Fasting is a practice that has been used from time immemorial by ancient cultures. Whether they were fasting due to food scarcity or for spiritual purification and healing purposes, our ancestors were no strangers to the practice of not eating.
Doctors too knew about fasting and often recommended it as a healing modality for their patients. But for far too long now fasting has fallen out of favor as a way to boost health. Fortunately, we are now rediscovering through scientific studies the many health benefits of fasting – including for helping to reduce inflammation.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Fasting is simply not eating anything at all for a period of time. Intermittent fasting (IF) is repetitive bouts of short-term fasting, generally ranging from 12-36 hours. While almost everyone fasts at least a few hours per day while they’re asleep, intermittent fasting is a more intentional approach to not eating for several hours per day and/or week.
During these short fasting cycles, a person typically only consumes as much filtered water or light liquids such as herbal tea as they desire.
The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
We now have studies that conclusively show intermittent fasting helps with gut repair and healing, improves insulin sensitivity and weight loss, hormone optimization, improved blood pressure, protects against cognitive decline, and even promotes stem cell regeneration.
It seems that once the body is not using up so much of its energy to digest food, it is able to carry on with repairs to DNA and a process known as autophagy, among other things . Autophagy is a process by which the cells of the body dismantle old or damaged cells and recycle anything reusable into new and healthy cells.
The process of autophagy is a lot like the local recycling plant and it’s one of the reasons why intermittent fasting works so well. However, one of the most compelling reasons to consider fasting as mentioned earlier is its remarkable impact on inflammation in the body.
Acute Inflammation vs. Chronic Inflammation
Simply stated, inflammation is the body’s response to irritation. We need an inflammatory response when we injure ourselves and our bodies are trying to heal that injury. An inflammatory response is also required when we are under attack by a virus, bacteria, or other pathogens. This is known as “acute inflammation” and it’s necessary for your survival.
However, when inflammation lasts for extended periods of time, that’s when it starts impacting health in a negative way. This is known as “chronic inflammation” and it can be isolated to a few key places in the body, or it can become “systemic,” meaning the inflammation is throughout the body. (If you’ve got aches and pains all over your body, that’s likely a good sign you suffer from systemic inflammation.)
5 Ways Intermittent Fasting Helps With Chronic Inflammation
Here are five key ways intermittent fasting (IF) works against inflammation in the body:
#1. Significantly reduces compounds in the body involved with the process of inflammation. When you are fasting, levels of inflammatory biomarkers like C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, TNF-alpha, and homocysteine, are reduced.
#2. Frees up energy for the body to repair itself. Believe it or not, at least 50% of the energy you burn each day is employed for the not-so-simple task of digesting the food you eat. By doing IF and only drinking water for a period of time, you free up your body from the work of digesting which leaves it available to focus on important healing and repairing.
#3. Makes positive changes in the overall composition of the gut microbiome, and helps to heal inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
#4. Helps cells to become more sensitive to insulin, which leads to a decrease in insulin levels. One of the problems with high blood insulin is that it is pro–inflammatory. It stimulates our body to make chemicals called cytokines which are involved in the inflammation process. By making cells more sensitive to insulin, fasting helps to naturally decrease insulin levels, with the follow-on effects of decreasing insulin resistance, inflammation, and even promoting weight loss.
#5. Produces a compound in the liver known as beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB). The brain, heart, and skeletal muscles use BHB as an alternative energy source during nutrient deprivation. In a 2015 animal study, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine  found that BHB produced by fasting inhibits or blocks a gene known as NLRP3, also referred to as the inflammasome.
The inflammasome is known to drive the inflammatory response in several health conditions including atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Recent studies indicate that inflammation and the inflammasome even play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease .
What Happens During Intermittent Fasting?
When you stop eating food for an extended period of time, you use up immediately available sources of energy. First blood glucose is burned, then stores of glycogen in the liver. Once those two types of fuel are depleted, the body is forced to turn to stored fats for its energy. It does this by turning fat into ketone bodies in the liver. (This, by the way, is also the goal of the ketogenic diet – to give the body so little glucose via carbohydrates that the body is forced to make ketones for its energy.)
Contrary to what you might have heard, your muscle is NOT broken down and used for fuel during IF. This would be very inefficient for the body to do when it has a much more available supply of fat to use. Muscle breakdown usually only happens during periods of starvation or certain disease processes – not when you are fasting intermittently.
It’s never too late to begin fasting, either. A 2015 study found that if intermittent fasting in mice began at middle age, it extended their lives, decreased visceral fat, reduced the incidence of cancer and skin lesions, rejuvenated their immune systems, and slowed bone mineral density loss .
Plan Your Intermittent Fasting Schedule
Wondering how to intermittent fast? There are a number of different strategies for using IF; choose the one that best suits you and your lifestyle. Before getting started, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to make sure you are healthy and well enough to do a little intermittent fasting. If you are a diabetic patient, you need to take extra care and ensure that you have well-regulated blood sugar levels prior to fasting.
Secondly, make sure you are eliminating properly. Ideally, you want your colon to be functioning in a healthy way and not “gunked up” with toxins. As you begin fasting, the process does encourage the release of toxins. This can (but not always) make you feel a little under the weather for a brief time. It is recommended to do a series of colonics or gentle detoxes prior to beginning fasting. You want to ensure that the toxins can flow right on out of you, and not get trapped and recirculated.
Once those two issues have been attended to, begin your journey with fasting in easy increments:
The 13/11 Fast
If you are well enough and your blood sugar levels are well managed and stable, start with the easy-to-do 13/11 fast. This means you have nothing except for water for 13 hours (e.g., nothing between 7:00 pm and 8:00 am the next day) and you consume a healthy diet for the other 11 hours. Thirteen hours may seem a random number, but a 2016 study of over 2,400 women with breast cancer indicated that the women who fasted for 13 hours or more had a statistically significant reduction in breast cancer recurrence . The 13/11 fast is pretty simple to do because you are ideally asleep for much of that time.
The 14/10 Fast
If the 13/11 fast goes well, a few days later try the 14/10 fast. Again, you are taking in no food, but drinking as much water as you wish for a 14-hour period. For instance, 7:00 pm until 9:00 am the next day. Again, this is pretty easy to do.
The 16/8 Fast
If the 14/10 fast goes well for you, try a 16/8 fast. Nothing except water for 16 hours, and you eat a healthy diet during the remaining 8-hour window. The 16/8 fast has many benefits, especially for inflammatory disorders.
From here you might want to work your way up to a 24-hour fast once a week, eating nothing between lunch or dinner from one day to the next. It is best to do this on days when you do not have a demanding schedule.
Tips for Intermittent Fasting Success (What to Eat During Intermittent Fasting)
For these shorter periods of fasting, you are only drinking filtered flat or sparkling water (or light herbal teas) from glass to avoid toxins in plastic. When you are fasting, the stomach secretes ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone.” This is going to make you feel hungry. Water helps to suppress that feeling of hunger and you can drink as much water as you like.
In fact, it is a good practice to fill yourself up with water when fasting. Drinking a couple of glasses of water at once acts similarly to eating a bolus of food – it activates the digestive system and causes the gall bladder to contract, and the pancreas to kick in. This keeps your digestive secretions moving and your bladder and bowel working well. Yes, you will urinate a lot doing this, but you want that as it helps with the detoxification process.
Note: With everything, there is always a point of too much, including water consumption, so please don’t go overboard. The biggest danger of taking too much water at once is causing an electrolyte imbalance. Adding a pinch of sea salt or Himalayan pink salt to every glass or two of water will help to replace lost minerals and electrolytes.
You may also choose to add the following if you get bored with plain water:
- A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice for vitamin C and a little flavor.
- A drop of lemon or orange essential oil to help the detox process.
- If you’re really struggling with hunger, have a spoonful of coconut oil.
What About Intermittent Fasting and Coffee?
In an ideal world, you would forego the coffee during fasting, but for many people this proves challenging. Some experts recommend a compromise of one small cup of black coffee, or with just a splash of cream at most. As with most things in life, you will need to experiment with what works best for your body.
On your first attempt at IF you may need that cup of java, but as you become more practiced you may find you can do without it. It’s a fine balance between pushing yourself a bit to do what’s best for your health while also learning to listen to your body and giving it what it needs. Above all else don’t beat yourself up if you don’t fast as long as you wanted to and aim to learn from your experiences.
Longer Periods of Intermittent Fasting
If the shorter periods of fasting went well for you, you can always step it up a little more and go for some longer periods of fasting. There are good reasons for doing longer periods of IF. For instance, if you are interested in improving stem cell regeneration, this process occurs with 24-48 hours of fasting .
Fasting If You Have Diabetes
Longer periods of fasting aren’t recommended for everyone. If you have diabetes, you need to consult with your physician to ensure longer periods of fasting are safe for you. People with low body weights and pregnant and nursing mothers are also advised against fasting.
For most others, fasting will be fine and even encouraged as decreasing levels of glucose are beneficial and fasting helps with this. Some doctors believe intermittent fasting and low carbohydrate or ketogenic diets to be among the most effective interventions for diabetes, regardless of the type.
Fasting If You Have Cancer
If you are a cancer patient, have active cancer in your body, and have cachexia, longer periods of fasting may not be supportive for you, so be sure to seek the advice of your doctor or naturopath on this matter. For you, it may be better to do daily fasting (for instance the 16/8 fast discussed above).
Exercise Your Fasting Muscle
Longer periods of fasting do require some discipline, but it’s good to exercise that fasting muscle! Expect yourself to be uncomfortable at first. You will need to prepare yourself mentally before a fast.
Know ahead of time that it’s going to be somewhat of a challenge. But if you learn to embrace that, know that fasting is doing good things for you, and you are likely improving your health significantly.
Here are some examples of longer periods of intermittent fasting.
The 36-Hour Fast
With this fast, you eat your last healthy, mainly plant-based meal on a Saturday night (for instance), fast all day on Sunday, and break the fast on Monday morning with a healthy green juice.
The 3-Day Fast
Some people like to do this type of fast quarterly, at the change of each season.
During the 3-day fast, you can drink as much filtered water as you like. You may also include organic bone broth, sea salt, and herbal teas. This fast is the one that really helps to regenerate healthy stem cells. To prepare for this kind of fast, it is best in the 2-3 days prior to fasting you eat a very healthy, mainly organic raw food diet so that there are plenty of good phytochemicals present to help your body repair itself.
After the 3-day fast, your body’s ability to secrete digestive enzymes will be decreased, so allow at least one full day of slowly reintroducing easy-to-digest foods like kefir water, herbal teas, fermented foods, vegetable soups, fruits, and organic bone broth. Also, do take digestive enzymes to help digest the food you eat.
Mix Up Your Fasting Cycles
Many naturopaths and integrative physicians believe that the best benefits of intermittent fasting occur when people mix it up. In other words, rather than sticking with the same type of IF, choose different periods of fasting.
For instance, one day do the 16/8 fast. Several days later do the 14/10 fast. Once in a while, do the 36-hour fast. The reason this is beneficial is that your body is constantly having to adapt, and adaptation generally makes us stronger and more resilient.
Tips for Longer Periods of Fasting
If you intend to do a longer (extended) fast, make sure you’re being monitored by a health professional. It’s also recommended that you prepare your body a couple of weeks beforehand.
Here are seven tips to help you have a successful extended fast:
- Do some organ cleansing – the bowel and liver will benefit greatly (and so will you) from a cleanse to avoid autointoxication symptoms. (Meaning having the toxins recirculated back through the body.)
- Prior to an extended fasting period, transition into eating a healthy, mainly plant-based diet and reduce consumption of meat.
- Create an environment that is conducive to rest and fasting. Plan to do very little while on an extended fast. If you can take time off work, perhaps go away to a quiet place where you can be out in nature, and focus on your body’s healing.
- If you are struggling, employ mind-body techniques like meditation or yoga to take your mind off the urge to eat. And be sure to drink that water!
- Stay away from negative people. There will always be someone who has a negative opinion about what you are doing, so keeping them at a distance will be helpful.
- If you fast for say 12 days, you will need around 6 days to slowly reintroduce small amounts of firstly green juices, then fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, herbal teas, healthy fats like avocados, organic butter, and coconut oil. Bone or vegetable broth is fine. Go slowly – don’t overload your system. After the 6-day reintroduction period, try a ketogenic diet. Likewise, if you do a 6-day fast, do a 3-day period of slow reintroduction. In other words, half the time you spent fasting should be spent in gradually reintroducing clean, organic food back into your diet to avoid a shock to your system.
- When you do resume eating, it will be to your benefit to avoid prepackaged and genetically modified foods. You will definitely regret it if you stuff yourself full of unhealthy junk food. And as you begin to incorporate fasting into your life, you will find that cravings for junk food fade over time.
The combination of eating a healthy organic diet, moving your body as often as possible, and some form of intermittent fasting all add up to increased health, vitality, and longevity. All will help you to decrease chronic inflammation, and the combination of the three adds up to a better result than any one of them on its own.
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