The Many Health Benefits of Fasting. Credit: Everyday Health.
In this day and age people fast for a whole host of reasons. They may be fasting for their religion, for weight loss, for their general health, or because they have an up-and-coming surgery. But what is fasting? Simply put, fasting is the action of going without food or drink for a period of time. There is one correct way to fast these days. You can try intermittent fasting, alternate day fasting, water fasting, juice fasting, etc.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is currently one of the world's most popular types of fasting and is considered a health trend among celebrities and athletes alike. Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and periods of eating. In layman's terms, it's not about what you eat, it's about when you eat. The most common way to practise intermittent fasting is to fast for 16-hours and then have an 8-hour eating window where you are allowed to eat.
What Is Alternate Day Fasting?
Alternate day fasting (ADF) is a different approach to intermittent fasting. The basic idea is to fast one day and then eat the next, fast one day and then eat the next. If it is too hard to consistently do this then you can just pick 2 days in the week where you don’t eat for 24 hours. Some people find fasting for longer periods of time very hard, so doctors advise drinking water throughout or black tea or coffee.
What Is A Juice & Water Fast?
There is a big chance you already know what a water fast or juice fast (also known as a juice cleanse) is considering the world's obsession with diet culture. But the general principle is the same. You fast for a certain amount of time but you are only allowed to intake water or, for the juice fast, fruit and vegetable juice for a short period of time. Usually 3-5 days.
1. Fasting Promotes Blood Sugar Control
Several studies have shown that fasting helps to improve blood sugar control by reducing insulin resistance. This is specifically useful to those at risk or suffering with diabetes. A study published in the World Journal of Diabetes showed that in a group of people with type-2 diabetes who practised short-term intermittent fasting 2 out of 10 people found they had massively decreased blood sugar levels. Another review found that both intermittent fasting and alternate day fasting were as effective as limiting your calorie intake for reducing insulin resistance. The reason you want to decrease insulin resistance is that your body can increase its sensitivity to insulin. This allows it to transport glucose from your bloodstream to your cells more efficiently. This will also help keep your blood sugar levels steady which will help prevent spikes and crashes.
It is important to note that fasting affects men and women differently, especially when it comes to blood sugar levels. A small study showed that practising alternate day fasting impaired blood sugar control in female participants but had no effects in the male participants.
2. Fasting Reduces Inflammation Promoting Better Health
There are two types of inflammation: Acute inflammation which is a normal immune process which is the body's way of fighting off infections, then there is chronic inflammation which can lead to serious consequences for your health. Research suggests that chronic inflammation plays a key role in many serious health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
The good news is some studies have found that purposeful fasting can help decrease levels of inflammation in the body and promote better health. There was a study in 2012 where fifty adults practised intermittent fasting for Ramadan (a period of one-month) showed that there was a massive decrease in inflammation markers. Another study reaped the same results where people were asked to fast for 12 hours in a day over the course of a month. One animal study published in 2016 found that following a low calorie diet, mimicking the effects of fasting, reduced levels of inflammation and was beneficial treatment for the chronic inflammatory condition multiple sclerosis (MS).
3. Fasting Improves Blood Pressure, Triglycerides & Cholesterol Levels
Heart disease is the leading cause of death around the world with an estimated death count of 31.5% globally. Heart disease can be caused by high blood pressure, bad cholesterol levels and triglycerides.
When diagnosed with heart disease doctors usually suggest switching up your diet and lifestyle as an effective way of reducing the effects and risks that come with it. Some research suggests that incorporating fasting into your routine may be beneficial when it comes to your heart health. A controlled clinical trial in 2010 showed that eight weeks of alternate day fasting reduced levels of LDL cholesterol and blood triglycerides by 25-32%. Another study performed on 100+ obese individuals revealed that fasting for three weeks (under medical supervision, of course) significantly decreased blood pressure, levels of blood triglycerides, overall cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol. Additionally, a study on roughly 5000 people who periodically fasted showed lower risk of coronary artery disease, lower risks of diabetes, and lower risk of heart disease.
4. Fasting May Prevent Neurodegenerative Disorders & Boost Brain Function
A lot of the studies on fasting and brain health have been performed in animal studies, however the results do bode for the best and show that fasting could have a powerful effect on brain health. One study on mice in 2016 showed that practising intermittent fasting for over a long period of time (11 months in this case) improved brain function and brain structure. This is in line with older studies, one from 2000 and the other from 2010, which reported that fasting could protect your brain health and increase the nerve cells that help to enhance cognitive function. If you keep in mind that fasting may also help with inflammation, as stated previously, it could also aid in preventing certain neurodegenerative disorders. Particularly, studies suggest that controlled fasting has the potential to protect against and improve the outcomes for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.
However, despite these very positive results we are reminding you that these studies have only been performed on animals and further studies would be needed to evaluate the long-term effects of fasting on brain functions in human beings.
5. Fasting Is Great For Weight Loss & Boosting Metabolism
These days dieters are choosing fasting over fad diets as it is a quicker, easier, and more efficient way of dropping a few pounds with a host of other body benefits. The research suggests that short-term fasting may boost your metabolism by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which could help enhance weight loss. One review from 2015 revealed that fasting for a whole day could reduce body weight by 9% as well as significantly reducing body fat over the next 12-24 weeks. A second review showed that intermittent fasting over 3-12 weeks was just as effective, if not more so, than a continuous calorie restriction for inducing weight loss. Intermittent fasting decreased the candidates body weight and also their fat mass by up to 8-16% over the monitored time period. Furthermore, the results showed that fasting is more efficient than calorie restriction when it comes to inducing fat loss while preserving muscle tissue.
6. Fasting Increase Growth Hormone Secretion
Fasting increases human growth hormone (HGH) secretion which is a type of protein hormone that is central to many aspects of your health as it is essential for consistent and linear growth, a fast and active metabolism, consistent and healthy weight loss, as well as muscle strength. There are several studies that conclude that controlled fasting could naturally increase HGH levels. A study in 2012 revealed that fasting for 24 hour significantly increased levels of HGH which is in line with another study which showed that fasting for just two days increased HGH production rates 5-fold! We have already discussed that fasting may help maintain steady blood sugar levels as well as insulin levels through the day which could further optimise levels of HGH in a person as there is research that suggests that sustaining increased levels of insulin may reduce levels of HGH.
7. Fasting Could Extend Your Life & Make You Look Younger
Many of these studies linking fasting to longer lifespans and delaying ageing have all been performed on animals but the results are still highly promising. The first study I want to draw your attention to was conducted on rats that fasted every other day and resulted in a delayed rate of ageing. What the scientists found was that rats that fasted lived 83% longer than their counterparts who were allowed to eat whenever they wished. Three other studies from 1983, 2000, and 2009 have very similar findings which report that fasting was found to be effective in increasing longevity and the survival rates in different types of mammals.
However, despite these very positive results we are reminding you that these studies have only been performed on animals and further studies would be needed to evaluate the effects of how fasting could impact longevity and delayed ageing in human beings.
8. Fasting Could Potentially Help Prevent Cancer & Increase Chemotherapy Effectiveness
Animal as well as test-tube studies suggest that fasting could be highly beneficial in treating and preventing cancer. A study performed on rats found that alternate day fasting helped to prevent tumour formation back in 2002 which is similar to the results from a test-tube study which revealed exposing cancer cells to several cycles of fasting was just as effective as chemotherapy. The fasting delayed the tumour growth from the cancer cells and increased the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs on the cancer formation.
While these are positive results, most research in this area is limited to the effects of fasting to heal cancer and has only been performed on animals and cells. Additional studies would be needed to evaluate the effectiveness of how fasting could reduce cancer development as well as cancer treatment in human beings.
Even though there is a list of health benefits as long as my arm, fasting isn’t always the right thing for everyone. We suggest booking an appointment with your GP and talking to your doctor about whether or not fasting is the right path for you. This is specifically for people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes as going long periods of time without food can cause spikes and crashes in your blood levels as well as people who currently or have previously suffered from any form of eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or body dysmorphia.
If you have spoken to your GP and received the thumbs up we suggest you go on to do your own research and see which type of fasting you think would be best for you. Remember to stay well hydrated and to break your fast with nutrient dense food to maximise the potential health benefits. It is also recommended that you keep any intense physical activity to a minimum. So, if you go to the gym 5 times a week try going only twice or halving the length of your work out. It is important to stay safe.
Fasting is an ancient practice that has gained a lot of popularity these days. This is because fasting is associated with a wide array of potential health benefits, including improved blood sugar levels, heart health, weight loss, cancer prevention, brain function and extended life. There are numerous variations of fasting and with a little research you’ll be bound to find a fasting-style that fits into your lifestyle. Just make sure it is accompanied by a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.
I hope you found this interesting and educational. Drop a comment and tell me about your journey with fasting and what health benefits you have noticed in doing so?
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Zheelana is a writer based in Cardiff. She has a BA Honours in English and Creative Writing and is a certified TESOL teacher. When she isn’t out hiking in the lush Welsh countryside, she fills her days with reading, journaling, and going out for food.