By Dr Janey Little
An Ancient Wisdom
Enhancing our immune system has perhaps never been more important than during these current times. With this in mind, it may be timely to revisit some of the largely forgotten wisdoms of the past as used by ancient civilisations over millennia for the purposes of boosting our innate immunity for health and healing.
Fasting is one such example of a powerful healing tool that has been mostly abandoned, owing mainly to the misinformation surrounding fasting that abounds in modern times and which has been perpetuated by the giant food, medical and pharmaceutical industries who have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, by you fasting!
The ancient Greeks believed that medicine could be learned from nature and noted that animals (and humans) naturally resist eating when they feel unwell. Instinctively, fasting is something all creatures of nature naturally resort to in response to illness, evidence of our body’s innate wisdom guiding us to health.
Spiritual leaders as exponents of fasting
In addition to many ancient cultures extolling the virtues of fasting for health, three of the most influential men in the history of the world; Jesus, Buddha and the Prophet of Muhammad all shared a common belief in the healing power of fasting in providing immense benefits to both body and spirit.
Famous quotes on fasting:
“Fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within”. Paracelsus (1493- 1541)
“The best of all medicines is resting and fasting”. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
“A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors”. Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Health benefits of Fasting:
Fasting enables the body to free up the considerable energy wasted with ongoing digestion, diverting this energy instead to cleansing, repairing and detoxifying, while restoring the immune system to its powerful best. The end result being healing and restoration of vibrant health!
A few of the many benefits are listed below:
- Improved mental clarity and focus
- Increased energy
- Weight loss and body fat loss
- Lowers high blood sugar levels to normal range
- Improves insulin sensitivity
- Lowers blood cholesterol
- Promotes longevity
- Decreases inflammation
- Helps to prevents Alzheimer’s
- Has the capacity to reverse most chronic degenerative diseases eg cancer, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity etc.
Autophagy – a powerful process for healing
There is no more powerful practice than fasting for activating the process of autophagy – a cellular cleansing which breaks down diseased and worn-out tissue parts that are not serving the body, thereby enabling a deep cellular cleansing. Once these diseased tissues are eliminated the body is able to commence with renewal and healing. While this powerful process is ‘turned off’ when glucose, insulin and protein levels are present in the blood even in small amounts, fasting ‘turns on’ the process of autophagy. This is one of the core reasons for the benefits of longevity and the healing powers witnessed with fasting!
The stages of longer term fasting:
- Feeding: Blood sugar levels rise with eating and insulin levels rise in response to this in order to move glucose out of the blood stream and into the cells where it is used for energy. Excess glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and when the liver is saturated the excess glucose is converted to fat for storage.
- The post-absorptive phase: (6-24 hours post eating): Blood glucose and insulin levels begin falling. To supply energy the liver starts to break down glycogen, releasing glucose into circulation. Glycogen stores last approx 24-36hrs.
- Gluconeogenesis (1-2 days after eating): Glycogen stores in the liver have run out so the liver manufactures glucose from amino acids in a process called gluconeogenesis. (In non-diabetic individuals, glucose levels fall but stay within the normal range).
- Ketosis (2-3 days after eating): Low insulin levels stimulate lipolysis (fat break-down) for energy. Triglycerides (fat) are then broken into glycerol and three fatty acids. The glycerol is used in gluconeogenesis to produce glucose so that the amino acids (used in the previous phase) are now preserved for protein synthesis. The fatty acids are used directly for energy by most of the tissues of the body, except the brain. Some of the fatty acids are converted into ketones which are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and are used by the brain for energy. After 4 days of fasting approx 75% of energy for the brain is provided by ketones which are considered a super-food for the brain!
- The protein conservation phase (5 days after eating): High levels of growth hormone are produced by the body which maintains muscle mass. The energy for metabolism is almost entirely supplied by fatty acids and ketones now. Blood glucose levels in the blood are maintained in the normal range by gluconeogenesis using glycerol (see pt 4). Increased nor-epinephrine (adrenaline) levels prevent any decrease in metabolic rate and there is a normal amount of protein turnover but it is not being used for energy – the fat is serving this purpose.
In summary, there is a switching from burning glucose to burning fat for energy during fasting. In times of low food availability, stored food (fat) is naturally released to fill the void. The body does NOT burn muscle in an effort to supply energy until all the fat stores are used up.
Banishing the myths of fasting
1. Fasting puts you in ‘starvation mode’. This refers to the notion that our metabolism decreases severely and we no longer burn as many calories (ie we have a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR) as part of a ‘survival’ mechanism). While normal dieting (adopting calorie restriction) has been well documented in causing a dramatic reduction in BMR (of 25-30%) – the foremost reason why a massive 99% of people put on all or most of their weight lost after traditional dieting – crucially this does NOT happen with fasting!
In fact the opposite occurs with metabolism revving up (not down) during fasting. The reason makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint when we consider that historically man often went through periods of famine associated with droughts, war, disease, seasonal changes etc. It was important during times such as these that man (and animals) had more energy and mental acuity to hunt for and find food. Indeed if this were not the case, man would almost certainly have expired as a species as they became weaker and were unable to sustain themselves during times of famine. In fact this is precisely why we carry body fat – to sustain ourselves when food is not available.
Studies confirm this, such as one that measured the BMR of the subjects studied over 4 days of continuous fasting. The results showed that BMR had actually increased by 12%!
2. Fasting makes you burn muscle. During fasting, as explained in steps 4 and 5 of the stages of fasting (see above), fat is the preferred source of energy while muscle is preserved. Muscle will only be used when body fat levels have dropped to less than 4% (for comparison, elite male marathon runners carry approximately 8% body fat and female runners carry slightly more). The average person in contrast carries in excess of 20% body fat, most having considerably more than this, thereby offering a long-lasting supply of stored energy for the body during fasting while muscle is maintained.
3. Fasting causes low blood sugar. People concern themselves over blood sugar levels falling to dangerous levels however this does NOT happen with fasting because multiple physiological mechanisms in the body come into effect to keep it safely in the proper range. If one fasts for longer than 24-36 hrs the liver will begin to manufacture glucose from glycerol using fat deposits in the body. Therefore you do not need to eat foods containing glucose to maintain normal blood glucose levels! (This point applies to non-diabetics).
4. Fasting results in overeating. Many authorities warn against missing even a single meal stating that it could lead to overeating, however while studies show that there is a slight increase in average caloric intake on the first day after a 1-day fast, when one takes into account what would have been consumed over the 2 day period when eating normally, there is still a significant reduction in calories consumed. Therefore the slight increase of calories on Day 1 after fasting does not come close to making up for the lack of calories on the fasting day. In addition, as the fasting duration increases the opposite is frequently seen with a decreased intake of daily calories after resumption of eating.
5. Fasting deprives the body of nutrients. There are micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) and macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates). Micronutrient deficiency is rare in the developed world and with shorter fasting periods (up to 24hrs) there is no need to supplement. Over extended fasts a good whole food supplement (see below) is recommended for added assurance and safety. With regards to macronutrients, there are no essential carbohydrates that the body requires, however there are essential amino acids and fatty acids that cannot be manufactured by the body. During fasting however, the body in its wisdom reduces the losses of amino acids and fatty acids in the urine and stool, thereby preserving them. This is witnessed for example by monitoring nitrogen in the urine which would normally be a sign of protein metabolism. During fasting, nitrogen in the urine decreases significantly to almost negligible levels. In addition, to further preserve proteins the body breaks down old proteins into the component amino acids and recycles them into new proteins.
6. I will have no energy during fasting: The opposite is true! Once the initial detoxification phase experienced by some during the first 2-3 days is over, energy levels will begin to soar as you start to benefit from a healthier, cleansed body that is unimpeded by the constant draining of energy used for digestion. Your body will be supplied with energy from a far greater source of fuel (fat) than the limited supply of glycogen in the liver or the short-lived supply of glucose from dietary sources. In addition, the ketones produced are like super-fuel for the brain promoting greater mental acuity and focus! The days of brain fog will be gone! Note: even elite athletes often train during fasting to encourage use of the vast supply of fuel stored as fat. If they can do it with their low body fat percentage, then so can the rest of us!
7. I am worried about being hungry: It is helpful to know that hunger comes in waves and if you simply drink a glass of water – remembering that hunger is often an indication of dehydration – or occupy yourself with some activity, the wave of hunger will soon pass! Also bear in mind that hunger will be at its greatest in the first 2 days of fasting before ketosis has taken over and has begun supplying you with a steady source of glucose from fat metabolism in place of the troughs and peaks of glucose associated with carbohydrate metabolism that are responsible for hunger pangs.
Therefore it is often necessary to push through the first 2-3 days, after which your efforts will be rewarded as fasting becomes easier, while the benefits soar!
Please note: There are many different types and lengths of fasting, the details of which we address in 1-on-1 and group programs to facilitate the choosing of the most appropriate fast for each individual’s unique requirements, while ensuring a safe and enjoyable fast.
a) We always recommend utilising the support of a health practitioner who is practiced in giving advice and support through extended fasts. In addition, if one has specific health issues it is necessary to follow the guidance of a trained professional.
b) We do not advocate fasting for children, pregnant or breast-feeding women.
c) An organic bone broth and complete nutritious super-food supplement (eg Marine phytoplankton) are recommended during extended fasts to cover nutrient requirements.
Resources: “The complete guide to Fasting ~ heal your body through intermittent, alternate-day and extended fasting” by Dr Jason Fung, MD