A few years ago I embarked on a three-day fast after reading a Harper’s article by Steve Hendricks, Starving your way to vigor (sorry, you have to subscribe to Harper’s to read it), about the many potential health benefits of fasting. I wrote about my experience on the Mr. Money Mustache blog. It was a fun challenge; enough so that I thought I might make it a semi-annual or annual event. Alas, almost three years later, my longest fasts have resulted from skipping breakfast.
Some of the most exciting research cited in Hendricks’s article centered on how fasting affects cancer: cancer may be less likely to develop in fasting individuals, and if one does get cancer, fasting can intensify the positive effects of chemotherapy while reducing the negative effects. This chemo/fasting synergy occurs because, at a certain point during fasting, healthy cells go into a more quiescent, maintenance mode, whereas cancer cells keep on happily trying to reproduce. Thus chemo more effectively targets those rambunctious cancer cells and has less of an impact on healthy cells, resulting in less side effects.
Fasting may also help reduce seizures. Hendricks tells a compelling story about a young child who was having multiple seizures per day. The child’s parents had exhausted most medical options, to no avail, when their research led them to a century-old practice of fasting to alleviate seizures. Under their doctor’s guidance, they tried this, and it had immediate and enduring effects in reducing their child’s seizures, allowing him to lead a normal life.
Some studies have shown that fasting can protect the brain and slow aging in mice. Many people promote the idea of caloric restriction as a means to increase lifespan. For me, though, ongoing caloric restriction would feel like an unnecessary deprivation – who cares if I live a few more months if I have to endure a somewhat shittier existence for the next 40 years to achieve it? Likewise, outright fasting can be onerous, and not many people are going to adopt it as part of their lifestyle.
Enter intermittent fasting. A new study has shown that many of the benefits of fasting or caloric restriction may also accrue when one practices caloric restriction for just a few days a month. Mice fed a low-calorie, low-protein diet for two periods of four days per month lived an average of three months longer than mice on a regular diet (three months is a big deal when your lifespan is only 2-3 years – that’s like adding 5-8 years to a human life). The study also looked at humans, and found that just a few months of intermittent calorie restriction (five days per month of eating 725-1090 calories) resulted in reduced blood glucose, less abdominal fat, and lower levels of a protein associated with cardiovascular disease. Additionally, there were higher levels of some stem cells in the blood, suggesting that intermittent calorie restriction may produce some rejuvenating effects.
So is the long search for the Fountain of Youth over? Probably not, but there’s a lot of promising stuff. There’s a followup study underway with more people, and there are a lot of questions to answer. Meanwhile, there’s always the opportunity to do a study of one.*
As an eclectic, intermittency is a pretty appealing thing to me; it’s fun to mix things up. So I like the idea of incorporating some occasional, not very structured, caloric restriction into my regimen. In fact, I might give it a rip for a few days starting today – I could stand to lose a few pounds anyway.
*I haven’t read this book, but it looks like The Fast Diet could have some good info on how to set up an intermittent fasting regimen.