Fasting - you're crazy right? That's for hippies and monks?
It's true that many people in today's modern world think that the idea of fasting is simply ludicrous. Why would you actively avoid food? Why would you starve yourself? The gym bros reading this will be quivering at the thought of fasting, as their muscle tissue would eat itself alive if they didn't eat protein every 3 hours.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day", right? Wrong...
There is so much misinformation in today's nutritional mine-field. I'm here to dispel a few of those and talk about why fasting is actually extremely health promoting, why you should consider adding it to your routine, why it won't have all of your muscle wasting away because of the proteinzzz, why it can help you lose body fat and why fasting can lower your risk of life threatening diseases.
What is fasting then?
Fasting can be simply identified as any period of time where one chooses to abstain from food. This can be as little as 12 hours, all the way up to...well, infinity, if you so please. Check out the longest ever recorded fast here (382 days).
Whilst I wouldn't recommend year long Fasting, as I'm a fan of delicious food. There are undeniable benefits to all manner of Fasting, from the short (12 hours), to the very long (days).
Fasting has been practiced since the beginning of time. Many cultures still fast to this very day: Religious groups incorporate periods of fasting into their rituals including Muslims who fast from dawn until dusk during the month of Ramadan, and Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus who traditionally fast on designated days of the week or calendar year.
I am an ancestral health advocate, and I believe that the keys to longevity and health lie in an evolutionary model. It's pretty obvious that our ancestors fasted very often. However, they didn't really choose to do so. There's a big difference between skipping a meal because of a failed forage, as opposed to confidently driving past the take-out window at your local fast food joint.
You might be wondering why I'm suggesting fasting based on what happened millions of years ago? Well, our genes are still very much a product of that time period, and because of that we have an amazing affinity towards fasting and can reap many rewards in doing so.
People often think that if you fast and have no food, that your energy levels would bottom out and you'd be left feeling groggy, hungry and un-inspired. However, I want you to think about this for a second. . .If this happened to our ancestors when food was scarce (which it often was) how would they have the energy to continue to hunt and forage for days on end, until finally reaping the rewards of their hard work?
The answer? - it doesn't. Fasting does not make you weak and slow. It does not make you light headed and lazy. It does not make you catabolize lean muscle mass. In fact, it does, quite literally, the opposite.
When we enter a fast a cascade of hormonal changes begin to happen in the body. The longer the fast, the more pronounced these changes become, contrary to the layman's understanding of fasting, which is to believe that the the longer the fast continues, the worse our health, energy and hunger would become.
So, what happens internally when we are Fasting?
First off, adaptive hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone spike, considerably.
Also, adrenaline spikes up to 14% in response to a 4 day fast - essentially meaning that metabolism revs up, during a fast, as opposed to slowing down, like many would expect.
This is great for numerous reasons but especially in repair and preservation of muscles mass. Higher levels of these hormones are also commonly associated with a lower amount of body fat, increased metabolic rate, increased sex drive and slower decline from aging.
Insulin levels normalize - insulin is the master hormone. Responsible for the storage of fuel in the form of the food we eat. When insulin levels are high, as the result of consuming food, we have a hard time accessing stored fuel for energy. We get locked into an energy storage pattern. When insulin is always being secreted in the body, as is often the case with the standard western diet (SAD), we continue this vicious cycle of spiking insulin and storing the food we eat (as fat) and not using it. Whilst it is true that some of the food we eat can be used immediately for energy and fuel, most of the food we eat is going to be stored, and in the presence of high insulin, locked away.
It is like having millions of pounds in a savings account but not being able to access your money. Abuse of this system results in insulin resistance, which is an undesirable metabolic defect that is associated with a whole host of health problems including breast and prostate cancer .
Nobody really wants to store excess fuel as fat , as many of us already have plenty of that to go around, and having very high levels of fat, especially visceral fat, is a direct negative impact on the quality and length of one's life.
This is where fasting can work wonders. Not eating allows the insulin levels to normalize.
When this is the case we can access and use the fuel that we already have in our body to fuel our metabolism. We can (hopefully) tap into our fat stores and start to use this to fuel our metabolism and daily function. The reason I say "hopefully" is that unfortunately, many people have so much insulin resistance and long term metabolic damage, that they have a very hard time accessing fat and using it for fuel. This is often the result of a life time eating a junk food diet. Luckily, fasting has profound positive benefits on improving insulin sensitivity, the desirable metabolic change, that we could all do with improving.
If we can improve insulin sensitivity, and remove chronically elevated states of insulin production from our body, through fasting or diet, we WILL tap into our stored vats of energy (fat) and start to metabolize it. The result? Effortless fat loss. Your body, realizing that it isn't getting any exogenous fuels, merely starts to use what it has got in storage. This is a win win as far as fat loss and body composition goals go.
Imagine a metabolism that works in your favor - constantly burning fat for fuel, never being controlled by hunger, never succumbing to energy slumps and tiredness - sounds pretty nifty right? That is how your metabolism is supposed to be set up, unfortunately, due to our current eating habits, it is likely that it is not working in this efficient manner.
What if all of that sounds amazing, yet you're just not ready to tackle that intense hunger? Luckily for you, hunger levels actually decrease during prolonged fasts, making it much easier than one might anticipate.
Fasting and Its Role in Cancer Prevention
Leaders in the field, such as Valter Longo, PHD think that the keys to treating cancer, and preventing the rates of cancer in our population, lie in fasting, or fasting mimicking diets. Let’s explore the theories around fasting and it’s role on cancer.
Autophagy and Apoptosis
A truly beautiful phenomenon that takes place in the body in the absence of food. Autophagy describes the fundamental catabolic mechanism during which cells degrade dysfunctional and unnecessary cellular components.
This fascinating internal mechanism literally means "eating one's self" - damaged DNA, poorly functioning genes, damaged proteins can all under go repair during this phase. The cells use their own energy to "eat" away these non functioning, or damaged genes and self repair, essentially scanning over your body and doing mini repair jobs, system-wide. Super fascinating work that led awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi.
During fasting cell autophagy increases. This is a great way to renew your body, slow aging and even reduce the risk of cancer development. This is a great case study of the effects of fasting in patients with cancer, that shows that fasting, along with chemotherapy and traditional treatment measures can have many positive effects during treatments. Note that it wasn’t just the subjective effects that improved with fasting, but also her physiological markers. Total white blood cell, absolute neutrophil counts, and platelet counts were all highest after the fasting regimens.
Cell apoptosis also fires up during this stage. Apoptosis is the internal mechanism of programmed cell death that a cell initiates when it realized it is broken. However, sometimes cells that aren't working properly, and are kept alive and thriving by adverse diet or lifestyle factors (such as a diet high in refined vegetable oils) don't initiate apoptosis and become what is known as senescent cells. These are essentially mutated cells, that are carrying out undesirable effect in the body, that have bypassed their internal mechanism to self destruct, and can now run rampant.
What we have now is a senescent cell that can wreak havoc on the body, give birth to sister cells, which will also be senescent and will further divide. What we have here, is an unfortunate but important step in cancer formation.
Knowing this, and knowing that fasting can induce this cell apoptosis, this 'self checker' phase, plays massively in regards to potential cancer prevention and treatment.
Some leading scientists in the field believe that prolonged fasting (>5 days), implemented into the population, bi-annually, could see cancer rates drop dramatically.
So if you have a history of cancer in your family, don't practice optimal health habits, it may be worth throwing in some bouts of fasting, that will do so much more for you than simply losing a few inches off your waist.
Why fasting Over Calorie Restriction?
Whilst calorie restriction may have some of the aforementioned benefits, these are vastly less pronounced than in fasting.