Benefits of Fasting
The Powerful Benefits of Fasting You Should Know
By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
September 11th, 2019
“Don’t skip breakfast.”
“If you don’t eat every few hours, your body will go into starvation mode.”
“Eat five or six small meals throughout the day.”
Chances are you’ve heard phrases like these more than once. For some reason, there is quite a negative stigma associated with not eating.
But science is finding that skipping meals might actually be one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
As it turns out, when you eat can actually impact your body nearly as much as what you eat. And going a period of time without food – also known as fasting – has some pretty remarkable health benefits you’re going to want to know about.
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is nothing new. Our ancestors didn’t have access to grocery stores and drive-thrus, so going extended periods without food was just a fact of life for hunter-gatherer societies. Many cultures even practice fasting as part of religious ceremonies – from the 25-hour fast of Yom Kippur to the month-long daytime fast of Ramadan.
And unlike some complicated diet plans, fasting is about as straightforward as it gets – you simply don’t eat for a specified period of time. Drinks that don’t contain any calories, such as water, tea, and coffee are allowed and do not break your fast.
Fasting is not a diet and it certainly isn’t starving yourself. Fasting is simply a pattern of eating where you cycle between periods of eating and periods of abstaining from all calories.
Types of Fasting
There's lots of flexibility when it comes to fasting. You can fast for as short or as long as you’d like, but if you plan to fast more than a few days, it might be a good idea to do so under the guidance of a medical professional. There is no one “right” way to fast, but there are some popular methods.
Intermittent fasting is a method of time-restricted eating where you squeeze all your meals into a specified window of time. Some people follow a 16/8 schedule – squeezing all their calories into an 8-hour window and fasting for the rest of the 24-hour period. Others may extend their fasted state and practice a 20/4 schedule – fasting for 20 hours a day and giving themselves a 4-hour eating window.
Some people extend their intermittent fasting state even further and decide to only consume one meal per day. This is also known as a 23/1 fast since you’d spend about 23 hours fasted and about an hour eating.
Alternate day fasting is exactly what it sounds like. You alternate days between consuming food on any schedule you wish, and then spend the subsequent 24 hours fasted.
Another modification of alternate-day fasting is the 5/2 Diet, where you eat without any time restrictions for 5 days a week and spend 2 days a week fasting.
Generally, a fast that lasts longer than 48 hours is considered an extended fast. But if going more than 48 hours without food sounds like something from your nightmares, you’re in luck.
Because the good news is, there’s no need to do an extended fast if you want to tap into all the health benefits of fasting. Even fasting for short periods of time, like the 16/8 fast, will allow you to reap the benefits of fasting.
Is Fasting Safe?
While fasting is generally safe, that does not mean it is for everyone.
If you have diabetes and take insulin or oral hypoglycemic agents (like Metformin or Glipizide), fasting can put you in danger of hypoglycemia or dangerously low blood sugar and may not be safe for you. If you have diabetes and want to try fasting, only do so under the guidance of a medical professional.
Other instances where fasting may not be safe include if you:
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Have an eating disorder
- Are under 18 years old
- Are training for a strenuous event such as a triathlon or marathon
Extended fasting lasting longer than 14 days should also be performed under the supervision of a medical professional due to the risk of refeeding syndrome – a dangerous shift in minerals and fluids when food is reintroduced after an extended fasted state.
What Are the Benefits of Fasting?
Our ancestors evolved to thrive on irregular food intake. So it’s no surprise that cultures across the globe have tapped into the power of fasting for its physical, mental, and spiritual benefits for millennia. But it’s only recently that science has uncovered just how beneficial fasting can be for our overall health.
Fasting Can Kickstart Weight Loss
In general, fasting means you are eating fewer meals and, in theory, fewer calories. But this is only one of the ways that fasting can help you fight the battle of the bulge.
You see, fasting also works on the other side of the calorie equation and actually helps you burn more calories by just existing. Studies have found that fasting can increase your resting metabolic rate by:1,2
- Lowering insulin levels
- Increasing growth hormone levels
- Causing a spike in norepinephrine
All of these hormonal shifts positively impact your body's breakdown of fat while also helping you maintain lean muscle mass.3
Fasting also provides a short-cut to the fat-burning state known as ketosis. Ketosis occurs when your body drains all of its glucose stores and starts burning through stored fat reserves for energy.
Fasting Increases Insulin Sensitivity and Lowers Your Risk of Diabetes
Insulin is the hormone responsible for transporting glucose into the cells so it can be used for energy. Insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance are two sides of the same coin. Insulin sensitivity means your body requires less insulin to moderate blood glucose levels.
Conversely, if you're insulin resistant, you must secrete increasing amounts of insulin to balance blood glucose. Insulin resistance has been found to pave the way for a host of chronic diseases including Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Fasting has been shown to be a powerful antidote when it comes to fighting insulin resistance and leads to an impressive reduction in blood sugar levels. In human studies, fasting has been shown to decrease blood sugar levels anywhere from 3-6% and to decrease insulin levels by a whopping 21-31%.4
Fasting Reduces Oxidative Stress and Fights Inflammation
When unstable free molecules known as free radicals interact with other important molecules (such as DNA or proteins) and damage them, it is known as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress left unchecked can contribute to:5
- Chronic inflammation
- Inflammatory conditions
- Heart disease
- Increased aging
Numerous studies have found that fasting can help minimize oxidative stress along with overall inflammation throughout the body.6 Fasting has been shown to significantly decrease inflammatory markers and has even been used to manage certain chronic inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis.7,8
Fasting Is Good for Your Heart
Heart disease is currently the number one killer in the United States. There are a number of risk factors used to gauge heart health and the risk of developing heart disease including:
- Cholesterol (total, LDL, and HDL)
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
- Inflammatory markers
Maintaining these health markers within a healthy range is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease. And fasting has been proven to positively impact every single one of these markers used to measure heart health.9,10,11
Fasting Boosts Brain Health
Fasting packs a powerful punch when it comes to brain health. Fasting can improve brain health and cognitive function in a few ways:
- Fasting has been found to increase levels of the hormone brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This hormone is vital for neuron health, spurs the growth of new neurons, and aids in the development of new synapses (the channels that allow neurons to communicate with each other).12,13,14
- Fasting also boosts neuronal autophagy.15 This refers to the process cells use to recycle waste and repair themselves. Neuronal autophagy is vital for brain health, and, without it, the brain can’t develop or function properly.
- Fasting increases insulin sensitivity resulting in less insulin floating around in your body. This is important to your brain health because insulin is pro-inflammatory and decreases your bodies ability to perform neuronal autophagy.16 So less insulin equals better brain health.
Fasting Delays Aging and Increases Longevity
Fasting has become popular in the realm of biohacking and anti-aging due to its powerful anti-aging effects.
A study conducted in 1982 exploring the impact of fasting on longevity found that rats who fasted every other day lived an astonishing 83% longer than rats who did not fast.17
While this impressive statistic was linked to rats, subsequent studies have found that fasting can have a major impact on human longevity also. This is likely due to fasting’s influence on a number of health factors that can affect longevity like:
- Heart health
- Insulin resistance
- Brain health
- And your body's ability to repair itself
Fasting Can Help Your Body Repair
Autophagy is like your body’s recycling and waste removal system. It is a metabolic process designed to remove debris and dysfunctional cells and recycle them towards regenerating new, healthier cells. “Auto” means self and “phagy” means eating – so autophagy literally means “self-eating.”
Autophagy is not only vital when it comes to removing debris and regenerating new cells, but it also protects against :18
- Neurodegenerative disorders
- Inflammatory diseases
- Insulin resistance
Fasting has been found to be one of the most potent ways to trigger increased autophagy.12,19 By giving your body a break from constantly having to break down the nutrients in food, it gives your body a chance to focus on its own health and repair.
Possible Side Effects of Fasting
If you’ve never fasted before, you may experience some mild, but unpleasant side effects the first few days. Oftentimes it’s not just your body that has to adjust, but also your mind. We become so accustomed to eating throughout the day, it can be challenging to break the habit of reaching for a snack.
The good news is that most of these side effects are short-lived. Most people find that fasting leaves them feeling energized, sharp, and clear-headed once they've adapted.
You will likely experience some hunger pangs when fasting, especially when first starting out. Many people are worried that hunger will continue to grow until it’s intolerable, but this usually isn’t the case.
A change in your eating patterns can always disrupt your bowel movements. And when there’s less going in, there’s less coming out. To remedy this, ensure you’re consuming plenty of fibrous veggies and drinking lots of water.
Especially if you’re used to snacking on carb-heavy or high-sugar foods, you may experience minor headaches. Staying hydrated and eating balanced meals can help take the edge off.
You may feel tired and fatigued. And don’t be surprised if you even find yourself a little irritable and cranky at first. This is normal and may just take a little time for your body and your brain to adjust.
Tips for Healthy Fasting
While there’s no one right way to fast, there are some ways to set yourself up for success. I recommend implementing the following tips to ensure a smooth transition while still tapping into all the benefits fasting has to offer.
If you’ve never fasted before, don’t jump right into a 24-hour fast. Ease into fasting by starting with a 16:8 fast and giving yourself time to adjust.
It can be easy to become dehydrated when fasting since we get some water from the food we eat. Plus, dehydration can amplify the side effects associated with fasting like fatigue and headaches.
When it comes to short-term fasting, it’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Your body is more than capable of going 16, 20, or even 24 hours without food. But your brain will likely try to convince you otherwise. Staying busy and keeping your mind off of food can make your fasting hours more tolerable.
Don’t Binge When You Break Your Fast:
If you are new to fasting, you might feel ravenous when it’s time to eat and be tempted to binge. Try sticking to normal-sized meals and not going overboard with the amount of food you eat. For most people, the desire to overindulge begins to wane after their body adjusts to their new eating cycle.
Follow a Diet That Won’t Leave You Hungry:
Going longer periods of time without food means you have to eat in a way that will fuel your body through to the next meal. Chowing down on processed sugar-laden foods will leave you feeling sluggish and hungry.
But eating meals full of nutrient-dense veggies, high-quality protein, and healthy fats will balance out your blood sugar and give you plenty of energy to make it through your fast. That’s why fasting and the Paleo diet are a perfect pair.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Paleo diet and all of its amazing benefits, here are some articles to get you up to speed:
Is Fasting Right for You?
Fasting has a ton of health benefits and can be a powerful way to improve your health. But is fasting really right for you?
The answer is – maybe. The truth is, there is no one cookie-cutter approach to health. Fasting might be a good fit for you – or it might not be.
The key is to learn how to tune in to your body's unique needs and then align your eating patterns and lifestyle accordingly. That way, when you try something new – like fasting – you’ll be able to tune in to how it makes you feel and decide if it’s right for you or not.
The problem is, many people have no idea how to tap into their own bodies and figure out what works for them. So how exactly do you realign and reconnect with your roots and figure out just what your body needs?
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