Top 3 Science-Backed Benefits Of Fasting

    Fasting has gained popularity due to the latest rave over intermittent fasting among trainers for weight loss. So what exactly is fasting? And, do the benefits of fasting extend beyond weight loss? Fasting essentially means not to eat food for a period of time in the day. Fasting has been a common practice for centuries, particularly for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. Until recently, scientists have not done in-depth research on the benefits that come with fasting. Recent studies, however, have proven that fasting may play a fundamental role in one’s overall health and well-being. We will examine the top 3 science-backed benefits of fasting below.

    Top 3 Benefits Of Fasting

    1. Fasting Reduces Risks Of Chronic Disease, e.g. Diabetes, Cancer & Cardiovascular Disease

    Studies have shown that cutting calories by 20 to 40 percent reduces chronic ailments. This includes cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. 

    In one study done on nine participants on a 48 hour, zero-calorie diet program, researchers evaluated cardiovascular autonomic function, resting frontal brain activity, cognitive performance, and mood before and after fasting. Results from this study demonstrated that fasting decreased weight, heart rate, and systolic blood pressure.

    In a groundbreaking study done by the Director of Cardiovascular and Genetic Epidemiology at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute, Dr. Benjamin Thorne states, “Though we’ve studied fasting and it’s health benefits for years, we didn’t know why fasting could provide the health benefits we observed related to the risk of diabetes.”

    Essentially, Dr. Thorne found that regular fasting can decrease low-density lipoprotein, or “bad,” cholesterol in the body. After approx. 10-12 hours of a fast, the body begins to scavenge for a fuel source to sustain itself. In a fasting person, this leads to pulling LDL from fat cells. It is for energy, which helps negate insulin resistance. Typically, when insulin resistance occurs the pancreas produces a surplus of insulin. This continues until it no longer produces the amount required for the body, leading to blood sugar rising. 

    According to Dr. Thorne, “The fat cells themselves are a major contributor to insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes”. He goes on to state, “Because fasting may help to eliminate and break down fat cells, insulin resistance may be frustrated by fasting.”

    While studies remain ongoing, Dr. Thorne and other researchers believe such results could play a key role in future research. With the significant link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease – the number one cause of death worldwide – this could be a huge discovery in downsizing deaths from both cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

    2. Fasting Slows Down The Aging Process

    There’s no such thing as a fountain of youth. However, researchers are confident that one of the top 3 science-backed benefits of fasting is its anti-aging potential. Researchers have described cutting calories as essentially being able to lessen risks for disease by improving cell life. 

    While scientists are still exploring why calorie restriction can slow aging, they believe that fasting works to lower the metabolic rate and lend to the body generating fewer damaging “free radicals.”  

    In general, researchers found the following benefits as a result of fasting/caloric restriction:

    • Cellular repair: Cells remove toxic wastes that lend to cellular damage
    • Gene expression: Changes occur in genes which lend to disease prevention and age
    • Fights inflammation: Reduces inflammation
    • Gene expression: Changes occur in genes which lend to disease prevention and age
    • Weight loss: Helps with improving overall health and preventing chronic diseases.
    • Protects against oxidative stress: Prevents cell damage due to unstable molecules  called free radicals

    Studies On The Benefits Of Caloric Restriction

    One hypothesis states that calorie reduction may lend to a decrease in thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3). This then slows metabolism and tissue aging. This theory was explored in a study done by Weiss and colleagues in which researchers examined men and women  between the ages of 50 and 60 who were in overall good health (i.e., none smoked or were obese.) Volunteers were split into three groups consisting of a  calorie-restriction group (in which calories were cut by 300 to 500 a day), an exercise group, and a control group and studied over the course a year.  Both the exercise and calorie-restriction groups’ body fat mass averaged around the same. However, researchers found that the calorie-restriction group experienced lower levels of the thyroid hormone. 

    Although additional, longer-term studies are necessary to better understand the significance of the reduced T3 levels, researchers are certain that this thyroid hormone is a key factor in slowing the aging process. 

    Benefits Of Caloric Restriction In Animal Studies 

    Although studies are still underway on humans, evidence that calorie restriction increases lifespan has been proven in rodents. Christiaan Leeuwenburgh of the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging showed in a 2006 study that eating even 8 percent less can reduce or reverse aging-related cell and organ damage in rats.

    In a study conducted by Lead Researcher Tongjian You and team at the University of Buffalo and published in the October issue of the Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, it was found that rodents are more physically fit in old age with a restricted diet. According to You, “Rats that ate a normal diet lost a significant amount of lean muscle mass and acquired more fat, while calorie-restricted rats maintained lean muscle mass as they aged.”

    In yet another study done on labrador retrievers over a 14-year period and published in 2002 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, researchers found that restricting labrador diets by 25 % – beginning at 8 weeks – resulted in an extended life of 1.8 years on average. Being that labradors typically do not live past their teens, these results were huge.

    3. Cognitive Function

    While there is currently limited evidence on the impacts of fasting on human’s cognitive function, studies have been done on mice which prove fasting can potentially play a role in stimulating human cognitive abilities.

    Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) & Fasting

    In laboratory studies, researchers found that fasting works to stimulate the production of a protein in nerve cells known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF.  BDNF is key in learning, memory, and new neuron generation in the hippocampus. It also brings on increased autophagy as shown in this study.

    Autophagy is essentially a process in which cells remove damaged molecules and dysfunctional mitochondria and block cell growth. In fasting persons, what happens is neurons go into  a “resource conservation” state during fasting and then shift to “growth” mode after fasting or when eating commences, resulting in an uptick of proteins and growth of new synapses. Researchers believe that such cycles lend to significantly improving neuroplasticity, and may result in enhancing learning and memory as well as resistance to stress.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Fasting has more benefits than we knew. With more studies underway, we may continue to unravel even more. For now, these 3 science-backed benefits of fasting prove that this centuries-old practice is still highly relevant to our health and well-being today.

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