You hear a lot about the health benefits of detoxifying your body. Detox programs often include fasting. But really, do you have to suffer all the discomfort of no food intake? What are fasting‘s real benefits? Are there any adverse effects to fasting? Is there a painless way to fast?
Types of Fasts
Fasting is a term that is used when people go without eating for a designated period of time. It can be for one meal, one day, or any number of days. People can choose to abstain entirely from any food products or derivatives such as juices or teas. However, some include fruit or vegetable juices. Some advocate a raw food diet of whole fruit, fresh salads with no dressing, and nuts. Some advocate cutting back regular foods into very limited portions. The sky is the limit on how an individual designs his/her fast, but fasting should always include some water intake. Keep in mind—fasting is for adults. Only with a medical doctor’s clearance should a child, a diabetic person, an individual with cancer, or seriously ill person fast. Individuals with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa should not fast.
Short Fasting Helps us Physiologically
A short fast bolsters the production of growth hormone from the pituitary gland quite substantially.1 Growth hormone improves protein synthesis in the brain, muscle, bone, skin, and virtually all cells. A short fast also helps to reset the circadian (24-hour daily) rhythm after consumption of a high fat diet. Fasting, if done wisely, improves the ability of cells to respond to insulin, improves the efficiency of the power plants of your cells (mitochondria), and reduces free radical damage and inflammation. Fasting also increases the activity of certain genes that help you cope with stress and slow down aging.
For example, short fasting improves the activity of the DNA repair genes in the cells. DNA repair is a mechanism by which enzymes inside the nucleus excise the damaged part of a DNA strand. Other enzymes sew up the microscopic holes caused by epinephrine, free radicals, and other factors. The DNA repair ability of a cell is essential to the integrity of its DNA and chromosomes, and thus is vital for not only the normal functioning of the cell but also of the whole organism.
Helps Many Chronic Diseases
Two, three, or four days of consecutive fasting improves immune system regeneration, shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal.2
However, a fast of only ten to twelve hours can be beneficial if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Researchers at the Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, observed that after 10 to 12 hours of fasting, the body starts scavenging for other sources of energy throughout the body to sustain itself. The body pulls LDL (bad) cholesterol from the fat cells and uses it as energy.3
Good news indeed since both pre-diabetes and diabetes increase one’s risk for heart disease. Decades of routine fasting are associated with a lower risk of diabetes and coronary artery disease. Routine intermittent fasting may help congestive heart failure.4
The Easy Fast: Two Regular Meals and Night-Fasting
In an article published in Cell Metabolism, scientists from Salk’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory reported that, “mice limited to eating during an 8-hour period are healthier than mice that eat freely throughout the day, regardless of the quality and content of their diet. The study sought to determine whether obesity and metabolic diseases result from a high-fat diet or from disruption of metabolic cycles.” After one hundred days, the outcome was encouraging, the mice who ate fatty foods frequently, throughout the day gained weight and developed high cholesterol, high blood glucose, liver damage, and diminished motor control, while the mice in the time-restricted feeding group weighed 28 percent less and showed no adverse health effects despite consuming the same amount of calories from the same fatty food. Further, the time-restricted mice outperformed the ad lib eaters and those on a normal diet with exercise.5 The mice in the above study apparently did not eat a healthful diet. Their meals were comparable to what we call fast food, full of fat and “empty” calories.
In practical terms for humans, the first clincher of this program is regularity, eating at specific times. For the past 72 years the physicians at Lifestyle Center and Hospital, in Wildwood, Georgia, have instructed their patients to eat two or three vegetarian meals at least five to six hours apart, with only water in-between the meals. For example, breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 1 pm, and a very light supper at 6 pm. This regimen provides mini-fasts between the meals, and a daily fast each night starting after the 6 pm meal until the 7 am breakfast. If a healthful, substantial second meal was eaten at 1 or 2 pm, and the supper was eliminated, the night fast would even be longer (about 16 hours). The results have been remarkable in overall better health. For example, reasonable weight loss, reduction in elevated blood glucose and lipid levels, and more stamina, to name a few.
The Easy Fast for the Obese Person: Eat Only Breakfast and Lunch
Here is another point to consider: a short fast, like skipping the evening meal, bolsters growth hormone production. Not only is protein synthesis improved in the body, but also the burning of fat increases. Since deep sleep also improves growth hormone production, skipping supper at night is quite efficient in helping the repair processes of the body. Plus, if one engages in exercise during the day, he gets an extra boost.
Exhibit 1: One study found that mice that fasted for 16 hours a day stayed lean and healthy even when fed a high-calorie diet. In contrast, their mouse counterparts that had access to food day and night became obese and demonstrated blood sugar and liver problems despite eating the same number of calories.6
Exhibit 2: When one does not eat for 10 to 16 hours, Mattson shows that the body starts burning fats and consequently ketones will be released in the body. These ketones help memory and learning processes while slowing down the progression of brain diseases.7 By regularly engaging in eating reasonable amounts for 2 meals a day with at least 10 to 16 hours between the last meal of one day and the first meal of the next day, the cells’ ability to respond to insulin is significantly improved. That is good because diabetes and even pre-diabetes shrink certain key areas of the brain.
Exhibit 3. Research shows that two large meals (breakfast and lunch), rather than six small meals with the same total calories, are better for controlling weight and blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.8
Adverse Effects of Snacking
The habit of snacking or eating small meals throughout the day and night does not allow the previously eaten food to digest well. This habit is very injurious to our health. Please note: for the obese individual, skipping breakfast or eating a minimal breakfast and then eating lunch after 3 pm may impair the ability of the cells to respond to insulin and consequently increase his risk to diabetes.9
Intermittent is a “not-all-the-time” sort of thing. When considering dieting—intermittent sounds good. Therefore, scientists, nutritionists, and everyday people are experimenting with various types of on-and-off dieting. The regimen of the Intermittent Diet can differ from person to person; however, it always includes some time or days of minimal calories or fasting. For some, their program may be to skip a meal one or two days a week. Others may drastically reduce their calories to maybe 500, for one or two days a week, or to every other day, or they may completely go without food on certain days. Then on the days of “feasting”, or regular eating, the diet can be whatever the dieter wants it to be. Some promoters of this style of eating encourage healthy eating on the “feasting” days, but others don’t, and claim that the results are still good. Health benefits that are mentioned in the literature are these: reduction in inflammation, cancer and heart disease risks, blood pressure, and liver problems, as well as improved glucose and lipid levels in the blood.1011 For some, these payoffs come if the dieters stick to the program exactly and do not gorge when they eat “regular” meals.
Cautions Regarding the Intermittent Diet:
Those who allow high fat, high sugar and low nutrition foods on the “feast days” claim that they still lose weight. The rationale is that they don’t consume all the calories on the feast days which they eliminated on the fast days; therefore, they assert that the participants get fewer calories. For example, if they normally eat 1500 calories a day, then eat only 500 on the fast day and resume eating 1500 calories on the feast day, they are minus 1000 calories for those days. However, this plan still takes a tremendous amount of discipline to refrain from really overeating on the feast day.
In the end, this may be the plan’s downfall as the dieters can eat white buns with bacon and cheese and a can of frosting for dessert, and according to the rules—that’s ok. But it is still a “pig-out” mentality which is perhaps the root of the overweight person’s problem. As well, they may seldom eat foods such as vegetables, nuts, fruits, and whole grains because they want to satisfy their cravings for their favorite foods.1213 The liberty to “feast” a few days a week in place of daily calorie restriction, as required in most diets, makes the intermittent diet more desirable. However, after the fasting days, many people are so hungry that they overeat on the feasting days and risk not losing weight at all.
Time will tell if one can really experience long lasting health benefits without a holistic approach to living, including: exercise, drinking water, eating “good-for-you-kind-of-food”, sleeping six to eight hours a night, getting sunshine, fresh air, and trusting in God who made all these benefits. In the end, I think moderation and balance, as described in the Regularity and Night Fasting Diet mentioned above, will win out.
Before You Do a Therapeutic Fast
- Check with you doctor first if you have any medical conditions before you go on a fasting regime.
- Choose a fasting option which we have listed. Please avoid fads like the Master Cleanse which encourages laxative use and is deficient in nutrients. Don’t think you can take a vitamin pill and cover yourself nutritionally. Fat-soluble vitamins require a little fat in the intestines for absorption. With negligible protein on the Master Cleanse fast, your enzymes and tissue proteins start depleting after a day or two. Lemon water is fine as long as you brush your teeth afterwards as acid can erode tooth enamel. However, sipping on sweetened lemon water throughout the day could adversely affect your blood sugar.
- Expect some discomfort. Hydration and drinking herbal teas will help. If you are trying the two meals-a-day plan or the intermittent diet, be sure to include legumes daily. They help stabilize the blood sugar so you won’t feel as hungry. Chewing food slowly when do you eat gives more satiety.
- Always stay hydrated. Dehydration is a serious risk for the developments of clots and bladder infections. Unless you are fasting for a medical test or procedure, you need water.
- Eat meals at strictly regular times especially if you have diabetes, pre-diabetes, or obesity. Irregularity in meal time and sleep time adversely shift the body clock that governs metabolism. Even during a juice diet, strict regularity should be observed.
- The juice diet, emphasizing root and fruit juice is counter-productive for individuals who have elevated triglycerides, high blood sugar, and obesity. Studies show that chewing is an important aid to promoting satiety. So a liquid diet is not ideal for one struggling with appetite control. Nevertheless, low calorie vegetable juices of celery, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, and cucumbers, with minimal use of fruit or root juices (carrots and beets) is, however, nutrient dense if the juice is made fresh and drunk immediately. Commercial juices do not have the nutrient value of freshly made juice.
- Unless otherwise directed by a doctor and dietician, two concurrent days of total fasting (with water) should be the limit. A short fast helps the body. In contrast, a long fast suppresses the immune system and protein synthesis. When a person does not eat or drink any food for about 30 hours, the liver’s glycogen becomes depleted, and stress hormones are then released. And under certain conditions glycogen may be depleted much sooner. The stress hormones stimulate the liver to make glucose by stealing amino acids from your muscles and body tissues and converting them into glucose. Consequently, digestive enzymes decrease, antibody production declines, and muscle- repair processes are compromised. Therefore, it is usually unwise to engage in a total food fast lasting more than two consecutive days.
True therapeutic fasting, if done wisely, benefits many individuals with chronic conditions. The easiest, most satisfying method of fasting is to eat a reasonable amount of wholesome food for breakfast and lunch and skip the snacking and evening meal!
Key Words: fasting benefits, fasting mimicking diet, a fasting, fasting plan, fasting for beginners, health benefits of intermittent fasting, how do I fast, health benefits of time restricted eating, fasting precautions, fasting health benefits, time restricted eating, easy fasting, fasting and cancer, fasting and heart disease, time restricting eating benefits
- Intermountain Medical Center. “Routine periodic fasting is good for your health, and your heart, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. 20 May 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110403090259.htm
- University of Southern California. “Fasting triggers stem cell regeneration of damaged, old immune system.” Science Daily, 5 June 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140605141507.htm
- Intermountain Medical Center. “Fasting reduces cholesterol levels in prediabetic people over extended period of time, new research finds.” ScienceDaily, 14 June 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140614150142.htm
- Katare, RG, Chronic intermittent fasting improves the survival following large myocardial ischemia by activation of BDNF/VEGF/P13K signaling pathway, J Mol Cell Cardiol., 2009 Mar. 46(30:405-12.
- MegumiHatori, Time-Restricted Feeding without Reducing Caloric Intake Prevents Metabolic Diseases in Mice Fed a High-Fat Diet. Cell Metabolism, 2012; Panda.DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2012.04.019
- ibid. Megumi
- Collier, R. Intermittent fasting: the science of going without published at www.cmaj.ca on April 8, 2013.Collier, R. Intermittent fasting: the science of going without published at www.cmaj.ca on April 8, 2013.
- Garaulet M, Timing of food intake predicts weight loss effectiveness. International Journal of Obesity, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2012.229
- Kahleová, Hana.et al. Eating two larger meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is more effective than six smaller meals in a reduced-energy regimen for patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomized crossover study. Diabetologia, May 2014 DOI: 10.1007/s00125-014-3253-5
- James E. Brown, Intermittent fasting: a dietary intervention for prevention of diabetes and cardiovascular disease? British Journal of Diabetes and Vascular Disease, April 2013