We dis­cover the ben­e­fits of in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Liesl Robertson Il­lus­tra­tions by Sean Chris Stry­dom

Even though hu­mans have been fast­ing in some form or an­other for thou­sands of years (we do it ev­ery night while we sleep!), the very idea has be­come con­tro­ver­sial. We are taught to graze on small meals through­out the day and to keep snacks on hand ‘to keep our blood sugar steady’. We’re warned against the haz­ards of skip­ping meals: ‘it will put your body into star­va­tion mode’ and bring your me­tab­o­lism to a grind­ing halt; you will be­come shaky and light-headed; and un­able to fo­cus or even func­tion.

Re­search, how­ever, shows that none of this is ac­tu­ally true. In fact, ab­stain­ing from eat­ing for a cer­tain pe­riod has been shown to have tremen­dous health ben­e­fits.

‘The most ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits of fast­ing are that it helps with weight loss and type 2 di­a­betes,’ writes Dr Ja­son Fung in his book, The Com­plete Guide to Fast­ing: Heal Your Body Through In­ter­mit­tent, Al­ter­nate-Day, and Ex­tended Fast­ing. ‘[But] there are many other ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing au­tophagy (a cel­lu­lar cleans­ing process), lipol­y­sis (fat-burn­ing), anti-ag­ing ben­e­fits, and neu­ro­log­i­cal ben­e­fits. In other words, fast­ing can ben­e­fit your brain and help your body stay younger.’

The fridge and the freezer

To un­der­stand the ben­e­fits of fast­ing, you need to un­der­stand how the body burns en­ergy. When you eat, your body pro­duces two sources of fuel: glu­cose – un­til a cer­tain thresh­old is reached – then fat, stored in the liver or in fat de­posits in the body. Glu­cose is stored in the liver as glyco­gen and eas­ily ac­cessed by the body. Fat is harder to ac­cess, and the body can store in­def­i­nite amounts of it.

Think of it this way: glyco­gen is the fridge – you can move food in and out of it eas­ily, but there’s not that much space. Fat, on the other hand, is the freezer in the base­ment – it’s harder to get to, but you can pile up stores in there for later use.

The body uses glyco­gen for en­ergy al­most ex­clu­sively un­til it runs out – which it rarely does,

When you fast, your in­sulin lev­els drop, and once your body has burnt through your glyco­gen stores, it starts to break down fat for en­ergy.

be­cause you re­plen­ish it ev­ery time you eat. Which means that the stored fat is never ac­cessed or used for en­ergy. Sim­ply put, ‘if your glyco­gen “fridge” is full, you will not use any of your fat in the “freezer”,’ says Dr Fung.

The other fac­tor that comes into play is in­sulin, the key hor­mone in­volved in the stor­age and use of food en­ergy. When­ever you eat, your in­sulin spikes, and in­sulin in­hibits lipol­y­sis.

‘That’s a fancy way of say­ing that in­sulin stops fat burn­ing,’ says Dr Fung.

When you fast, your in­sulin lev­els drop, and once your body has burnt through your glyco­gen stores, it starts to break down fat for en­ergy. This is a per­fectly nat­u­ral process; your body is not burn­ing mus­cle or ‘starv­ing’ or strug­gling to cope.

Lower in­sulin lev­els also have other ben­e­fits, such as im­proved in­sulin sen­si­tiv­ity (high in­sulin re­sis­tance is the main prob­lem be­hind type 2 di­a­betes, and it has been linked to sev­eral other ail­ments like heart dis­ease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and high blood pres­sure) and a nat­u­ral boost in hu­man growth hor­mone (HGH) se­cre­tion, which has anti-age­ing ben­e­fits.

Fast­ing also pro­vides the great­est known boost to au­tophagy: a form of cel­lu­lar cleans­ing dur­ing which your body kills off and clears out old cells that aren’t func­tion­ing at their best any more. This func­tion is unique to fast­ing be­cause eat­ing stops the self-clean­ing process of au­tophagy dead in its tracks.

Fast­ing also pro­vides the great­est known boost to au­tophagy: a form of cel­lu­lar cleans­ing.


But what about hunger? We’re taught that hunger is some­thing that builds un­til it be­comes un­bear­able. Un­con­trol­lable hunger is the num­ber one worry when it comes to fast­ing, says Dr Fung.

‘Even some “ex­perts” pro­claim (in­cor­rectly!) that [hunger] will leave you prone to overeat­ing once the fast is over,’ he writes. ‘Most peo­ple worry that they’ll be un­able to con­tinue fast­ing be­cause they will be over­whelmed with hunger.’

But re­search has shown that hunger ac­tu­ally di­min­ishes with fast­ing. We’re con­di­tioned to feel hunger at cer­tain times, be­cause (like Pavlov’s dog) we eat at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, and our bod­ies adapt to that sched­ule. But hunger ac­tu­ally has a nat­u­ral cir­ca­dian rhythm; it comes in waves.

‘It will build up, peak, then dis­si­pate; all you have to do is ig­nore it,’ says Dr Fung. Peo­ple who fast for longer pe­ri­ods con­sis­tently find that hunger is no longer a prob­lem af­ter two days. This is be­cause ghre­lin (the hunger hor­mone) peaks dur­ing the first two days of an ex­tended fast, then steadily drops.

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