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Where Science Meets Lifestyle.

Explore the Power of Intermittent Fasting: An Ancient Tool for Physical and Mental Wellness

Health and wellness can’t escape the word diet. Unfortunately, it has negative connotations. Restricted eating. Extreme dieting. Disordered eating. But here, we have a chance to reframe it. Your diet is simply what you eat. You can have a good diet. A poor diet. A varied diet. But everyone has a diet.

To have a healthy view of diet, we need to change our definition of the word. Retrain your mind to one fact: food is fuel. Yes, I’ve said it again: “Retrain your mind.” Here at TheBiohack, we’re going to repeat this a lot. Don’t worry, though. We’ll give you the information and the tools to achieve the mindset shifts you need.

First, though, a quick lesson. Calories are converted to energy. Yes — your eyes, tongue and tummy all appreciate good food. But the body sees the energy you provide. Viewing food as fuel doesn’t mean we can’t eat tasty food. It’s the starting place for understanding how you should eat. And it boils down to the fundamental energy balance equations that determine weight gain or weight loss:

  • Excess energy = fat storage.
  • Small energy deficit = fat loss.
  • Too ample an energy deficit = fat storage from our starvation response.

The detour is significant to fully understand the physiology that dictates these equations, so we’ll leave that for another day. For now, let’s get into the meat of some powerful protocols determining HOW you eat: intermittent fasting (I-F).

Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term. It encompasses many different protocols that dictate different forms of time-restricted eating. They’re growing in popularity as scientists discover more about its benefits. The data looks promising for obesity, hypertension, inflammation and high cholesterol, to name a few1.

Where Does I-F Come From?

I-F is a practice potentially as old as humanity itself. It echoes the survival strategies of our ancestors and mirrors practices used by religions and cultures throughout history. The ancient Greeks laid foundational views on fasting, believing that it facilitated enhanced cognitive function. Hippocrates, often regarded as the catalyst of Western medicine, advocated for fasting as a therapeutic measure2.

Many significant religions practice I-F—Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism – further illustrating its significance beyond just physical health, highlighting important spiritual and disciplinary factors. It’s safe to say that one of my favourite dogmas holds true with I-F: that age-old wisdom that withstands the test of time tends to veer towards objectivity.

Modern day bestsellers, including “Eat, Fast and Live Longer” by Michael Mosley, have furthered the resurgence of I-F for health3. And that’s before we mention the Silicon Valley I-F trend. A trend that began as an exploration of biohacking4. But we must thank the scientific community for this boom in popularity. Scientists began to explore calorie restriction in the 1940s5, which laid the groundwork for our current understanding of how I-F works.

How Does I-F Work?

The key to I-F is how the body responds—periods of fasting act as a metabolic switch, triggering a change in the fuel we use to produce energy. Ordinarily, the body prioritises using sugar (in the form of glucose) to produce energy. But during periods of fasting, the body changes to using fatty acids (in the form of ketones).

Without periods of fasting, we produces lipids (fat) and cholesterol, and store these as future energy sources, relying primarily on sugars for our immediate energy source. Something interesting happens during periods of fasting: we begin to use fats as our primary source of energy. And as it turns out, this is a powerful way to improve body composition. It’s as simple as burning fat for energy, rather than using glucose and storing that fat6.

The consequences of changing your energy source are profound. Studies repeatedly show that it can be a powerful tool for losing weight. Alongside this weight loss, there is an improvement in other health biomarkers. Blood glucose levels improve. Cholesterol improves. Blood pressure can improve. They even enhanced synchronicity with your body clock7.

I-F’s benefits don’t end there. It can reduce oxidative stress, the primary mechanism behind inflammation. Reduce oxidative stress, and you’ll reduce your levels of inflammation. This will reduce the risk of chronic disease and chronic pain and even potentially aid in keeping some auto-immune conditions at bay8.

Let’s get back to the mind. I-F even benefits our cognition. (Cognition is the fancy way of saying how sharp your brain is functioning.) I-F has been shown to improve cognitive function and preserve abilities like learning and memories9. A potential way to protect our brains as we age.

There remains room for further scientific understanding here, specifically how I-F can treat disease, how it changes the microbiome and which protocol is optimal for a given situation. But it’s safe to say that periods of fasting have advantages that we could all benefit from.

Protocols for I-F

These protocols will only work with discipline. Introducing a fasting protocol into your life is a big mental challenge. Your body can initially react to the unfamiliar eating pattern with hunger pains, headaches, and irritability. But as long as your protocol is done safely and overseen by an expert, you will soon find your way to feeling even better than before.

Here, I’ll highlight 5 of the most common types of I-F. The scientific community has not reached a consensus on which is best10, so weigh them up for yourself and chat with your doctor to see which you can safely incorporate given your health circumstances.

Time-restricted eating (the 16:8 or 14:10 method): This method prescribes daily fasting durations of 16 or 14 hours, respectively, and allocates 8 or 10-hour windows for nutritional intake. This regimen aligns eating patterns with our natural circadian rhythms to optimise our metabolic cycles.

The 5:2 Diet: This approach moderates caloric intake on two non-consecutive days per week. On the fasting days, intake should be limited to 500 – 600 calories. Normal healthy eating practices are then permitted for the remaining five days. The 5:2 method aims to reduce weekly caloric intake in order to optimise health.

Eat-Stop-Eat: This protocol advocates for a 24-hour fast once or twice weekly. Only water, tea, or coffee (without milk or sugar) is permitted on the fasting days. Healthy eating habits are advised on non-fasting days. This method aims to stimulate the metabolic benefits of regular extreme periods of fasting.

Alternate-Day Fasting: this protocol prescribes alternative days of unrestricted healthy eating and substantial caloric reduction (or fasting). Some variations of this diet include minimal intake, around 500 calories, on fasting days. Others advocate for complete fasting. This protocol seeks to target a cyclic pattern of metabolic activation.

Overnight Fasting (12:12 method): This approach balances a 12-hour fasting window each day. It is the most similar to ordinary Western eating patterns. As such, it is considered a more moderate form of IF. It aims to serve as a more accessible entry point for people new to fasting practices.

Risks of I-F

Ultimately, all health interventions carry some risk. While I-F offers notable benefits, it’s equally important to acknowledge the potential risks. As briefly mentioned above, there are short-term side effects to be aware of. While your body gets used to the change in timing of your nutritional intake, you may experience headaches, lethargy, mood swings, altered sleep patterns, and increased urination11.

If you are diagnosed with diabetes, it can be a dangerous choice. So do not explore this alone. I will stress once more – discuss it with your doctor. Finally, the structured nature of IF, with its strict eating and fasting windows, may inadvertently increase the risk of developing eating disorders12. So, for the last time, seek expert guidance.

Risks always sound scary. But remember, there are higher risks each time you get in your car. So don’t let these prevent you from unlocking all the significant benefits!

Tldr;

I-F is a powerful tool for achieving optimal health. It can help with body recomposition, weight loss, cholesterol improvement, blood pressure management, inflammation reduction, and mental discipline development. Think of it this way: What could your health look like a year from now if you started I-F today?

As always with health interventions: take your time to do your research. Speak to a professional. And don’t make any sudden drastic changes. Allow your body to compensate. And enjoy the health rewards of your new found eating habits.

Further Reading

As always – here I’ll cover a few of my favourite books/sources of information on the topic discussed. Let me know if you think I’ve missed a vital resource!

  1. “The Complete Guide to Intermittent Fasting” by Dr. Jason Fung. Dr Fung provides a comprehensive guide to I-F, including the science behind the practice and practical tips for getting started.
  2. “The Longevity Diet” by Dr. Valter Longo: Dr Lungo explores the potential benefits of I-F for longevity and overall health.
  3. “The Circadian Code” by Dr. Satchin Panda: Dr Panda discusses the importance of timing in eating and how I-F can help regulate our body’s internal clock.
  4. “The Fast Diet” by Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer: This book outlines the 5:2 method of I-, which involves eating normally for 5 days and fasting for 2 non-consecutive days per week.
  5. “Intermittent Fasting: Everything You Need to Know” by Healthline: This article provides a comprehensive overview of I-F, including the different types, potential benefits, and how to get started.

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31881139/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6601432 ↩︎
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lxyzc ↩︎
  4. https://www.businessinsider.com/health-trends-jack-dorsey-and-silicon-valley-workers-swear-by-2019-10?r=US&IR=T ↩︎
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230387/ ↩︎
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5783752/ ↩︎
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4516560/ ↩︎
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1568997223001428#:~:text=Intermittent%20fasting%20alters%20and%20improves,the%20condition%20of%20multiple%20sclerosis. ↩︎
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8470960/ ↩︎
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8839325 ↩︎
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8754590/ ↩︎
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34191688/ ↩︎

[NB. All images created using Midjourney]

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