You might recall that I wrote a blog not too long ago about the rather remarkable benefits of fasting for 13 hours between dinner and breakfast. One study of breast cancer survivors showed that women who fasted for 13 hours between dinner and breakfast had a 30% improved survival compared to those who did not. So even though I have not had breast cancer, I figured that if it helped women who did have breast cancer that it was probably as, or even more helpful for those who did not; so I began to do this myself. This fasting routine was not difficult for me to adopt in the least.
I’ve begun to recommend the 13-hour overnight fast to my patients, and no one has reported having any difficulty doing it.
I happened to mention the survival benefits of a 13-hour overnight fast to my writing coach. I did not know this at the time, but she is pre-diabetic. Without telling me, she began to fast for 13 hours between dinner and breakfast. One month later, she went to her doctor for her routine hemoglobin A1c test, a blood test that measures the level of insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism in diabetic patients. It had dropped one point. Now to those who are not familiar with the range of hemoglobin A1c, a drop of one point may not sound like anything worth repeating let alone applauding. But the range is very small and a drop of one point is dramatic. Her doctor was amazed. Keep in mind that my writing coach did not change her diet in any way. The only thing she changed was when she ate. Otherwise, she kept eating whatever she normally ate.
So, what’s up with fasting? Why is fasting for at least 13 hours between dinner and breakfast beneficial? Let me spell it out in plain english.
When you fast for more than, say, 8 hours – but this can vary from person to person – you exhaust your supply of readily available glucose and your insulin levels (the hormone that regulates blood sugar) falls because, well, it’s just not needed. Insulin drives sugar into cells, but they resist the onslaught after a while and they begin to “resist” it. Insulin also drives sugar into fat cells, and they are happy to swell in response. Insulin also drives a wicked inflammatory reaction that slowly destroys every tissue in the body, especially blood vessels and the brain. When insulin levels fall, a very insidious, destructive, and chronically debilitating inflammatory process also shuts down. Wow! You just gave your body a break. It’s like resting after a sprint: you need to recover. So does your body after you’ve been loading it up with sugar all day. After all, given what the food industry pushes at us on every front – SUGAR in all its splendid variety – the entire population has slowly been transformed into a mass of individual sugar bowls. It doesn’t take much to give the body a break from the onslaught of sugar. A 13 hour fast between dinner and breakfast is a very good start. Furthermore, when your blood sugar falls and your insulin level falls along with it another very helpful hormone, glucagon, kicks in to provide new fuel from the stores of fat you’ve been packing away just for such an occasion. Glucagon taps into the tank of fat in your body where energy is stored, and your body begins to use that as fuel. That’s why God made fat – so you can use it when you need it, like savings in the bank when you’re short of ready money. Another hormone also emerges when insulin gets lost, growth hormone. It is a repair hormone. It’s like the guy who comes to fix the roof when it’s been blown off in a storm. The storm is sugar and its nasty sidekick, too much insulin. Growth hormone rises when insulin falls, and when it arrives on the scene, it fixes the damage. Growth hormone can’t come out “in the storm”. Insulin must fall for the storm to pass. And Insulin won’t fall if you keep feeding your body sugar all day and into the night.
I began to be a little more interested in this whole thing about fasting. I did a literature search. I browsed through videos. I read articles. I became impressed with the power of fasting, and not just for 13 hours. In the past two years, there has been a huge rising among a handful of medical researchers in support of fasting as a means of therapy and prevention of chronic disease and cancer. There are now literally hundreds of scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals that have shown that fasting is amazingly beneficial. It’s even an effective treatment for epilepsy! Who would have thought? It’s been shown to improve cognition and decrease, even reverse, dementia.
Naturally, additional studies have looked at what can be done to maintain the beneficial effects of fasting once the fast has been completed. It appears that fasting followed by the adoption of a ketogenic diet maintains the benefits of fasting and continues the process of rejuvenation and healing. Make no mistake, this is a revolution.
I decided to begin my own journey with fasting, beginning with a month of 13 hours of fasting between dinner and breakfast. As I mentioned above, I found no difficulty with this first step whatsoever. I did not change my diet, which was basically healthy (from a distance) – it was very high in carbs. My carbs were largely organic and unrefined, things like whole grains and breads, etc. Then after a month of 13-hour overnight fasting, I moved to one meal a day (OMAD). That was not overly difficult either because I decided to make lunch my OMAD. I had already adapted to fasting from dinner the night before until breakfast, so it wasn’t a huge stress to stretch the fast to lunch and then be able to sit down to a large plate of food. Yes, I was good and hungry by the time I sat down to lunch and I was eager to get eating, but I wasn’t able to eat as much food as I thought. It wasn’t that my stomach had shrunk, it was that my metabolic hormones had re-adjusted to the overnight fasting life, and I just didn’t have as much of an appetite as I used to have. I filled up more quickly and was satiated sooner. Hmm. So I ate less and lost a few pounds.
I did the one meal a day (OMAD) routine for two weeks. I got very used to it. I looked forward to my one meal every day, and I made sure it was a good one. Slowly, I stripped away the extraneous carbs. I ate more vegetables, soup, and kept my protein low. I kept my fat – mostly olive oil – right up there with a high-fat diet. I was satisfied. I slept well. I had as much energy: I continued to work out at the gym with a personal trainer for one hour four times a week; I walked between 5-8 miles a day; I did my morning yoga for 20 minutes, as usual. I was fine. I lost 5 pounds. My skirts hung more attractively around my waist. My complexion brightened.
After still more research, I discovered that fasting on only water for 5 days kick-starts another even more profound process: rejuvenation. It’s been shown that beginning on day 3 of a water fast, your body starts to actually disintegrate the old, abnormal, precancerous, and otherwise junky cells that you’ve been accumulating like a toxic dump for years – in my case, 64. Some researchers have even found that cancer cells die a quick death when they are totally robbed of their only source of fuel – glucose. Fortunately, we can live on fat as an alternate source of energy. Starve the cancer cells of sugar, live on fat, and survive – even completely eliminate the disease. It’s been done.
OMG, could I fast for 5 days on nothing but water? Could I? Me? There was only one way to answer that question and that was to give it a try.
I read up on what it would be like. I prepared myself for the fast by slowly adapting to the fasting life: 13 hours of fasting between dinner and breakfast for one month, followed by two weeks of OMAD, slowly discarding carbs along the way in favor of fat and very little additional protein.
Does this higher fat, very low carb, low protein diet sound heretical? Does it ring familiar as the old Atkin’s regime? Yes, on both counts but with one exception. The diet that works the best is lower in carbs than the Atkin’s diet. It works better to improve the process of rejuvenation, which is the objective. It also turns out that a high protein drives cancer too. Best not to do that. Fat on the other hand doesn’t feed cancer. It can’t. Cancer can’t “eat” fat.
I had my last meal yesterday morning for breakfast. If I can see this through, I will break fast after a 5 day stint of nothing but water on Christmas morning. So far, so good.
I read last night that many of the symptoms that bother people, both on the Atkin’s diet and on a fast, have a lot to do with the loss of salt that occurs when you’re downing large quantities of water, which you should do to help flush out the garbage. The recommendation is to add just a pinch of salt to some of the water you drink. The old adage that we would be better off with a salt-restricted diet turns out not to be true. The New England Journal of Medicine published two articles confirming that we need at least twice the old recommended amount of salt – but most people, especially the worst of the the “sugar bowls”, take in way more salt than they need. I can report that I have felt a distinct improvement in how I feel just in the past 24 hours of fasting when I add a slight pinch of salt to the water I drink.
I’ll keep posting daily about this journey. I’ve been led to expect that the worst days of the first fast occur between days 2 and 3. That’s good to know. I can plan for it and not be surprised or discouraged if it gets really tough tomorrow and the next day. It seems that those who fast routinely – two or three times a year – say it gets much easier every time you do it. They also say that energy levels and a sense of well-being kick in around day 4. I’m looking forward to that.
One of my patients is a nun who is in her eighties. Her order, the Sisters of Charity, fasted twice a year as a religious routine. Most nuns in the past did. Forty days of OMAD during Advent and forty days of OMAD during Lent. She told me that when she visits the home where retired nuns live out their days, she’s surrounded by active women. One nun in her 90’s is out in the driveway washing everyone’s car. Another is preparing for her 100th birthday celebration and wants to know, “How do I look?” There’s an interesting epidemiological study waiting to happen, I’d say: compare nuns who’ve fasted as part of their religious practice to age-matched women – Mormons who don’t drink or smoke either – to assess any differences in disease and cancer incidence. I’d bet a case of beer on the nuns.
I invite your comments. I also strongly encourage you to do your own exploration of this subject, particularly in the many videos now available from professors from Boston University, the University of Florida in Gainesville, the University of California at San Francisco, and several from universities in Canada. This is not a cult. It is not a trend. It is a revolution: fasting followed by a ketogenic diet, adapted slowly so that you don’t shock your body unnecessarily, is the way to repair the damage and begin again. The data are overwhelming.
Of course, I expect that mainstream medicine will resist the intermittent fasting and ketogenic diet revolution. They always stand in front of real progress. They like the Tree of Knowledge they have built and they will die defending it, and let us die, too, if that’s what it takes. I expect the American Heart Association will look the other way. Ditto for all the diabetic associations. I can’t imagine that Komen or Susan Love will take the lead in this, but will follow me and others, eventually. Dream on if you think that the pharmaceutical industry will get in front of the benefits of fasting and a ketogenic diet as a way to avoid drugs and disease.
Oh, and one last unexpected and wonderful benefit of the OMAD two-week fast that I just completed: I saved 70% on my food bill and I gained at least 2 hours of free time every day.