Fasting is something humans have been doing since the beginning of time, although back then it wasn’t necessarily on purpose. To get a good meal in, we had to successfully hunt an animal or find some nutritious plants. Food wasn’t readily available to us at every street corner like it is today, so it was normal to go for extended periods of time without eating. Turns out our bodies were designed to thrive on no food with the periodic feast, yet we typically consume the opposite way.
Eating 3 meals a day isn’t an actual “thing” we are supposed to do, it’s just something people started doing when food became consistently available to them. Likewise, the recent “health” trend of eating 5 meals a day has no evidence to support superiority in health benefits or weight loss, it’s actually the complete opposite!
What is Fasting?
Isn’t fasting just starving yourself? Not at all. Fasting is making a conscious decision to refrain from eating for a period of time for health, spiritual or other reasons. There is no specific duration for a fast: in fact it’s something most of us do every single night. Think of the word breakfast (break-fast), which simply means the meal that breaks the fast you take part in every night when you sleep. For most people that’s around 8 or so hours and could technically be termed “intermittent fasting (IF)” . However, it’s not typically labelled IF until at least 12 or 16 hours of fasting each day. You can also participate in more long-term or prolonged fasting, which could last anywhere from 24 hours to a few days. Let’s take a look at why avoiding food can be so beneficial to our health.
Health Benefits of Fasting
In the simplest of terms, when we eat our cells are signalled to ‘growth phase’. When we don’t eat (fasting), our cells are signalled to ‘recovery phase’. The growth phase allows our cells to continue to grow and divide so we can become a full-size adult human, have strong bones, muscles and organs and continue to develop physically and mentally. The recovery phase is essentially the maintenance work for our cells, and can include things like: getting rid of waste, recycling old parts to make new ones and fixing/repairing any damaged machinery in the cell. This process is called Autophagy (ah-toff-ah-G), a discovery that was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine.
Autophagy – Renewing Your Body and Your Cells
Sometimes, rather than completely replacing something that’s broken, it’s more efficient and effective to just replace a few of its parts. That is what your body does to its cells through a process called autophagy. Autophagy optimizes how well the current cells you have function. I’m sure you can imagine how this can be good for you, some researchers even see the potential for this to prevent/treat disease and illness like, Alzhemier’s Disease, epilepsy and cancer.
What activates Autophagy?
Nutrient deprivation is the key to activating this cellular revitalizing process. Much of this has to do with the hormone insulin and it’s opposite hormone – glucagon. Eating increases insulin and decreases glucagon, putting a halt to Autophagy and signalling growth. However, when you fast you decrease insulin and increase glucagon, stimulating the process of Autophagy. It’s important to note that caloric restriction or eating a ketogenic diet will not have the same effect, as any presence of glucose, amino acids or insulin will turn off Autophagy.
All that said, too much Autophagy and eventually your cells will have no building blocks left. Not enough Autophagy and your cells will remain broken. Let’s just understand that life is all about balance, and our current problem is that too many of us are way too far on the side of constant eating and not enough Autophagy.
Other Health Benefits of Fasting
Although Autophagy is the “hallmark” benefit of fasting, there are many other health benefits to go with it. As you’ll see from the list below, there are plenty of reasons why you should start incorporating a fast into your life:
- Weight loss
- Improved fat burning
- Improved cognitive function
- Lower blood insulin and sugar levels
- Increased energy
- Stimulates growth hormone production
- Reduce inflammation
- Live longer
- Improved immune system/Immune system regeneration
- Increased stress tolerance
- Increased production of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor)
Types Of Fasting
There are a lot of positives to fasting so let’s get down to the How-To. First you need to decide which type of fasting is best for you. There are essentially two categories of fasts. Intermittent fasting is where you continually fast for a portion of each day (18, 16 or 12 hours fasting and 6, 8 & 12 hours eating). Long-term or Prolonged Fasting is where you fast for longer than 24 hours up to a few days (or longer for some). They both come with their own different set of health benefits, so let’s take a look.
When you fast for longer than 24 hours your body will use up all of it’s liver and muscle glycogen and put you into full ketosis (check out this podcast to learn more about the benefits of ketosis). This can provide significant benefits cognitively and for fat burning purposes. Only in this type of fasting (according to the research thus far anyway) will you see regeneration of the immune system and the potential for disease altering effects. Prolonged fasting also sees an increase in BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which helps to grow new brain cells. Anything in the list above is included as a benefit of long-term fasting.
Intermittent fasting also provides many of the same health benefits (many of which we are still finding out in the research), however it’s typically to a lesser extent than prolonged fasting. When you intermittent fast you may exhaust all of the liver glycogen, but you typically won’t with muscle glycogen. For this reason you’ll be put into a more milder state of ketosis, which will still improve fat burning, weight loss and cognitive function, however not to the point of prolonged fasting. Intermittent fasting isn’t the tool to use if you’re looking to regenerate your immune system or treat disease, however it’s still a fantastic way to optimize health and potentially prevent future illness.
How To Fast
Fasting sounds pretty easy, just stop eating right? Yes, but there is a little more to it than that. Your hormones and your addictions (to sugar, food, alcohol, etc.) will play a big role in the success of your fast. We are fasting to improve our health, yet if we are “hangry” the whole time, that’s not going to be good for you or anyone else for that matter. For most people that eat something close to the standard American diet and have never experimented with fasting, it’s very likely that you have some sort of addiction to glucose, constant insulin spikes and are inefficient at burning fat. If this is the case, it’s going to make fasting a little difficult in the beginning. Check out this video to learn how to get passed this:
Can You Drink While Fasting?
Yes, you can and should drink water while fasting. You’ll want to make sure you drink even more than you normally would as you won’t be getting any water from food. You can also drink black coffee and tea, just make sure not to add any sugar, cream, etc. Some research has shown that you can add butter to your coffee (bulletproof coffee recipe) and still reap the benefits of fasting, although it’s still up for debate.
Our bodies are designed to fast, yet we continue to overeat, and evidently we are seeing the consequences of this to our health. If we want to improve or optimize our health, what better option do we have than fasting? It’s free, saves time, simplifies things and can be done regardless of where you are in the world. Most of us need to tip the balance scale in the opposite direction and find time to limit our food intake to heal ourselves. If you’re not already, it’s time to start making fasting part of your life!