The Amazing Benefits of Fasting

man daydreaming on a park bench

Now that the holiday season is upon us, going without food for 12 hours or longer might seem positively unthinkable. But if you, like so many others, are hoping to lose weight in the new year, you should consider fasting because it triggers some amazing health benefits for which a growling tummy is a small price to pay.

Fortunately, new methods of fasting make it a much easier thing to do than you might think. But to understand how modified fasts work, I’ll first need to give you an idea of what happens during a standard fast. Then I’ll tell you about three easier, more modern fasting methods.

A Trip to Hungry

When you see how standard fasting works, you’ll understand why it isn’t very appealing to most. Here’s how it usually goes:

Day 1, evening: Dinner is over. Fasting starts now!

Day 2, morning: After 12 hours without food, the glucose (your quickest on-demand fuel) that entered your bloodstream from last night’s dinner is used up. You probably feel hungry, but that’s because, out of habit, your body is anticipating breakfast. You drink a glass of water and start the day’s activities, making sure to stay well hydrated. Meanwhile, the body starts tapping into your #2 source of fuel, glycogen, converting it back to glucose. (Glycogen is the storage form of glucose, stashed in the liver.)

Day 2, evening: After 24 hours without food, you liver glycogen stores are depleted. Now your body switches into metabolic mode, withdrawing from your long-term fuel depot: body fat. Gradually, you break down stored fat into three compounds: fatty acids and glycerol, which the body uses for energy, and ketones for the brain. The brain also gets dibs on new glucose the body makes from the breakdown products of stored fuels.

Day 3, morning: After 36 hours without food, you’re probably noticing that, although you miss the ritual of eating, you don’t really feel hungry. As the day progresses, you have plenty of energy, and—thanks to the ketones, which the brain loves—an especially sharp mind. Depending on age, body composition and activity, you can live about 30 days this way, running entirely on stored fuels!

Adaptive Stress Response

First-timers fear that fasting will make them weak, faint, fuzzy minded, and unproductive. In reality, it’s physically and mentally invigorating for most people, and the feeling lasts for days afterwards.

Glucose and insulin levels slowly decline as food recedes in the rear-view mirror. This alters your metabolic clock. If the insulin system has not been permanently damaged (as happens in late-stage diabetes), insulin resistance (the age-related process that leads to diabetes) can reverse itself to the renewed insulin sensitivity of younger days. And, while fasting feels a little stressful, it’s good stress, challenging our cells just enough to make them stronger in the face of future stresses, including exposure to toxins, carcinogens, illnesses, traumas, physical exertion, allergens, and aging effects.

This entire process is called the adaptive stress response, and it’s a health benefit that only comes from exposure to measured stress, such as fasting. The result is that the next time your cells are stressed, they’re less likely to suffer damage to their DNA and other working parts. And if a cell does get damaged, it’s more likely to self-destruct and be replaced, rather than linger and risk mutation (a doorway to cancer).

Each fast is thought to provide cumulative protection against aging, oxidative damage, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, age-related illness, and cancer. It encourages weight loss, melts belly fat, lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate, and reduces total and LDL “bad” cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.

Kinder, Gentler Fasting

Even though the results of standard fasting can be quite spectacular, you also probably see why a lot of people find it unappealing. The idea of going days without food can be too much for some people to bear.

However, more research has shown a few fasting regimens that not only are easier to wrap your head around (and actually do) but can also provide many of the same health benefits as full-on fasting.

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is a regular, repeating, fast/eat cycle.

You can either fast every other day and eat normally on the in-between days, or you can fast two days each week and eat normally the rest of the week.

Studies of intermittent fasting have shown that its metabolic and adaptive stress responses offer special benefits to cancer patients, making chemotherapy much easier on the patient by strengthening healthy (non-cancerous) cells, while withholding that benefit from the cancer itself. This results in less debilitating side effects, including vomiting, loss of appetite, bone marrow depletion, weakness, and cachexia—and a stronger patient, better able to defeat the disease.

Modified 5:2 Fasting

Instead of a full fast for two days each week, modified 5:2 fasting allows 500 calories for women, 600 for men, on fast days. It still triggers the important adaptive stress response and the drops in glucose, insulin, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, etc. So you get the same metabolic boost, cardiovascular and immune strengthening, and possibly anti-aging and anti-cancer protection, depending on the foods you eat for those limited calories.

I prefer to use fresh vegetables, because 600 calories makes a big, satisfying pile. Additionally, they contain lots of fiber, which make me feel full. It also minimizes my protein intake on fast days. You’ll see why that’s important in the next option…

Fast-Mimicking Diet

Researchers at the Gerontology Center of the University of Southern California have focused on how to trigger the mechanisms behind the anti-aging and anti-cancer effects of fasting.

Throughout life, our body makes a protein called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 promotes growth in children, peaks in puberty, then slowly declines to baseline levels in grown-ups, for such adult needs as maintaining lean muscle mass and moderating the rate of aging.

Evidence suggests that the massive amounts of meat protein in the modern Western diet restore the high IGF-1 levels of youth. This promotes growth, which, in grown-ups, has the potential to promote cancer. The team is now formulating a 5-days-per-month modified fast, which not only keeps calories low, but regulates protein levels to within the sweet spot that, according to their research, protects against aging and cancer.

Some Quick Fast Tips

If you decide fasting is for you, here are some additional quick tips to help make it successful for you.

  1. Keep busy. It’ll keep your mind off food.
  2. Stay well hydrated. If you get a hunger pang, drink a glass of water, clear broth, black coffee, or tea.
  3. Be informed. Hunger pangs don’t amplify over time; they’re brief and weaker with time.
  4. With each growl of your stomach, enjoy envisioning yourself passing another milepost into metabolic mode and a healthier life!

Before fasting for the first time, check with your doctor to make sure you don’t have any medical contraindications, and whether fasting might make it necessary to alter any of your prescriptions.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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