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02 Oct 2014

Health Benefits of Fasting

The subject of fasting is getting lots of attention at the moment, with recent studies highlighting the benefits of intermittent fasting for weight loss and disease prevention.  While extended periods of fasting have long been advocated for spiritual and religious reasons, fasting for health remains a controversial issue.  Intermittent fasting is a fresh approach that claims to boost health by mimicking the "feast and famine" lifestyle of hunter gatherers.

As you might think, intermittent fasting describes a diet routine that cycles between a period of fasting and non-fasting.  According to some experts, this type of diet allows people to access the benefits of long-term fasting without the dangers and discomforts.  While scientific study of intermittent fasting has been conducted at least as far back as 1943, recent popularity in the subject can be attributed to British scientist Dr Michael Mosley and his 5:2 Diet program.

The UK doctor and television celebrity developed the diet while researching a drug-free way to control his diabetes, discovering the benefits of intermittent fasting after numerous experiments with strict fasting regimes.  According to Mosley, "The tradition of feast and fast is built into our genes. So fasting, or at least involuntary fasting, going without food for periods of time, would have been incredibly normal. And that is incredibly abnormal now."

The 5:2 Diet incorporates two non-consecutive days of very low-calorie eating, followed by five days of normal, non-restrictive eating.  While just 500-600 calories are consumed on fasting days, regular eating routines can be followed the rest of the time.  According to proponents of the diet, the 5:2 rhythm not only makes the diet easy to follow but also provides all the benefits of long-term fasting.

A 2014 study by Longo and Mattson shed light on the role of intermittent fasting in adaptive cellular responses.  Not only was fasting found to reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, it was also shown to optimise energy metabolism and bolster cellular production.  In rodents, intermittent fasting was shown to protect against diabetes, cancers, heart disease and neurodegeneration, while in humans it was shown to reduce obesity, hypertension, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Other research by Krista Varady from the University of Illinois in Chicago looked at the way fasting impacts a range of chronic diseases.  According to Varady, intermittent fasting can modulate several risk factors known to bring about chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.  Not only is intermittent fasting just as effective as caloric restriction, according to Varady, but benefits also include increased insulin sensitivity and a slight increase in longevity.

While the health benefits of fasting are still controversial, intermittent fasting has been shown by Longo and Mattson to switch on the DNA repair genes that make our body go from "growth mode" to "repair mode."  According to Mosley, the switch between growth and repair is key, with intermittent fasting an effective way to go back to more natural rhythms.  "It is the periods without food which your body has the opportunity to do spring cleaning." says Mosley, "Because the rest of the time, it just wants to get on with life."