Intermittent fasting has become a popular practice in the past few years, but will it keep you living forever?
Or, at least, living long enough to survive to see greater medical technological improvements, as predicted by such futurists as Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey and the transhumanists?
And what about “normal” fasting? That is, long periods of time where people go without food for either health or spiritual benefits?
Is it healthier to fast occasionally for long periods of time or to fast often for short periods of time?
Although some experts advocate juice fasting, Muslims engage in dry fasting while the sun is up every day of Ramadan and others say you can drink coffee, tea or other items, I’m defining “fasting” by its most common definition, the consumption only of water.
The only difference between intermittent and long-term fasting is the period of time in which you consume only water, and the effects of that practice.
Most people “fast” every night while sleeping. That’s why the first meal of the morning is “break/fast.”
However, for many people in the developed world, that’s not long. Therefore, I’m defining it as consuming only water for 12 to 72 hours.
Almost every adult who does not have a relevant medical issue can safely go without food for three days.
Long-term fasting therefore is going without calories for more than three days through the time your body starts breaking down organ tissue for fuel. That point is more accurately known as “starvation,” not fasting, even when it’s deliberate, as in the case of some politically motivated fasts.
Not eating for over 72 hours does come with risks as well as benefits, so I recommend you do so only with medical guidance.
Therefore, I’m wondering whether the benefits of not eating for over 3 days are worth the risks. That is, does long-term fasting have beneficial effects you cannot get from IF? Or is IF the optimal road to health and longevity?
First, though you need to understand what IF is beyond just not eating for up through 3 days but no longer.
The 3 Most Popular, Major Intermittent Fasting Schedules
There’s no one definition of IF or IF program everybody agrees on. However, these are the most popular, and cover the main variations.
1. Eating only during a daily, restricted window of time, or time-restricted eating.
That is, you do not eat for from 12 to 20 hours per day. 16 is the average. If you go without eating every day for 16 hours, you can eat for 8. That could be from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, for example. Or from noon to 8 in the evening.
This has the advantage of being flexible. If you know you’re going to a party in the evening, just skip eating until late afternoon. And go without food a lot later the day after the party.
If you miss a day, big deal. Just start again the next day.
2. Alternate day fasting and 5:2
Alternate day is just like it sounds, a program where you “fast” every other day. And in 5:2 you “fast” two days out of the week and eat normally for five.
I put quotes around the word “fast” because those days are not water-only fasts, but days of eating low calorie meals, so you eat only about 500-600 calories on those days.
When people on those variations skip meals, they’re really doing a variation of #1. Where they divide the 600 calories into three small meals, they’re dieting on those days.
People get results on these programs because anything that reduces excess calories helps them lose weight (or slow down how fast they’re gaining it) and improves their health.
3. Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon
Pilon advocates going without food for 24 hours. That’s from one meal to the next. I’ve done a lot of breakfast to breakfast fasts where I get up, eat breakfast, and then nothing else until I wake up the next morning and eat breakfast that day. He reports others prefer dinner to dinner.
If you need to lose weight, do it twice a week until you’re at your ideal weight.
If you don’t need to lose weight, do it once a week to maintain your weight and for the many health benefits.
This too is a flexible program. If you normally fast on Monday, but this Monday requires you to attend a business dinner, do it on Tuesday. Or skip that one day.
Also, I sometimes do both methods. Most days, I eat for no more than 6 hours. Two days a week, I eat nothing from breakfast to breakfast.
One Big Advantage of Intermittent Fasting Over Long-Term Fasting
You can practice IF on a weekly, even daily, basis for the rest of your life.
In fact, you should practice IF to some extent on a regular basis for the rest of your life even if you maintain your ideal weight, just to extend that life as long as possible.
Somewhere online I saw a doctor criticize IF for not being a long-term solution to obesity, and that angered me.
Decades ago I had a friend who reached 600 pounds, and he finally had to have gastric bypass surgery. He lost weight, but he ever fully recovered from the surgery, and never reached a normal weight. And he’s been dead around 20 years.
So, just how is gastrointestinal bypass surgery a long-term solution for obesity? Yet it has the blessing of modern, mainstream medicine.
The truth is, practiced intelligently, IF is a long-term solution for obesity. It’s possible to fast regularly and still gain weight just because you overeat when you do eat. However, if you eat healthy foods and rational amounts of them, you will lose weight. And you will lose it without constant hunger pangs.
After a year and a half of IF, I’ve lost around 6 inches off my waist, and, when I do eat, I eat a lot less food than before
Long-Term Not Eating is Not So User Friendly
“If you want to prevent cancer, then you do a therapeutic fast once a year. The probability of getting cancer would be extremely low relative to those people who don’t do that, simply because you’re going to purge the body of any particular cell that’s going to be glycolytic and an incipient cancer cell.” Professor Thomas Seyfried
He goes on to define “therapeutic” as 7 to 10 days on nothing but distilled water.
In the 1990s, I went on four of five week-long juice fasts. By the end of the final one, something in me snapped, and I swore I’d never do that again.
And that kept me from trying out IF for a year or two after I first heard about it. The very mention of “fasting” made me react in a knee-jerk, negative way.
Now, under the right circumstances, I’d like to try out some longer fasts.
But I realize they are a big deal.
Some people who fast a lot will do a 10-day water fast once every three months. That’s 40 days a year.
But, by doing Eat Stop Eat twice a week, I’m doing 100 days a week. All right, I lose some days to travel and personal issues, so call it 80 days out of the year. That’s still twice the number of days the dedicated 10-day fasters go without food.
And right now my main goal with a long-term fast would be to lose the rest of the excess fat around my waist and to repair other damage my body has suffered from aging and my less-than-perfect lifestyle.
Also, long-term not eating does not rule out IF. When you listen to Dr. Seyfried on that video and on The Quantum Body, he clearly does not believe people should fast 7-10 days once a year and that’s such a magic bullet you can eat whatever you like the other 11 1/2 months without worrying about cancer or other metabolic disease. He is just an advocate of ketosis, and disparages IF as a way to get into ketosis. He says it takes the 7 days to get far enough into ketosis to protect the body from cancer the way he advocates.
Feed or Repair?
Your body needs to perform two main functions on a regular basis: feed itself and repair itself.
It can’t do both at the same time. While it’s in the fed state, it’s busy digesting food, which requires a lot of energy. 40% of the body’s energy is used to digest food. Insulin levels are high. Your brain and muscles burn glucose for fuel. The mTOR pathways are activated.
However, deep repair requires AMPK. That’s when autophagy takes place. Autophagy is your body killing and cleaning up damaged cells and mitochondria (mitophagy). Insulin goes down, glucagon goes up. When your cells have a chance to rest from insulin, their resistance to insulin goes down, so they’re more sensitive to it. Blood glucose levels go down, and so do triglyercides.
After around 24 to 36 hours, your body begins to switch from burning glucose for fuel to burning fat for fuel.
Benefits of IF and Long-Term Going Without Food
1. Lowering insulin levels
Going without food lowers the level of your insulin. That’s probably the most important benefit to it. Roughly 70% of how low it can go occurs within the first 24 hours.
After 24 hours, insulin keeps going down, but doesn’t have much farther to go.
After a 10-day fast your insulin will be lower than it is after a 24-hour fast, but, by repeating that again once or twice every week, it will go down a lot more often than if you do the 10-day fast once every three months.
2. Increasing autophagy and mitophagy
This is the process where the body destroys damaged cells, recycling the molecules. It cleans up damaged mitochondria and misshapen proteins and parts of cells. Ingestion of even a small amount of food shuts down autophagy, so the modern lifestyle of constant daily eating from waking up to bedtime allows a lot of damage to accumulate over time.
Autophagy begins about 12-16 hours into a fast, and then peaks after around two days.
This study on mice found a lot of mitophagy after a 24 hour fast, but by 48 hours the activity fell off a lot although autophagy continued.
Short fasts do not accomplish much autophagy and mitophagy. Just as the autophagy ramps up, the fast is over, ending the cell clean-up process. However, long-term traditional fasts are not required. One to two days of not eating accomplishes the most.
How much autophagy does the body need? I could not find that information. Is it possible that, if autophagy continued indefinitely, it would repair all age-related damage? That doesn’t seem likely, and there are no stories of long-term fasts making fifty-year-olds look half their age.
Also, autophagy and mitophagy are not set and forget processes. Stress and free radicals continue to damage cells and mitochondria, so even if you cleaned up every broken cell in your body by not eating for the next 10 days, you’ll have some damaged cells on day 11.
4. Burning fat
This is the main motivation people have for trying. And, because excess weight, especially visceral fat, is dangerous to your health, it’s a major health benefit as well as an ego benefit.
People who continue to fast continue to lose weight. This study shows that through 30 days.
Therefore, long-term fasting takes off weight faster than does intermittent fasting.
However, does it keep it off? Not if the person returns to the diet and lifestyle that made them overweight to begin with.
With IF they are more likely to keep it off, because IF is a sustainable eating plan.
And, because IF reduces overall caloric intake, you still lose the weight. It just takes longer.
5. Increase the strength of your immune system
A recent study at the University of Southern California found going without food for just 72 hours “reset” the immune system. However, some of that seems to be mainstream media hyperbole. The study did confirm when fasting for three days the body did destroy old white blood cells. When the subjects ate food again, their bodies made new, stronger white blood cells, giving them a boost in immune strength.
I could find no precise information about the immune systems of people who fasted for 1 day or 10. The study focused on autophagy of the immune system’s white blood cells.
In that case, long-term fasters would also benefit, and so would people who fast one or two days a week.
One of the reasons many people wish to go on a long-term fast is for detoxification.
When toxic substances cannot be removed from your body, your body keeps them separate by blocking them with adipose tissue, fat. Understandably, people would like to have these dangerous foreign substances totally out of their bodies. When fasting burns that fat, the toxic material is released. Therefore, long-term not eating causes such symptoms as headaches, coated tongues and mouths, bad breath, body odor and nausea. That is one of the reasons why so many experts such as Dr. Alan Goldhammer, who runs the clinc at True North, advise people to do long-term fasts only under medical supervision.
I’ve noticed in reading many books and articles about both kinds of fasting, and listening to videos, experts advocating intermittent fasting do not bring up detoxification, except in the form of autophagy and mitophagy. Nor could I find any scientific studies on the subject.
In the long run, for people who stick with it, intermittent fasting should detoxify people just as well as long-term fasting, however, although it takes longer.
IF does burn fat. Therefore, if someone does have heavy metals, pesticides, remains of prescription drugs or other toxins lodged in their adipose tissue, eventually IF will trigger the body to burn those fat cells, releasing the toxin.
Some people on IF do report unpleasant symptoms, but these symptoms are usually not as severe or debilitating as the ones Dr. Goldhamer expects when he puts people through a long-term fast at his clinic.
Myself, I’ve had occasional headaches and, early on though not recently, I usually woke up with a coated tongue.
My belief is IF causes detoxification, but on a much less dramatic degree. It’s happening, but it takes a lot longer.
And spreading it out makes it easier to tolerate and less risky.
I could find no scientific data to prove long-term not eating has any health benefit that IF does not have, except speed.
If you’re really motivated to fast for over three days, or if you have a severe medical condition you wish to clear up, and you can go to a clinic for supervision, that’s up to you. Have at it.
However, if you don’t change your diet and lifestyle, it’s just a quick fix. You might come out of such a long-term fast in great health. You’ve detoxified. Your insulin sensitivity is way up and your fasting glucose levels are way down. You’re on a health peak, but the only place forward is downhill.
Most people do not often repeat such long fasts. A 7 to 10 day or even longer fast is not something you can or should do every month. Some people do such long fasts once a season, yet that still leaves two months for your inflammation, insulin resistance and level of cellular garbage to rise.
IF is Like “Eating” an Elephant
Little piece by little piece.
And, as noted, by making fasting a lot easier because it’s in small chunks, most people can spend a lot more time in the fasted state.
Do Eat Stop Eat for a year, two X 24-hours X 50 weeks = 2400 hours a year.
Do a full 10-day fast once every quarter, and that’s 24 X 10 X 4 = 960 hours per year.
IF is much more sustainable. You don’t make any dramatic gains on any one day, but every day you don’t eat for 16-18 hours ia a day when your insulin levels and glucose levels have gone down. If you do Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat, your body gets a good rest from digestion and insulin at least one day a week.
Even if you diet is not “perfect,” (and nobody agrees on what a perfect diet is), with IF you are never more than a few days, often just a few hours, away from lowering insulin and glucose levels, reducing inflammation and repairing cellular and mitochondrial damage.
Combine Both Forms of Fasting
IF and long-term fasting are not incompatible.
Get in the best condition you can with a long-term fast, then use IF to maintain your perfect weight and health. Pick the restricted eating program that best suits you and your daily schedule.
In the end, the best fasting program is the one you stick with for the rest of your life.
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