If food is fuel then what is fasting? (6 minutes)

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A few years ago, my wife introduced me to the idea of fasting. Admittedly so, it took me some time to appreciate the concept that withholding food could have a tremendous benefit to me. Especially considering how quickly I eat. Since that initial exposure, I have progressively made fasting a normal part of my life. We started out by tacking on a couple hours before bed and after waking, and after a while I felt comfortable functioning when I skipped meals altogether. I have now reached the point of multiday fasting and I wish to share my experiences and some facts about fasting with you. 

As a preface to my next post, my experimentation with intermittent fasting, I felt it necessary to explain my understanding of the subject and the reasons why I decided to make fasting a part of my life. While it may appear an easy decision to use intermittent fasting as a method to improve health, it must be considered carefully and used appropriately. It’s important to remember that fasting differs from starvation for the simple reason of control, because you are voluntarily withholding food.

Dr. Jason Fung, a Canadian Nephrologist and world leading expert on Intermittent Fasting, breaks it down very simply stating that the body only really exists in two states – the fed state and the fasted state.  Either we are storing food for energy, or we are burning it. What is truly important then, is balance, and having the ability to control our internal and external environments. (1)

This is my why. I want to know exactly how I am influencing myself. It also interests me that intermittent fasting is similar to an ancestral way of living, one that I subscribe to, from both a physical and physiological perspective as well as an evolutionary perspective. There is science behind fasting. 

Intermittent fasting is simply an umbrella term used to describe a variety of approaches that change the normal timing of eating with the goal of improving overall health. There are many approaches to intermittent fasting; you can skip one meal, skip multiple meals, restrict calories, or even go days without eating at all. The latter is what I’ve been most curious about. I want to understand what will happen to my body and my mind when I fast for multiple days.

To date I have completed two multiday fasts, one lasting 62 hours and the second lasting 72 hours. It is my intention to perform a multiday fast and challenge myself the first week of every month as I continue to gain new insights into my body.

I have also experimented with the other approaches to fasting and presently I have found a framework that incorporates them all into my weekly routine, in a way that works for me. Monday to Wednesday I fast for 12 hours and feed for 12 hours, usually with 3 large meals. Following dinner on Wednesday, I aim to fast for 20-24 hours until dinner on Thursday and then feed for 2-4 hours, usually on 1 large meal and 1 small meal. On Friday, I either eat breakfast or skip breakfast and graze on small snacks throughout the day until dinner. On Saturday and Sunday, I aim to fast for 16 hours. The variety keeps me on track and works well with my fitness and work constraints. I almost exclusively exercise fasted.

I understand this sounds intense, but the most important element for me is that it is simply a framework I am using at this stage of my life, and not an obligation. If life gets funky and it is not appropriate for me to restrict calories, I can easily pivot because I am learning to control my internal and external environment. This is also my goal.

So what is so great about not eating, and what does the science suggest?

As you’ve probably heard, fasting is promoted as an effective tool for managing body composition through metabolic improvements in fat tissue (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). However, the benefits of intermittent fasting are far exceeding as it directly affects metabolism and longevity. What we are now learning is that disease pathways involved in cardiovascular disease, cancer, or neurodegenerative conditions are not individual pathways as we once believed. Rather, they all have common origins in metabolism. Fasting is the balance to feeding that metabolism needs.

Fasting has be shown to: promote favourable changes to cholesterol and triglyceride profiles in the blood (2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), reduce blood pressure and vascular aging (2, 4, 5, 14, 16), improve insulin sensitivity and liver function (3, 4, 5, 6, 9), reduce markers for oxidative stress and inflammation in the body and the brain (7, 10, 11), improve immunity through stem cell regeneration, enhance protection of neurons and resist against demyelination (10, 11, 12, 13, 16), improve gut bacterial diversity (7, 13), increase autophagy which is the normal process of cellular cleaning (14, 15), all while having a hormetic effect. This is why spending more time not eating can have a tremendous impact on human performance, because it allows you to use these natural advantages, for free. It’s almost as simple as not eating.

Now, before we make a change immediately, we shouldn't. It’s important to know that this is not for everyone right now, and it appears the message is clear, if you are experiencing periods of elevated stress or poor stress tolerance, or experience poor sleep quality, this may not be right for you right now. Luckily, both of these elements are subject to change with time and the right support. Intermittent fasting may also not be for you if you are pregnant, breast feeding, have nutrient deficiencies or electrolyte imbalances, treating chronic infection, facing hormonal imbalances, or experiencing poor exercise tolerance or exercise recovery.

(Not sure if Intermittent Fasting is right for you? Remember, I’m here to help! I’m always available to provide support, refer out, or answer any questions you may have. Simply start the conversation below.)

It appears the biggest factor in determining your individual success may be gender. Due to the nutritional load that hormonal shifts require, women often need more regular meals then men do, and the benefits of intermittent fasting are likely more prominent in men than in women, especially from a muscle preservation perspective. This is why women need to be more mindful of when they are fasting based on their stage of life and current life circumstances. Luckily, women are often much more in tune with themselves and understand the subtle changes day to day, so listen to your body first.

So why have I been interested in fasting for 72 hours?

In my research, the three elements that stand out to me the most are the increase in autophagy, the stimulation of stem cell regeneration and the improved immunity, specifically in the gut. Throughout my life, I have experienced multiple immune and gut related conditions such as asthma, eczema, environmental allergies, food sensitivities, IBS, and anxiety. This is why I am interested in extended fasting.

Interested in learning more about the gut microbiome? Check out this blog post.

The idea that restricted eating could be a tool to address these issues, non-pharmaceutically, sounds smart for my body and my bank account. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention my ego being interested in the challenge, the chance to lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass, and to discover how it will affect me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Back on the Blog page you’ll find my experiments with 72 hour fasts as I continue to change the variables and push the limits each time.

So what’s the take away today? Intermittent fasting has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years, especially as an effective weight loss tool. Some view this as a trend, and as we all know with diet trends, instead of matching the present conditions of our life to the protocol, we jump right in, head first, into a puddle. And then we resent the tool because we were unsuccessful. So make sure it is right for you at your current stage of life because this is not a trend in my opinion.

Remember that men and women are different. And what is good for me, or him, or her, is not good for everyone else.

Don’t approach this like the fabric of your life must change. Try it out, but give it a fair chance. Even for 12 hours a day. If it doesn’t work, then perhaps the conditions aren’t right, because if the conditions are right it can have a positive influence on how we age.

And finally, not eating is and always has been a part of the natural way of living. Having Uber Eats go through the drive thru for you at 4am has not. We need to change our relationship with food.            

If you are someone who is interested in experimenting with intermittent fasting, I highly recommend doing so with the help of a nutritionist who understands the risks and benefits associated with the protocols. Check out www.customnutritionguelph.com for more information.

Adam Snook