In the East, the act of fasting has been performed for thousands of years as a tool to reach new states of consciousness. Over the past few years, people in the West have started embracing intermittent fasting to take advantage of its numerous health benefits for both mind and body. It may not be for everyone, but for those whose bodies are capable, it can be a powerful tool for regular recalibration.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin is a hormone released by the body when food is consumed, and it is responsible for the uptake of nutrients into muscles, fat cells and the liver. Various factors, including overeating, have led a majority of us to have poor insulin sensitivity. Poor insulin sensitivity has been linked to increased risk of diabetes and cancer, as well as a decreased ability to absorb nutrients and burn fat. Practicing intermittent fasting can help boost your body’s sensitivity to insulin.
Increase in Growth Hormone
One study showed that 24-hour fasts temporarily increase the brain’s production of human growth hormone by between 1300 to 2000 percent (more for males than females). Human growth hormone helps protect lean muscles and metabolic balance in the body.
Improve Brain Function
A study conducted by the National Institute of Aging at Johns Hopkins University showed that fasting in mice increased the growth of new neurons in the brain, which can help battle dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It also helped stimulate Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, BDNF, which helps create new nerves, and protects those nerve cells from being damaged by toxins. Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, states regarding fasting: “The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells.”
The body uses a great deal of energy in digesting and extracting nutrients from food. Giving the digestive system an occasional break can free up energy to be utilized by the brain and other systems of the body. Well.org’s Dr. Pedram Shojai, co-host of The Health Bridge podcast, notes, “In terms of fasting specifically, the body likes having energy on one end, but the body also needs a break. If we give the digestive system a break … think about it as a mailroom. It’s a processing center. There’s stuff coming in. You’ve got to process it and then move it. You move the checks over here, you move the junk mail over here. You’ve got an operation going, but if that becomes an inefficient operation, sometimes it’s better to just say, ‘OK, everyone off. Let’s re-look at our systems, let’s make sure everything’s working and let’s just clean house for a day.’”
Fasting is a real opportunity to drive energy to the prefrontal cortex part of the brain, take a step back to look inward and make more clear decisions going forward. “It’s about using that clarity that you get from the process of fasting to really think about the bigger questions in life and recalibrate and reorient, and really measure thrice and cut once in life. Since that’s missing, we all just run around bouncing into walls, trying new fad diets, doing all sorts of crazy things and then wonder why our lives are chaotic. It’s really an opportunity to pull back in,” Shojai says.
If you decide to fast, it would be wise to incorporate an introspective method – meditation perhaps – to get the most benefit.
Intermittent fasting means fasting for anywhere between 16-36 hours. The most important thing to remember with any fast is the meal before going into it and after coming out of it, are key. Ensure that these two meals are filled with good whole foods: protein, veggies and fruit, preferably organic.
A popular fast is the 16/8 method, otherwise known as the Lean Gains method. This is the incorporation of a daily 16-hour fast, with an eating window of 8 hours during the day. For example, if you have your first meal at 1 p.m., you would stop eating at 9 p.m. and repeat the cycle the next day. This can be viewed more as an eating style than a traditional fast.
Another method is to fast for a period of 24 hours, usually for one to two days per week. From personal experience, 24-hour fasts tend to give the most introspective experience, as the body passes by what would normally be three meals without having to spend energy on digestion.
It’s important to drink plenty of water during the fast. Many people consume tea or black coffee, as well, for an energy boost and to temporarily curb appetite.
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. Dr. Sara Gottfried, who co-hosts The Health Bridge podcast with Shojai, says that it’s important your stress response is under control before engaging in intermittent fasting, as your body may have an adverse reaction if it’s not. If you have any concerns about your cortisol levels, she recommends getting a measuring from a health professional to make sure they’re at optimal levels. “Maybe try it for a month and just see what happens. If it’s not going well, go talk to your health professional and get some advice. Maybe test the cortisol,” she says.