Fasting is the term used to describe a voluntary abstinence of food for a set period of time. We fast every night when we go to sleep, which is why we are generally hungry when we wake up. Breakfast literally means to break a fast. During sleep, our body uses this time to recover and rebuild itself. This is more easily done when we are not actively eating and digesting food. Digestion accounts for 5 to 15 percent of our body’s energy expenditure, with protein and alcohol requiring the most energy. With no food to digest, our bodies can focus on other bodily functions, like rebuilding muscle tissue after a hard workout. Fasting has been a common religious practice for centuries in nearly every culture around the world. Today in the health and fitness industry, fasting is touted as both a weight-loss and health practice. But exactly what are the health benefits of fasting?
When done correctly, fasting has health benefits ranging from looking good on the outside to feeling good on the inside. Before you begin a fast, make sure you talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you. Most fasts last anywhere from 24 hours to 72 hours though timespan can vary. You can decide what kind of fast is right for you:
- Water fast is the most difficult kind of fast because you consume no calories, only water or calorie free beverages.
- Juice fast is a little easier than a water fast because you can consume calories from fruit juices only. Ideally the fruit juices should be fresh squeezed with no added sugar or ingredients.
- Intermittent fasting involves fasting every day for a certain number of hours. Typical fasting periods are anywhere from 4 to 12 hours a day. During the other hours of the day, you are permitted to eat.
7 Health Benefits of Fasting
1. Promotes Weight-Loss
The most obvious and sought-after benefit of fasting is weight-loss. When you are not consuming calories to meet your energy expenditure, your body has to turn elsewhere for fuel. It does so by breaking down fat in your fat stores to be used as energy, thus resulting in fat loss. How much weight you lose is dependent on what kind of fast you do and for how long. It will also depend on how much fat you have to lose when you start. Though fasting may seem like a quick way to lose fat, the weight lost can easily be replaced when you start eating again. To avoid gaining back all the weight you lose after a fast, reintroduce foods slowly back into your diet. You might be ravenous after a fast, especially after your first bite of food. This can lead to overeating, which will only put you back to where you started. Break your fast with small healthy meals to let your hunger adjust before eating normally again.
2. Reduces Insulin Resistance and Aids In Blood Sugar Control
Some studies have shown that fasting can improve blood sugar levels in our body. This benefit can be especially useful for those with or at risk for diabetes. Another study found that intermittent and alternate day fasting (eating only every other day) was effective in reducing insulin resistance. By decreasing your resistance to insulin, your body can transport glucose from your bloodstream to your cells more effectively. This, combined with fasting’s ability to lower blood sugar levels can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.
3. Fights Inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been linked to serious health concerns such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and various autoimmune diseases. Inflammation occurs when your body promotes an immune response to heal an injury or fight off foreign agents. In the case of chronic inflammation, your body promotes this immune response even when there is no injury or foreign agent present. Fasting can help to reduce inflammation in the body, thus decreasing your chances of diseases associated with inflammation. Both intermittent fasting and severely restricted calorie intake that mimics fasting, has been shown to significantly decrease inflammatory markers in adults. Fasting may even be used as a treatment for certain inflammatory diseases, like multiple sclerosis.
4. Promotes Mental Clarity
Fasting has been used for centuries as a religious and spiritual practice as a means to clear one’s mind and be closer to God. Research shows that the mental benefits of fasting do exist and may even help to prevent neurodegenerative disorders. In one study, mice who practiced intermittent fasting for 11 months showed improvements in brain function and brain function. Some of the brain health benefits of fasting may be attributed to its anti-inflammatory effect, which helps to prevent certain neurological diseases like Alzheimers. Another reason for fasting’s mental boosting effects could be because of the lack of unhealthy food. Unhealthy foods are not only harder for us to digest, but they can also affect our mood and energy level. Sugar and caffeine crashes and alcohol withdrawal all have negative effects on our energy and mood levels, leaving us with brain fog. When we eliminate these things from our diet completely, our mind can function normally.
5. Can Help Fight Depression
Fasting for various periods of time has been shown to increase the availability of serotonin and endogenous opioids in the brain, both of which regulate mood. It’s also been shown to relieve tension, anger, and induce a feeling of euphoria. One study asked people with depression to reduce their daily calorie intake by 25 percent. In just over 6 months, they reported having fewer symptoms of depression along with no other negative side effects.
6. Reduces Risk Of Heart Disease
The typical Western diet consists of primarily processed carbohydrates and unhealthy trans fats that contribute to high blood pressure and clogged arteries. Fasting can improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and improving triglycerides and cholesterol levels. An eight week study of alternate-day fasting resulted in participants decreasing their levels of bad cholesterol by 25% and blood triglycerides by 32%. Another study concluded that fasting had a significant impact on improving blood pressure, triglycerides, and bad cholesterol levels in obese adults.
7. May Help You Live Longer
One surprising benefit of fasting is that it may help you live longer. In animal studies, fasting has been shown to slow the signs of aging and promote longer lifespan. Rats who followed an alternate day fasting regimen experienced delayed rates of aging and lived longer than the control group by 83%. Though so far studies are limited to animals, the results could be promising for humans as well.
To Fast or Not to Fast?
A short fast may be beneficial after a weekend of excessive eating or drinking to reset your blood sugar and hormone levels. Detox diets and colon cleanses are similar ways of recovering from a calorie splurge. Though the health benefits of fasting are many, practicing regular healthy habits can provide much of the same benefits. Fasting may be helpful for some people in maintaining a healthy body and lifestyle, but it’s not necessary for everyone. Should you decide to fast, be sure you do so safely. Start off easy with intermittent fasting, then work your way up to doing longer fasts. But if fasting is not for you, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of other ways to improve your health naturally and effectively.