By: Emily Oberg
Though fasting has become increasingly popular within the last couple of years, the concept itself is nothing new and has been practiced since the 14th century. Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Mark Mattson has been studying fasting and its effects for the past 25 years. In his research, Mattson found that the human body has not only evolved to be able to survive several days without food, but it can actually benefit in many ways from doing so, and the benefits go far beyond just losing weight. I know there’s a lot of backlash when it comes to fasting, so I’m going to link to multiple studies below and let the science speak for itself.
Recently, I tried a 36 hour fast for the first time. Before that, I had practiced intermittent fasting for the past year but was always too intimidated to do more than the standard 12-16 hours. Usually, I snack throughout the day and enjoy a big meal at lunch or dinner, so not consuming anything but water was a challenge, but I could see why people do it on a regular basis. You feel an increase in energy, don’t have to worry about what to cook and can focus more easily. In order to properly prepare yourself for a 24 hour fast, you should avoid sugar and refined carbs 1-2 days before, make sure your last meal is full of healthy fats such as olive oil, salmon, avocados and nuts, and be prepared to drink PLENTY of water during your fast (apple cider vinegar and lemon in your water is allowed).
Now, let’s get to the benefits.
In addition to aiding in weight loss, especially in obese individuals, fasting has a multitude of benefits and the best part? It’s free. Fasting for a period of 12 hours or more has been shown to: reduce inflammation, reduce cravings, lower blood pressure, boost immunity, accelerate the healing process of damaged tissue, reduce insulin resistance, delay the aging process, and prevent cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzeimers and Parkinsons. Sound too good to be true? Well, there’s a reason our ancestors have been doing it for hundreds of years.
Fasting works like this; when you stop eating for a few hours, your body depletes its glycogen stores and begins to use fat as fuel, thus why fasting helps us lose weight and burn fat. When we continue to fast even for an even longer period of time, our body is able to heal itself by tending to what needs to be fixed because it’s not busy digesting food. When we’re constantly eating, snacking and drinking, our body doesn’t have time to heal as it’s continuously breaking down what we’re putting in.
When you fast for a period of 6 hours or more, your body begins a cleansing process where damaged cells are able to repair themselves. It does this with the increased production of Human Growth Hormone— a naturally occurring hormone produced by our pituitary gland that regenerates and produces new cells, as well as repairing damaged tissue in every part of our body and brain.
Another major benefit of long-term fasting is increased levels of BDNF. BDNF or, Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, stimulates and controls growth of new neurons from neural stem cells, helping to improve cognitive function. When our BDNF levels are low, we’re at risk for diseases like dementia and Alzheimers. Studies have shown that fasting up to 36 hours can increase BDNF by up to 400%.
This is not to say that fasting works for absolutely everyone. It may do wonders for you, or it may be harmful and make you feel terrible. We are all different, and respond differently to different things. Like everything else we discuss here, we encourage you to always speak with your doctor before trying something out.