Fasting is a centuries-old practice with roots in religion and spirituality. It has gained popularity in recent years for its potential health benefits, which include disease prevention and improved brain health. In this article, we explore its many benefits along with some useful tips for incorporating it into your busy lifestyle.
How Can Fasting Help You?
If you’ve been wondering why fasting is rapidly gaining traction as a viable health trend, we can help break it down for you. Here are the five top potential benefits of fasting:
At any point of time, our bodies are exposed to dozens of harmful chemicals and toxins in the environment. Our bodies store the absorbed toxins in our fat cells. When you fast for more than 12 hours, the body runs out of carbohydrates to burn for energy and enters ketosis, where it starts burning fat. This helps you detoxify and expel toxins and waste products that would otherwise build up in your cells and cause diseases.
2. Weight Loss
While fasting is a known technique for losing weight, it is also believed that this practice helps people lose weight faster than they would with regular diets.
One challenge with regular diets is that if you try to lower your calorie intake your body may simply adjust. By practicing intermittent fasting, your body switches between its regular diet and reduced-calories diet, preventing the body from adapting to any one regimen.
Fasting is also believed to increase metabolic rate by up to 14%, which again, could support weight loss.
3. Improved Cognitive Function
Numerous studies have shown that intermittent fasting can prevent or postpone neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s as well as improve cognitive function, memory, capacity for learning, and overall mood.
Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience at the John Hopkins School of Medicine and one of the leading experts in the world on fasting, says that the human brain perceives fasting as a challenge and responds to it by activating adaptive stress responses that are used to cope with illness. As Mattson points out in an article in the John Hopkins Health Review, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, too, because you would want your brain to function well when you haven’t had anything to eat for a while!
So, why and how does fasting improve brain health? As mentioned earlier, when you fast for more than 12 hours, your body’s glucose levels go down and your body starts burning fat for energy. This produces ketones, which are responsible for promoting positive changes in the structure of synapses that are important for brain health. However, if you always follow a regular diet with three meals a day and in-between snacks, your body will never run out of glucose and will not produce ketones.
4. Disease Prevention
Researches show that fasting can improve heart health by lowering bad cholesterol, total cholesterol, and blood triglycerides. Fasting may also decrease blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, helping maintain steady blood sugar. Other potential health benefits of fasting include lower inflammation levels, delayed aging, and increased lifespan, though more research is needed on these subjects.
5. Reduced Risk of Cancer
Extended fasting of up to 2-4 days at a time is said to have a “reboot” effect on the immune system, activating stem cell generation of new immune cells and getting rid of old cells that may have become worn out. Researchers believe this could help the elderly as well as people undergoing chemotherapy for treating cancer.
A clinical trial conducted on some cancer patients also found that prolonged fasting may reduce the toxic side-effects of chemotherapy. However, studies are still ongoing to determine the effectiveness of this approach. People should not attempt to get the same results at home through prolonged fasting, which can be dangerous if not done under medical supervision. Fasting is also said to lower IGF-1 levels, a compound associated with an increased risk of cancer, in the body.
How to Start Fasting
If you’ve decided to try out fasting, start slowly. You cannot run a five-mile marathon without training for it. Similarly, you cannot just wake up one morning and decide not to eat for the next 24-48 hours and expect it to be a breeze.
Start with one day of fasting per month, and then increase it to two when you feel comfortable. Many people report experiencing headaches, weakness, lightheadedness, and irritability during the initial phase, but these tend to gradually decline with time. Sipping on calorie-free beverages like unsweetened tea can help you cope with the hunger. Make sure you stay well-hydrated at all times during the fasting.
Beginners may find it easier to start with the 16:8 method (explained below) before moving on to more advanced methods of fasting. Fasting is also found to be more beneficial when combined with a healthy lifestyle, a nutritious, plant-based diet, and adequate rest.
Different Methods of Fasting
People who practice fasting may adopt different methods depending on what suits them best. Some methods involve complete abstinence from food while others allow consumption in limited quantities. The most common fasting methods are the following:
Daily intermittent fasting or 16:8 fasting: People who practice daily intermittent fasting restrict their eating to a specific period of time during the day (usually for eight hours) and fast for the remaining hours. Instead of restricting what foods you should eat, this method restricts when you eat them.
The 5:2 diet: The 5:2 diet is another well-known fasting method that involves restricting your caloric intake to 25% of the recommended caloric range for two days in a week and eating normally on the remaining days.
Alternate fasts: In the alternate fast method, you fast (eat only a quarter of your normal caloric intake) and feast (eat whatever you want) on alternate days.
Juice/water fasting: Drinking only water/juice for a set amount of time.
Risks and Safety Issues to Be Aware Of
There are numerous benefits to fasting, but it’s important to make sure you are taking proper care of your health. Severe calorie restrictions can be dangerous for people with impaired immune systems, pregnant women, and people with health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or abnormal blood pressure. Always consult your doctor before starting any new health regimen.