The Spirit and Purpose of Fasting
I want to start off by saying that I’m biased towards fasting.
This is because Till and I have made such positive experiences while experimenting with it. It has become a cornerstone in our lives. Although I will try to primarily stay rational and evidence-based in this article series, I can’t promise you that I won’t drift off course and tread onto scientifically thin ice, or, even worse, get esoteric. This is necessary because research regarding fasting is scarce and still in its baby shoes. To draw conclusions and connect the dots, I will also have to use anecdotal evidence, theoretical ideas and my own thoughts.
But this is what Beasts by Nature is all about.
We will never only give you research-summaries. We will always mix in our own experiences and ideas. And, honestly, there is a good chance that some of it will be wrong or too far fetched. We’re happy to learn and will always try to stay open-minded.
If you’re only interested in hard facts and RCT’s, this is not for you. But if you’re curious about how fasting works and how it might work, keep on reading!
We strongly encourage you to try stuff out for yourself and, in doing so, follow experimental logic:
- Have an evidence-based or intriguing hypothesis.
- Apply it (without changing other variables).
- Observe and measure.
- Gain experience.
- Decide about further use.
On the road of becoming the strongest version of ourselves, Till and I utilize this exact method to decide whether we implement something in our lives or not.
We’re not about overcomplicating our lives. If something is not applicable in real life, we’re not interested.
To cut a long story short: We’ve examined fasting, read the studies, tested different protocols, made personal experiences and applied it to our own lives. I can only speak for myself but regarding my personal goals this was one of the best decisions of my life.
During the fast I feel:
- focused and awake
- lighter but yet stronger
- calm and happy but yet highly motivated and ambitious
- more like myself; Whatever that means…
To put it simply: I feel better overall.
Experience is my personal form of evidence. It may be anecdotal, but it’s mine.
Nobody can disprove how I feel.
A Definition on an Empty Stomach
Intermittent fasting (IF) describes a natural eating pattern that cycles between balanced periods of fasting and eating.
IF is not a diet, but rather a rhythm of food consumption and abstinence. Thus it doesn’t address the question what to eat, but when to eat.
This is an often overlooked factor when it comes to body recomposition and health. However, the kind of food you put in your mouth, as well as the amount, is obviously still important.
There are numerous approaches to fasting, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming article. In essence, it all boils down to not eating for an extended period of time. At least longer than currently cultural prevalent.
You don’t need anything to fast. No revolutionary concept, no fancy program, or supplements. Nothing. Don’t get scammed.
Fasting is free of calories and free of charge.
It’s simple, convenient and flexible. You can add it to any diet. Just intermittently subtract meal(s) from it.
Fasting is inimitable in its unadorned beauty. Essentially, you do nothing and get a plethora of priceless benefits. That’s a damn good deal if you’d ask me.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Valter Longo and Mark Mattson –two scientist in the vanguard of fasting research– illustrated this nicely although they used almost a thousand words doing that.
(Longo VD, Mattson MP. Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications. Cell metabolism. 2014;19(2):181-192. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2013.12.008)
If there were a pill which promised only a fraction of the myriad potential health and fitness effects of fasting, it would sell like hot cakes.
- Improving insulin sensitivity
- More mitochondria and increased fat-burning
- Reduced inflammation and oxidative stress
- Bolstering of cellular protection and up regulation of DNA-repair
- Increased cell cleansing and recycling of damaged organelles
- Enhanced neuroplasticity
- Combatting certain diseases –e. g. cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and maybe even aging in itself
- No side effects with correct dosage –except maybe a reduction of body fat percentage
Just to name a few.
Don’t worry. We will examine all that in detail in upcoming episodes.
*Many of these effects seem to be tied to (temporarily) restricting calories. However, there are also independent mechanisms which we’ll discuss in more detail in part 3.
The Spirit and Purpose of Fasting – How does it work?
Nature and organisms always strive for a dynamic balance –homeostasis. A stressor interferes with homeostasis –creating an imbalance– thus requiring an adaptive response. The consequent stress can be either positive (eustress) or negative (distress), which results in associated adaptations.
Hormesis describes ‘a process in which exposure to a low dose of a chemical agent or environmental factor that is damaging at higher doses induces an adaptive beneficial effect on the cell or organism’. – Mattson MP
The principle of hormesis delineates how fasting and other beneficial stressors –e. g. exercise, phytochemicals– work.
*Note that we are talking about controlled short-term fasting, not involuntary starvation. Remember: The dose makes the poison. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but what does kill you, well, kills you.
Here’s the rough concept: You restrict energy intake –i. e. don’t eat– and create an energy deficit. This shortfall stresses your cells. Subsequently, stress-responsive pathways are activated which initiate adaptive reactions. The adaptation order is carried out by hormetic effectors, such as metabolic enzymes, specific hormones, growth factors and anti-inflammatory mediators. These biomolecules, to put it crudely, search for weak elements in your body and repair or destroy them.
This mechanism leads to reduced oxidative stress, less inflammation, reduced DNA damage and improved cellular energy metabolism – i. e. living a longer and healthier life.
Hormesis is reminiscent of the supercompensation principle in sports science. Indeed, exercise and fasting work in a similar fashion because they activate common pathways.
Through the accumulation of catabolic processes –fasting + training in a fasted state– we can maybe even increase the post workout anabolic response. It’s like an anabolic rebound. This results, among other things, in increased glycogen storage, better insulin sensitivity and more receptors for growth factors.
The stressed cell tries to (super)compensate.
That is not indulging in wishful thinking, but rather a fundamental biochemical mechanism.
Fasted training –if applied properly– could be the holy grail of body recomposition. It’s entirely possible with IF to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously –at least in close succession. Of course, many other determining factors come into play. We will touch on that in the upcoming article about intermittent fasting and performance.
Survival of the fittest – Why does fasting work?
„A better understanding of many modern health problems will emerge when we consider that most of human evolution took place when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers.” – Trevathan et al.
We are familiar with the concept of evolution.
Mother nature enforces adaptation. The organism can obey or die. This is a long-term process.
We also suppose that our genome was selected in a time when men existed as hunter-gatherers, 50.000 – 10.000 BC. It hasn’t changed since –at least not enough to modify fundamental metabolic processes.
Two relations were substantially different back then compared to nowadays:
- Food abundance : Food scarcity
- Physical activity : Food procurement
If we recreate the circumstances our predecessors had to endure in our mind, we realize:
- If the food was scarce, they had to fast. This was often the case.
- Food had to be acquired through increased physical activity (i. e. hunting and gathering). This was often done in a fasted state.
This way of life shaped our genome.
Our metabolic, nervous and endocrine systems evolved in ways that enabled high levels of physical and mental performance during the fasted state. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it to the dominant species and apex predator.
Importantly, the same applies to today.
Yes, we don’t live in caves anymore. Yes, we possess a credit card instead of a spear for food acquisition. However, if you look deep into the cells and at the operating systems, it’s still stone age.
This is also the reason why so many people respond positively to IF. We’ve evolved under these circumstances –with oscillations of energy stores– and not by eating three meals a day with snacks in between.
Not only can we deal with fasting but we may even thrive on it.
Everywhere in nature, hunger and activity precede food intake. Hunt first, eat later.
Indeed, hunger doesn’t rob you of your performance. Hunger ensures your performance. We will examine that in more detail in an upcoming part.
Back to Hormesis
Our genome and hormetic pathways didn’t change. Our behaviour and environment and thus circumstances, however, did change. Cultural evolution now proceeds to fast for genetic accommodation. That leads to a dissociation between our ancestral genome and our daily modern lives.
According to the law of homeostasis, an organism tends to maintain its dynamic equilibrium between performance and environmental demands. No stress leads to no adaptation. No demands lead to a decrease in performance.
Our paleolithic ancestors were exposed to hormesis on a daily basis –think ice age, searing savannah heat, hunting or running for one’s life and famines.
Sometimes they died. Sometimes they got stronger. Those who were able to adapt had a selection advantage and determined evolution.
Nowadays, we live detached from nature and thus are missing natural challenges to our homeostasis which activate hormetic pathways. As a reward for our “progressiveness”, we are becoming weaker, sicker, fatter and stupid.
This is exactly where we have to turn the tables and step outside our comfort zone.
The point is that we have to want what our predecessors had to endure.
This means artificially and voluntarily creating (seemingly) unpleasant situations which simulate challenging conditions of nature.
It doesn’t take extreme measures like climbing Mount Everest naked while not having eaten for 60 days. A morning cold shower, controlled intermittent fasting and vigorous exercise will satisfy your hormetic needs.
Nature will reward you. Your body and mind will thank you.
Don’t get me wrong. I love eating, relaxing and sleeping in a cozy bed. But there are always at least two components in an equilibrium. Eating should be balanced with fasting and relaxing with exercise.
A little imbalance every day towards only one side can accumulate over time and eventually manifests itself in health problems.
I don’t want to sell you intermittent fasting as the one and only panacea which everyone should adopt immediately. Because it isn’t.
Dogma and nihilism are by far the worst offenders in the fitness industry.
While some try to convert people to their sublime health-religion, the others are saying that nothing matters except hitting your macros and training the basics. Both ways of thinking hinder development and new ideas are nipped in the bud.
My point is: It’s too soon to praise fasting but it’s also too soon to disregard it.
There is still much uncertainty but the field of research, including time-restricted-eating as well as circadian rhythm of food consumption, is evolving at a rapid pace.
For now, however, we have to work with a lot of could and maybe.
I see potential in fasting, no doubt, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried it in the first place. But if it’s implicitly superior to a 3-meal a day scheme? Honestly, I’m not that sure.
What I do know for sure is that I feel better and freer since I’ve started fasting intermittently.
Now, for me, that’s really something.
Longo VD, Mattson MP. Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications. Cell metabolism. 2014;19(2):181-192. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2013.12.008.
Mattson MP. Hormesis Defined. Ageing research reviews. 2008;7(1):1-7. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2007.08.007
Mattson MP. Challenging Oneself Intermittently to Improve Health. Dose-Response. 2014;12(4):600-618. doi:10.2203/dose-response.14-028.
Trevathan WR, Smith, EO, and McKenna JJ. Introduction. In: Evolutionary Medicine, edited by Trevathan WR, Smith EO, and McKenna JJ. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999, p. 3-6.
Anson RM, Guo Z, de Cabo R, et al. Intermittent fasting dissociates beneficial effects of dietary restriction on glucose metabolism and neuronal resistance to injury from calorie intake. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2003;100(10):6216-6220. doi:10.1073/pnas.1035720100.