Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting, usually known as IF, is a pattern of eating that alternates between periods of fasting (usually meaning consumption of water only) and non-fasting. There are many versions of Intermittent Fasting, each suited to one’s specific caloric needs and caloric expenditures due to exercise. In later postings I will go into much more detail regarding the actual Intermittent Fasting Protocol itself and how to successfully merge it with Strength Training (weights/resistance), Endurance Training (running/biking/swimming), and Mindfulness Training (Yoga/Martial Arts/Meditation) but first I first would like to share some of the researched health benefits of Intermittent Fasting to whet your appetite.

According to peer reviewed research, Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) seems to be a key factor in linking certain forms of calorie restriction and longevity of life. Due to research at Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center of University of Southern California, IGF-1 was found to be major marker of caner, including breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer and other age related diseases. These results can be clearly witnessed by a small group of villagers in a remote region of Ecuador. These villagers are not only small in number, but are also small in stature, possessing a genetic mutation called Laron syndrome or Laron-type dwarfism, a very rare autosomal recessive disorder which affects less than 350 people worldwide. This syndrome not only stunts their growth and height significantly, but also seems to make them nearly immune to cancer and other age related diseases. Not all family members in this village are born with this condition, however, but those that are, can be shown to not contract cancer or many other illnesses, despite the fact that they smoke, drink alcohol, eat very high calorie diets, and are usually overweight for their height. In addition, their normal heighted direct relatives (those without the disorder) get cancer and grow ill at average rates, like you or I.

As I’m sure you have gleamed, this genetic mutation, which makes some of these villagers very short, seems to have a correlation to their lack of illness and their lack of cancerous diseases. Research shows that this has to do with a chemical called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). The Laron syndrome villagers’ bodies have been shown to produce an exceptionally low amount of IGF-1 which correlate to their small size and stature. This discovery helped Professor Valter Longo, of Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, understand the correlation to IGF-1 and to how we age, grow ill, and how our bodies recover.

At the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center of University of Southern California, one of the first centers for gerontology research in the U.S., Professor Valter Longo has taken two mice of the same species, age and sex with only one difference between them, how their body process IGF-1. The mice that have been genetically modified to have significantly lower levels of IGF-1 holds the world record for longevity (life) extension in a mammal over their non-modified companions. The normal mice will live an average of 2 years, however, the genetically modified mice will live 40% longer (on average) than their non-modified brethren. When put into human years, that would make the modified mouse live to be 120 (in human years) with no cancer, diabetes, arthritis or other related diseases. These modified mice, however, are noticeably smaller than the control mice, much like the Ecuador Laron syndrome midgets.

Research has shown that our bodies’ cells are constantly driven to divide via cellular mitosis by IGF-1. This is a very strenuous activity for the body, and leaves our new cells potentially weaker than before the split, and vulnerable to cancerous mutations. But when IGF-1 levels drop, our cells shift into a new mode: recovery and rejuvenation. In this new mode, the body slows production of new cells, and starts repairing existing ones instead. According to Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, DNA damage is more likely to get fixed, and that is why the small villagers, and the genetically mutated mice, are protected from age related diseases and cancerous illness. Our normal bodies, however, produce abundant amounts of IGF-1 at a nearly constant rate. And while IGF-1 is absolutely essential at the proper time for growth and hormonal balance, according to Dr. Valter Longo, having it constantly in the bloodstream can have very detrimental effects on our health.

Fear not, however, because there is a very easy way to limit how much IGF-1 our bodies produce by limiting the intake of a very specific something. Sadly, that something is in the food we strength trainers and fitness enthusiasts eat in very large quantities. That something is Protein. Research shows that when we eat a lot of protein our cells get locked in ‘new cell creation mode’ making us more susceptible to cancer and other illnesses because our cells are growing too fast for damage to be efficiently repaired. According to Professor Professor Valter Longo, “It’s like driving your car nonstop without ever taking it to the mechanic.”  

So, I hear you asking, “But I HAVE to eat protein! Otherwise I will lose all my muscle! Not eating protein is crazy talk!”

To answer you, I say, “Yes! You do HAVE to eat protein, and LOTS of it, you just have to eat it at the right times and then give your body a rest!”

And then you say, “Are you talking about fasting? I have heard that’s good for losing weight, but how am I supposed to restrict my IGF-1 while also building the muscle needed for recovery, strength and endurance?”

Well, you’re right, research shows that calorie restriction diets do seems to work, but if you cut your protein and calorie intake too much, you will not make muscle/endurance gains, or even maximize fat loss (depending on your fitness goals). So, to answer your question, it is my opinion that we have to teach our bodies how to BOTH drive fast (train hard and make gains) AND take breaks in the auto shop to repair. To sum it up, the answer is: Intermittent Fasting.

So, how long should we fast for? Well, some people fast for up to a month! However, I do NOT suggest this; the simple process of not eating food is very difficult on the psyche, and can have some very negative ramifications to your lean muscle mass. Aka, your will lose nearly ALL of it! I can speak for experience; in my early 20s, before I found Intermittent Fasting, I had done many extended fasts, the longest of which lasted two weeks. By the end of those two weeks, friends and family said I had transformed myself from the strong and muscled Lionman, to Mumm-Ra, Lionman’s arch nemesis, the mummified ever-living source of evil. Now, while I have obviously not only regained all my lost muscle, but also put on much more besides, do you really want to look, and feel like an evil skeleton overlord? I didn’t think so…

According to research done at the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, Intermittent Fasting is a much quicker and more dramatic response than an extended calorie restricted diet. Dr. Valter Longo’s research also shows that Intermittent Fasting, or Fasting Cycles, retard the growth of tumors and in mice were almost effective as chemotherapy. So not only did Intermittent Fasting protect and strengthen normal cells, but also created an environment which cancer cells would naturally die off. Now, hopefully none of you have cancerous tumors, however, creating this environment, where normal cells are strengthened, and cancer cells are killed off, is some of the best preventative medicine you could ask for (outside of full blown Chemo Therapy which from what I have heard is truly horrible.)

I hear you saying, “So, you’re telling me not to eat for days? Jamison, that is crazy!”

Well, hold on there. Yes, research does show that if you want to see the most dramatic preventive disease results, yes, you can attempt a 3 day and 4 night fast, however, that will most likely push you over the 48-72 hour line go into a catabolic state, meaning in short, you will burn muscle for fuel; the dread of all strength trainers and athletes alike. And by all means, that is NOT what I, an avid Strength Trainer, Martial Artist, and protein pounding Yogi am suggesting!

First however, let me set one thing strait. Many believe, incorrectly, that you will go into a catabolic state after 5 hours, and some bodybuilding companies even tout that 5 minutes after working out your body will enter a catabolic state, however, they also want you to buy their expensive recovery products, so I would not listen to them. Instead, I personally look at peer reviewed medical journals, here is one such example by Stote K.S., Baer D.J., Spears K. done in 2007 entitled “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.” The research states, and I quote:

“Although consumption of 3 meals a day is the most common pattern of eating in industrialized countries, a scientific rationale for this meal frequency with respect to optimal health is lacking. A diet with less meal frequency can improve the health and extend the lifespan of laboratory animals, but its effect on humans has never been tested.

“A pilot study was conducted to establish the effects of a reduced-meal-frequency diet on health indicators in healthy, normal-weight adults. The study was a randomized crossover design with two 8-wk treatment periods. During the treatment periods, subjects consumed all of the calories needed for weight maintenance in either 3 meals/d or 1 meal/d.

“Subjects who completed the study maintained their body weight within 2 kg of their initial weight throughout the 6-mo period. There were no significant effects of meal frequency on heart rate, body temperature, or most of the blood variables measured. However, when consuming 1 meal/d, subjects had a significant increase in hunger; a significant modification of body composition, including reductions in fat mass; significant increases in blood pressure and in total, LDL-, and HDL-cholesterol concentrations; and a significant decrease in concentrations of cortisol.”

As you can see from the above study, people who ate only one meal a day, which included their daily allotment of maintenance calories, did not lose any mass, except bad mass (fat and cortisol) they also gained muscle mass and were more hungry (hunger is important and I will touch on that soon.)

Unlike the study, in Intermittent Fasting, I am not saying you should eat all your calories in one sitting, instead I am advocating an 8 hour eating window. The short and simple answer of what is Intermitting Fasting is that is an eating approach where you eat all your daily allotment of carbs in an 8hr eating window, and you fast for 16hr, and then eat again for 8hrs. The beauty of it is that for half your 16hr fasting window, you should be sleeping anyways. An example is thus: a person will wake up in the morning and only drink water, and do not eat food (calories) until 2pm. They then eating until 10pm, at which point they stop eating and soon after go to sleep and repeat the process. Personally, I restrict my eating window something between 4 to 6 hours, but that is just personal preference and I will go more into that later.

To be very precise about all of this, you also need to figure out your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and the TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure.) I will explain all that later, but right now I just want you to get the basic concept. For athletes, I suggest that on days people do a strenuous workout, they eat an addition 20% over their TDEE for optimal muscle recovery/growth (remember about IGF-1 and catabolism?) And then on days they do not work out, they eat 20% under their TDEE. Even athletes should not be doing strenuous workouts (multi compound with heavy weights) every day. Unless you are on performance enhancing drugs (which I truly hope you are not) you will need to rest your muscles/joints for optimal recovery. So I suggest for heavy workouts eat 20% over your TDEE, normal workouts eat at your TDEE and rest days eat 20% under your TDEE. If you have a balanced training schedule, your calories should balance out.

Honestly the BMR and TDEE requite relatively complex formulas and precise measurements to figure out, and I will go into all that in more detail later, but for simplicity sake you just want to the stick the 8 hours eating, and 16 hours fasting, everything beyond that is slightly more advanced and requires careful attention. You can, and should play around with those numbers, but should do so with the advice of a nutritionist.

So, if you are still reading this, I am assuming this whole Intermittent Fasting thing sounds pretty good, at least in theory.  And if you are teetering on the edge, I have a feeling that this next bit of medical research and advice might turn the scale.

According to Professor Mark Mattson of the National Institute of Ageing, a leading expert on the aging brain, fasting may help delay the onset of not only ageing itself, but also age related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and memory loss. When testing non-genetically modified mice that are known to normally succumb to Alzheimer’s after a relatively short amount of time, on a memory food maze test, his research found that when the mice were put on feast days, and fast days, what Mark calls ‘Intermittent Energy Restriction,’ also known Intermittent Fasting, the results were incredible. Not only do these specific mice live significantly longer, six months to a year, but they live longer without showing signs of Alzheimer’s. In human years, that’s the difference between developing Alzheimer’s between the ages of fifty and eighties. He also found that when siblings of the same mice were put on high fat diets with fructose in their drinking water, designed to resemble ‘fast foods’, the mice not only live shorter life spans, but also have a much earlier onset of memory and learning problems by three to four months. Which in human terms is the equivalent of developing Alzheimer’s in the early forties with death in the fifties to sixties.

So far, the National Institute of Ageing has only carried out testing in mice; however, they are soon to preform human trials. While they do not have any hard data on humans as of yet, Professor Mark Mattson speculates that Intermittent Energy Restriction or Intermittent Fasting, when applied to humans, would cut the risk of brain disease significantly.  On a scale of poor, fair, good, very good, excellent, and outstanding, he conservatively states that the Intermittent Energy Restriction should have very good to excellent results on humans.

In addition, when they examined the brains of the fasting mice, they found excellent results. Their tests showed that sporadic bouts of hunger actually triggered new brain cells to grow! Remember above when I spoke about the importance of hunger? “In evolutionary terms,” he states, “If you are hungry, you have to increase your cognitive ability survive. This will increase your survival advantage if you can remember the location of food sources and problem solves to get them.” Research seems to suggest that fasting stresses your grey matter in the way that exercise and strength training stresses your muscles. His research seems to show that hunger could very well make you smarter!

So intermittent fasting seems to have a much greater effect on the brain that a prolonged lower daily calorie intake. And while the correlation has been shown in mice, they are now getting ready to show the correlation in humans. And while fasting is not for everyone, i.e. those who are already underweight, pregnant women, or those who have specific preexisting diseases (although there is some research that fasting can help in treating some diseases, but that is a posting is for another day) Intermittent Fasting has clearly been shown to provide some staggering health benefits for the athletic, average or overweight alike.

For those who are not interested in the specific protocol of Intermittent Fasting, as explained above, there are other options other than intermittent fasting, such as the 5/2 split, where you eat 5 days on a normal diet, and two days well under your calorie needs (600 calories). However, for athletes, or those looking to maximize the benefits of fasting, the 5/2 split will leave you sorely disappointed in regards to muscle gain, fat loss, and health benefits. Mark Mattson, the previously mentioned laboratory chief of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging says, "Our genes, our genetics, are geared to us having food intermittently. It’s healthy to skip meals. The animal studies are very clear. I think it’s better to eat one meal a day than six small meals. You need to challenge your system." And that’s the same thing we do at the gym, in our meditation practice, and in life, challenge our system so that we may grow stronger!

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Jamison Stone

Jamison is the Director and Lead Writer of Apotheosis Studios. In addition to his professional career, Jamison is also a Trustee, Committee Chair, and grant writer for the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, an organization which provides grantmaking programs in education, youth development and early childhood development.