Sunday, February 26, 2012

Benefits of Fasting

The March 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine contains this article "Starving Your Way to Vigor: The Benefits of an Empty Stomach."

Since you can't access the online article without paying, I'll summarize. The author, Steve Hendricks speaks from the experience of having performed a 19-day fast which resulted in weight loss and a greater feeling of health. During that time he drank only water and maintained his usual activities, including daily exercise. He describes days of alertness and days of lethargy and says one of the reasons he did not prolong the fast after reaching his goal weight, was that others complained of his bad mood. I guess hunger will do that.

But Hendricks also gives a brief recent history of fasting in our culture. Obviously, Americans do not like to skip meals, yet he describes medical breakthroughs that have shown fasting to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and epilepsy, especially in children. He mentions that fasting has improved chemotherapy results in cancer patients, as well as reduced the side effects of chemo. But again and again, interest in fasting has always been short-lived in the U.S. and our medical establishment prefers consumer-based treatments like pills and shots.

You might be wondering how one could possibly go without food for days, unless they have extreme will power, but Hendricks explains that the longing for food fades after about four days. He was fine on just water for 19 days, but my favorite example is one he gives of a 456-pound Scot who, in 1965, approached Scottish doctors for help losing weight. They monitored him closely and kept him on water, vitamins and supplements for several days. When his weight loss progressed with no bad effects, the fast grew into weeks. Since his vital signs and health remained normal, his fast continued from summer to fall, and fall to winter. This guy made it down to his goal weight of 180 pounds after a fast that finally ended one year and 17 days after it had begun! He basically lived off of his own flesh for months.

But that's not what Hendricks recommends. In fact, at no point does he say fasting is a good way to lose weight, even though he did it. His article really focuses on things like the American Cancer Society ignoring research on the benefits of fasting on cancer patients, and the almost criminal neglect of American medicine to use fasting to save the lives of epileptic children. Fasting can result in a permanent reduction of seizures. The same is true of blood pressure and, apparently, weight. He mentions that the 24-hour fast has been used to remedy colds and the flu, and that fasting once a week or even every other day can extend one's life.

I've been reading more about fasting and how even doing it one day a week can improve one's health. There's a process called autophagy that Wikipedia describes as "a major mechanism by which a starving cell reallocates nutrients from unnecessary processes to more-essential processes." Basically, a cell without its usual nutrients coming in, will burn its own waste products for energy. This increases the health of the cell as it means getting rid of dead viruses and dead cell membranes, etc. that clutter the cell when fresh fuel is constantly coming in. Some even believe one of the reasons exercise improves health is that exercise also increases autophagy. Since I read that a couple of weeks ago, I've been more focused on exercising all day long (taking stairs, etc.). Let's hear it for autophagy!

I read the Harper's article on Friday and decided to try it. I'm currently fighting a cold and, as I previously posted, have a new determination to weed sugar and wheat out of my diet. Why not start my new health habits with a 24-hour fast? It would be great to lose these cold symptoms by Monday. A 24-hour fast gives an American liver a much needed rest from having to plow through all the junk we force it to process hourly. The digestive system also has a chance to clean out and renew, as your body burns internal resources to keep its energy up.

I ate lunch yesterday and have had nothing but water and some herbal tea since. It's now 12:56 p.m, so I'm hitting the 24-hour mark right now. I tend to be a hungry person and my stomach lets me know the second I've gone more than three hours without eating, so it hasn't been easy. Mr. Hendricks described no great hunger pangs on his first day. Not true for me, although I am feeling more alert than I would have expected.

I'm about to take a drive, so I'll go ahead and have a snack first. Although I'm awake, I also feel a little light-headed. I'm not the most confident driver and don't like to take chances. I think I've done enough to see if this experiment has shortened the life of my cold. Maybe I can kick out the symptoms sooner than in the week or ten days it usually takes.

Hendricks' article certainly counters the American tradition of cleaning your plate three times a day. I doubt it will start a new interest in fasting, although I remember recently reading an article on how fasting improves chemotherapy results. Will this message start to seep into mainstream media? It would be great if it did because fasting for improved health and weight loss is an idea we Americans could definitely use.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. It certainly is, uh, food for thought. No really! All punning aside, it is very interesting.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

I came out of my fast on Sunday in the wrong way: my first meal was eggs. It was way too heavy and sat like a brick in my stomach. But my cold symptoms do seem improved. Since that could be a coincidence, I'm going to improve on my 24-hour fast this weekend and continue the experiment. I'd love for weekly fasting to help me with my digestion and spring allergy symptoms, which have started.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

A friend who didn't leave a comment tells me that fasting is dangerous, messes with your metabolism and is a terrible way to lose weight permanently. He's right on the last point. I was more impressed with Hendricks' evidence that fasting affects illness than with his stories of weightloss. My post should have reflected that better. Also, my interest in fasting isn't for weightloss, but for help with some chronic problems such as allergies.

I don't see how fasting can be dangerous when there's evidence that fasting improves health and increases longevity. In fact, food restriction is the only proven method of extending one's life.

As for messing with metabolism, I have heard both that the body's metabolism drops as soon as it registers hunger and that it takes days of insufficient food for the body to go into starvation mode. I think that's what screws up metabolism.

Also, I don't fast without medical guidance and I've discussed fasting with doctors who didn't seem concerned that I was hurting myself.

I'm going to run the experiment with more fasting.

tameka said...

my husband and i heard mr.hendricks speak on npr last week. we're going to try a short juice "fast". good luck on yours!

Anonymous said...

Hi! thank you for your summary of the article. I was searching for it and was lead to your blog. Great review and I'm glad you've started to fast.

However, I have to disagree with your friend who told you that fasting is bad for the metabolism. That's just not true and fasting can actually speed up one's metabolism. If you'd like to read about the topic and see some actual scientific evidence, you should read a book called Eat Stop Eat, written by Brad Pilon. Great, informative read. Also - have your friend read it too. =)

Again, great post! Thanks

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Update: I have been fasting about once every other week for 24 hours at a time since I posted this. I usually go from noon one day to noon the next day. I've discovered that fasting does improve my hayfever symptoms: itching, sneezing, runny nose, etc. When I start feeling those symptoms, I skip a few meals and stick to water, herbal tea and wheatgrass juice. Soon I feel better.