Achieve Longevity with Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a concept of restricting food to a certain window of time, typically between 6-8 hours of the day. This may appear extreme, but you are still eating the same amount of calories as you would any other day, just in a limited time span. There are many chronic health conditions that can benefit from intermittent fasting (IF), not the least of which is cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and some mental health conditions. Patients are asking me - is this something they should be integrating into their lifestyle?
Practical Benefits of Fasting
Each time you eat, this increases the oxidative stress on your cells, commonly known as inflammation. By eating less frequently throughout the day, you are minimizing inflammation, and maximizing your cells' ability to rest and recover. There are varying degrees of fasting from 2 week water fasts, to intermittent fasting, which limits your feeding time. By allowing our bodies to have a break from working to digest and absorb nutrients from our food, we are giving it time to invest in regeneration and repair.
Predictable results that I have seen clinically include weight loss, reduction in blood pressure and blood sugar, improved sleep and more energy. This is further supported by research that has shown reductions in risk for heart disease and diabetes and likely this occurs by improving insulin sensitivity (Anson, 2003). Insulin’s role is to direct cells to uptake glucose from your bloodstream when your blood sugar is rising. By decreasing the frequency and amount of glucose in your bloodstream (i.e., through fasting), you are improving the ability of the cell to respond to insulin and take in glucose. With time, frequent eating throughout the day, especially following the standard American diet (e.g., high in carbohydrates and trans-fats, low in vegetables), leads to a constant elevation of your blood sugar, and the cells become resistant to insulin's urge for them to absorb the glucose. Insulin resistance is associated with nearly all chronic diseases.
Although there are some human clinical trials underway, currently all we have to guide treatment is animal studies. Research has demonstrated that calorie restriction lengthens lifespan in both rodents and monkeys; intermittent fasting has the same effect, with no change in caloric intake. The rats fed either a calorie restricted diet or did intermittent fasting, had decreased resting heart rate and blood pressure compared to controls.
Improved neuronal (brain cells) resilience has also been shown in animal studies. When rats are exposed to neurotoxins while intermittent fasting they have less degeneration of the hippocampus (the area primarily responsible for learning and memory) compared to controls. This is thought to occur because intermittent fasting results in an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which provides support to existing neurons and encourages growth of new neurons. As well, when these rats were induced to have an ischemic stroke, there was less neuronal cellular damage in the rats who were intermittently fasting, compared to controls. Interestingly enough, exercise has the same effect (Mattson, 2005).
My typical recommendation if you are interested in experimenting with intermittent fasting for your particular health condition, is to trial time-restricted feeding. Food intake is limited to 8-12 hours throughout the day, essentially limiting any snacking after dinner. For example, if your dinner is at 6pm, you would not eat again until 6am-10am the following morning; you will push your cells further into ketosis the longer you delay your first meal.
If your diet is already filled with healthy protein, vegetable carbohydrates and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, eggs, avocado, coconut oil and olive oil, then this is something you may want to experiment with. However, if you are eating any refined carbohydrates, lots of sugar and grains, then the first step would be transitioning your diet to being whole foods based, before experimenting with intermittent fasting or a ketogenic diet.
The research surrounding fasting is very new, therefore recommendations are in the beginning stages; it is important if you are making dramatic changes in your diet to discuss this with your medical or naturopathic doctor. If you have a known metabolic condition, such as diabetes or cancer, or are pregnant or lactating, first consult with a physician prior to experimenting with IF.
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Anson, R. M., Guo, Z., de Cabo, R., Iyun, T., Rios, M., Hagepanos, A., ... & Mattson, M. P. (2003). Intermittent fasting dissociates beneficial effects of dietary restriction on glucose metabolism and neuronal resistance to injury from calorie intake. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(10), 6216-6220.
Mattson, M. P., & Wan, R. (2005). Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 16(3), 129-137.