On the fast track


NZ Life & Leisure - - Well & Good - WORDS: ROSE­MARIE WHITE

IT’S TEMPT­ING TO think you can eat your way to good health – swap out those bad foods for heav­ily pro­moted “su­per­foods” and you’ll be well on your way to liv­ing for­ever. The science is in­creas­ingly point­ing in an­other di­rec­tion, to fast­ing rather than eat­ing dif­fer­ent foods, as the path to bet­ter health, although most stud­ies on fast­ing have been con­ducted on an­i­mals, not hu­mans.

Fast­ing has been shown to im­prove biomark­ers (the bi­o­log­i­cal signs) of dis­ease, re­duce ox­ida­tive stress (when lev­els of an­tiox­i­dants in our body are not high enough to coun­ter­act the dam­age caused by free rad­i­cals) and pre­serve learn­ing and me­mory func­tion­ing, ac­cord­ing to Mark Matt­son, se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the Na­tional Institute on Ag­ing, part of the US Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health.

There are sev­eral the­o­ries about why fast­ing pro­vides phys­i­o­log­i­cal ben­e­fits, says Matt­son. “The one that we’ve stud­ied a lot, and de­signed ex­per­i­ments to test, is the hy­poth­e­sis that dur­ing the fast­ing pe­riod, cells are un­der a mild stress,” he says. “And they re­spond to the stress adap­tively by en­hanc­ing their abil­ity to cope with stress and, maybe, to re­sist dis­ease.”

In an­other study, Matt­son and col­leagues ex­plored the ef­fects of in­ter­mit­tent and con­tin­u­ous en­ergy re­stric­tion on weight loss and var­i­ous biomark­ers (for con­di­tions in­clud­ing breast can­cer, di­a­betes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease) among young over­weight women. They found that in­ter­mit­tent re­stric­tion was as ef­fec­tive as con­tin­u­ous re­stric­tion for im­prov­ing weight loss, in­sulin sen­si­tiv­ity and other health biomark­ers.

Matt­son has also re­searched the pro­tec­tive ben­e­fits of fast­ing to neu­rons. If you don’t eat for 10 to 16 hours, your body will go to its fat stores for en­ergy, and fatty acids called ke­tones will be re­leased into the blood­stream. This has been shown to pro­tect me­mory in brain and learn­ing func­tions, says Matt­son, as well as slow dis­ease pro­cesses in the brain. When you go with­out food for a short time, your body di­verts its en­ergy away from di­gest­ing food to cel­lu­lar re­pair and the re­moval of waste ma­te­rial and tox­ins, a process known as au­tophagy. Dr Colin Champ, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Med­i­cal Cen­tre, ex­plains it like this: “Think of it as our body’s in­nate re­cy­cling pro­gramme. Au­tophagy makes us more ef­fi­cient ma­chines to get rid of faulty parts, stop can­cer­ous growths and stop meta­bolic dys­func­tion like obe­sity and di­a­betes.” By boost­ing your body’s au­tophagy process through in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing you dampen in­flam­ma­tion, en­hance bi­o­log­i­cal func­tion and slow down the ag­ing process. In­ter­mit­tent fast­ing also re­sults in a phe­nom­e­non known as apop­to­sis whereby the body rids it­self of old, un­healthy cells, and re­places them with new ones. Re­searchers have noted that sev­eral genes re­lated to longevity and pro­tec­tion against dis­ease are au­to­mat­i­cally switched on when your body en­ters a fast­ing state.

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