Fasting Techniques for Wellness

FASTING TECHNIQUES FOR WELLNESS

BY DR. KARLY POWELL

In the season of indulgence, I encourage you to consider the more subtle rewards that come from rest. We often think first of sleep, relaxation, and hobbies, but in this case, I want you to consider the metabolic and digestive rest that comes from fasting -that is, abstaining from eating or drinking (beyond water) for a measured period of time. Truly resting your cells. 

As a food lover, I hear you. That just doesn’t sound that fun. But I’m confident that understanding some of the dramatic wellness benefits that can be achieved by time-restricted eating – even periodically- will encourage you to give it a try and consider how fasting can be a part of your wellness journey long term. We’ll review some of the major benefits of fasting, how it works, and techniques for implementing fasting into your lifestyle. I am often asked about fasting for weight loss, so we’ll also review when fasting does and does not work for weight control. 

Fasting affects every single body system and can be used medically for treatment, or to slow progression, of many chronic diseases. General benefits of fasting include: 

  • Faster elimination of toxins and cellular waste products
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Balancing blood sugars, including making your cells more sensitive to insulin to reverse prediabetes and diabetes
  • Reduction of inflammatory visceral fat (fat deposits around your mid-section that can damage your liver and other organs)
  • Regulation of hunger and satiety (fullness) signals to your brain for appetite regulation
  • Improve clarity of thinking and mental focus
  • Stimulate mitochondria, the part of your cells that produce energy
  • Reduces food reactivity and allergies

Medical fasts, done under the supervision of your doctor, can also be an effective part of a larger treatment protocol for control of joint inflammation in rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, reversal of arterial plaquing, liver and kidney disease, dementia, and other degenerative neurological conditions, and more

Fasting Strategies 

Intermittent fasting is a popular technique that involves consuming your daily calories in a 6-8 hour window with a 16-18 hour overnight fast. However, this technique is as much about the timing of your meals as it is about timing intake of particular nutrients; done correctly, intermittent fasting is so much more than just skipping breakfast!

To get the desired metabolic changes of intermittent fasting, what you eat before and after the fast plays an even more important role than how long you go between meals. The primary metabolic goal of intermittent fasting is to induce a short period of ketosis, where your body uses fat (in this case fat in the form of ketones) instead of sugar for energy. As long as sugar is present, your body will always 

preferentially use that for energy over any other fuel source; thus, in order to burn fat for energy, you have to exhaust your sugar stores first. The faster you exhaust the sugar stores, the greater the percentage of your fasting window is spent burning fat. 

Let’s say you are planning a 16-hour overnight fast from 7PM to 11AM. If you choose a dinner of lasagna and a glass of wine [simple carbohydrate and alcohol], it will likely take you 12-14 hours to exhaust the carbohydrate load of your meal, leaving 2-4 hours in ketosis. Alternatively, say you choose a meal of chicken, roasted vegetables, and a salad with olive oil [high fiber and healthy fats with moderate protein], you may exhaust your carbohydrate stores in 8 hours, leaving a full 8 hours of ketosis. 

Likewise, when you break your fast, choosing a low carb or complex carb (a high fiber carbohydrate like berries, steel cut oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes) meal mixed with protein and healthy fats can extend your ketosis into your eating window. I typically recommend starting with fasting 2 days per week to get your body used to the feeling of ketosis and allow some flexibility in your meals on other days. Avoid alcohol and snacking after dinner on fasting days. One cup of unsweetened caffeine (coffee or green tea) in the morning will not disrupt your fast. Early on, I also recommend avoiding exercise (anything beyond a gentle walk and your normal day-to-day activities during your fasting window. 

The Fasting Mimicking Diet is specific fasting program designed to mimic the benefits of a 5-day water fast. But don’t worry, you still get to eat! This program involves a highly specific nutrient balance that turns on a cellular recycling and regeneration process called autophagy. Autophagy is how your cells normally die-off and regenerate; distinct from inflammatory cell death from damage and disease, autophagy is a totally normal cellular housekeeping process to get rid of old cells and allow new healthy ones to take their place.

This process is normally regulated by fasting and, most specifically, dietary protein intake. When we are fed, our cells are in a phase of building and growing, and cannot do this cellular housekeeping. However, with fasting, our cells have the chance to tear down, breaking down cellular proteins to building blocks and recycling them into healthy new structures. A team of researchers at University of Southern 

California found that protein intake specifically, not carb or fat intake, regulates whether our cells are in the building or recycling phase, and thus we can trigger this recycling in a controlled way through protein restriction without having stop eating completely. Given that it takes 2 full days of fasting just to start this autophagy process, being able to consume carbs and fat for calories during that time makes a big difference! 

The moderate calorie intake recommended on the Fasting Mimicking Diet is sufficient to maintain your lean body mass (muscles and organs) while you restrict protein to trigger autophagy. This means your metabolic rate {how many calories you burn at rest) is not significantly depressed in the way that it typically is with caloric restriction, and you are less likely to put on weight after resuming your normal diet. 

So what are the benefits of all this? As your cells are getting broken down and recycled there is also a rebuild happening. Each day of the fast you get an 800-fold increase in stem cells; stems cells are what allows new cells to form, so you are literally growing healthy new cells at a rapid rate in all of your tissues. Think of this like brand new flooring in your home – new flooring in the lining of all your joints, the lining of all your blood vessels, your brain, heart, liver, skin, and more. New flooring means living longer without disease. 

The fasting mimicking diet is a medical diet that is best done in partnership with your medical provider for best results. If you are interested in learning more, the book The longevity Diet lays out the extensive research on using this program to prevent or reverse disease and live longer.

Fasting for weight management 

While caloric restriction programs and fasting can be powerful tools for weight loss, maintaining a desired weight over time will never come from caloric restriction. Our metabolic rate is set by a myriad of complex and interrelated factors; you’re likely thinking of calorie intake, quality of nutrient intake, and activity levels at the top of the list. While these levels must be balanced, I believe the most significant contributing factor for many struggling with weight loss is often overlooked: stress. 

Stress and trauma wire our brain to stay in a pattern of stress. During a high stress period or trauma, the brain detects a danger signal and often programs the body to believe it is in a state of danger all of the time. This danger signal tells your body to store fat in order to have reserves available if you need to escape from danger in the future. This physiologic pattern is stored in your nervous system, literally hard-wiring your body for fat storage. 

Can extreme caloric restriction and intense exercise over-ride this fat storage mechanism? Yes, for a while. But this approach is unlikely to allow you to reach a stable, comfortable weight without maintaining these extreme measures indefinitely. As long as you are meeting your minimum calorie and nutrient demands, any excess metabolic energy available (essentially any intake beyond what is needed to prevent starving yourself) is likely to be stored as fat unless the underlying stress drivers are dealt with. 

If you have struggled to lose weight or maintain and healthy body composition, consider the role that current or past stress and trauma plays in your life now. Has trauma found a home in your physical body, and what is your relationship to that trauma now? If you struggle with emotional eating, stress eating, binge eating, or food cravings, consider what is driving this compulsion. What role does this food serve for you, and what makes it feel beyond your control? There are a team of providers at Strata that can help you explore physical manifestation of trauma in your body and working with a licensed therapist may be helpful to begin to explore the questions posed here. 

So, should you be fasting to lose weight? Deal with the trauma first. Nourish your body first. Sleep and control inflammation first. When those factors are in place you will be more successful with a healthy body composition long term. I typically see that weight loss comes naturally when each of these primary health measures are in place; when that is the case, targeted fasting strategies like those described above can absolutely be employed to release fat. Intermittent fasting 2-3 days per week can help stimulate very gentle weight loss, especially more inflammatory abdominal fat. The fasting mimicking diet is beneficial for those looking to lose more than about 20 lbs. 

The strategies outlined here provide a foundation for you to explore the benefits of fasting for your own body. Enjoy your indulgences, and maybe you’ll enjoy the clean up – and rest – as well.