Intermittent fasting (also called IF) is currently one of the world’s most popular health and fitness trends. It is an eating schedule, not a diet, meaning the focus is not on what you eat but on when you eat. IF is associated with a lot of benefits, including weight loss, but I will focus here on the health and mind improvements it triggers.
Fasting has been a natural part of human life for ages. We have known fasting is very helpful for us and thus most religions and cults have fasting rituals. Most people have fasted even unknowingly throughout their lifetimes, either by eating an early dinner (or skipping it) or by skipping breakfast.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Fasting has been a practice (not always by will, but because of need) throughout human evolution. Ancient hunter-gatherers didn’t have supermarkets, refrigerators or food available year-round. Sometimes they couldn’t find anything to eat. As a result, we evolved to be able to function without food for extended periods of time. Fasting is actually more natural to us than always eating 3–5 meals per day and snaking in-between. Most religions and cults have fasting practices.
There are multiple ways to approach this, and you can always adapt it to your body needs and lifestyle. The most commonly used intermittent fasting plan is called “intermittent fasting 16 8“. The first number (16) is the fasting period, while the second one (8 in this case) is the fed period. If this sounds too difficult for you, you can start with 14 10 and once you feel ok you can increase the fasting period. Sleep time counts as fasting, so it will not be difficult at all to reach at least 14 hours of fasting.
You don’t have to do IF every day, you can start by practicing it every two days. If you go for a daily habit, you can skip some days if you feel you need to eat earlier than planned. It is important to adapt this to your needs and not make this a burden.
While in the fed state, the body consumes sugars (glucose) and amino acids from the blood. While in the fasting state (time in which your body is not consuming or digesting food), the glucose levels drop, and the body (the pancreas) releases a hormone called glucagon, which stimulates the breakdown of stored glycogen into glucose. After this stage, if you continue fasting, the cells that can use alternative fuels will stop the glycolysis process. Muscle cells, for example, will switch to using fatty acids as fuel.
During the fasting period, you can drink water, tea, and black coffee. The famous biohacker Dave Asprey invented the bulletproof coffee, which is coffee with grass-fed butter and MCT oil. You can drink this during the fasting period and will provide high-quality fuel to your body without getting you out of the fasting state.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting has a lot of benefits. Many adopt this in order to lose weight, as this is one of the great effects it brings, but since I never had weight-related issues so I will skip this completely in this article. IF brings a lot of other benefits though:
- can improve brain health and prevent cognitive decline. A study published in Biogerontology, shows that intermittent fasting “can slow down or prevent the age-associated impairment of brain functions and promote healthy aging by involving multiple regulatory pathways aimed at maintaining energy homeostasis”1)Intermittent fasting protects against the deterioration of cognitive function, energy metabolism and dyslipidemia in Alzheimer’s disease-induced estrogen deficient rats 2)Middle age onset short-term intermittent fasting dietary restriction prevents brain function impairments in male Wistar rats
- increases cell turnover. Fasting increases autophagy, an important detoxification function that cleans out damaged cells and cell components. 3)Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy
- can help reduce blood pressure and prevent hypertension. A study published in Nutrients concluded that “intermittent fasting diet causes an increase of BDNF factor, which results in lowering the systolic and diastolic blood pressure by activating the parasympathetic system”4)Intermittent Fasting in Cardiovascular Disorders—An Overview
- reduces oxidative stress, an important factor in aging and many chronic diseases. 5)Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems 6)Practicality of Intermittent Fasting in Humans and its Effect on Oxidative Stress and Genes Related to Aging and Metabolism
- reduces inflammation. A study involving 50 people fasting for Ramadan (when people fast during the day and only eat during the night) showed that IF “attenuates inflammatory status of the body by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokine expression and decreasing body fat and circulating levels of leukocytes” 7)Intermittent fasting during Ramadan attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and immune cells in healthy subjects
- can help prevent the development of atherosclerosis, by reducing the concentration of inflammatory markers. 8)Intermittent Fasting in Cardiovascular Disorders—An Overview
- lowers cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Studies show a significant decrease in cholesterol and triglycerides levels 9)Time-restricted feeding and risk of metabolic disease: a review of human and animal studies
- reduces insulin resistance and protects against type 2 diabetes
Breakfast has been popularized as “the most important meal” of the day. This was mostly generated by food manufacturers that had massive advertising campaigns to convince you to eat well at breakfast. In time this came to be taken as an unquestionable fact. Not to mention many people tend to start the day with a bowl of milk and cereals, full of processed sugar.
The truth is, right after you wake up you are not hungry, and your body has plenty of energy (especially if you had a good meal the previous evening) and does not need to spend it digesting even more food. The body is a bit dehydrated in the morning, so the best thing you can do right after waking up is to drink a glass of water, ideally at the body’s temperature.
Effects on exercise
For healthy individuals, after adjusting to the new eating schedule, intermittent fasting should not affect their ability to exercise.
Intermittent fasting will actually help you have lean muscles. Those worried about losing muscle mass while fasting should make sure they consume enough protein during eating periods.
Exercising is very important for humans in general and should be practiced regularly, and this is valid after you start intermittent fasting also. This is very important especially with the western lifestyle that keeps us sitting (or laying) in front of a pc/desk/tv for many hours a day.
Who Should Avoid It?
Despite having many benefits, intermittent fasting has also disadvantages and should not be practiced by anybody. If you have any doubts, it is best to seek medical advice first. Fasting may be dangerous and it is not recommended for people with hormonal imbalances, pregnant and breastfeeding women, diabetics that have problems controlling insulin levels, children or people with a history of eating disorders like bulimia or anorexy.
Intermittent fasting is one of many lifestyle strategies that can improve your health. It can bring a long array of benefits for your body and mind, but it will fit great for some people while it will be a burden for others. I find the benefits well worth the effort. The only way to find out is to try it out!
For me, intermittent fasting is the most important biohack. I practice this almost every day, going for 18-19 hours usually, and it feels great!