Fasting for better health

Photo: Jean Fortunet

Fasting has been a common practice since time immemorial. However, through time, the motivation for fasting has been stretched beyond religion. For centuries, fasting has been an integral pillar to not only Christianity but also Muslim and Hinduism, among other faiths.

Combined with prayer, fasting is a means of attaining spiritual refreshment. But the benefits of fasting stretch far beyond spiritual nourishment. Numerous studies devoted to researching the health benefits of fasting have shown that there are numerous health benefits of fasting. Below is a breakdown of how fasting is beneficial to your brain and body.

Benefits to Cells, Genes, and Hormones – Autophagy

During the fasting period, the body initiates cellular repairs which remove wastes from cells and alters the hormone levels to facilitate accessibility of stored body fat. Throughout the fasting period, the body relies on the burning of stored fat for energy. For this reason, the body lowers the insulin levels in the blood so as to break down fats as required optimally. Also, there are increased levels of growth hormone in the blood. While higher levels of growth hormone facilitate fat breakdown, it has many benefits which include muscle gain.

As for cell repair, during fasting the body initiates autophagy. Autophagy is a process by which the cells destroy their dysfunctional and unnecessary components. The increased autophagy observed during fasting offers some degree of protection against diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Fasting also has a positive impact on some genes and molecules which relate to lifespan and health span (the time in the lifetime when the body is free of any disease) of an individual. In various research, life span increment is shown to be directly proportional to a reduction in calorie intake, up to the point of starvation.

Weight and Belly Fat Loss

Weight loss is the primary motivation of fasting for most people who are not inspired to fast by their faith. In a time when obesity is a serious health concern, weight loss oriented fasting is a good thing. If you have tried losing weight, then you know how losing the belly fat is such a struggle!

In order to lose weight, a person needs a lower calorie intake and a higher metabolic rate. This dynamic can be achieved through fasting because of the abstinence from food. Because of the low, or zero, calorie intake during this time, as pointed earlier, the body results to the oxidation of fat to get the needed energy. The hormonal changes discussed above also combine to increase the metabolic rate by 3.6-14% helping the body burn more calories.

In a review of the scientific literature done in 2014, it was established that intermittent fasting causes weight loss of between 3-8% in a period of 3 to 24 weeks. The subjects involved in the study also lost between 4 and 7% of their waist circumference indicative of belly fat lost.

Reduction of Oxidative stress and body inflammation

While aging is inevitable, it comes with its fair share of problems. One of these is oxidative stress where free radicals (unstable molecules in the body) react with other molecules such as protein resulting in the damage of the later. Fasting has been proven to prevent, or substantially reduce oxidative stress by decreasing the indicators of oxidative stress which include 8-isoprostene, protein carbonyls, nitrotyrosine, and 4-hydroxynonenal.

Fasting also reduces body inflammation by reducing brain-derived neurotrophic factor and serum tumor necrosis factor-alpha which are among the key indicators of body inflammation.

Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Cases of diabetes have been steadily on the rise over the years with type 2 diabetes being the most common. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not use insulin optimally which is known as insulin resistance. With time, the body fails to produce enough insulin to normalize the blood sugar levels. Therefore, anything that improves insulin sensitivity should keep diabetes type 2 at arm’s length. And it just so happens intermittent fasting is one of these things!

In a study using human subjects, it was found that intermittent fasting reduced the blood sugar levels of the subjects by 3 to 6%. Furthermore, fasting insulin was reduced by 20-31%. In another study using rats, intermittent fasting prevented kidney damage which a common complication in diabetic patients. This evidence suggests that fasting can be a valuable tool in preventing type 2 diabetes.

Heart Health

If there is a body organ with an argument to prove its superiority to others, it’s the heart. If it stops, life stops. With heart disease top of the killer diseases list in the world at this point and time, it is of paramount importance we take all the necessary precautions to evade these problems. Fortunately, fasting helps improve the heart health. Cardiovascular disease is associated with certain health markers, or risk factors, which increase or reduce an individual’s vulnerability to a cardiovascular disease.

The risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, cholesterol levels (possibly), inflammatory markers such as serum tumor necrosis factor-alpha and blood sugar levels. Research suggests that intermittent fasting reduces a good number of these risk factors. However, research in regards to effects of fasting on human heart health is inconclusive as most of this research is focused on animals. But as most research into people’s health starts with animals, I wouldn’t bet against the rubber stamping of these benefits once research has been done conclusively.

Cancer Reprieve

This is another area where scientists have not been able to come with concrete evidence yet. However, the progress made in animal research is promising. In one research, Fisher rats subjected to short-term dietary restrictions were found to live longer after tumor cells were introduced into their body.

While tasting on its own is not sharp enough of a sword to slay the cancer dragon, study suggests it can help in reducing the side effects of chemotherapy. In a study consisting of 10 patients undergoing chemotherapy, 6 reported reduced fatigue, gastrointestinal side effects, and weakness while fasting. The researchers noted that although the results observed pointed to fasting as a safe and helpful practice, it should not be used as the standard practice for cancer patients until random and controlled clinical trials have been done which will also include a review of the quality of life of patients and therapeutic index of the procedure. From where I am standing, it sounds pretty promising!