I’ve been seeking opportunities to sit side-saddle at my friends’ meals so I can waft their food-smells.  I find this way better than the monotony of total sensory abstinence.

The water fast has also changed my beliefs about farting.  I assumed that no eating meant no pooping and, relatedly, no farting.  The pooping part was true.  (Final poop, and a very small one: Day 3.)  But I farted no less than 3 hours ago, after five-and-a-half days.  A modest fart, but a fart nonetheless.  How (and why?) one’s body makes these things, I’m now perversely curious about.

Things I Missed Out On

My personal response to fasting is just a sliver of what I saw in our self-selected group of test monkeys.  Overall, I lucked out.  Some folks had a far rougher time than me.

Among the physiological and perceptual reactions we saw were:

  • Heat waves or flashes felt throughout the body.
  • Inability to fall asleep.
  • Inability to keep warm.
  • All-over aches and pains akin to the flu.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • And this rather poetic explanation: “My thoughts were like the clearest chaos ever. Do you ever get chaotic thoughts when you have a fever? It was like that, but I could focus. And no fever.”

I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.

Would I Recommend This?

I guess that’s the same as asking, “Will I do this again next year?”

For me, I think the answer is yes.

Next year’s fast will lack the wonder of a first-timer’s view of a new experience — a definite downside.  But I’m hoping that it will be psychologically easier.  And I may well do a few shorter fasts (1-3 days) throughout this year to keep my system acclimated to such deprivations.

If any study comes out refuting Dr. Seyfried’s idea that “deep ketosis” (that is, living off fat stores with flatlined and minimal blood sugar) may be an effective cancer prophylactic, I’ll certainly look at that carefully.  Seven days of deprivation is too much to incur just for the novelty.  But as of now, my feeling is:  Even if there’s just a 50% chance that this is effective, isn’t a week-long inconvenience once per year, for a 50% reduction in ever getting cancer a pretty great gamble?

But for me right now, the main question on my mind isn’t “Will I do this next year?”…

It’s “What am I going to eat in 26 hours and 29 minutes?”


* It is advised that food be re-introduced slowly to any stomach that’s gone food-free for more than 5 days. I may or may not heed this advice. Currently, being a good little boy in this regard feels unlikely.

What’s This Fasting Business All About?

A couple of months ago, Dr. Thomas Seyfried – the author of Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: On the Origin, Management, and Prevention of Cancer – came on the show to speak to us about metabolic fasting as a means of cancer therapy – and (possibly) prevention.

For the more in-depth explanation of how exactly that works, click here to listen to the episode.

The rest of this post will throw around words like ketosis and just assume, you know what that means – so if you don’t, check out Episode #56!

The short version?  It may be that we have the ability to “starve out” stray (pre-tumorous) cancer cells by simply… not eating.  Cancer cells don’t survive nearly as well as healthy cells in a ketotic internal environment.  And the quickest way into ketosis is, well… starving.

Dr. Seyfried cited “a 7-day water fast, once per year” as his recommendation for a healthy person to remain cancer-free by starving any errant cancer cells before they can get a foothold in the body.

This means that for a comparatively small investment of time (and a larger dollop of willpower), we might be able to significantly extend both our lifespans and our “health-spans.”  Cancer remains a distressingly prevalent killer and misery-bringer – so anything to safely lessen its likelihood is great news, right?

Why Water Fast?

While there are many variations on this theme – slightly different fasting methods promoting slightly different health benefits – research suggests that a water-only fast of at least three days is the most effective method to achieve a ketotic body state in the shortest amount of time.

Why a Week?

Three-to-four days to get firmly “into ketosis,” then the rest of the week to give any loose cancer cells in our bodies time to starve.

A day or two shorter might not be enough time to kill the stray cancer cells.  Any longer might be (pardon the pun) overkill.

The Plan

We plan to do a 7-day water-only fast – and if it goes well, it will likely become an annual ritual.

While we’re very set in the belief that the possible-rewards outweigh any expected unpleasantness, we’re also realistic about this being a pretty big undertaking.  (7 days.  Water.  Only.  Ugh.)

So, in an attempt to make the week infinitely less excruciating, and beneficial to as many people as possible, we’ve decided to arm ourselves with as much information as we can.  And in the company of other like-minded, willpower-imbued longevity-seekers.

And so, Water Fast Week was born.

From February 16th-22nd, everyone participating will be communicating via an online forum, sharing their personal experiences, tips, and helpful information with the group.  We’ll have a few experienced fasters – as well as a medical doctor – in our midst, to chip in where they can as well.

And, almost certainly, we’ll cover the action* in a Smart Drug Smarts episode.


* “Action” might not be the right term; we’re expecting a pretty lethargic week.

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