Can Fasting Improve Your Health?
You’ve heard of fad diets that limit your intake of food, cut carbs, or have you drinking a shot of apple cider vinegar every morning. While some of the more recent fad diets have doctors raising their brows, fasting—or going without food for a controlled period of time—has been around for thousands of years, and some doctors believe that it could be a valuable tool in healing the body.
Fasting has been shown in some studies to slow down the effects of aging, lower the risk of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s in some people, and help control weight, which can lower the risk of heart attacks and other diseases. Fasting has been a constant in human history; Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle all praised its benefits.
What is fasting?
You’ve probably heard of fasting for religious reasons—there are several faiths that will go through a period of controlled fasting for their beliefs. However, today, more and more people are choosing to fast for health reasons. But what does that mean?
Fasting is a controlled window of time — 16 hours, a day, or even a week —where one goes without food (but will usually continue to drink water). Limiting calorie intake this way presents mixed feelings in many doctors; some believe that intermittent fasting can lead to addictive relationships with food, or unhealthy food choices when an individual is not fasting. But many recent studies have proven that healthy fasting can offer a lot of health benefits.
Mental health benefits
The leader in this research is Mark Mattson, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging. A study in 2007 he led found that fasting one or two days a week may help those living with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to Mattson, “Fasting increases BDNF, a protein that’s crucial for learning and protection against age-related cognitive decline. When the brain goes under energy restriction, we see neural activity that’s associated with protection against degeneration from stroke and aging.” You can learn more about Mark Mattson’s research and fasting’s potential benefits for the brain in his TED talk, “Why fasting bolsters brain power.”
Physical health benefits
Scientists at the University of Southern California say that fasting “flips a regenerative switch” that essentially restores the immune system. According to Valter Longo, professor of gerontology and biological sciences, “It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system. Fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.” These findings are particularly interesting for those whose immune systems have been damaged by aging or chemotherapy.
Fasting may also slow the growth of certain cancers. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that fasting for two days before chemotherapy helped ease its toxic side effects. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that eating only every other day decreased cell proliferation rates, which helps slow the development of cancers. Most recently, a study authored by Longo and published in Science Translational Medicine found that five out of eight cancer types in mice responded to fasting alone – without chemotherapy. Longo concludes “the combination of fasting cycles plus chemotherapy was either more or much more effective than chemo alone.”
Should I fast?
Fasting isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Since every person’s medical conditions and needs are different, fasting may not be the complete solution to any mental or physical health problems you may have. Fasting isn’t recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing or people living with severe anemia.
If your doctor thinks you would be able to fast healthfully, you might want to try it. In addition to the benefits above, many adherents also mention increased energy, better mental clarity, clearer skin and an easing of the symptoms of allergies and digestive disorders of all kinds.
This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.