The Ancient Wisdom of Fasting

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Ancient knowledge is making a resurgence. Traditional healing modalities from various cultures around the globe have survived centuries and are still being used today.

Modern science is catching up with this ancient wisdom and is identifying the mechanisms of how these healing ap-proaches work within the body. We must step into the future while looking back on the past, as our ancestors have much mana’o (wisdom) to share.

Whether by necessity on long voyages throughout Polynesia, cultural protocols or spiritual connection to the elements and higher powers, Native Hawaiians (like many indigenous people), evolved during periods of feast and famine. The intel-ligent design of the human body allows for sustainable function without caloric intake to maintain survival.

Despite living in a time of caloric abundance, our bodies still possess this ancient wisdom. The word “fasting” comes from the Old English “faestan,” which means to be strict and have discipline. By definition, water-only fasting is the complete abstinence from all food and liquid calories with the exception of water for an ex- tended period of time. Often confused with starvation, fasting is a strategic approach to restrict calories without health detriment.

The body always requires a source of energy to maintain function. Your body is like a car that requires fuel. The body obtains energy from carbohydrates, fat, or protein. Because carbohydrates (glucose) are the quickest to produce energy in the body, it is the first choice of fuel. When calories are removed from the diet during a period of fasting, carbohydrate stores in the form of glycogen from the liver and muscles are burned as fuel within the fi 24 hours. When these glycogen stores are depleted, the body turns to fat as the primary fuel source. Nearly everyone carries extensive amounts of body fat making this fuel source capable of sustaining energy for days to weeks. By intelligent design, we preserve protein in the form of muscle which is essential for movement and physical tasks critical for survival. It is estimated that an individual weighting 160 pounds can maintain their energy needs from fat reserves for up to two months of fasting. There are significant physiologic shifts that occur within our bodies when we transition to fat as fuel.  The state of ketosis occurs when we use fat broken down to ketones for function.  Ketosis provides a long list of health benefits which include improved cognitive function, balanced blood sugar levels, decreased appetite, optimized body composition and enhanced cellular repair. As a naturopathic doctor, many of my patients are interested in preventing disease while maximizing quality of life. The convergence of this strategy is lifespan paralleled by health span.  Fasting has become a hot topical in the anti-aging community and the world’s leading experts in the field have recently identified the signaling pathways that are said to reverse biological aging.

The phenomenon known as autophagy (one of our many innate healing mechanisms) deserves special attention as this cellular process can be argued as the single most important health benefit of fasting.  Autophagy is the process by which dam-aged cells are broken down and recycled. Dysfunctional cells contribute to compromised organ function, inflammation and may lead to cancer development.  In the brain, autophagy promotes neuro-protective and can reverse neuro-degeneration.

A disruption of autophagy leads to heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer’s, cancer and aging.  Autophagy is the key for a youthful, vibrant, high-performing body and brain. Fasting has been shown to be the most effective strategy to stimulate autophagy. Athletic circles have slowly began adopting these concepts in the name of sports perfor-mance with great results by implementing fasting mimicking diets, often referred to as a ketogenic diet, to sustain the higher caloric requirements of exercise and com-petition. This dietary approach involves a restricted carbohydrate intake consisting of no more than 10% of daily calories or approximately 50 grams. To achieve this, one essentially needs to eliminate all grains, starch and sugar from the diet for a period of time. The remaining diet consists of 30% protein and 60% fat. The quality of dietary fat is very important as the inflammatory omega-6 fats have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death worldwide. Instead of fat from “feet” sources such as dairy, beef, pork and chicken, omega-3 fats from plant and fish sources should be the staples. Oxidized fat from high temperature cooking such as fried foods should also be omitted from the diet.

In today’s world, we fear hunger. Most of us have been lead to believe that skipping even just one meal is unhealthy. We have become a culture of three square meals plus snacks and to always eat everything on our plate.  This is not how our bodies evolved. We have become witness to the health consequences of dietary excess.  The ancient wisdom of fasting has truly come full circle and we should rediscover the self-healing and life-enhancing potential of calorie restriction.

***Fasting and fasting mimicking diets are not suitable for everyone, so please consult your trusted physician before making any dietary modifications.