Intermittent fasting has been somewhat of a buzz ‘phrase’ in the health world for quite a while now, mainly regarding weight loss, but it’s so much more than that. Research has shown the concept, which has been inadvertently practiced for eons, can reap so many benefits on the human body by essentially giving it time to rest, detoxify and replenish.
So what actually is it?
At its core, intermittent fasting is an eating pattern incorporating periods of fasting and eating. The concept of breakfast, lunch and dinner is a very modern structure that has becomes the norm for us growing up, however fasting is evolutionarily embedded in our physiology and has been shown to be beneficial for every system in our bodies at a cellular level.
There are various types of fasting and often no need to go the whole 24+ hours to achieve the benefits of what a simpler fast can, including increased insulin sensitivity, decreased oxidative damage to proteins, lipids and DNA, increased resistance to various types of stress, and enhanced immune function.
Variations include 16/8 which involves fasting for 16 hours and eating within an 8 hour period, for example from 11am-7pm, even the 5:2 diet is a version of intermittent fasting as you are restricting calories to 500 twice a week.
Benefits at a glance:
- Improves metabolism and increases cellular sensitivity to insulin.
- Induces mild ketosis which promotes the livers utilization of glycogen stores, once these are depleted fat stores must be accessed for energy thus aiding weight-loss efforts.
- Can help reduce resting heart rate and improve stress adaptation and resistance, also resulting in decreased systemic inflammation.
- Most studies report improvements in cognitive function due to increased neurotrophic factors.
- The metabolic switch in fuel source to ketones influences the molecular and cellular structures of neural networks, promoting neuroplasticity and cell growth through increasing brain cell metabolism.
- Emerging evidence reveal complex adaptations of the brain and body that actually enable the enhancement of physical and mental performance in a fasted state.
- Studies have found a reduction in abdominal fat and maintenance of muscle mass.
- Induces autophagy, a process by which the body clears damaged cells and replaces them with newer, healthier cells.
- Levels of Human Growth Factor increase, benefitting weight loss and muscle gain.
- Influences on gene function may help protect against certain diseases and promote longevity.
Things to be aware of:
The benefits of intermittent fasting are vast and constantly emerging in research, however there are a few things to keep in mind when embarking on it by yourself:
- Its short-term fasts that appear to be most beneficial, as opposed to long-term fasting of a week or more which can have detrimental effects on muscle mass.
- Be mindful of your situation, if you are immune-compromised, have advanced type 2 diabetes, take regular medications, have low blood pressure, or have a history of an eating disorder, think carefully about whether intermittent fasting would really serve you in a positive way. If you think it would, discuss it with your health practitioner as they will be able to monitor you safely and suggest ways to maximize its benefits.
- Having a short window of opportunity to eat on a fasting day is not license to binge on highly-refined and processed foods, the research shows that IF can really only be of benefit if part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
- Please do not try intermittent fasting whilst pregnant or breastfeeding, this is a time when the body needs as much nutrition as possible, depriving the body of calories during this time can lead to unstable blood sugar levels and malnutrition.
Tip: If you are new to intermittent fasting, do try the simpler fast of having your meals within an 8 hour window. You are allowed unsweetened fluids such as water, tea and coffee whilst fasting, and in fact, adding a tablespoon of coconut oil, ghee, or MCT oil to your black coffee can actually enhance the effects of ketosis and its benefits.
So.... should I practice Intermittent Fasting?
It’s really up to your individual circumstances, there are lots of reported health benefits to be gained based on high quality research, however only you know personally if it’s something that really fits in with your lifestyle and what you want to gain from undertaking it. Having said this, I believe it is an interesting experiment to try if you are healthy and enjoy a balanced diet and lifestyle already, as these are really the first building blocks to be mastered when embarking on a journey to wellness and vitality.
L Harris et al. Intermittent fasting interventions for treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports: Feb 2018
R de Cabo, MP Mattson. Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease. N Engl J Med 2019; 381: 2541-551
Zhu Y et al. Metabolic regulation of Sirtuins upon fasting and the implication for cancer. Curr Opin Oncol 2013 Nov; 25(6): 630-6
MP Mattson et al. Intermittent metabolic switching, neuroplasticity and brain health. Nat Rev Neurosci 2018 Feb: 19(2); 63-80