Not Eating for Health
By Amy Schade, PA-C
When it comes to getting and staying healthy, one of the simplest things you can do is just not eat. Surprisingly, fasting (avoiding all food and caloric beverages for a period of time) can bring with it a whole host of health benefits. Fasting can be categorized into intermittent fasting and periodic fasting. Intermittent fasting typically is fasting for a shorter period of time, such as a 14 or 24 hour fast. Longer periods of fasting (typically longer than 3 days) are categorized as periodic fasting. Research has shown that fasting can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce blood pressure, reduce body fat, decrease cholesterol levels, and reduce inflammation.
Although most wouldn’t think to skip breakfast before a big day, intermittent fasting can improve cognitive abilities. In rodent models, intermittent fasting has shown increases in learning, memory, sensory, and motor function. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that increases neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and the resistance to injury of neurons. And as you might expect, fasting directly increases the levels of BDNF in your brain. Intermittent fasting could be a huge asset to anyone looking to improve their mental performance at school or work.
Neuronal autophagy is a term for when brain cells or neurons break down dysfunctional proteins and cell structures, recycle them and then use these to repair brain cells back to a healthy, functional state. It has been shown that autophagy is protective against cancer, infection, and neurodegenerative diseases. The upregulation of neuronal autophagy likely contributes to neuroprotection, decreasing the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In rodent models, intermittent fasting led to reductions in blood pressure and resting heart rate along with reductions in cholesterol levels and overall inflammation. These are all known contributors to heart disease. Although further research is needed, fasting likely contributes to a reduced risk of developing heart disease.
In 2015, a review article demonstrated that people who participated in intermittent fasting on average were able to reduce their total body weight, body fat, and their cholesterol levels. Interestingly, this study showed that intermittent fasting was more effective for weight loss than the traditional daily caloric restriction that is prevalent in most diets today. One reason that intermittent fasting may be so effective is that short fasts of 18 to 24 hours lead to oxidation of stored fat and the breakdown of triglycerides stored in the body. This increased usage of stored fat or lipolysis is likely the cause of weight loss.
Although it may be challenging to start an intermittent fasting protocol, once habituated to a new way of eating, the array of preventative health benefits is clear. Intermittent fasting appears to be safe and feasible. Longer periods of fasting may have more profound health benefits but also likely need to be supervised by a medical professional as the chance for adverse reactions is higher. Overall intermittent fasting could be a simple, impressive tool in the world of preventative health. Not only has it shown evidence of reducing the risk of chronic disease, but it also may improve cognitive function and be a powerful tool for sustainable weight loss.
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