In today’s world, people often experience a reduced health span, which refers to the portion of one’s lifespan spent in good health. This decline in health span is linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, and hypertension. The modern lifestyle, characterized by artificial lighting, 24/7 access to processed foods, and reduced physical activity, has exacerbated these problems.
Scientists have turned to rodent studies to discover how we can improve human health span. One key finding is the potential benefits of fasting, which has been practiced by many animals, including our ancestors, as a natural way to consume meals during daylight hours and rest at night. This article will delve into the different types of fasting, their benefits, and how to practice them.
Timing Is Crucial: Intermittent and Periodic Fasting
Both intermittent fasting (IF) and periodic fasting have been shown to offer numerous benefits, such as disease prevention and enhanced disease treatment. Intermittent fasting involves eating within an 8-hour window and fasting for the remaining 16 hours, while periodic fasting entails restricting caloric intake for multiple consecutive days.
The Biological Importance of Self-Maintenance
When we refrain from eating late in the evening or snacking until bedtime, our digestive systems enter a phase of self-maintenance. This essential recovery period can be cut short if we eat too close to bedtime or consume our first meal too early in the day.
Fasting for Disease Management
Research has found that extended periods of fasting can help some individuals with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, reset their immune systems and improve their health span. Initial studies in mice by Valter Longo, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Southern California Longevity Institute revealed that a four-day water-only fast triggered beneficial biological mechanisms at the cellular level.
Evolutionary Benefits of Fasting
Dr. Mark Mattson, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, has written about fasting from an evolutionary perspective.
He notes that natural selection would have favored individuals whose brains and bodies functioned well during food-deprived states. Fasting-induced stress, like exercise-induced stress, is beneficial as it optimizes the function and durability of cellular sites.
Developing a Fasting-Mimicking Diet (FMD)
Since strict fasting can be difficult and dangerous, Dr. Longo and his team developed a fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) that triggers similar effects in the body. FMD has been shown to have a range of beneficial effects on aging and risk factors for various age-related diseases, as well as for treating multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.
Human clinical trials involving five days of FMD each month for three months have demonstrated reductions in body weight, body fat, blood pressure, and IGF-1 levels, a hormone implicated in aging and disease.
FMD and Immune System Reset
One fascinating mechanism behind FMD involves the growth of new insulin-producing pancreatic cells, as seen in mice. Dr. Longo states, “Cycling a fasting-mimicking diet and a normal diet essentially reprogrammed non-insulin-producing cells into insulin-producing cells.” It also led to the reactivation of insulin production in pancreatic cells from patients with type 1 diabetes.
Implementing the FMD
Dr. Longo and team’s FMD is an example of periodic fastic, which involves occasional extended periods of calorie restriction. FMD has shown potential benefits for managing chronic diseases and promoting overall health.
Instructions for FMD:
- Plan a 5-day period for the FMD once every 1-3 months.
- Consume 750–1,100 calories per day during the FMD, with a focus on plant-based, nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Resume a healthy, balanced diet after the 5-day period.
- Maintain regular exercise and proper hydration throughout.
There are several other well-researched methods of intermittent fasting, each with its own set of guidelines:
- The 16/8 Method
The 16/8 method involves fasting for 16 hours and eating within an 8-hour window. This is perhaps the most popular method of intermittent fasting.
- Choose an 8-hour window for eating (e.g., 11 AM to 7 PM).
- Fast for the remaining 16 hours, only consuming water, coffee, or tea (without sugar or milk).
- Repeat this schedule daily or several times a week.
- The 5:2 Method
The 5:2 method involves eating normally for five days and restricting caloric intake to about 500-600 calories on the other two non-consecutive days.
- Choose two non-consecutive days of the week for fasting.
- On fasting days, consume 500-600 calories, ideally divided into two small meals.
- Eat normally for the remaining five days.
- The Eat-Stop-Eat Method
The Eat-Stop-Eat method entails fasting for a full 24 hours once or twice a week.
- Choose one or two non-consecutive days each week for a 24-hour fast.
- During the fast, consume only water, coffee, or tea (without sugar or milk).
- Resume normal eating after the 24-hour period.
Precautions and Potential Concerns
Before embarking on any diet program, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare provider. There is still more to learn about the effects of fasting on human health. Dr. Frank Hu, chair of Harvard’s school of public health, has expressed concerns about intermittent fasting, including the potential for overeating following fasting periods and the risk of electrolyte abnormalities in those taking medications for blood pressure or heart disease.
Fasting, especially in the form of FMD, offers promising benefits for improving health span and managing chronic diseases. By understanding the science behind fasting and its impact on our bodies, we can make informed decisions about incorporating fasting practices into our lives to enhance our overall health and well-being.
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