In 2016, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, Yoshinori Ohsumi discovered the mechanisms behind autophagy. Autophagy is the process by which cells dispose of damaged proteins and other trash molecules. Since this cell-cleaning mechanism has been shown to be be important in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and certain cancers, lots of attention has been placed on how to activate it. One of the only ways that we can naturally activate autophagy in our bodies is through fasting, and this is why many of us have been skipping breakfast- to prevent cancer, increase mental stamina, reap the anti-inflammatory effects, and save our brains.
It’s important to distinguish among the various terminologies of fasting, as there are many ways of describing it. First of all, fasting is the overall abstinence from consuming food. The length of time that people fast varies depending on the goals that they are trying to achieve. Time-restricted feeding is the idea of eating for a certain window of time within the day. For example, one might eat only between 10am to 6pm, and fast for the other 16 hrs of the day. Animal studies by Satchidananda Panda suggest that eating in a restricted time window each day can help one sustain and also lose weight, even while eating the same diet and number of calories. Periodic prolonged fasting generally refers to abstaining from consuming food for multiple days at a time, at least 48 hrs. The longest documented prolonged fast was in a 27 year old man for 382 days under supervision. He consumed only water and supplements, and decreased his weight from 456 to 180 lbs. Intermittent fasting refers to alternate day fasting, 5/2 fasting (eating for 5 days and fasting for 2 days of every week), or one day per week fasting. Caloric restriction generally refers to restricting one’s daily caloric intake by at least 500 calories, on an ongoing basis. A fasting mimicking diet is a diet in which one consumes only about 500 calories per day, and was developed by one of the current leaders in fasting research, Dr. Valter Longo. The recommended duration of a fasting mimicking diet would depend on the individual’s circumstance but generally would last about 5 days every few months. Each of these fasting techniques has a multitude of benefits documented in recent research and is a major reason for the recent explosion in interest.
Interestingly, fasting used to be a part of normal human life. Break-fast, was the first meal of the day, when we would break our fast from the previous day. People would eat supper at 5pm, and breakfast at 7am after working in the fields, completing a solid 14 hour fast every day without even thinking about it. Almost every religion has a holiday or ritual that includes fasting. The Muslims have Ramadan, the Jews have Yom Kippur, and the Christians used to fast during lent but have relaxed these fasting guidelines over the years. Since the abundance and constant availability of food after the agricultural revolution 100-150 years ago, natural periods of fasting have become obsolete for most of us living in the modern world. Subsequently, according to the WHO, the number of overweight people has actually exceeded the number of underweight people in the world.
The benefits of fasting do include weight loss, but they go far beyond just that. Fasting can create mental stimulation, anti-aging effects, anti-cancer effects, anti-inflammatory effects, and even spiritual enlightenment. When not consuming any food, the body is forced to break down its own fat and produce ketones in order to fuel the body and mind. The state of producing ketones from fat is called ketogenesis. Ketones have shown to benefit brain function, reduce seizures in children, and induce weight loss. This process of breaking down fat for fuel is what drives loss of body fat.
When initiating a fasting or ketogenic diet program, one might feel excessively tired and irritable. Some refer to his period as the “keto-flu”. The body takes several days to adjust to using fat (either ingested or from body fat) instead of carbohydrates as fuel. Some ways of getting through this initial period feeling great on the other side is making sure you’re very well hydrated with water and also minerals. Being in a fat-burning state causes us to urinate out more electrolytes, and therefore it’s helpful to drink electrolyte solutions when fasting or in ketogenesis, put sea salt on your food, take a mineral and/or multi-vitamin supplement, and also eat plenty of nutrient dense foods like green vegetables. Staying full on foods containing high amounts of health fats during periods of feeding is also helpful.
Another major reason why the anti-aging and endurance training communities have been interested in experimenting with fasting is because of stem cell activation. Stem cells are the precursors to all the cells in our bodies. For example, if you cut your skin, the stem cells within your skin become activated, transform into new skin cells, and repair the damage. The same is true in all the other organs of our bodies. Aging is associated with increased free radicals and damage throughout the body. As we age, our stem cells become less active and potent, and the regeneration process becomes slower and less effective. One way to combat this is through fasting. Animal studies from MIT suggest that fasting for between 24-72 hrs may actually activate stem cell production and activity in humans. This is an incredible finding, because almost nothing else can do this. Some people spend thousands of dollars and fly all over the country and world to receive stem cell transplants for their regenerative capacity. Meanwhile we all carry this innate ability to activate our own stem cells for free!
There are other caveats to fasting that can come into play, and it’s always best to work with a knowledgable professional when embarking on a new diet or lifestyle modification. Fasting can be a safe, extremely effective way to lose weight and inflammation, and gain mental stamina and anti-aging effects. At PrimeHealth, we recommend fasting in various forms to our patients based on their specific needs and goals. If you’re interested in learning about how we can help you reach your wellness goals, sign up for a free phone consultation. We look forward to working with you!