The FAST Way to Health
We're always looking for a quick fix, aren't we? Immediate change, immediate gratification, little to no consequences for our behaviors. It makes sense that we would want that, but it's not reality, nor is it good for us. And when we say it out loud, we know it's silliness.
The truth is that any lasting solution requires sacrifice and hard work. And often a new way of thinking altogether. The question then becomes, which do we want more? Comfortable, easy, more of the same? Or refining by fire?
Today we're going to talk about another trendy buzz word out there. One that will take us right to the front lines of battling comfort and ease.
What does that word make you think? How does it make you feel? Does it make you a little nervous? Or are you comfortable with it? There are no right or wrong responses, so relax. We're going to address it all.
Maybe you came looking for the next exotic, newly discovered, superfood that you could pepper into your life and all your ailments would be healed. Sorry to disappoint. Instead, we're going to focus our attention on the traditions of generations past. After all, as the Good Book says, there is nothing new under the sun, and fasting is no exception.
So what is fasting exactly? Well, I'm glad you asked. Let's get into it.
Fasting, also famously called "the physician within", is the voluntary abstinence of food for the purpose of healing. For centuries upon centuries, it has been used to aid in both physical and spiritual purification and healing (as if those two are separated...). But in more recent decades, we have become afraid of it. We think it's weird, mystical and impractical... We think that it will somehow have detrimental effects on our bodies. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our old friend Hippocrates said, "To eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness." Whoa. Now that's profound. You should probably read it again.
Let's revisit sickness for a moment. There are a whole lot of indicators of poor health that are touted normal in our culture. Things like chronic migraines or headaches, chronic digestive upset or constipation, chronic fatigue, brain fog, tooth decay or gum disease, even vision or hearing degeneration. In a more technical sense, these things are caused by various degrees of inflammation or oxidation. Some of you who thought you were in the clear may need to reconsider... Sickness comes in many forms.
In order to understand the healing mechanisms of fasting, we need to understand what happens when we feast. Let's do a quick recap.
The moment any food or drink hits your lips it triggers a series of hormonal reactions. The body prepares to "harvest" all you've just provided, squeezing out as much nutritional content as possible. Once you swallow your food and it enters the stomach, digestive enzymes get to work churning and mixing your food until it's broken down as much as it can be. It is then passed into the small intestine where even more enzymes, provided by the pancreas, the intestine and the liver, get to work. All available nutrients and water are absorbed through the intestinal wall where they are shuttled right into the blood stream and off to the appropriate cells. The waste that is left moves into the large intestine where is it turned into stool. And then you crap it out.
It's as simple as that.
So you can imagine what could happen when that system is at rest. Say... when you're sleeping for example. Which is the time when all of us are fasting, whether we knew it or not. Oh, I know. Some of you are waking up for a midnight muffin. (After all, we have been told over and over to eat at least six meals a day!) Yeah... no. Cut that shit out.
Behind the scenes of that digestive process, there are all kinds of hormones activated or inhibited when we eat. However, a thorough understanding of one of these key hormones can be the difference between sickness and health for a lot of us. So without further ado, allow me to introduce the insulin hormone.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for metabolizing energy input (food) and for managing fat storage. Individual proteins, carbohydrates and fats all affect insulin levels differently, and we'll discuss that more in detail later because it is important. But for now, you just need to know that every time you eat any combination of these foods, insulin rises. And when we are not eating, insulin falls. This is a very natural and healthy process.
I wish we could end this biology lesson here and all go about our merry way. But unfortunately, there is more to the story. You see, disaster strikes with excess levels of insulin. In fact, many of the most common degenerative diseases you see around you (or are perhaps experiencing yourself) are caused by chronically elevated insulin levels--a condition called hyperinsulinemia or insulin resistance. Things like hyperglycemia, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, PCOS, gout, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, atherosclerosis and heart disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and even certain types of cancer. All too often, these are a cascade of detrimental health effects caused by too much insulin.
I hope I have your attention now, because this is serious business.
Naturally, insulin is meant to go up and down according to our need for energy. When we eat, insulin rises. When we fast, insulin falls. But for the last several decades, the overarching message is that we should be eating all the time, and we're really good at obeying orders. We've been told to never skip breakfast. Ever. And snacking non-stop is encouraged in the name of "six small meals a day." Well, why? Because if you don't then your metabolism will slow down and you'll get fat.
Okay, pause right there. Let's get this straight... If we eat all day long, we won't get fat? That's the dumbest thing anyone has ever said. It defies common sense and logic. And what's worse, the consequences of believing it are dire.
In the name of restoring your bullshit sensor, let's go ahead and define what is common sense and logical here. Common sense is to eat real food when we are hungry and not eat when we are not hungry. Pretty basic, guidelines eh? Yep. This isn't rocket science. Let's get back to a natural and intuitive way of living.
Regularly lowering your levels of insulin means that your body becomes more responsive to insulin, and this is a fabulous thing. During this time, your body is able to let go of any excess water and salt, and other counter-regulatory hormones are allowed to go up. Among others, these include the human growth hormone (which leads to significant anti-aging benefits), adrenaline (which increases the metabolism), the brain hormone BDNF (which may help you grow new nerve cells). All of these hormones have important regenerative responsibilities, and trust me my friend, you want them to be allowed to do their jobs.
(If you want more detailed information on fasting and insulin, I highly recommend looking into the work of Dr. Benjamin Bikman, and Dr. Jason Fung. Fung even offers a free email course on the subject here.)
*A quick note: Fasting is not the same as calorie restriction. The two have zero to do with each other. Remember, anytime you are feasting, your insulin goes up. It doesn't matter whether you eat a 100-calorie granola bar or a 500-calorie steak, you're triggering an insulin response. The details here do affect insulin to varying degrees, but essentially, all food triggers an insulin response. This means that the benefits of fasting cannot be attained in fed-state. Period. (Furthermore, elevated insulin combined with calorie restriction DOES lower metabolism.)
Fasting also induces a state of renewal in the body called autophagy. You may have heard this word bouncing around the health space recently, and for good reason. The various cells within your body need cleaning up from time to time--old membranes, proteins and organelles that are falling apart. Autophagy, which literally means "to eat oneself" takes care of that process. It is an organized cellular cleansing and recycling system. One that helps keep everything in tip-top shape, working seamlessly. Nobody wants their body full of old, junky parts inhibiting the possibility of new growth and optimal functioning. You can learn more about autophagy here.
So now that we've established that we are all fasting overnight, it shouldn't be that monster in the closet anymore. Just in case you're still feeling apprehensive, however, let's define what fasting does NOT do.
1. It does not slow your metabolism. Despite word on the street, it actually does the opposite.
2. It does not deprive you of essential nutrients. In a fasted state, your body slows the secretion of nutrients and is even able to recycle them.
3. It does not cause the depletion of muscle mass. Protein oxidation actually decreases in a fasted state.
4. It does not make blood sugars dangerously low. Like everything else in the body, glucose levels are tightly regulated. This is done through the process of gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose in the liver).
There are all kinds of ways to fast. I'm sure you've heard of intermittent fasting--of which there are infinite methods. Intermittent fasting is simply intermittent feasting. You designate a time for eating and you don't eat outside of that window. Some people skip breakfast. (*Gasp* Don't say it!) Some people leave 4-5 hours between their meals. Some people skip dinner. Others even skip eating altogether every other day (alternate day fasting). There is no formula, so you'll have to experiment and figure out what suits your body, your schedule, and your lifestyle best.
Want to hear something crazy?
The longest ever recorded fast was 382 days by a man named Angus Barbieri. He had plenty of energy stores going into the fast (which is a nice way of saying he was fat), and he came out of it just fine. But we're all different, aren't we? Most of us couldn't safely fast for that long or anywhere close to it. In fact, there are people out there who shouldn't intentionally fast at all. Pregnant women, children, and anyone experiencing malnutrition (nutritional deficiencies) aren't good candidates for fasting because their growing bodies and nutritional requirements don't leave much margin for it. But that's not to say that extended fasts don't have their place as a healing tool. They do. If that interests you, most functional medicine practitioners would be great consults.
One has to wonder why millions of Americans are so sick and increasingly so within the last couple of generations. I have a theory about that. It's because all nutrition information coming from the top down is leaving us more hungry than ever before and with ridiculously high levels of insulin. And all health information coming from the top down is obsessed with profit-making, symptom management--causing much more harm than good.
When do you think it will stop? Only when you decide that you know your body better than they do. When you begin thinking critically and treating yourself with respect. A little common sense and logic can go a long way, can't it?
Fasting may just be the solution you've been hoping for. It’s simple and it’s free. What do you have to lose? So take a chance and try something of old. Pay attention to how it makes you feel--how it affects your workouts, your sleep, your mood...and have fun with it. You are worth the investment and your body will thank you for it.