Last Updated June 13th, 2021
Intermittent Fasting: Understanding the origins
A brief internet search on intermittent fasting will yield millions of results related to how this new health trend is taking the world by the storm and how the celebrities worldwide are following it for keeping themselves in shape.
However don’t be fooled into thinking that this brand new concept, a novel idea that appears to be the brainchild of a very 21st century- level scientific thinking.
This isn’t even a trend.
This is something that our ancestors, aka, the cavemen had to endure and it thus got ingrained into our biological makeup.
In its simplest definition, intermittent fasting refers to the process of taking intermittent or regular breaks from consuming food.
Technically, intermittent fasters resort to fasting for 16 hours (or even 24 hours) twice a week.
The period of fasting is characterized by either consumption of zero calories or negligible calories marked by an extreme restriction on food.
The non-fasting phase is described by periods of unrestricted food consumption.
The natural question at this point is – why did cavemen do this?
For starters, our predecessors weren’t lucky enough to be born in a time where the technology of refrigeration and food storage existed.
They didn’t have supermarkets or grocery stores to walk up to and buy food. Their lives revolved around hunting their dinner or in the least searching for trees that bore edible fruits.
Now, these dining options were hard to follow.
Because it was not always possible to hunt down your luncheon meat successfully or find fruits hanging abundantly from trees that could feed the entire tribe.
These sources of food were highly variable in their availability and thus there were times when man had to face the wrath of hunger for days on.
This intermittent practice of going without food for days enabled the cavemen to build a sort of natural resilience towards periods hunger. And this very ability to function without food for extended periods of time got passed down to us.
Many experts posit that this way of eating is much more natural than following the modern-day custom of eating 3-4 meals per day.
Not to mention that several ancient religious beliefs advocate the importance of fasting and how fasting is one of the key ways of attaining spiritual bliss.
But is there any scientific rationale behind depriving yourself of food for such long periods?
Just because the caveman had to endure hunger pangs for days you must too?
And how similar is our genetic makeup to that of our ancestors that we can think of following the same dietary habits?
To answer these questions, we need to take a step back and understand what fasting really does to your body.
What does fasting mean for your body?
Truth be told, no one would happily and willingly want to stay away from food.
The cruel practice of conscious withdrawal from food or starvation is known to cause several health issues.
Malnutrition or undernutrition is one amongst them.
However, if you look at current global statistics, you will realize that the biggest killers of the human race , in the current times, aren’t born out of deprivation of food, but out of overconsumption.
The mere fact that there are 1.9 billion overweight people in the world today out of which 650 million are obese is an indication that we need to bring this culture of overconsumption to a halt.
Even though our ancestors didn’t live up to the ripe of 60 or 70, there is no doubt that clogged arteries or a flabby gut had anything to do with their deaths.
Being overweight, or at least having extra deposit in our bodies is a common sight.
Common yet enduring.
A problem that sends millions across the world to gyms and crash diets.
Excess body weight is not just a matter of outer body aesthetics. It is a leading risk factor in innumerable chronic ailments – cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to begin with.
And this is where intermittent fasting can help you.
When we eat food, the part of food that is not used us immediately gets stored in the form of glycogen (liver) and body fat.
This process is governed by the hormone insulin. When we eat, insulin levels rise in order to store food in the form of fat and glycogen.
Thus rise in insulin levels indicates fat storage.
When you fasting, ergo doing the opposite of eating, your insulin level falls.
What does this mean?
It means that as opposed to storing fat, your body now starts burning fats.
In other words, fasting allows your body to burn excess fats. When you are not consuming food, you are forcing your body to burn the vast reservoir of fats it has stored.
Not only that, several studies indicate that intermittent fasting puts your body in a particular kind of stress that boosts immune responses that repairs cell damage and is at the crux of improving metabolic processes.
What does improvement in metabolic processes mean?
It means lowering of the bad cholesterol (LDL and triglycerides) , blood pressure, blood sugar, and fatty deposits.
Additionally, recent studies on the benefits of intermittent fasting have revealed that fasting or severe restriction of meals creates genetic manipulation that can actually end up increasing your lifespan.
But these are not the only benefits an organized and planned schedule of intermittent fasting can bring to you.
Let us look into the many benefits of intermittent fasting in the next section.
What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?
This is the most significant and evident benefit one gains through intermittent fasting. As mentioned before, when you withdraw from consuming food, your body starts looking for energy reserves within your body. However, this is only possible if you are not over-consuming calories during the time you are supposed to eat. Studies indicate that if followed properly, intermittent fasting can cause around 3-8% weight loss during a period of 3-24 weeks. And a significant proportion of fat loss occurs from the belly region.
More efficient metabolism
Why intermittent fasting is deemed much better than traditional dieting is because the former causes a more significant burning of fat as compared to the latter. Studies have shown while in traditional dieting the fat loss is 75% of the total weight loss, in the case of intermittent fasting it is 90%. This means that intermittent fasting causes higher fat to muscle loss ratio which ensures that you lose more fats instead of muscles.
Improved cognition and mental clarity
Intermittent fasting could be one of those immensely beneficial practices which are great for your body and your mind. For starters, it creates more BDNF or brain derived neurotrophic factor which boosts the number of healthy brain cells and also ensure that the communication between the neurons is efficient. It also adds the number of nerve cells in your brain and protects your brain from gradual deterioration which is an inevitable part of aging.
Reduced risk of diabetes
As discussed before, intermittent fasting does help in regulating the insulin levels in your body that in turn affects how high or low is your blood sugar level. By lower insulin levels, intermittent fasting also reduces the risk of developing diabetes which is nothing but resistance to insulin. It not only prevents the onset of diabetes but also protects your body from kidney dysfunctions, which is a major consequence of diabetes.
Lowered risk of Alzheimer’s
With higher BNDF comes better cognitive powers. As told before, intermittent fasting helps in keeping your brain young and delay the onset of neurodegeneration. Since diseases such as Alzheimer’s don’t have any cure, prevention of its onset is critical. By fasting intermittently you allow your brain to retain its neuroplasticity that in turn keeps your brain young and fast. This can reduce the risk of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and also protect your brain from other related conditions such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease.
Bodily inflammation lowered
There is no doubt that intermittent fasting allows your body to produce beneficial enzymes that significantly counter the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes. The issue that lies at the crux of every chronic illness known to the human body is inflammation. This alone is responsible or at least linked to cardiac diseases, cancers, autoimmune diseases, bodily degeneration, and infections. And intermittent fasting could be the singular weapon in fighting these. It controls the levels of the NLRP3 inflammasome, the element responsible for metabolic dysfunction and higher inflammation. It counters oxidative stress, aka, the action of free radicals and has a holistic therapeutic effect on the whole body.
Improvement in growth hormones
There is enough scientific evidence to point that fasting improves the levels of growth hormones in your body. What is growth hormone, you ask. It is the hormone key to the healthy sustenance of the human body. A deficiency of growth hormones not only means a higher accumulation of body fat but also faster degeneration of bone mass. There are studies that indicate a 2000% increase in growth hormone levels after 24 hours of intermittent fasting! In many people, the level of growth hormone was observed to be 5 times higher than the original level after a 5 day fast. Though such extended periods of fasting is not a part of intermittent fasting, the point to be noted here is that fasting can have significant beneficial effects on the growth hormones that help lose fat and maintain bone mass.
Better heart health
Lower inflammation, oxidative stress, cholesterol, and blood sugar – all of the benefits brought forth by intermittent fasting have an overall beneficial effect on your vital organs, most importantly your heart. Lower cholesterol will reduce the risk of plaque formation in the arteries which is the number one reason for heart attacks. Lower oxidative stress will lead to lesser inflammation thus making sure that there is a lesser risk of conditions such as myocarditis and other inflammatory cardiac diseases.
Important points to remember about intermittent fasting
- The weight loss caused by intermittent fasting might be short-term if it is not supplemented by proper exercises and physical activities.
- If you are a diabetic patient you should not resort to intermittent fasting. It can worsen the symptoms.
- Same goes for those who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia.
- Those who want to go for intermittent fasting must always discuss it with their doctor in order to understand whether it’s safe for them or not.
- The food consumed during the eating periods should be nutritious and well-balanced. If not, then it might counter the effects of fasting.
- It is a strict no-no for pregnant and lactating women. Aging people should also refrain from practising this.
- Do not jump into a 16-24 hours fasting routine right from the beginning. Allow your body to gradually pick up the pace. Start with forgoing 1-2 meals or 3 days per week before progressing into the more advanced stages.
- Add plenty of water to your daily routine and make sure that you are following stress-management practices such as yoga and meditation.
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