31 Days of Resolutions – Day 16
Is fasting the way to optimize our health?
I have been resisting fad diets for many years trying, instead, to understand how foods work to keep our minds and bodies healthy.
One thing I’ve learned is that insulin resistance and other metabolic diseases, exercise, and brain health are all linked.
Recently I stumbled on another idea called “intermittent fasting.” It sounded like hooey to me.
Then, I learned that there’s science behind periodic fasting.
Keep It Clean
Cells in your body clean house regularly. As parts of your cells become damaged, the cells recycle those damaged parts to keep everything working properly. It’s a process called autophagy (“self-eating”).
Eventually, some of these cells will be replaced by new cells.
Like any type of house cleaning, autophagy is an important part of healthy living. So important that it may be a key to preventing neurological decline, some cancers, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.
Promoting Cell Regeneration
Autophagy is a part of the lifecycle of a cell. By promoting autophagy, we increase the regeneration of cells.
Research in the past decade is showing us that autophagy is especially important for neurons (brain cells) and cardiomyocytes (heart cells) to keep our hearts and minds working at their best.
The question then is, can we do things to help our bodies and cells work that autophagy magic?
In 2010, a landmark study demonstrated that short-term fasting (in the relevant study it was 24-48 hours) increased autophagy of brain cells. This was important because previous scientific studies had not found a connection between fasting and autophagy of brain cells. It was believed that the brain was a “metabolically privileged site.”
A more recent study showed that restricting nutrient intake in mice resulted in healthier specimens even as they aged.
The mice consumed nutrients for only 8 hours a day (meaning these mice were fasting 16 out of 24 hours) compared with a control group with unrestricted food access.
The restricted-intake group of mice had fewer long-term health issues and were healthier.
Current Studies on Intermittent Fasting
At Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute, Dr. Roberta Gottleib is leading studies to determine how fasting promotes autophagy and keeps our bodies operating optimally.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Gottleib points out that if our cells don’t clean themselves out regularly, permanent damage to genetic material within the cells can occur.
In a study supervised by Dr. Gottleib, a group of mice fasted twice a week (for 24 hours). The results showed the nutrient-restricted mice were more active and appeared healthier. After 14 months, the fasting group had more robust immune systems and recovered more quickly from heart attacks than the control group.
“I’m interested in the idea that fasting once a week might be sufficient and manageable to help you live a longer life or extend your number of healthy years,” Dr. Gottlieb says.
“Or there might be something to not eating after a certain time of day and stretching out your nightly fasting period.”
“Right now, we know going 16 to 24 hours without nutrients is beneficial in animals,” she says.
“But we don’t know much about humans. We would love to figure out what kind of fasting helps and also what role exercise has in driving autophagy.”
The article suggests that there really is science behind the current fasting diets, and all it may take is doing a regular 16-24 hour fast to see long-term benefits.
We have just entered the season of Lent, a period when Christians traditionally engage in intermittent fasting. Judaism and Islam also call for periods of fasting.
It’s almost like our ancestors knew the benefits of fasting intuitively.
So, why not give it a try? There’s not much to lose except maybe a few pounds while gaining a longer, more active life.
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