Why fasting should be a part of your health regime
If we explore fasting from a medical science point of view, we have a lot to get excited about. It lowers your risk of developing serious disease, has a very positive impact on cognitive function, and is a proven method for keeping those unhealthy extra pounds off.
A number of studies over the past decades have revealed very positive findings. Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging is active in the field, and his work consistently shows that eating less frequently helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as protecting the brain from age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
If you’re one of my regular readers you know how strongly I believe that eating right is the most important factor in managing your health, but can altering when and how regularly you eat (known as intermittent fasting) also play a big role in this picture?
Indeed it can.
Fasting and weight loss
I won’t go into all the different scenarios for fasting here. There really are many ways to do it. Some of the main regimes involve only allowing water or juice for a period of 12 hours or more, while others simply limit calorie intake. The more extreme fasting can stretch over a period of several days in a row.
One of my favourite methods involves fasting for 16 hours (except for water, tea, and coffee) and eating only from noon till 8 pm. It may sound hard, but I actually find it quite easy, and many of my clients who try it also agree. I’ll have a large coffee at 8 or 9 am and delay my first meal till noon. I then have a snack which holds me off until about 8 pm, at which time I have a proper Paleo meal.
You’ll find this goes to work quite quickly on helping reduce the weight. The reason for this is that you switch from sugar burning to fat burning when you fast. Remember, the body likes to burn sugar before it begins to burn your fat. So that 16-hour break gives your body a huge window in which to tackle those fat stores.
You can try this “fast-feast” cycle for a week, a month, or even a lifetime, and I don’t think you will find it tricky at all. You will also very quickly come to see that food cravings and general hunger are actually kept better at bay with fasting.
But what about breakfast? After all, you have heard that a healthy breakfast actually helps with weight loss, right? Well, a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that only a handful of clinical studies had even looked at the role of breakfast in losing weight, and these had found no significant effect on weight loss. In fact, several observational studies have shown that eating that early meal plays a role in weight gain. And the same is true for eating a number of small meals throughout the day, with the latest studies indicating that this practice promotes weight gain rather than weight loss.
Fasting and body repair
The ancient Greeks fasted, and you’ll find reference to it in almost every major religious text. Those clever Greeks knew it brought health benefits, but what specifically is happening in our bodies when we fast? It turns out quite a lot.
The latest findings suggest that, quite simply, fasting is giving your body a rest. Or to put it another way, when you’re fasting your body produces less new cells – which gives it time to repair the existing ones.
The culprit in all this is a hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1). It appears that any kind of reduction in food intake can cause a decrease in IGF-1, with fasting having a particularly dramatic effect. Experiments with mice have shown that those with low IGF-1 live longer and are less likely to develop neurodegenerative disease. In humans, having high IGF-1 levels is an indicator for a likelihood to develop diabetes, cardiovascular problems, as well as age-related disorders.
So if we lower our IGF-1 we can avoid disease? It certainly plays a role. That said, while reducing the production of this growth hormone through fasting does have the effect of slowing cell creation by allowing for these important repairs to take place, the IGF-1 levels don’t remain low unless fasting is repeated. So what we’re talking about here is a long-term fasting commitment if we want to see real health benefits.
One interesting case study is that of Dr. Michael Mosley who put himself at the centre of an experiment for the BBC documentary ‘Eat, Fast, Live Longer.’ Concerned about various health indicators (particularly abdominal fat and his risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease), his IGF-1 levels were extremely high for a man of his age. A four-day fast saw a drop of 50% in these levels – greatly reducing his risk of developing health problems.
Why did such dramatic results come from just 80 hours of fasting? Because as I mentioned above, when you are fasting you burn off all the glucose in your body and start using fat for energy. At the same time, the liver stops producing IGF-1 and your cell production slows and the repairing process starts. So you’re burning fat and reducing chances of major disease. It doesn’t get better than that.
And what about that sharpness of mind everyone keeps talking about? This might seem strange. After all, why would hunger, usually seen as something negative, have a positive effect on the brain?
Well, one theory is tied to the evolutionary perspective of basic survival through the ability to secure food when needed. In our hunter-gatherer days (which ended just 12,000 years back) it would have been much more difficult to round up food if we had impaired brain function. So that brain function, which heightened as our hunger grew, is what kept us alive.
Giving it a try
From personal experience I have noticed that fasting significantly increases mental sharpness, and I have also noticed that the pounds indeed stay off if I consistently practice the fast-feast cycle.
Is it for you? There’s only one way to find out. But if you do give it a try just remember that anything that might have a healthy impact on your life won’t go far on its own. In other words, fasting should be something you add to an already balanced lifestyle. Eat Paleo, don’t smoke, if you drink only do so in moderation, and get your seven or eight hours sleep. If you add fasting to that kind of lifestyle, you get my vote.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.