The health benefits of fasting include detoxification, relief from epilepsy, arthritis, obesity, pancreatitis, and improved cardiovascular health. It also aids in a faster healing of the body and stimulating the release of growth and anti-aging hormones.
Fasting refers to refraining from either food, drink, or both at your own will for a definite span of time. It could be done partially for some particular food or as total abstention, in which no food or liquid is consumed for one or more days. Along with religious significance for some people, it also offers health benefits if undertaken in a correct and a healthy manner.
Energy Resources During Fasting
The body enters into the fasting mode only after 7-8 hours of having the last meal, since that is when the body typically finishes utilizing the nutrients from the food. Usually, the body draws its energy from the glucose that is present in the liver and muscles. When the body undergoes a fast, this stored glucose is the first thing to be utilized. If the fast continues long enough and the glucose runs out, the body depends on the accumulated fat for further energy requirements. However, this type of energy release is only available to an extent, after which the body starts to attack the stored proteins. This is also known as starvation, which is not a healthy method of fasting. This can happen if the fasting continues for several days.
Types of Fasting
It is done in different ways depending on an individual’s specific bodily requirement. The most commonly observed types of fasts have been listed below.
Intermittent or Short-term Fasting
Intermittent fasting refers to a model of eating that rotates between the stages in which people abstain from food and usually consume some low-calorie drink, water, and non-fasting (i.e. a normal, unrestricted routine of eating). The most common types of intermittent fasting are 24-hour fasting (initiated after breakfast and maintained until the breakfast of the subsequent day or a 36-hour fast, which is continued for two days. Short-term fasting can prove beneficial for sleep disorders, alertness, energy imbalances, and better sensory functions.
Calorie restriction refers to a dietary system in which there is a constraint on the amount of caloric intake by the subject. The parameter that acts as a base for this type of restriction fluctuates according to the person’s unrestricted intake, also known as Ad libitum. Calorie restriction has shown positive results in health concerns like heart rate, blood pressure, decreased body fat, and insulin sensitivity.
Long-term fasting refers to prolonged fasting where the time period ranges from 48 hours to 30-40 days without food. This type is usually advised for patients suffering from chronic medical conditions and should be done only under strict medical guidance.
Religious fasting is done for a particular faith or spirituality. People from different creeds observe it in different ways and for a wide range of reasons. For example, Hindus observe fasts on different weekdays for their devotion to a particular God, while Ramadan fasting is done between dawn and dusk for a month according to Islam. Buddhist monks refrain from eating after the midday meal, while Roman Catholics reduce their food to two small meals.
Other than the above-mentioned fasts, some people also try juice fasts, in which only fruit juices are consumed, as well as water fasts, which involves consuming nothing but water.
Health Benefits of Fasting
It can act as a preventative health measure to maintain a clean body and can prove truly advantageous if conducted in a guided manner.
Detoxification is a regular body process when the body neutralizes or gets rid of any kind of accumulated toxins in the various organs like the colon, liver, lungs, or skin. When no food is consumed by the body, the body turns to the fat deposits for energy, which releases chemicals from the fatty reserves and results in the eradication of these chemicals through the organs. After fasting, the blood is filled with better levels of endorphins, which makes you more alert and provides you with a feeling of good mental health. It has been well favored by Ayurvedic therapy for cleansing and correcting the imbalances in the body.
Studies have demonstrated that a change in the levels of glucose due to fasting proves beneficial for the effectiveness of chemotherapy performed against tumors. Absolutely no calorie consumption for a defined period stimulates a lot of changes related to the protection of body cells, which is favorable for the patients suffering from cancer or undergoing tumor curing treatment. Fasting decreases the toxic side effects of chemotherapy on the normal cells and sensitizes the malignant cells to the chemotherapy medicine, which encourages the deterioration of tumors. However, these options need very close medical supervision and should be discussed with a medical professional before being undertaken.
Fasting has been in use to combat obesity for a long time. A study has demonstrated positive results with respect to average weekly weight loss that occurred in the patients after fasting. It triggers the liver enzymes and breaks fat and cholesterol into essential bile acids, which stimulate the metabolism and convert the surplus fat into heat. Under the medical guidance, fasting can prove to be the simplest and surest way to shell out excess fat with an acceptable amount of minimal side effects.
Epilepsy refers to a brain disorder in which a person suffers from recurrent convulsions that can lead to a transformation in behavior. Fasting has been proven beneficial for patients suffering from epilepsy. Studies on this topic have shown positive results in terms of the frequency of seizures in such patients.
Relief from Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic medical condition that causes inflammation of flexible joints. It can also affect the surrounding tissues and other organs. Under medical supervision, controlled fasting has shown significant results in the studies conducted. However, it has been recommended by medical professionals to proceed with a vegetarian diet thereafter.
The pancreas plays an important role in producing digestive juices and releasing the hormones in the body, including insulin. When the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short span of time, it is known as pancreatitis. Along with intravenous feeding and fluid therapy, fasting has also been accepted as a treatment strategy for acute pancreatitis.
Fasting also promotes the healing process in the body. When food is no longer present in the stomach, the body focuses on other vital functions like metabolic activity and the immune system, rather than digestion which is not necessary till the next meal. Research has shown significant development in the immune system of the intestines and overall health of the subject patients under medical supervision. The mechanism of autophagy involves a synthesis and recycling of cellular components by degradation of unnecessary cells. It gets promoted during fasting. This leads to the production of healthier cells and tissues throughout the body.
Secretion of Growth Hormones
Growth hormones stimulate growth and production of cells in the body. The production of such hormones also increases during fasting, resulting in the release of better growth and anti-aging hormones. This has been demonstrated by various studies conducted in this regard.
Protects Heart Health
Fasting for short durations, such as an intermittent fast, in which the meal frequency is reduced, aids in the better production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This compound beneficially influences the regulation of glucose and cardiovascular health. This has been demonstrated by various studies conducted in this regard, along with other health benefits including blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, body mass, triglycerides, and levels of HDL cholesterol.
Pre or Post-operative Fasting
Doctors recommend short fasting, which is normally 2-8 hours, as groundwork for certain diagnostic investigations to obtain more accurate results. In case, the surgery involves the organs of the digestive system, fasting may be recommended before and after the surgery to ensure empty bowels. This helps to protect the lungs from getting any content from the stomach during anesthesia. Based on the studies that have been conducted in this regard, medical professionals recommend that consumption is limited to fluids such as water, clear fluids, and fruit juices before surgery.
Studies have provided evidence of healthy aging of the brain, which is attributed to calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. The body gets an opportunity to repair itself as a result of a slower metabolic rate, better defense mechanisms, and protein production during fasting. This leads to improved mental well-being, clarity, improved blood circulation, and a feeling of rejuvenation. Scientists believe that all of these effects contribute to an extended life expectancy. It has also been proven by the research done on the life of protozoa, yeast, rats, and some other species as a result of fasting. However, for humans, the studies are in progress.
Side Effects of Fasting
Although fasting has been believed to be a natural and effective method of helping the body get rid of harmful toxins, it is also vital to be well aware of its possible side effects and hitches.
During fasting, the body continues losing salt and water through sweat, urine, and breathing. If the body isn’t hydrated before the fast, it may become dehydrated easily. If such symptoms occur, it is vital to drink water mixed with salt and sugar to compensate for the loss.
Headaches while fasting could be caused due to hunger, restlessness, or the sudden absence of caffeine or nicotine in the body. Drinking plenty of fluids, eating in moderation, and avoiding direct sunlight may help prevent headaches.
Reduced Control of Diabetes
Diabetics should be very cautious and should always discuss fasting with a medical professional before starting. They are strongly recommended to monitor their blood glucose since a drop in blood sugar can prove to be fatal and may lead to fainting. In the case of dizziness or sweating, it is advisable to consume fluids containing sugar as soon as possible.
Heartburn can be caused as a result of the production of stomach acids, which otherwise aid in digestion. Avoiding greasy, spicy foods and eating in moderation can help control belching, vomiting, and heartburn. Reduction in caffeine consumption and smoking, as well as sleeping with your head raised can also prove beneficial.
Staying active, being hydrated and eating healthy foods (depending on the type of fast) rich in fiber helps keep constipation at bay during fasting. Other common side effects include fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness, lightheadedness, chills, or cold due to the change in metabolism, along with an unpleasant odor as the body gets rid of harmful toxins through the skin and sweat. However, this is the body’s natural mechanism to cleanse and repair itself, while expelling any unhealthy cells.
Who Should Not Fast?
In spite of the multidimensional benefits and acceptable side effects, fasting can prove dangerous in certain medical conditions. It is not recommended for people already suffering from malnutrition, diabetes, and chronic ailments like gout, advanced stages of cancer, and cardiac arrhythmia, in which the heart beats irregularly. It is also not advised for pregnant or nursing women.
Fasting is a cost-effective and simple way to get your fitness back on track. The changes that happen in the body as a result of a fast depend on its length and the condition of the body prior to a fast. It is always advisable to discuss with a medical professional before considering fasting as a therapeutic option for any reason.