Is Fasting a Reward or a Punishment for Your Body?
“How could you go without eating?” exclaimed a shocked and perplexed friend when I mentioned that during some trips I don’t eat at all. It seems quite normal for humans to eat everything from insects to shrimp foam; yet, the act of not eating tends to surprise people just as much—or more. We seem to instinctively think that fasting is punishing for the body. But more and more scientific and historical evidence suggest that it is actually a reward.
Consider the Circumstances
I always prepare before traveling by packing nuts, seeds, superfoods, Shakeology, and a full salad I have prepared in advance so I have a full healthy meal with me. You must travel prepared for both the expected and the unexpected situation, like the time my crew and I became stranded in the middle of the Ucayali River in Peru! Our boat ride to visit the Shipibo communities in Peru was only supposed to last for a few hours, but we ended up stranded miles away from even the nearest village. Thankfully we were able to stand-up paddle our way to a local community. Rather than continuing to travel the highly unpredictable waters that night, we spent the evening among the people at a local village.
When coming together with indigenous communities, such as the one that hosted us along the Ucayali River, it is often customary to be treated to a meal. The hosts offer up their favorite treats with all of their love. Unfortunately, sometimes the local dishes go beyond my physical and psychological limits. Despite a full understanding of their desire to please visiting foreigners, sometimes I am unable to partake in the fare—for example, the time I was served a goat head soup with half the goat’s head literally staring back at me from the bowl! During these moments, I come up with a creative excuse, citing uneasy stomach, tiredness or the universal, “I just ate.” Sometimes I wonder if the local communities serve me these foods on purpose just to get a laugh at my expense. In any event, I have been in situations where my supplies were gone and the food around did not work well for my body, so I fasted.
The Biological Machine’s Tune Up
While my fasting is often circumstantial during my travels, I have also practiced various forms of deliberate fasting throughout my life. These have included many fasting variations, including water only, juicing, wheat grass, fruits only, veggies only and others. I see fasting as a form of regulation and a break for the whole digestive system. When I was in my teenage years, without any formal or academic training in health, I began to realize the organs of the body came together to function as part of connected systems and subsystems. I could recognize that the body’s components operated collectively to carry out various essential processes. For example, think about everything that happens when you eat. You bite, chew (hopefully), ingest, digest (hopefully), and defecate (hopefully), and repeat this process multiple times during the day. If the body performs the same process over and over again, similar to a mechanical system, there can come a time when the systems need repairs. Consider how the mechanical system in a car needs tune ups and maintenance, otherwise the whole structure will begin to function less efficiently or eventually breakdown. It is natural that the same breakdown could occur within the body. Fasting is a form of maintenance for the body. Today science backs up what I intuitively knew back then. Check it out.
- • Fasting has great results in regulating immune and inflammatory responses in the body. This helps ward off diseases—everything from a simple cold to other more complicated and dangerous diseases. (2, 12, 13)
- • Fasting is like running a maintenance and repair program on our computer software, except that we are running the program on ourselves at a cellular level. When we fast, our body goes into autophagy overdrive. What’s that? The process of autophagy is when our bodies get to work on ridding themselves of dysfunctional cells and unneeded proteins, recycling them into elemental amino acids to be used in other ways. Via this process, the body can also support the immune system by searching for and destroying intracellular (in between the cells) naughty organisms. (14)
- • Fasting makes us happy. Fasting actually elevates our mood and overall sense of well being. (9, 10)
- • Fasting makes us sleep better. (8, 9, 10)
- • Fasting assists with the elimination of the environmental toxins, such as BPA (bisphenol A)(1), which can wreak havoc in our bodies.
- • Fasting protects nerves, as well as helps their development, communication, and function by promoting the creation of a family of proteins known as neurotrophins. (9,18)
- • Fasting just might help us live longer. Maybe the European conquistadors didn’t need to travel the new world for the fountain of youth, if only they knew that fasting and drinking ordinary clean water would do the trick! Jokes aside, science has found a connection between fasting and anti-aging. The molecules mTOR (a protein), Sirt1(a gene), and P53 (another protein) are very important for biological functions and health, and they are positively regulated through fasting! When the body is in balance cells are happy and work properly. (4, 7, 15, 16)
- • Fasting helps with weight management. This is kind of a no-brainer. After all, when you reduce calories you will lose weight. But there is much more going on than caloric reduction. The body undergoes a glucose regulatory effect, influencing insulin, the hormone that regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Insulin is a rock star in the metabolic realm, but it can also be a villain because it will convert carbs into fat and store it as those loveable, love handles. Fasting keeps insulin in check and positively effects other metabolic factors such as human growth hormone (2, 4, 13, 18)
It all sounds good, right? Well, this is only the tip of the iceberg. In truth we still don’t know all the ways that fasting benefits us. What we do know is that, generally, the benefits outweigh any potential harm. Although there is much more to learn, our current understanding of fasting benefits is strongly supported by scientific study, historical reference, and sound observation.
Is Fasting Safe?
Yes it is! As surprising as it might sound, a planned, cautious fast has no general known dangers (read on for exceptions). Therapeutic fasting has been well documented and practiced in Europe since the 1950s, when it was originally pioneered by a German physician by the name of Otto Buchinger. Today universities and health institutions across the globe (Montpieller University, Berlin University, Sun Yat-Sen University, etc.) have been clinically researching the benefits and counter-benefits of fasting with no known negative side effects if carried out properly. Literally hundreds of thousands of successful fasting programs have been carried out over the years following the appropriate protocols, including building the duration of the fasts over time. (5, 11, 12)
You may be picturing emancipated individuals who have carried out fasts for days or longer in order to protest the actions of governments or institutions. Don’t let those images mislead you. I do not support going weeks without food or days without water. We’ve touched on the importance of balance, and fasting is no exception. Prolonged lack of food and water will eventually lead to biological breakdown; but, the right type of conscious, planned, short, intermittent fasting will leave you feeling stronger and more energized than when you started!
You Already Are Fasting
Whether you know it or not, you already fast once a day. That’s right—we fast while we sleep, which is why we call the first meal of the day break-FAST, which ends our bodies’ fast without food through the night. This daily time of fasting is an important requirement in order for the body to carry out all of its “internal housework,” which includes the cleaning and repairing that it desperately needs. The digestion and metabolism of food during the day consumes significant amounts energy, so the body often welcomes the opportunity at night to redirect that energy into maintenance and repair of its essential components.
If you’d like to try a fast, read my blog, “6 Tips to Safely ‘Reset’ Your Body With Fasting” for details. Comment below and let us all know your experiences with fasting. What has worked for you? How do you feel after you fast?
History, culture, science, and our own bodies’ evolutionary adaptations confirm that a well-planned fast is good for mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well being.
Love the Life You Live,
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