HOW FASTING WORKS
A fast is a period of time where the body stops eating, in other words, the body stops digesting nutrients from solid food consumption. A fast can be anything from 16 hours to-21 days. A person can fast on one specific food type or liquid or a combination, or simply water intake. Almost always though, fasting refers to 100% liquid intake only.
Fasting is an effective and safe method of detoxifying the body. There are hundreds of scientific and independent studies on the practice of fasting as a way of healing the body and as a way to fight off illness and other degenerative diseases. It is also one of the oldest, and therefore longest-running healing modalities on earth enjoying a massive resurgence in modern science exploration.
Eating requires a lot from our bodies, the entire process of digestion from start to finish is extremely detailed including various organs, thousands of processes and responses. Fasting provides a period of physiological rest during which time the body can devote all self-healing mechanisms to repairing and strengthening biological functions and damaged organs.
Our bodies need energy to function. We make this energy from the foods we eat. When we deprive our body of its main fuel source, it must find a way to make energy. Fortunately, our bodies have plenty of internal energy stores, our fat!
GLYCOGEN + GLYCOLYSIS
The main form of energy in the average human diet comes from carbohydrates. When we eat anything that has natural sugars (fructose or glucose) or carbohydrates, our body uses this for fuel. It’s a little bit like using cheap petrol to run your car. Works, fine, it’s quite cheap and it’s easy to find.
When we eat carbohydrates, (all fruits, bread, noodles, grains, cereals etc.) our body turns them into glycogen for energy and stores it in the liver. The liver will hold around 100 grams of glycogen stores to be used up as fuel. If we do not top up with carbohydrates, the glycogen stores become depleted, which typically takes 16-24 hours. Once there are no more carbohydrates from food consumption or subsequently no more glycogen, the body switches from glycolysis to ketosis.
KETONES + KETOSIS
Ketosis is the name of the process of the body using ketones (or ketone bodies) for energy. Ketones come from our fat cells, those internal energy stores I mentioned. After the glycogen is used up, your body starts burning stored fats, which are converted to ketone bodies, (acidic chemicals) used by neurons as energy. So to simplify, burning fat creates ketone bodies which creates energy. Take away carbs, and the body kicks into a kind of starvation mode, tapping into fat stores and releasing ketone bodies produced by the liver. FYI: ‘Nutritional Ketosis; is when the aim of the diet is to boost ketosis, this is done with a diet made up of high amounts of fats, medium intake of protein and low intake of carbohydrates.
The word ‘autophagy’ is derived from the Greek words “auto” (meaning self) and “phage” (meaning eating). “Self-eating” So in other words, autophagy is the process of our own cells eating themselves into oblivion. More accurately, – the decomposition of damaged old or aged cells. Even in healthy people, cells are continually becoming damaged as part of the normal metabolic process. Factors such as age, stress and exposure to free radicals increase the rate at which cells become damaged, making it vital that we can eliminate damaged cells fast enough. Damaged cells that serve no purpose can linger inside the tissues and organs. Damages cells within our body can trigger inflammation pathways and are often markers and contributors to various diseases which is why boosting autophagy is so important.
Nutrient deprivation is the key activator of autophagy, Fasting provides the greatest known boost to autophagy. Ketosis is also considered an important indicator of autophagy. Research suggests the strongest effects of autophagy occur between the first 48 hours after glycogen depletion.
There is a balance here too of course. You can become unwell from accelerated autophagy as well as too little. There is a natural cycle to life, especially from an evolutionary biology perspective which is ‘feast and fast’ or ‘feast and famine’. We repair and grow new cells from the powerful nutrients we eat and then switch into cellular repair as we fast.
FASTING TO DETOX
Many of the toxic chemicals we ask our liver to break down are not water-soluble, but rather fat-soluble. This means the liver cannot break them down, so it sends them to our fat cells for storage. We have fat cells all over our bodies, including our brain, which is 60% fat.
There are 10 -100 X more toxins in your fat than in your blood, so until we burn fat cells for energy conversion, toxins remain stored in the fat cells.
This is why it is essential to eliminate all sugars from our diet when we detox. The body’s natural choice for energy is fructose so when we deprive the body of its first energy source, it chooses fat as the next-best option. Eliminating sugars forced the body to burn up the fat cells and essentially destroy these little toxic storage units. To take it one step further, eliminating food intake altogether, so in other words, fasting for a period of time assists the body to burn fat cells for energy. If you eat three meals a day with snacks between, your body doesn’t have the chance to deplete the glycogen stores in your liver, and the ketones aren’t produced.
An extended detox program will ultimately result in weight loss because of the focus on burning up our toxic storage units: our fat cells.
The way fasting affects cognition is blatantly obvious to anyone who has tried it. There is a very specific period of time during a fast when you can really bask in a state of heightened mental clarity and greater receptivity.
Fasting turns the brain ON. Period. This is best understood from an evolutionary perspective. If you think about how you feel after a Christmas dinner or any big feast, you feel tired, almost paralyzed. This is partly because when there is that much activity in the gut, the blood drains from the brain down into the digestive system where it is needed.
So from an evolutionary perspective, the way fasting affects cognition is tied to the time we were hunter-gatherers, more than fifty thousand years ago. As hunter-gatherers, we survived for thousands of years in the ‘feast or famine cycle. As hunters and gathers, obviously needing food to survive, we also needed to be fully alert to hunt, kill and gather our food. Hunting animals for food is not passive work, it is a life-or-death job and required our brain to be fully switched on. Even foraging for the food we needing to recall what berries were poisonous and which were safe to eat which left no room for error. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the brain must be functioning optimally when you haven’t been consuming food for a while. Many believe this is why neuron growth and cognition is boosted during a fast.
Let’s examine what it means to have the brain ‘switched-on or to have ‘boosted cognition’ because this can actually mean a lot of different things. To get more specific, this encompasses things like better focus and concentration, often referred to as ‘flow-states’. Flow states are a very interesting and popular area of study as they can feel quite elusive at times, yet so rewarding. A flow state is that wonderful period where you feel laser focussed on the task at hand, but simultaneously relaxed and calm. Boosted cognition can also mean better memory which could be mean short, medium or long-term memory. It can mean improved ‘lateral thinking’, the ability to think ‘outside-the-box’ which is extremely useful in problem-solving or critical thinking. It can mean sharpened intuition, so a greater sense of ‘knowing’. It can mean becoming more dextrous, a sharper conduit between the movement and actions of your muscles and the instruction from the mind. Boosted cognition is not simply knowing more stuff.
Leading the research on the relationship between fasting and cognition is professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, Mark Matterson.
Some highlights from his work:
- Fasting is a challenge to your brain, and your brain responds to that challenge by adapting new stress response pathways that help your brain COPE WITH STRESS and disease risk. ⠀
- Fasting increases the production of protein in the brain (neurotrophic factors), which in turn promotes the growth of neurons, the connection between neurons, and the strength of synapses (meaning THE WIRES FIRE BETTER).
- Fasting can stimulate the production of NEW nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. ⠀
- Fasting increases the number of mitochondria in nerve cells…improving learning and memory ability. ⠀
- He has also said that fasting enhances the ability of nerve cells to repair DNA.
FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE AND FUNCTIONAL NUTRITION
Functional Medicine is a biology-based approach to wellness that focuses on the root cause of any disease or bodily imbalance and uses the interplay between the environment and the gastrointestinal, endocrine, and immune systems to develop treatment protocols. To me, this is the most logical systematic approach to cure.
Obviously, the nutritional value in each ingredient or food type plays a huge role in functional medicine treatments which logically advocates for the consumption of unprocessed whole foods. The specific foods that are utilized in functional medicine and functional nutrition generally have either a unique nutritional profile, are exceptionally nutrient-dense or have specific medicinal qualities. These foods are referred to as ‘functional foods’ or ‘functional ingredients’.
THE AMAVEDA FUNCTIONAL FAST
After guiding liquid fasts for over 9 years now, I have had the opportunity to work with many different types of fasts with many different types of people. I have now been able to create a liquid fast where participants experience zero hunger. This is so exciting for them that they have an awakening as to their own limiting beliefs and wellness imitations. The fasting menus I create are based on functional ingredients and some culinary flare. There is no need to force down horrid drinks and feel terrible during a liquid fast.