Everything you ever want to know about fasting

When Socrates was asked why did he fast, he replied to get mental clarity. Pythagoras not only fasted himself but encouraged his students to fast too. Lord Buddha fasted for 49 days after attaining enlightenment. What is so fascinating about fasting that almost every culture and religion of the world practises fasting in one form or the other.

Modern medical research has done a lot of studies and research on fasting. In this article we shall discusses both regular and some extreme forms of fasting. People under medication or having severe heath conditions, pregnant or lactating mothers or people who are involved in heavy labour work or exercise should attempt fasting with caution. Do refer the advice of your physician before fasting.

Normally on a daily basis once we finish our dinner by 8 pm and have breakfast in the morning at 8 am we have already done a 12 hour fast. Modern times ensure that we compulsorily have breakfast because we are being told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But that was not so many many lakh years ago.

Understanding evolution

50 lakh years ago apes and gorillas began evolving into humans. Stone tools appeared around 28 lakh years ago. Mass migration of evolving humans began 10 lakh years ago. Finally the dominant species, homo sapiens appeared 1 lakh years ago. That is 1,00,000 years ago. Modern humans appeared 50,000 years ago. Hunting, sophisticated weapons, strategy all came up during this period including mass migration by ships.

Humans those days used to feed by either hunting or gathering. Both tasks were dangerous and involved lots of hard work and effort. Hunt used to begin with broad daylight when the men used to venture out of their caves into the forest. A successful hunt meant food for all. Feeding was once a day also finished during the day. Evening time usually meant retreating to the safety of the caves. At times when hunt was unsuccessful, there was either no food or humans depended on fruits and plants which again were seasonal and in short supply. Even gathering honey was risking attack by the bees. It was during those periods of evolution that human body got accustomed to fasting.

What happened in last 75 years – plenty of food around

About 10,000 years ago humans came out of caves and began agriculture. Food still was rare, but with urbanisation around 5,000 years ago the first of the humans like lords of castles and rich nobles got access to plenty of food. But food was still scarce for the masses. Industrialisation began 250 years ago which brought more masses access to food. But it was the end of Second World War when there was a concentrated effort to avoid mass starvations and famine. To take care of the hunger problem, the American food industry began rolling out processed food to the masses. Carbs and sugary food began replacing the traditional food everywhere. Lifestyle ailments begin affecting the masses as humans now began to eat four to five meals a day.

What is the problem with eating frequently

Eating triggers the release of insulin hormone which is the further trigger to start storing fat. This is consistent with what used to happen with ancient humans. Due to food scarcity we evolved by storing fat whenever we had a chance to eat food. Whatever we eat is either fats, proteins or carbs. Proteins are converted to amino acids while fats become fatty acids. Carbs and sugars are digesting and broken down into glucose and released in the blood by the intestine. Glucose is not the preferred source of energy for the body. Plus it is toxic for the blood which is why it is quickly gotten rid of by secretion of insulin. This hormone unlocks the cell walls to allow the glucose to enter into the cells for using up as energy. The leftover glucose is recalled to the liver which acts as the refrigerator of the body to be stored as a type of fat called glycogen. When the liver is full, it send the remaining fat to the belly area between the muscles and skin to store as visceral fat.

If you keep eating too frequently and food which is high in carbs and sugars, all that glucose keeps getting converted into fat and accumulating at different places around the body till your body structure does not permit any more fat to be stored. Now there comes a situation where excess of glucose or sugar starts building up in your blood. The cells are not able to take any more glucose since they are already full with energy. The pancreas keep secreting more and more insulin because the body has to get rid of this excess glucose. The liver is unable to convert more glucose into fat because there is no longer any space to store this visceral fat. This is the tipping point when the insulin is not longer able to get effective. This is the beginning of insulin resistance and the pre-diabetic stage. One fine day the insulin hormone becomes completely ineffective and then the doctors declare you having type 2 diabetes. This does not happen all of a sudden and in some cases might take years to happen.

Our body always tries to achieve a balance. In case the insulin hormone increases, there is a reduction in the sex hormone and growth hormone. This imbalance spills over to the other side too affecting the thyroid balance.

Eating too frequently and eating a high carb diet leads to insulin resistance and affects almost all metabolic functions like high BP, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and obesity.

Ways to reverse insulin resistance

If insulin resistance is the primary cause of metabolic syndrome, your immediate focus should be how to make insulin more sensitive. There are a number of diet plans which help you to achieve this. Almost all of these plans involve time restricted feeding in some form or the other. Time restrictive feeding in other words is simply called fasting. Let us explore these different ways to fast and how to achieve your aim to better health.

Intermittent fasting and healthy keto

This diet aims at a feeding window of 6 hours and fasting window of 18 hours. An evening meal by 7 pm followed by lunch next day by 1 pm gives a sufficient fasting period for complete food digestion followed by fat burning. This process is accelerated by the keto diet which focusses on reduced carb consumption and increased nutritional values of food.

There can a few variations of this diet possible like if you further delay the lunch to 2 pm and go for early dinner by say 6 pm. So now the eating window reduces to four hours. Some people also go to the extend of having just one meal a day.

When it comes to eating there is nothing more beneficial than a healthy version of keto. That involves eating whole and fresh food like vegetables and dairy. It involves eating mostly unprocessed food cooked freshly and sourced from organic farms. Food is cooked in saturated fats. Staying away from carbs, grains, fructose, sugars and processed foods will accelerate ketosis. That is the state when you body finishes the food supply and starts burning fat or ketones for energy.

Prolonged fasting

Intermittent fasting usually finishes between 16 to 20 hours but anything beyond that period goes into the realm of prolonged fasting. People fast for anything between 48 hours to even a few days. Fasting is a pretty simple and straight forward. Stop eating and wait it out till the end of fast. There are two types of fast, dry fasting and wet fasting. In dry fasting too there is the hard variety where you do not allow water to even touch your skin, that means no shower. Not drinking water during a fast means your body will be deprived of certain essential minerals which will put a lot of stress on your system. So be absolutely sure that you want to do it.

Benefits of fasting

The simplest form of fasting is the 12 hour one which is the window between dinner and next morning breakfast. That is just enough time to finish off the fat reserves in the liver to begin burning body fat. It also lets the insulin levels go down so that opens up the fat reserves. This type of eating plan sounds very obvious but most of the urban population is not able to match it up because of late night dinners and then early breakfast rushing to the office. The real benefits begin after 12 hours.

Let us break up the benefits based on duration but first let us make a list

  • Growth Hormone – Our body stops growing and developing after 18 years. Till that time there is an abundance of growth hormone produced by the body. It helps with developing bones, muscles and overall body structure. But once past 18, the production of this hormone slows down to a trickle, just sufficient for daily needs. Fasting is one of the ways to increase production of growth hormone.
  • Stem Cells – While prolonged fasting many of the cells die off while the body goes in energy conservation mode. When the fast is broken, the bone marrow starts producing stem cells to create new tissues and cells all over the body.
  • BDNF – Brain and nervous system need glucose for energy as they do not have any fat reserves. But the glucose burning in the brain leads to a kind of oxidation which causes damage to the tissues and neuron connections. Fasting induces production of BDNF molecules which start repairing the neuron connections all over the nervous system. This protein is the single most reason why we get mental clarity while fasting.
  • Gut bacteria – The definition of gut is the pathway from the mouth to the anus. It is a hollow tube which is used for digestion. Food metabolism or simply metabolism is the most important and crucial process in our body. Gut bacteria is only supposed to be in our mouth and large intestine. Fasting gives your body a chance to get rid of the bacteria and replace it with a fresh lot when you break your fast. It also helps to kill the pathogen when find space in your digestive tract but cause damage to your body than good.
  • Increase insulin sensitivity – High insulin levels is a trigger to store fat reserves. Low insulin is also a trigger to start burning fat. Insulin is the most important hormone in the body. Decreased sensitivity leads to a host of metabolic problems like high BP, high cholesterol, increased uric acid levels, high sugars and obesity. Insulin resistance is the key cause of type 2 diabetes. Fasting is one of the best and fastest way to improve your metabolic syndrome.
  • Weight loss – When people come searching for ways to lose weigh they come to know about intermittent fasting . It is one of the most guaranteed way to lose weight. This technique first gets you to be healthy and then you are able to lose weight.
  • AUTOPHAGY – If the is any single greatest benefit incurred from fasting it is autophagy. Within each cell are parts like nucleus, membrane, cytoskeleton, mitochondria and so on. One of the component of the cell is lysosome whose job is to digest or breakdown other cell parts. When there is plenty of food around, this cleanup crew is never activated. But while fasting the recycling plant gets to work digesting junk protein inside the cells. Autophagy is a greek word which means eating itself.

Now that the list is ready let us go over the time induced benefits.

16 hour fasting – Skipping breakfast gets you a 16 hour fasting window. This duration provides gradual increase in the production of ketones. You will also get a little bit of fat burning. Fatty liver condition is improved dramatically since post 12 hours the glycogen in the liver is used up completely. There will be a visible progress in weight loss. You will also get a little amount of autophagy and production of growth hormone. When you break the fast you will also benefit with a little bit of stem cells production.

While you do surely get the benefit of weight loss and increasing insulin sensitivity, if you are looking for further benefits you can stretch the fasting window to 18 hours by having an early dinner and later lunch.

24 hour fasting – There are many cultures in the world who have a one meal a day ritual. Best example is the ekadashi fasting which is observed by the people in India. It begins from sunrise to sunrise the next day. As per the rules of fasting grains, carbs and proteins are forbidden but fruits, vegetables and dairy products are allowed. People who observe the strict version of the fast do not eat any food.

Between 18 to 24 hours, there is a spike in the production of ketones. There is also a significant increase in growth hormone and BDNF. Autophagy begins between this period and the recycled junk from within the cells is released into the blood. All this extra protein gives you a boost of energy. This burst of power is noticeable which is why people feel the urge to go for a jog or do some exercise at 22nd hour of fasting.

Some people believe that to get the complete benefits of fasting the 24 hour window needs to go upto 36 hours. So some people in India observe a 36 hours fast during ekadashi. They also do a 36 hour waterless fast. Here is why.

36 hour fasting – If you thought 24 hours fasting is difficult, wait till you try the 36 hours version. It will be the most difficult challenge you have ever taken after a lifetime of eating three to four times a day. Here is a tip for the beginners, start with the meal post sunset and go on to sleep. The next day by 7 pm will complete 24 hours. That night is going to be the most difficult. But from the point of view of benefits those next 12 hours will get the maximum benefits of growth hormone and autophagy. As the body pulls up the reserves from within the cells, the body is stretched upto limits. But it is the production of BDNF which you should be really interested in.

The 36 hour fast is the best to get the most basic of all the benefits of fasting. It is also a way to make some really serious changes to your insulin sensitivity. Finally you can be pretty sure that all the gut bacteria and microbes in your gastrointestinal tract have been cleared out.

It is important that prolonged fasting not only rests the digestive system, it also shuts it down. Organs like stomach shrink which means when you break your fast you have to ease into it slowly. Begin with water and electrolyte. If you are observing a dry fast first begin with water only and take it up to a soup or juice. You can then move up to curd or yogurt after a sufficient break followed by a salad. A heavy meal can be taken up late in the evening.

Fasting beyond 42 hours – Ending a 36 hour fast begins the next morning with drinking a glass of water or juice. However those 6 hours you can really enjoy the amazing feeling of light headed and being on cloud nine. Those six extra hours mean even more growth hormone and BDNF. Your sense are heightened and your mental clarity reaches its peak. You can easily get away with breaking your fast at lunch. If you are feeling adventurous you can even extend your fast to 48 hours.

You have to really take extra care and precautions fasting beyond 48 hours. There are benefits associated beyond 48 hours but you need to really be very careful.

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