Fasting May Help You Live Longer

We’ve all seen the commercials and we all remember hearing about its importance growing up- breakfast is the most important meal of the day. So, in this culture where it’s customary to eat just three times a day, perhaps with a couple snacks in between, the idea of skipping a meal like breakfast is unheard of. However, in the last couple of years intermittent fasting has gained attention and the endorsement of the scientific community. In fact, my better half has been promoting it for years.

Celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon, too. Hugh Jackman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jimmy Kimmel have all found it to be helpful; Mr. Kimmel credits the 5:2 diet (eating normally five days and then fasting two) for his significant weight loss. And the National Institute on Aging’s, Mark Mattson, hasn’t had breakfast in 35 years; on most days he can be found practicing some form of fasting. He believes it’s clear that our ancestors didn’t eat three meals a day(and a snack). But after skipping meals for decades, Dr. Mattson, warns people not to go too crazy too fast because it takes two weeks to a month to adapt.

From the Times article:

“Fasting to improve health dates back thousands of years, with Hippocrates and Plato among its earliest proponents. Dr. Mattson argues that humans are well suited for it: For much of human history, sporadic access to food was likely the norm, especially for hunter-gatherers. As a result, we’ve evolved with livers and muscles that store quickly accessible carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, and our fat tissue holds long-lasting energy reserves that can sustain the body for weeks when food is not available.”

After seeing that, “alternate-day fasting protected mice from strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and consistently extended their life spans by 30 percent”, Dr. Mattson interest was piqued, reports the Times. He and his colleagues then found that alternate-day fasting increased production of proteins that protect brain cells (which enhanced their ability to repair damaged DNA). They have now decided to start a clinical trial of people 55 to 70 years old who are pre-diabetic and at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease; he wants to see if intermittent fasting will slow cognitive decline.

But just how does our body change during a fast?

When we fast, proteins and certain amino acids are lowered, and our body is able to control the TOR, PKA and IGF pathways. When controlled, they can switch on certain reactions inside the body causing immune cells to die and organs to shrink.

But fasting also forces our body to shift from using glucose to fat, for fuel. “During this process, the fat is converted to compounds known as ketones, a ‘clean’ energy source that burns more efficiently than glucose, like high-octane gasoline,” Dr. Ludwig tells the Times. This is the same process as ketosis- which has been found to help kids who have seizures.

Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, believes that the health benefits of fasting might be due to lowering insulin and a hormone called insulinlike growth factor (IGF-1), which are linked to cancer and diabetes. Therefore, the thought is that if you can lower those hormones, you may be able to slow cell growth and development.

More from the Times article:

“’When you have low insulin and low IGF-1, the body goes into a state of maintenance, a state of standby,’ Dr. Longo said. There is not a lot of push for cells to grow, and in general the cells enter a protected mode.

As cells are killed and the body goes into standby, your stem cells switch on, says Longo. Once switched on, the stem cells can regenerate the lost cells and organ mass — leaving you shiny and new.

When cells in the body age, their ratios change and Longo believes the body’s reaction — and repair methods — to fasting help restore them to when you were younger. ‘You’re killing the bad cells and regenerating with cells that are more functional.'”

If you do decide to try intermittent fasting, you have a couple of options (all which should be done under a doctors care):

  • Alternate-day fasting- involves eating no more than 500 calories every other day.

In eight to 10 week trials, people lose(on average)about 13 pounds and experience marked reductions in LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, and insulin- the fat-storage hormone.

  • Time-restricted feeding- consume all of the day’s calories in a narrow window, usually six to eight hours, and fasting for the remaining 16 to 18 hours in a day (studies show this practice, in animals and humans, may lower cancer risk and help people maintain their weight).

This seems to be easiest when people eat a moderately high-fat diet, consuming up to 500 calories on fasting days. Ten to 20 percent of people often find the diet too difficult but if you stick with it, you’ll adjust after a couple of weeks.

  • The 5:2 diet- eating normally for five days out of a seven-day period and restricting the amount of food eaten on the other two days(studies show it lowers weight and improves blood sugar, inflammation and other aspects of metabolic health).

In a study done by Dr. Mattson, the intermittent fasting group(there was also a control group) lost about 14 pounds more on average, lost more belly fat, retained more muscle and had greater improvements in their blood sugar regulation.

  • The human fasting mimicking diet (FMD)- “…a plant based program designed to attain fasting-like effects while providing micronutrient nourishment (vitamins, minerals, etc.) and minimizing the burden of fasting where participants consume approximately 1000 calories on day one and 725 calories for the remaining four days,” reports CNN.

Participants lost weight after three months and their risk factors for cardiovascular disease. There was also an increase of certain stem cells in the body which makes it appear as if the diet turns on the body’s ability to renew itself.

CNN reports that Miguel Toribio-Mateas, Chairman of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy says, “Cells have a list of things to do every day,…like getting rid of toxins. If their workload is then disrupted by the need to store excess calories, certain products can accumulate. Regulating calories can have a very positive effect.” It seems clear to him and others that our diet has much to do with our longevity.

Source: NY Times and CNN