Fasting is on trend.  Juice; water; 5:2; soup; 8:16; bone broth; smoothie, or fusions of the aforementioned, are being sold as a way to fulfil a variety of health goals. 

But is there any real benefit to fasting, or are we currently experiencing the latest health wave, where fasting is more fad than favourable?

The history

Fasting is far from a new concept.  Our ancestors had little choice in whether they fasted or not. They ate seasonally in the truest sense and it was often famine or feast.

It may surprise you but we, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are designed go through intermittent periods of fasting.  Our morning meal is called break-fast for a reason. 

But in the developed world, where food is abundant and plentiful, other than as part of spiritual reflection, voluntarily fasting may seem a little bit odd.

The last few years have seen a profound shift in our understanding around the benefits of fasting thanks to noise coming from parts of the medical community.  

For a long time now, Canadian Dr Jason Fung has successfully implemented fasting to treat a range of health complaints from Type II Diabetes to poly cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

And here in the UK, Dr Michael Mosley has popularised fasting through his 5:2 protocol, which advocates a restricted calorie diet 2 days a week.

The research

Research into the benefits of fasting is nothing new.  As far back as 1945 early studies involving mice, who share around 80% of their gene profile with us, found that fasted mice lived the longest, calorie restricted mice had stunted growth and the mice that ate normally had the shortest life span.

Today the Institute of Longevity in California is providing convincing evidence that supports the how and the why of fasting with what appears to be two clear means of action. 

Our hormones

The first is hormone related. Key hormones related to insulin start to act differently and begin to work in our favour.

Every time we eat a carbohydrate our body releases insulin. This is like a key that allows the glucose from the carbohydrate to enter our cells and provide us with energy.  As long as there is a source of carbohydrate there will be a rise and fall of insulin. 

The mechanism itself isn’t problematic, however, 21st century eating habits, where we graze all day; offer this hormone cascade little rest.

As long as there’s a release of insulin then our body remains in fat storage mode rather than fat burning.  It’s received a message that it doesn’t need to draw on fat stores for energy.

Fasting, or leaving a longer time between meals, encourages our cells to become more receptive to insulin and balances insulin levels long term.  We’re also more likely to draw on fat stores for energy which is great for those wanting to lose weight.

Changing the way we eat also affects a protein produced by the liver that acts as a hormone.  Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) is primarily involved in growth; however, high levels are linked to aging and a variety of disease processes including cancer. 

The good news is that fasting appears to lower IGF-1, and what’s really exciting, is that it behaves differently when returning to normal patterns of eating. 

IGF-1 remains lower than it was before fasting, suggesting that intermittent fasting, has long term benefits in terms of disease prevention and longevity.

Healing and repair

The second means of action, and one that I see most frequently, is that fasting switches our body from growth mode into REPAIR mode.

Since the end of 2016 I’ve been consulting for Amchara Health Retreats as one of their resident naturopaths in both the UK and Malta.  The transformation I see in clients from their entry screening to their exit is phenomenal.

Clients primarily come to fast, which can be either a straight juice fast or a combination of juices, smoothies and soups, and depending on individual needs, food may be incorporated into a programme.

We focus a lot on the importance of gut health, and that whilst on retreat; the digestive system is having a rest.  Our digestive system uses as much as 70% of our energy EVERY day.  Just think what improvements can happen when that energy is diverted elsewhere.

All manner of symptoms improve or resolve whilst fasting; discomfort and bloating in the gut, headaches, general aches and pains and an improvement in inflammatory conditions are just some of the happy consequences of being on retreat (perhaps thanks to a generous serving of  turmeric).  Since inflammation is the route of ALL chronic health complaints this is one of things I find most exciting.

How to fast

Fasting doesn’t have to be complicated, and other than going at a pace that’s appropriate to you, there doesn’t have to be any rules.  We are all different so it’s about finding a programme that works for you. 

It’s always good to start low and slow. Try experimenting whereby one weekend a month you have a mixture of juices, smoothies and soups.  Or consider extending your overnight fast by having a late breakfast and an early supper – otherwise known as the 8/16 – where you do all your eating in an 8 hour window and fast for 16 hours overnight.

Spring is the perfect time to fast.  When the seasons change so do we.  As the days become warmer and longer our body engages the organs of elimination to clear the accumulated gunk of winter.  It’s the perfect opportunity to give your liver a cellular make-over.

If you’re interested in following a more personalised approach to fasting or would like a referral to one of the Amchara Health Retreats, then please get in touch  as I’d love to hear from you.