Written by Dr. Madalyn Otto
Getting excited for spring? The transition between winter and spring is a time to clean out the old and bring in the new. Whether it’s spring cleaning, rotating the wardrobe, or starting new and better habits, this time of year provides us all with ample motivation.
For animals, including humans, spring has historically been a challenging period as they wait for the nutritional feast that spring brings after a long and fruitless winter. Our bodies, like those of other animals, are capable of going fairly long periods without enough food so that we can survive lulls in the food supply. Fortunately, we no longer live in calorie deserts like our ancestors and aren’t forced to go hungry. That said, there has been considerable research in the area of restricted eating and fasting. This research suggests that there are actually therapeutic benefits to this dietary circumstance that our bodies evolved to deal with. Something that used to be an unavoidable part of life for humans might actually be something we want to choose to incorporate deliberately in the modern age.
Most practices of voluntary fasting in modern history have been religious or spiritual in their purpose. Only in recent decades when calories have been overly-abundant have people chosen to go without food for medicinal benefit. What could possibly be the benefits of fasting or restricted eating? It turns out, there are MANY! Most of recent studies have focused on “intermittent fasting” which is a fairly mild form of dietary restriction compared to more intense regimens of prolonged water fasting or juice fasting that you might have read or heard about. While prolonged fasting regimens are aggressive and are not recommended for many patients due their intensity and possible negative side effects, intermittent fasting regimens are actually quite safe for most people.
These intermittent regimens include: restricting one’s diet/caloric intake for 5 days out of the week, or restricting the number of hours in a day one can consume food all 7 days of the week. These practices, when incorporated into lifestyle over months, have consistently shown benefits in the areas of cardiometabolic health and inflammation.
- Improvement in cholesterol levels: Intermittent fasting reduces LDL particle size making your “bad cholesterol” less problematic in the body. It increases HDL also known as “good cholesterol”.
- Improvement in blood sugar control: insulin and glucose levels improve, triglycerides reduce and fat stores are reduced.
- Decrease in inflammation: CRP and hs-CRP are inflammation markers that show that there is an active harmful disease process occurring in the body. These markers have been shown to reduce with intermittent fasting.
- Reduction of body fat: not only does weight loss occur, but the weight is almost exclusively from body fat stores versus muscle.
- Animal studies suggest that caloric restriction in the presence of an overall healthy diet will increase lifespan by about 30%.
- One can expect significant increases in human growth hormone which helps with energy, stamina, cellular growth/repair and muscle growth.
- Protects brain cells from degeneration by increasing a protein that supports neural health.
- Reducing unhealthy food cravings (long-term).
Why is fasting is so helpful?
Consider history: Eating 3 large meals per day and then snacking on top of those meals is an exclusively modern phenomenon only made possible by an over-abundance of food. Our bodies didn’t evolve at the rate of modern industrial and technological revolutions that have made calories quick to find and even quicker to consume. Our bodies were designed to move constantly and work fairly hard to eat smaller amounts less frequently. Restricting calories and intermittent fasting was built into the design of your metabolism. Because of our modern culture, we are all over-eating without even trying.
When your body goes more than 8 hours without food, it uses up all it’s “immediate-use” sugar stores and then has to switch to unpacking fat stores for energy. Once this switch-over has begun, your body turns on its surveillance system to look for waste products to eliminate. This is how inflammation is reduced during fasting periods and toxins stored in fat cells are neutralized and eliminated. It also no longer has to spend most of its resources on digesting; it can spend more energy on healing and cellular repair.
There is a significant mental component of intermittent fasting. Making poor eating choices, feeding our sugar and fat cravings and eating food in a hurry which ails our digestive process are ways that we get ourselves into a rut with food that results in negative health consequences. Intermittent fasting helps increase our awareness of not only what and when we eat, but how we eat. In encourages us to eat smaller portion sizes, to eat more slowly and thoroughly chew our food. These changes will improve your digestive enzyme secretions and performance, enhance absorption of nutrients and improve gut-brain signaling so that you stop eating when you are adequately satiated rather than over-eating. Over time, intermittent fasting will also help to reduce cravings for unhealthy foods. A number of patients report that incorporating fasting feels like a type of meditation for them and allows them to be more aware/mindful in general and more in control of themselves.
Sounds good… How does one implement this type of practice?
It’s important to acknowledge that different methods will appeal to different people. For some, doing a 24-hour juice or water fast 1-2 days per week will appeal more than the “8-hour eating window” approach of daily restricted fasting. For others, they’d prefer to do a longer fast 1-2 times per year while being supervised by a physician. All types of intermittent fasting are beneficial when done properly.
- 16:8 rule: Food (from a healthy eating plan) is consumed in an 8-hour window each day. The other 16 hours of the 24-hour day are spent in a fasting state. An example of this might be: have your first meal at 11am and your last meal at 6pm. Then stick to water/herbal tea only through the evening/night/morning until 11am the next day.
- 5:2 rule: 5 days per week, you eat a regular, healthy diet as designed by you and your doctor. The other 2 days per week, you do a full water or all-vegetable juice fast OR restrict yourself to 500 calories each of those days (healthful calories) along with plenty of water.
- Supervised fast: this should be done supervised by a doctor but will ultimately consist of 5-15 days of exclusively vegetable juice or water depending on the patient’s biometrics and health history.
My recommendation is two-fold:
- Before you start an intermittent fasting protocol, see your naturopath and have a comprehensive baseline of metabolic, cardiovascular and inflammatory markers tested. This way, you can see how your biochemistry responds to therapy and know that your efforts are making powerful changes that are dramatically improving your health profile in all the right ways. Your naturopath can also help you decide which type of fasting will work best for you.
- Speak with your naturopath about what your diet should look like the rest of the time that you’re not fasting. Food programs should be individualized depending on the patient’s case. For some patients, elimination of immune-triggering foods is key. For others, the type of protein or amount of fiber should be individualized. On top of these specific factors, your diet outside of fasting must be incredibly micronutrient-rich and unprocessed/minimally processed to gain full benefit of fasting therapy. Otherwise, you will ultimately negate the benefits.
Should I take supplements and medications the same way when I fast?
In most cases, yes. This is a topic that should be discussed with your prescribing doctor. That said, there may be supplements you want to use to enhance the fasting effect. This might include: a special fiber supplement to optimize bowel elimination or improve probiotic flora growth, an anti-microbial to help reduce pathogenic microbes growing in the intestines, intestinal/mucosal repair support to improve leaky gut or inflamed tissues, detoxification support to ensure your body clears the toxicants from fat cells out of the body appropriately so that they are not recycled and re-stored, or a additional anti-inflammatory herb to re-train your immune system in the presence of an autoimmune disease.
When is fasting harmful?
Individuals who should not fast include women who are pregnant or actively trying to conceive because when you’re fasting, you are not only restricting calories that a developing embryo needs to grow, but you are also exposing the developing fetus to harmful toxicants that are passing through blood stream on the way out of the body. Individuals with an eating disorder (binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia) or body dysmorphic disorder should not fast. Instead, it’s important for these individuals to work with an appropriate therapist to navigate their relationship with food and body image. Any individual who has a severe health condition should consult their doctor before beginning a fasting program. Any patient with diabetes should also consult their doctor first.
I have been asked by patients if it’s OK for them to engage in intermittent fasting if they are already at their target weight. My general answer (excluding above exceptions) is yes. When you are fasting for short periods of time, you allow your body all of the other benefits of cleansing, toxicant elimination, inflammation reduction, cellular repair and increased longevity even if you don’t need to lose extra pounds. These individuals, however, are not necessarily good candidates for longer fasts that exceed a few days.
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