Abstinence and Abundance: Intermittent Fasting Examined

Laura Beaney

5 min read

The minds that populate the Silicone Valley are said to be some of the greatest on the planet, so if there’s a lifestyle trend that’s raging among them it comes with a tad more credibility than those found flourishing between the neighbouring Orange County housewives. Their current approach to eating is gimmick-free, carries deep-rooted foundations spanning religion, culture, and scientific research and is actually nothing new. Word on the street is that Silicon Valley workers regularly practice fasts that last between 36 and 60 hours once a week, observing that this adjustment results in greater mental clarity, increased productivity, and ultimately, healthy weight loss. But how exactly does dietary abstinence better our body and mind? Scientific research in this field dates back to the 1930s when scientists in the USA and Russia began to explore the benefits of fasting on the body and brain. The first experiments showed that mice put on calorie restricted diets lived significantly longer than their counterparts who ate as normal. Historically, fasting has also been an integral part of our lifestyle; our ancestors (the hunter-gatherers) went through times of feast and famine, often forced to spend days at a time without food awaiting the next big kill. Today we’re a much more sedentary species, taking the lift rather than the stairs and seldom looking up from our screens, yet we still consume a considerable amount of food resulting in energy that might go unused and can manifest itself as obesity and other metabolic disorders.

“Fasting can be compared to surgery without a knife,” explains Dr Harald Stossier, a practitioner at Viva Mayr Maria Worth, a revered clinic that prescribes medically supervised fasting as a treatment for a spectrum of ailments, from diabetes to cancer. “The latest research into physiology shows that fasting has a positive influence on lifespan, and on health in general, it reduces the risk of cancer, most of our civilian and rheumatic diseases, and of course it influences our weight and helps to protect against obesity. Fasting not only lets us reset the body and remove physical waste but it also has the potential to clear the mind and have an emotionally cleansing process,” he continues. Indeed our bodies are designed to fast, they do it every night. During times of fasting the body gets rid of old, broken-down cells and creates new ones, but if you’re snacking regularly this simply doesn’t happen. Intermittent fasting has also been shown to boost levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which plays a critical part in protecting you from dementia and depression.

Fasting can be compared to surgery without a knife
Dr Harald Stossier

One of the modern pioneers in the link between mental health and fasting is Professor Mark Mattson, head of neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging in the USA. He has shown that when you put mice on a 5:2 diet they grow new brain cells, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with memory. He is currently doing human studies, looking at whether 5:2 intermittent fasting can protect people at risk of dementia. Another important benefit, which has been proven in many trials, is that it improves insulin sensitivity, which is a measure of how well your body is able to deal with excess sugar in the blood. “If you are insulin insensitive that means your pancreas is having to produce ever larger amounts of insulin to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal,” says Dr Michael Mosley, author of The Fast Diet and The 8 Week Blood Sugar diet. “Eventually your pancreas packs in and you become a type 2 diabetic.” On top of that Mosley notes that calorie restriction and intermittent fasting are the only things that have consistently been shown to delay the ageing process. “Intermittent fasting not only means your body gets the chance or repair and replace old cells, it also revs up your body to protect itself against molecular damage.”

Looking at fasting through the lens of faith, we can see that all major religions from Catholicism to Islam, like the Silicon Valley workers, have prescribed cutting back on food as a means to clear the mind, enhancing enlightenment and tightening the relationship between the individual and their spirituality. This being said, we all know what it’s like to walk into a meeting, stomach growling having skipped breakfast. For the average person juggling office interactions, exercise and social commitments, while integrating fasting into their daily routine can seem like a completely alien prospect, so what’s the best way to begin? Fasting comes in many formats ranging from going without food for weeks on end to cutting your calories a couple of days a week or not eating during daylight hours.

“The main disadvantages with going on a long fast are two fold. First, it is hard (I’ve done it!) and it’s safest done in a supervised setting as there are risks,” warns Mosley. “Secondly, your body does not store protein and we need protein to build things like our white cells, that defend our bodies from infection. If you go without any protein for more than a day or so then your body will start to scavenge protein from your muscle.” For those looking to fast unsupervised, Mosley advises intermittent fasting, in the vain of the famed 5:2 diet where, for two days a week calories are cut down to 800 and a healthy diet is maintained on the remaining five.

Another way to dip one’s toe into intermittent fasting is what Strossier describes as ‘dinner cancelling’ the process of simply skipping dinner each day. “We know this is scientifically proven, dinner cancelling expands the lifespan,” he says. As with any change to lifestyle and diet, intermittent fasting can be quite challenging, at least to start with, and it’s not suitable for everyone. “I would not recommend it for pregnant women, people who are underweight or anyone who has a history of emotional issues with eating,” warns Mosley. It’s also important that you drink at least seven- to-eight glasses of water each day during a fast, as you lose a lot of water when you burn fat and may incur headaches. From faith to tech workers and those in the field of medical science, one recurrent theme drawn from the feedback is that our approach to food in the Western world is excessive and has the potential for a manifold of negative effects. Whether looking to fasting as an avenue for mental clarity or considering it for overall health, it’s critical that we evaluate closely how much food our bodies actually need.