Intermittent fasting- why it works and how to start.
I have been practicing intermittent fasting for the last 8 months or so- but did not get seriously committed until about three months ago. I initially started intermittent fasting because I have experienced the same mid-morning energy slump since I was a kid. Right around 10:30 AM I would become sluggish and sleepy. I was starting a new job and didn’t want to be the dickhead that fell asleep at her desk. I have worked on my own for most of my adult life, and working in an office meant I couldn’t do my usual mid-morning naps. I came across an article that said intermittent fasting could promote energy, I was intrigued.
After doing tons of google research as I usually do when I am about to embark on a drastic behavioral change, I learned that Intermittent Fasting could do more than boost energy, but could also extend life, and promote anti-aging. I was curious as to how being extremely hungry and irritable would result in me being less tired- or looking younger. Maybe my anger would invigorate me? As I would later understand, the central premise for Intermittent fasting’s efficacy run deeper than just energy boosts. Intermittent fasting’s popularity is based heavily on the tested assumption that our hypothalamus is still stuck in hunter-gatherer mode.
We are Hunter-Gatherers, not couch potatoes.
Hunter-gatherers didn’t have unlimited access to food like the modern Westerner- essentially they ate once a day or maybe even less- and they certainly didn’t eat as many carbohydrates as we do now. Ergo our physiology is optimally designed to eat less than we do. Our hypothalamus- the part of our brain that regulates pretty much everything hasn’t caught up to the abundance of food and carbohydrates in our modern Western diets. For this reason, as a nation, we are fatter than we have ever been. Our brain is set up to carry out our body functions optimally on a lot less than we are giving it. This abundance of food not only makes us fat, but it makes us tired too. Have you ever noticed that crash you get after a big meal, or just about any meal? The insulin spike after a meal- results in the crash shortly thereafter. Furthermore, when your body is using up all your energy to break down food- it has little time or energy to do much else. So if you are always eating because you believe that will speed up your metabolism you might want to check your sources. Eating frequently might work for some people but for most people- especially those that tend to store that dangerous belly fat around the mid-section eating all day- will not only drain you but you guessed it – it will keep you fat. If you are looking for more information on how the hypothalamus regulates metabolic functions I highly suggest reading Quantitative Medicine by Dr. Mike Nichols and Charles David. While they don’t personally espouse fasting- the book itself provides a great framework for a lay understanding of complex physiological functions as it relates to metabolic therapy methodology. In other words- they really know how to dumb down all this medical science-y stuff for us regular folk.
Is calorie reduction Monkey Business?
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have spent 25 years studying the effect of diet on aging in monkeys. In a study conducted at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, 76 rhesus monkeys were given a diet with 30 percent fewer calories than a control group which ate as much as they wanted. The results showed that monkeys who ate to their hearts’ content had 2.9 times more risk of disease and were 3 times more likely to die early. The monkeys that maintained a restricted diet, while maintaining essential nutrients, extended their lifespan by as much as 40 percent. Since Rhesus monkeys share about 93% of our DNA, these findings have far-reaching implications. Researchers are now looking into drugs that can emulate the effects of calorie restriction on the body- because of high private sector demand. No surprise that the medical community would seek to monetize something that we can essentially reap the benefits of for free. Fasting has healing powers and costs nothing- in fact, fasting will save you money on food and medical bills! Don’t take pills- just adjust your will and you can heal yourself.
Fasting promoted Ketosis
When we fast for extended periods of time we deplete our glycogen stores that our brains tap into for fuel. When our glucose runs out our liver starts breaking down our body’s fat stores and the byproduct of that process results in the production of ketones- a compound that can then be used by the brain for energy in place of glucose. When your body enters this phase of ketone production it is called ketosis. Ketosis drives your body into fat burning state and is sustainable outside of fasting if a low carbohydrate diet- high fat diet, like the Ketogenic diet is followed.
Everybodys doing it.
Beyond the physical, life-prolonging benefits of calorie reduction, fasting is an age-old practice rooted in spiritual pursuits for centuries. Hindus fast. Muslims fast. Christians fast. In fact, the first time I ever fasted was when I was a child and it was for religious purposes. Even cavemen fasted!
I will be the first to admit I did not revisit it for spiritual reasons- but I am pleasantly surprised by the mental clarity I have experienced by incorporating fasting into my diet. At first, it’s extremely challenging to stay disciplined, especially if you have co-workers who are snacky, or loved ones who love carbs. But like I mentioned in my blog post on Mindful Social Media Use- arming myself with information has been crucial. By learning and understanding the benefits of fasting I have armed myself with enough information to stick to my decision.p
To be honest I owe a large part of my ability to stick to my fasting regimen to the keto diet plan. Since I went low carb- high fat I have not looked back. The high-fat diet, combined with low glucose from eliminating carbs have virtually wiped out my mind altering hunger pangs. I am so full when I eat high fat- that I can go for longer periods without eating. I have become the girl of my dreams- the girl that forgets to eat. I was never that girl. It’s no surprise that supplementing the Ketogenic Diet with intermittent fasting is a highly popular combination. Yes, my stomach still grumbles when I fast- but it’s not painful. In fact, fasting has taught me the difference between real hunger and stomaching grumbling. Now when I get hungry I don’t want to punch someone in the face- instead, I can wait patiently until there is food available. This makes dating me so much easier!
For 6 days out of the week, I stick to the 16:8 approach. I usually finish my last meal around 7 pm- and then I don’t eat until 11 am the next day. This is the most reasonable approach for me. I do work a mix of CrossFit, hot yoga, and running in the AM and my fasting has never affected my ability to perform. In fact, I prefer to workout on an empty stomach. There are times when I am out to dinner after 7 pm and so, in that case, I will just eat my next meal 16 hours later- and try to catch up the following day. So if I eat my last meal at 10 PM- I will breakfast the next day at 2 PM and then stop eating by 7 or 8 pm to get back on schedule. For me, flexibility is key when building a sustainable routine. So you should definitely experiment with your fast windows. There are several forms of fasting but the most common is the 16:8 window approach. Some other popular windows include 18:6 and the 20:4. Ideally, in order to reap the maximum benefits of the fast, you should aim to stay at least 16 hours without food.
For one day each week, I do a 24 hour fast. I have been experimenting with day-long fast for about 6 weeks now, and I am extremely pleased with the results. To be honest I didn’t start the 24-hour fast with any hard goals in mind. I just wanted to test the waters especially when I found out about the health benefits associated with fasting. Beyond a healthier glow and a slightly smaller waistline- I have noticed extreme leaps in willpower. The mind over matter training I am employing during my fasts has had profound far-reaching benefits in all other areas of my life. Namely, productivity. I find that I am more able to focus on set goals without being distracted. Fasting forces you to stay present- there is no easy way out of the discomfort – your only choice is to make peace with it and figure out a way to let it work for you and not against you. I have been able to transfer this practice to other areas of my life. Food has been my biggest weakness for as long as I can remember- by fasting I have been able to prove to myself just how strong my will is – and that boost of confidence has been really empowering me to make disciplined changes in other areas of my life.
Beyond ketosis, fasting promotes autophagy. Autophagy, literally meaning self-eating is a relatively new medical discovery in which the body, at a cellular level, cleans its own house under duress. “Think of it as our body’s innate recycling program,” says Colin Champ, M.D., a board-certified radiation oncologist, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and author of Misguided Medicine. “Autophagy makes us more efficient machines to get rid of faulty parts, stop cancerous growths, and stop metabolic dysfunction like obesity and diabetes.” There’s also evidence that the process plays a hand in controlling inflammation, immunity, and slowing down the aging process. As someone who has religiously worn sun-block since the age of 14, you had me at anti-aging. Best way to get into autophagy? You guessed it. Fast and the Furious- or more like Fast and the Calmer, Younger, Leaner. Research shows that the stress casued by fasting, exercise and lowering your carb intake can promote autophagy. Check, check and check!
It should be noted that I am not fasting for weight loss. My decision to try fasting again in adulthood sprang up organically as a marriage between my understanding of its long-term health benefits and its spiritual power to provide mental focus. Fasting has allowed me to reach a state of intense focus and mental clarity. Forgoing food takes a lot of willpower, and right now I am in a place in my life where I am actively pursuing habits that will increase the power of my will to overcome my emotional wants. By using to focus I have gained from fasting I have been able to be more productive and more focused with my time. I can’t say that this experience will be the same for everyone – and I definitely think its a good idea to seek medical advice before embarking on lifestyle changes as it pertains to diet and nutrition. I can’t stress enough how important it is to educate yourself and try things in phases. I didn’t just jump into 24-hour fasting or the ketogenic diet. I started watching my sugar intake (not consuming foods with higher than 5g of sugar per serving) and doing 16:8 intermittent fasting for about 6 months, then I transitioned to low carb high fat. Once I was convinced that I could comfortably go without food for 16 hours and the high fat from the keto diet had rendered my hunger pains more bearable- I tried a 36 hour fast. It was extremely intense for me- so the next time I fasted I scaled back to 24 hours. For now, a 24 hour fast once a week seems to be my sweet spot. It challenges me but does not break me, and I think finding that challenging sweet spot is important to any regimen that promotes wellbeing- whether it be exercise, nutrition, academic or spiritual pursuits. We should never stop looking for ways to grow through challenges- but also don’t be a dick about it. Love your body, and if you don’t love your body first then fasting- or anything else that pushes you to the limit can quickly turn into a spiral downward. Love your body first. Listen to it. Try skipping a meal- see how that feels. Just as important as body love is information. Do your research- see whats right for you. Maybe fasting isn’t your cup of tea- maybe after doing a cost-benefit analysis you realize that being hungry sucks and you ain’t about that life, but you will never know until you try. If you are trying to weigh benefits versus cost this might help:
Benefits beyond Autophagy
So exactly what else happens to your body when you don’t eat for 16 hours or more– besides looking younger and burning fat?
- Stabilizes insulin levels- and can prevent or reverse Type 2 diabetes.
- Gives you more energy
- Lowers triglycerides and prevents Alzheimer’s
- Stops sugar cravings and hunger pangs
- Great for weight loss
- Boosts Growth Hormone production – which can speed up metabolism, burn fat, and slow down the aging process
- Dramatically Reduces risks of Chronic Diseases and Obesity
- Reduces free radical cell damage
- Promotes brain health
Good luck! And happy fasting.
Thinking about taking the plunge? Here are some resources that helped me get started: