Thought about fasting? Not sure why people do it? Or just want to know if the effort is worth the reward? Personally, I don’t enjoy fasting because I LOVE food. Every fast I find myself standing at the fridge, door open, staring longingly at all the delicious things in there and planning all the things I’m going to eat when the fast is over.
But I still fast. Sometimes putting aside our love for something is worth the benefits. Like disease prevention, healthier hair and skin, slowing the aging process (because if you’re anything like me, you love the wisdom and knowledge that comes with aging, just not the fragility and susceptibility to diseases) and just having a bunch more energy to enjoy today with.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you”
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”
Fasting turns these sayings from the external motivation as we know it, to the internal world of our anatomy.
Ever wondered how we grow muscle? Basically (and I mean very basic), we stress our bodies enough to cause small repairable damage, which then regrows bigger and stronger to adapt to those stresses. We’re pushing our bodies outside of their comfort zone so that they’ll regrow stronger.
When we feel those hunger pains, our bodies don’t actually need food, it just wants it. And like a spoilt toddler, it whinges (by releasing hormones) until it gets what it wants: food. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) sends little “I’m so so so hungry” gremlins (see what I did there ;P) to the brain until you gorge on enough cheesecake that leptin (the suppressant hormone) rescues you.
Like everything in your body, it’s all about balance. You need both. When these hormones work together perfectly, our bodies experience a perfect cycle of delicious food and post-food contentment. When they don’t, the cycle goes a bit oblong.
And our excessive eating habits make the cycle a bit oblong. Your body resists change. So eating more food actually moves more and more of those hungry gremlins into action. Eating more doesn’t make you less hungry.
Extended fasting has been shown to decrease natural ghrelin levels. In other words, not eating for long periods makes you less hungry overall.
Leptin and ghrelin also work together to help your body (through insulin sensitivity) process sugar (glucose) for energy.
Insulin is responsible for moving glucose from your bloodstream into your muscles. When everything’s working well, it’s like one of those fancy Uber rides where the driver knows the fastest way and hands you a free bottle of water to enjoy in your plush leather seat while listening to your favourite pump-up music. Glucose gets where it needs to go easily, and your body feels full of energy.
When it stops working… well, it’s like that Uber that keeps taking detours when you just want to get out. If glucose isn’t transferred to your muscles, it hangs around in your blood stream and eventually gets stored in your liver as glycogen or fat.
The more sensitive your muscle cells are to insulin; the more glucose is transferred. The better the Uber ride.
Fasting increases insulin sensitivity.
Your muscles won’t let insulin do its thing if there’s too much in your body. So by not eating for some time, you’re dropping your insulin levels and helping insulin give glucose the best Uber ride it’s ever had.
What about the ‘Elixir of Life’ that we promised?
I can argue that simply by increasing your energy you’ll feel younger. But the main anti-aging benefits actually come in the form of boosted cell rejuvenation, or autophagy.
Like gears in an antique watch, the cells in your body work perfectly together to make you move, think, eat, feel – everything. And like each gear rotation causing microscopic imperfections, your cells get damaged over time. You can’t stop the damage because we can’t avoid using our cells. But the damage gets intensified by toxins (or inflammation) that hangs around in our body.
Think of inflammation like dirty grease; the dirt sits between the gears and stops them working together properly. But if we can get rid of the dirt, the nicely greased gears work together harmoniously again.
This is where autophagy comes to save the day.
Autophagy is when a cell eats and repairs the bad parts of itself as a continual cleanup process. Properly removing the dysfunctional parts of a cell means that toxins don’t build up and that newer, functional parts can regrow.
Replacing the bad parts of cells prevents degenerative disorders and has actually been shown to help repair pre-existing ones. This also means faster healing. Like repairing small tears in our muscles (for all you gym goers)… that is less rest time and more gym time :).
Newer cells mean a younger more vibrant self.
This affects all of your cells. So the benefits include healthier and younger skin and hair, muscle cells, organ cells, even brain cells. All of you will not just feel younger, but will literally be younger, because your cells have replaced the old parts with shiny new ones.
So where does fasting come in?
Fasting boosts this process. When your body is going through some cellular stress—like being nutrient or energy deficient from fasting—a stress response is started that boosts the autophagy process.
There are a few common variants including alternate day fasting, fasting 16-18 hours each day, fasting 24 hours a couple days a week and 36-72 hours every few months.
There are so many benefits to fasting. Basically, the longer the fast, the greater the effect on your body. Keep in mind though that there is a limit—your body still needs food—and fasting is not beneficial for everyone. Fasting can be hard! Find what works for you.
Personally, I fast for 24 hours twice a week. I’ve tried all varieties, but for me it came down to what I could fit in with my lifestyle. Every Monday and Friday I stop eating around midday and start again midday the next day. This way I can eat a bunch of delicious food before 12 and still go to the gym in the afternoon on the first day without feeling drained. Then I sleep through the worst parts, and by the time I’m awake again, there’s only a few more hours of fridge watching :).
Fasting isn’t for everyone and there can be harmful side effects if you already have a medical condition. As with anything, make sure you do your own research and check with your doctor if it’s right for you.