For those of us looking for long-term changes and whole-body health, we know that there is more to a healthy eating plan than a fad diet, more to health than the scale, and more to food than calories.
As long as we're looking for a quick fix, a new way to lose weight and look great will be marketable and profitable. Obesity is on the rise, and marketing is always on its heels with the next fad that can be sold to desperate consumers.
More and more, researchers are discovering that when we eat may be just as important as what we eat. So let's discuss the benefits of intermittent fasting and how it goes beyond body building and athletic goals.
Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy?
Breakfast has long been thought of as the most important meal of the day, which is quite true. It is the meal that breaks your fast after sleeping replenishes your nutrient stores, starts your digestive system up for the rest of the meals, and generally refuels your body.
Like Dr. B.J. Hardick points out, “We don’t often consider overnight to be a fast, though. For the skeptics reading – rest assured that you already fast every day, in a manner of speaking. Fasting isn’t always forty days and forty nights or a grand spiritual encounter – though our biggest associations and inspirations related to fasting are.”
In 2007, for example, a group of volunteers who were fasting during Ramadan, an annual religious festival where daily fasts are observed over the course of a month, were matched with non-fasting individuals based on similar body structure and health. At the end of the month, the Ramadan participants had significantly lower inflammation markers. (1)
With inflammation playing such a key role in many of our chronic illnesses, fasting of this sort has gained attention in the Western world, with more implications and recommendations surfacing as researchers learn more.
Impact of Intermittent Fasting On The Body
If we “eat to live,” and not live to eat, it may help us understand the concept of intermittent fasting a bit more. We certainly do need to eat; the body can’t go for long without nutrients to fuel its many intricate processes, but maybe we don’t need to be so consumed with what we consume every waking moment.
The concept of intermittent fasting is similar to that of the Paleolithic, or low/selective carbohydrate diets. Just as our ancestors had very different carbohydrates in their diets, there were also periods of time with very little caloric intake. Our bodies have obviously changed over the millennia, but perhaps the need for a resting period still exists and can be met with shorter, more controlled times of fasting.
As scientists explore this possibility, they have continuously uncovered more information about the potential benefits of intermittent fasting for the whole body, including:
- The immune system
- Neurological responses
- Muscular development and metabolism
Most people have an understanding of what the evening fast accomplishes. To see the body’s release of fats in action, some people like to test their urine for ketosis – the state when your body has an exceptionally high fat-burning rate. This is enormous when it comes to metabolism and disease prevention – but there may be much more to intermittent fasting than we first realized.
Better Immune and Inflammatory Responses are Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
The immune system is complex, and it’s always walking the line between incredible advantages to the body and incredible damage. The immune system is what keeps us from yielding to the onslaught of pathogens around and on us daily, but it can also turn on us at any moment and attack itself or harmless substances.
Inflammation, in theory, is a gathering of white blood cells and other immune responses to attack and eliminate threats to the body. In practice, inflammation often collects in excess or in unnecessary places, all too often being elevated to the status of inflammatory disease.
In 2012, a group of researchers from Saudi Arabia studied fifty people who observe Ramadan to analyze the way their bodies responded to prolonged fasting. Much like the 2007 study and others, the results showed less inflammation during the fasting month. (2)
This particular study also noted that “systolic and diastolic blood pressures; body weight; and body fat percentage were significantly lower,” and that the decreases were only present while the participants were fasting intermittently. Once it ceased, the markers were higher again.
In laboratory studies, we also have indications that the slowed immune system extends to the allergic response. Mouse models indicated that fasting is associated with less hypersensitivity and allergic over-reactions of the immune system. (3)
Decreased Persistent Illnesses
Heart disease, the top killer for men and women, painful arthritic conditions and obesity are all inflammatory diseases. Inflammation is a key player in inflammatory disease, and is one of the most common and deadly categories of illness today.
If intermittent fasting reduces unnecessary inflammation, it follows that disease risks reduce, as well. This theory has good indications that intermittent fasting can improve long term health. Multiple fasting models have been tested for their effects on disease, with similar results.
In 2013, a German review analyzed studies and instances where individuals followed a guided fasting regimen that restricted the amounts and times for eating – much like Ramadan – over periods of 7-21 days. The researchers concluded that fasting is “associated with deceleration or prevention of most chronic degenerative and chronic inflammatory diseases” and that we have great cause for further, more detailed studies. (4)
An additional review more specifically looked at alternate-day-fasting, where certain days follow a fasting pattern while others maintain normal eating patterns. Extended to both human and animal trials to gather the most information available, they found the evidence to indicate this type of fasting ”may effectively modulate several risk factors, thereby preventing chronic disease” and, again, warrants further research. (5)
Higher Quality Brain Function
Two studies of note, both recent and both on animal models, give us an indicator that brain health can be improved with intermittent fasting. We’ve heard of a good breakfast as “brain food,” but it’s possible that the brain needs a bit longer before the fast is discontinued.
One study published in 2013, analyzed the way that both obese mice and mice with intermittent-fasting diets responded to both exercise and cognitive tests. The obese mice performed reasonably in terms of cognitive and learning ability, but they were sluggish and struggled with exercise compared with the control group. The mice that were given diets with intermittent fasting were both more active and had better learning and memory capacity than the control group. (6)
The other study came a year later and concentrated on memory function, in particular. After testing and observing rats for changes made from intermittent fasting, it was found to induce “adaptive responses in the brain and periphery that can suppress inflammation and preserve cognitive function,” once again circling back to the far-reaching impact that inflammation can have on the body. (7)
With inflammation as a focal point, intermittent fasting seems to be quite promising as a plan of attack for many conditions of the body and mind. Since human trials are not yet available, these kinds of observations can give us a good look at the potential that exists so that information can be gleaned and future studies can be developed.
Increased Fitness Training
There are various ways intermittent fasting can benefit someone who is training. We’re going to look at the implications of muscle development, hormone production, and how fasting is connected underneath it all.
While neurotransmitters connect our senses, brain, and body together for immediate responses, hormones connect messages gathered throughout the body with sustained, long-term directives. Once those directives have been completed, production of that hormone slows.
Growth hormone levels tend to slow when we are no longer growing as adolescents, which is a problem for middle-aged adults who are rediscovering healthy lifestyles and working to train, bulk, or simply tone their bodies.
To understand the primal theory behind intermittent fasting, consider if you were running out of food and nearing the hunting season once more, you would need strong muscles and a lean body to achieve your goal. Perhaps this is why growth hormone increases in times of intermittent fasting, as evidenced in early studies on the subject. (8)
The enhanced growth response was also recognized in a 2011 study, when hormones and inflammatory responses came together to increase wound healing in mice fed with intermittent fasting diet patterns. (9)
Accelerated Weight Loss
With reduced inflammation markers – a prominent risk factor for obesity – and improved growth hormone for muscle development, weight loss is next in the logical progression of benefits of intermittent fasting.
Over the course of ten weeks, University of Illinois researchers monitored adults following a control diet, then alternate-day intermittent fasting patterns. Not only was weight loss significant, but cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure decreased, as well. (10)
Enough studies on intermittent fasting and weight loss have been conducted that a 2015 review analyzed whether this was simply another fad diet or if it carries any validity. They recognized – as we all should – that there is no magic bullet or one-size solution for obesity and weight loss. However, given the documented effects and results of intermittent fasting, it should be looked at as a realistic option for individuals and care providers to consider. (11)
As with any adaptation to diet or exercise, care should be taken to make certain it’s right for the individual. Women in child bearing years, especially, must be cautious.
While intermittent fasting hasn’t necessarily shown problems for unborn babies or the maternal phase of life, increased cortisol levels have been noted, which can cause problems all their own. (12) If any diet plan is causing you stress, anxiety, or mental difficulty, it is likely doing more harm than good and an alternative should be considered.
Kinds of Intermittent Fasting
There are many ways an intermittent fasting plan can play out. The most extreme versions include full days without eating anything at all, usually once every week or less. Jumping into a full day’s fast without preparation can leave you feeling weak and hungry rather than rested and rejuvenated. While some people like to work up to 24-hour fasts, it is not likely the path to take when you are just starting out.
First, consider building on your natural fast – night times without eating – slowly and deliberately, to reinforce its function as an extended rest period.
Nutrients are important, but remember that the entire body works to process every bite, which includes the liver sorting toxins and the blood circulating nutrients that have been gleaned. You can use a break!
Ensuring a full 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, with no snacking after or early eating after a short night’s sleep, gives your body half the day to recharge before being confronted with food again.
You may consider extending the resting period, delaying or “skipping” breakfast, pushing the first meal of the day out a few hours, which would make the time between breakfast and dinner closer to two-thirds of the day instead of only half. This can be done daily or only a few times each week, depending on what your body needs and the way it responds.
You may feel habitual waves of hunger. It’s important to respond to these properly. They shouldn’t be ignored, but neither do you need to jump to a full meal and break the fast immediately.
Smoothies are often used as a semi “digested” food to ease the pangs and still be easy on the body. (Please be aware that the consumption of smoothies, if they contain protein or even low glycemic carbohydrates, will interrupt the body’s state of ketosis by converting to sugar, but may have less of an impact on digestion, inflammation, and brain function.) Other coping mechanisms that are thought to have less of an effect on ketosis are black or bulletproof coffee, extremely low-glycemic greens, or coconut oil and other fats without sugar.
Be sure to listen to your body, and remember that food entering the body is still food that must be attended to by the body’s systems. Drinking the water you normally would – to total at least half of your body weight in ounces for the day – or herbal tea provides hydration and a sense of fullness without much to process or digest.
Make a point of avoiding sugar – particularly in the form of the ever-popular juice fast (if focusing on fruits), as this actually amounts to little other than regular sugar. Ketosis is the breaking down of fat instead of carbohydrates for energy, so if you supply your body with sugar, it will interrupt the fasting process. Any kind of food ends the break that the fast was intended to provide to the body.
As you adapt to these intermittent fasting patterns, more rigorous plans can be considered. You can take cues from nomads and warriors who would travel on foot during the day and rest at night, or the full-day fasts in many religions, and meals may be consumed within windows of as much as 6 hours of the day to as little as 3 hours of the day.
Most of the studies on intermittent fasting did not include caloric restriction. In other words, your body still needs plenty of varied, nutrient dense foods, even if you are eating them during a shorter period of the day. If you’re eating one or two meals in your fasting window, make sure to get the full day’s calories and nutrients packed in! If you have ever tried intermittent fasting, I would love to know your experience in the comments below!