The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Japan’s Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of the underlying mechanisms of a physiological process called autophagy. Autophagy is a natural process by which the body degrades and recycles damaged cells, proteins and toxins. Autophagy comes from two Greek words, auto meaning “self” and phagy meaning “to eat.”(1)
This is the body’s way of cleaning house. It happens during starvation, calorie restriction, and fasting. If the body fails to engage in autophagy, damaged cells and structures can accumulate dangerously. Autophagy is one method that the body uses to naturally neutralize cancer cells and degrade cells infected by harmful bacteria and viruses.
Dr. Ohsumi was able to identify the genes that regulate autophagy and has linked disturbances of autophagy to a host of degenerative diseases. In each of his studies, he used starvation to trigger autophagy. Starvation has long been identified as a trigger for the breakdown and clean-up of toxic cells and debris. (1)
Studies have actually shown that cells live longer and mitochondria make more energy in times of starvation, fasting, or calorie restriction, compared to when eating regularly. (2,3) Other studies suggest that regular fasting or calorie restriction (without starvation) can naturally hack the aging process in numerous ways. Calorie restriction has been shown to boost levels of nitric oxide, a Nobel prize-winning molecule that delivers essential rejuvenation and detoxification to the body. Calorie restriction has been shown to boost antioxidant and detoxification activity by activating Nrf2 pathways, and also have anti-inflammation effects. (2
Back in 1935, the first paper on calorie restriction was published. It suggested that lifespans could be extended and diseases could be avoided by restricting calories without hunger or starvation. (4)
In the most comprehensive study on calorie restriction to date, which spanned 20 years, the results were nothing short of amazing. The study divided Rhesus monkeys up into two groups. One group ate naturally, without restraint, and the other group ate a diet that was 30% less in calories.
After 20 years, 30% of the unrestricted diet group had died, and only 13% of the calorie-restricted group had died from age-related illness. This translates into an almost three-fold reduction risk in age-related diseases.
The monkeys that were calorie restricted had half the incidence of heart disease as the controls. Not one monkey in the calorie-restricted group acquired diabetes, while 40% of the monkeys that ate as much as they wanted became diabetic or pre-diabetic. (2,4)
In one study, where a group of humans reduced their caloric intake by only 20% for 2-6 years, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight were all significantly improved. (5)
Looking at all the research, it is hard to find any other intervention that has such compelling benefits on health and longevity than eating just 20-30% less food.
According to the Vedic calendar, there are two days a month that are traditional days of fasting. These days are called Ekadasi (sometimes spelled Ekadashi), which is the Sanskrit word for number 11. It means the 11th day of each half of the month—making two Ekadasi days in each month—in the Vedic lunar calendar. One is in the first half of the month, whilst the moon is waxing or growing. This is known as the bright fortnight. The second is in the second half of the month, whilst the moon is waning or shrinking. This is known as the dark fortnight. (5) During these two days, fasting was traditionally practiced along with devotional practices.
Spring was also a time for fasting, and many religions still practice fasting rituals in the spring. In nature, spring is the time of famine, when winter stores have been depleted and we wait and pray for an early spring harvest. During this time, foods are naturally lower in fat and calories. Eating a naturally low-fat diet forces the body to burn its own stored fat as a primary source of fuel. Fat is the body’s stable, long-lasting, sleep through the night, handle stress like water off a duck’s back, fuel source.
Today, we are learning that intermittent fasting can deliver numerous health benefits. Overeating can cause significant harm, including increased risks of cardiovascular, weight, blood sugar, brain, mood and other health concerns. (6)
Intermittent fasting, on the other hand, has been linked to numerous health benefits, including: (6)
- Decreased diabetes risk
- Decreased cardiovascular risk
- Improved longevity
- Protection against cancer
- Reduced risk of neurological concerns
- Decreased inflammation
- Balanced lipid levels
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced oxidative stress
- Balanced weight
Choose Your Fasting Strategy
The following are some of my favorite fasting strategies:
- A Daily 13-Hour Fast (no food after dinner)
After dinner, eat nothing from 6pm to 7am. Water is OK to have.
- Skip Dinner
Eat a good breakfast and lunch, and skip dinner. In the habit of eating 4 meals per day? Start by slowly reducing your meals from 4 a day, to 3, and then to 2.
- Cleansing Fast
Fast as part of a cleanse twice per year in the spring and fall. Check out my 4-day Short Home Cleanse, or the 2-week Colorado Cleanse. While our cleanses are not technically fasts, they do encourage fat metabolism.
- Water Fast
Fast on water or organic, no sugar added juice one day a week. This is best done during the spring. Predominantly kapha body types may choose to make this a constitutional habit.
- Twice-a-Month Fast
Follow the Vedic lunar calendar, and fast twice per month on the Ekadasi days.
Note: There are many other fasting strategies that work great, such as restricting calories down to 600/day for two days during a week. These are all great strategies. An important thing to remember when fasting is to avoid strain. Fasting, if you are drinking enough water, should not be an endurance event.
by John Douillard