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A naturopath’s thoughts on fasting

Naturopath and co-founder of Ancient + Brave (one of IKIGAI’s favourite Health + Wellness brands), Annelie Whitfield, shares her thoughts on the benefits of fasting, which reach well beyond the realms of fad diets.

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Photo: Norwood Themes

Fasting has become a popular subject in recent years, driven by the explosion of anecdotal and published studies citing potential health benefits. However, it is certainly not a new concept. Homo sapiens have been fasting throughout their history due to tribal or communal practices, unreliable food resources or, often, for spiritual reasons. Our earliest and greatest doctors and philosophers – such as Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Galen – all praised the benefits of fasting.

Technically, fasting is defined as consuming no calories of food whatsoever, allowing only the ingestion of water, coffee, tea or other non-caloric liquids during fasting periods. With that said, some fasting regimens allow up to 500 calories of food on ‘fasting’ days, such as Michael Mosley’s ‘5:2’ regime. Another regime gaining popularity is juice fasting, where drinking juices while you fast is permitted, and can last up to 10 days.

It is interesting to understand whether such fasting practices effectively fit within our modern-day lifestyles. Fasting certainly seems to have become popular amongst some celebrities, athletes and health professionals. So, do we need to fast like the pros? And, more to the point, what are the health benefits? Should we purposefully be depriving ourselves of food when it is readily available? And, why would anyone want to fast in the first place when food can be so delicious?

First, we need to ask what is really the point of participating in a fast. With obesity endemic around the globe, it seems fasting could play a positive role but does denying our bodies’ nourishment provide any real physical or mental benefits? When you scour the medical journals, talk to the experts or people who have taken part in studies, the simple answer appears to be a resounding ‘yes’. And it also seems that fasting is no longer just for people who can afford to go on juice cleanses, or desire that bikini body. Fasting is now seen as a highly relevant lifestyle strategy to treat and prevent many chronic diseases. Beyond this benefit, it can also promote greater mental clarity and focus, and has even been shown to extend life expectancy.

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Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, is a huge proponent of different types of intermittent fasting (IF). His studies have shown an improvement in biomarkers of disease, reduced oxidative stress and improved cognitive function.

Valter Longo, the Director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, initially studied fasting in mice and showed that two to five days of fasting each month reduced biomarkers for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The research has since been expanded to people, where scientists saw a similar reduction in disease risk factors.

Dr. Longo and Mattson agree that one of the key reasons there is such an improvement in key biomarkers is due to the effect fasting has on lowering insulin and another hormone called insulin-like-growth-factor, or IGF-1, which is linked to cancer and diabetes. Lowering these hormones may slow cell growth and development which, in turn, helps slow the aging process and reduces risk factors for disease.

Another reason that short fasts can improve overall health is through the activation of the body’s ability to pull at its own fat stores for energy. Dr. David Ludwig, a Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that the body enjoys the shift from using glucose for fuel to using fat instead. This creates a much more flexible metabolism and one that we are physiologically designed to have, as our ancestors regularly went through fallow periods.

This process is often referred to as ‘fat burning’, which is not the same as that tempting setting which appears on a gym treadmill. To burn fat we have to eliminate our store of glucose, which can only happen when we have been without food for a minimum of 10 hours. Fat is one of the most useful types of fuel to burn, as it’s not only a clean source of energy but also a more slow-burning one – hence the increase in energy levels people often experience when they regularly partake in intermittent fasting protocols. During this process, the fat is converted by the liver into compounds known as ketones, a great energy source that burns even more efficiently than glucose. Dr. Ludwig describes this physiological process as like running on ‘high-octane gasoline’.

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Intermittent fasting 16/8 or 14/10

This popular and achievable strategy involves fasting either 16 or 14 hours overnight and consuming your food within an 8 or 10 hour eating window. Thus, a 16/8 IF might enable a person to eat just lunch and dinner or more small meals, and with 14/10 you can easily squeeze in three meals. This has been shown to be the most achievable plan, as it does not involve counting calories or abstaining from food for long periods. It has also been shown to be as effective as calorie-restricted fasts in achieving long term weight loss and improved overall health.

Alternate day fasting

This involves either not eating every other day or restricting the amount of calories you eat during fasting days, then eating to your stomach’s content on non-fasting days. Food isn’t completely off the table, but you’ll stick to about 25% of your normal caloric intake. So, for example, someone eating 2,000 calories per day would cut back to 500. Alternate-day fasting isn’t necessarily a long-term plan, because it is not that lifestyle-friendly, but it can be helpful to kick start a weight loss plan or break some bad food habits.

5:2 diet

This is very similar to alternate day fasting except you eat normally for five days of the week, and on the other two days you reduce your calories to 500–600 calories a day. This has been shown to be highly effective for a number of health issues, and heralded as the best free medicine for prediabetes. Although, it should be noted that some find it unachievable as the calorie deficit is too much to endure, and it is not the best fast to be practicing if you have psychological food issues, as calorie counting has been shown to fuel this particular fire.

Juice fasting

These are periodic and can last anywhere from 3-10 days. This is much more of an extreme type of fast but can assist greatly in the cleansing of both the mind and body. To avoid dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance ensure you drink lots of mineral rich juices and teas, and take daily fibres like psyllium husk, flax seeds and apple pectin to avoid constipation (an often unwanted side effect of this type of fast).

Photo: Norwood Themes

It should be noted that, whilst there is a plethora of positive empirical, scientific and anecdotal data surrounding fasting, there are also those who should avoid it completely. Fasting is contraindicated for pregnant and nursing mothers, and for children, as their bodies are under increased caloric and physical demands. Additionally, those with kidney or liver diseases and medication-dependent diabetes, or other medical conditions, should consult their doctor before attempting any fast.

Extended fasting is also one to be aware of, as it can lead to undernourished glands (such as the adrenal and thyroid) and can also cause electrolyte imbalances. Last but not least, we must be very aware of who we recommend fasting to. For example, teenagers or adults that might be susceptible to body dysmorphia and/or eating disorders should not be introduced to any kind of fasting protocol.

These contraindications are important for key population niches but when applied properly and safely the benefits of fasting can be significant, extending beyond just looking good on the beach into true sustainable health benefits. However, fasting is a lifestyle strategy, not a diet dogma, so compliance and lifestyle adaptation are key, and one must find the perfect fasting strategy.

An improvement in the overall functioning of our neurological and metabolic systems is not just appealing but essential to living vibrant, healthy lives, especially given the improvements possible in mental clarity, focus and increased energy levels. The pioneering Swiss physician Dr. Paracelsus is quoted as saying, “fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within.” Set in the context of diabetes prescriptions having skyrocketed by 80% in just a decade, Paracelsus is further endorsed by another fabulous expression, “be your best doctor,” as surely it’s time that we took responsibility for our health, considering health providers around the world spend billions each year to treat metabolic disease. Fasting is a potential opportunity to apply free medicine to ourselves, working in harmony with our physiology to restore health and vitality.

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