Throughout history, humans have fasted for physical health, mental efficiency and spiritual wellbeing. The act of fasting dates back thousands of years in yogic practices in the belief that fasting is revitalizing and rejuvenating, a natural form of healing. Many ancient and modern day religious practices believe that fasting clears the mind and deepens spiritual awareness. Ancient spiritual leaders utilized fasting as a form of purification, while ancient physicians and philosophers are said to have used fasting as a healing therapy. Hippocrates, who is credited with the belief that “food is medicine,” also believed that food “fed illness,” and is said to have prescribed fasting, medicinal teas or liquid diets as a treatment for certain illnesses. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting, also known as intermittent energy restriction (IER), may reduce the risk of age-related diseases and lengthen the period of time spent in good health.
Giving your body a break from eating can give the digestive system a much-needed rest. Some theorize that when we fast our own ‘inner physician” is awakened to allow the body to detoxify by metabolizing and eliminating cellular waste and damaged molecules, including those associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurological diseases. According to Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, excess calories are not only detrimental for the waistline, they may also be damaging to the brain.
Mattson and his research team have established a connection between caloric intake and brain function. Their findings support that a reduction in calories on two of seven days each week can be beneficial to brain and metabolic health. Intermittent fasting appears to promote healthier aging by helping to improve neural connections and protecting against accumulation of brain damaging amyloid plaques. Mattson theorizes that from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that mental function would be heightened when food was scarce, as preservation of cognitive function was crucial to survival. “Fasting presents a challenge to the brain, which causes the brain to activate adaptive stress responses that help it cope with disease.”
Intermittent fasting for weight loss can be viewed as a healthy alternative to continuous calorie restriction and may provide health benefits similar to regular vigorous exercise. Both fasting and exercise stimulate the production of proteins known as neurotrophic factors that promote the growth of neurons, strengthen the brain’s synapses, and enhance the ability of nerve cells to repair oxidative damage to DNA.
There are several strategies for incorporating intermittent fasting:
- The 5:2 diet, which limits caloric intake to 500 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week. On the other days, a healthy diet of 2,000 calories per day for women and 2,500 for men is consumed.
- Limiting your food intake to an eight-hour window each day with no calorie restriction but with diet improvements. This strategy takes a two meal a day approach and nothing is eaten after dinner. However, it can help with weight loss without leaving you feeling hungry or deprived.
- Fasting one day a week for a 24-hour period, which, for some, may be the most difficult to accomplish.
Intermittent fasting gives the body a chance to deplete all the glycogen that is stored and released for continuous energy production. Once glycogen is exhausted, the body begins to burn fat, which is converted to ketones, chemicals used by the neurons as energy. Research supports that IER helps to reduce insulin resistance and normalize hunger hormones, helps to increase energy production by burning stored fat, reduces triglyceride levels, helps fight inflammation, and reduces metabolic disease risk.
Whichever strategy is chosen, fasting should be done gradually and hydration is imperative. Addressing the diet is also crucial, as refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar should be avoided. Instead fill up on fruits and veggies, healthy protein and healthy fats, including eggs, avocado, coconut oil, olives and raw, unsalted nuts. Those who are hypoglycemic, diabetic or pregnant should avoid any type of caloric restriction until blood sugar or insulin levels are regulated. Done correctly, intermittent fasting should help to manage weight, improve sleep, increase energy levels, elevate mood and improve cognitive performance.
History of Fasting. http://www.allaboutfasting.com/history-of-fasting.html
Fasting and Purification. http://www.greekmedicine.net/hygiene/Fasting_and_Purification.html
Are There Any Proven Benefits to Fasting? http://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/are-there-any-proven-benefits-to-fasting
How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-intermittent-fasting-might-help-you-live-longer-healthier-life/
How Does Fasting Affect Your Brain? https://www.dietdoctor.com/fasting-affect-brain