In part 1 of this series we talked about the role of inflammation in immune function, defined the difference between immune system boosting vs. renewal and looked at how functional medicine approaches gut/immune health and how to treat chronic illness and dysfunction. In keeping with the same idea of system renewal rather than enhancement – In this part of the series I would like to touch upon the benefits of prolonged fasting.
There is a lot of research being done on fasting these days. A lot of which is really dense and complicated and as this pandemic surges on, we are all getting a bit over stimulated with information on health, so I will keep this short and accessible as possible.
Prolonged water fasts (only drinking water) have been performed for centuries as parts of religious ceremony or ritual but beyond that, the ebb and flow of feast and famine has been a struggle common to every species since the very beginning of life. So fasting may seem like a fad right now, but that is only because some of us are privileged enough to live in a time of plenty where fasting is a choice. In this long history of periodic starvation, our genes have developed systems to differentiate between which functions can take advantage of feeding periods and which can take over during dry spells. These are very basic systems that have integrated themselves into every, or theoretically, every living organism on the planet.
At its most basic principle, during times of plenty – when specific proteins and sugars are abundant – certain genes are turned on and the organism goes into “growth” mode, which is important for obvious reasons. While during times of scarcity, the lack of these compounds triggers these genes to “turn off” and the organism goes into clean-up or renewal mode. As you can guess, these systems have survived for billions of years for good reason and both play important roles in survival. It is super interesting stuff but I am no expert and like I said, I want to keep this as succinct as possible. So if you are interested in this subject and how it effects longevity I highly recommend you check out Lifespan by David Sinclair.
When we fast for prolonged periods of time we can trigger the renewal phase. When this happens our body hones in on sick cells and either fixes them or clears them out. At the same time, new cells begin to form to replace old ones. This happens all throughout the body including in the brain and the immune system! Stem cells that have been kept on standby while we have been in “growth” mode are now stimulated to make new cells and literally regenerate old systems. While we can still “thrive”, heal and reproduce during a growth phase, the other side of the coin is that feedback loops are happening, systems can get clogged up and dysfunction and mutations are continuing unchecked by the renewal process that needs the starvation trigger to begin its process.
We (the privileged) have virtually eliminated this really cool ability that our bodies have to regenerate by applying a constant feeding state, or more precisely a constant over-feeding state (I am currently snacking on a block of old cheddar and cashew nuts, purely out of pandemic boredom).
intermittent fasting, time restricted eating and calorie restriction does not trigger the renewal system. There seems to be some benefits of all of those eating patterns, some of which I have mentioned in previous blog posts but we need actual starvation for a few days in order to achieve regeneration mode. Some studies suggest 48-72 hours of a water fast to be sufficient, others have used much longer fasts to treat and reverse type 2 diabetes as well as all kinds of chronic illnesses. To the rescue for our gluttonous selves, A prominent researcher named Valter Longo has designed a fasting mimicking protocol that triggers the renewal system while maintaining a minimal calorie intake.
The long list of health benefits this fasting mimicking diet (FMD) allows for is really impressive. Before I list them, it is important to note that the majority of the research has been done on mice but some human studies have show equally impressive results. Here is part of a growing list..
- reduction in cancer cells
- protects against bone mineral loss
- increases lifespan & health span
- triggers stem cell production
- promotes neurogenisis
- regenerates beta cells in type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- protects against chemotoxicity
- remyelintaes neuron sheaths
- lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides
- normalizes several different inflammation markers
- lowers visceral fat stores
In animal studies, FMD has been shown to reverse certain autoimmune diseases , such as MS and type 1 diabetes. This is huge. By limiting their calorie intake for just a few days per month, they are able to mimick fasting enough to stimulate the removal of damaged cell and regeneration of new immune cells. The FMD protocol as used by Longo is a 5 day per month calorie restriction. Depending on the study, the protocol is repeated for 3 months, or once every 3 months or once every 6 months.
Another interesting effect is that fasting increases sensitization of the immune system towards cancerous cells while simultaneously increasing stress resistance of healthy cells. This is what I was talking about in the part 1 – the difference between immune system boosting and renewal is that boosting a broken system would just enhance the body’s tendency to attack healthy cells while feeding broken (cancerous) ones.
Metabolic rates are also increased during the fasting period, which leads to increased fat loss. Studies have also shown that metabolic rate remains increased even after the fasting period has stopped. So even if the mouse returns to the eating pattern (or over-eating pattern) it had prior to the fast, it can still lose more weight. This won’t last forever but it is interesting how quickly the body has begun working to restore healthy body weight and energy transfer.
There is so much more cool information out there on the effects of water fasting and the fasting mimicking diet but I want to get right to what this protocol might look for you if you want to implement it into your life. As suggested by Valter Longo – a 5 day fasting mimicking diet plan could look like this..
- 5 days total per month
- Once every 6 months for the average person
- Once every 3 months for someone who may need more of an effect
- Once per month for someone with metabolic disorder or a serious autoimmune disease – this advice comes from another source.
- 1st day – 1100 calories or 4.5-7 calories per lb. of body weight – 10% protein / 34 % carbohydrates / 56% fats
- day 2-5 – 800 calories or 3-5 calories per lb. of body weight – 9% protein / 47% carbohydrate / 44% fats
The Macronutrient content is very important for this model to be effective so it does take some care in planning the right meals. High protein and high sugar interfere with how those genes we discussed earlier are turned off and on.
It is also important to note that if you tend to eat a diet that is very high in protein, the “growth” system may be over stimulated and prone to mutations. We don’t think of high protein diets as being dangerous but it turns out they just may be. Igf-1 is a growth hormone important in tissue and muscle growth but if over stimulated it can cause inflammation all over the body, specifically in the immune system. We don’t need that much protein (unless you are an athlete or over the age of 60-65) in order to maintain or grow muscle, so it is in our best interest to figure out how much your body needs to maintain a healthy muscle mass and keep it there or below.
It is a pain in the arse to figure out the right macro ratios for a days worth of food when it needs to be so specific AND while wanting to maintain nutrient quality and density. So I have done the work for you and come up with a 5 day plan – though day 2-5 is the same thing. It is really the only way to keep things under control.
DAY 1 – 1100 calories – good for anyone between the weight of 150-340 lbs. Breakfast – black coffee (has to be black) and a Smoothie
- 8 ounces of unsweetened almond milk
- 1 cup of frozen blueberries
- 2 cups of spinach
- 3 tbsp of greens powder – I use Genuine Health original greens
- 1/2 cup of carrots
- 1 cup of chopped kale
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
Lunch – 1 avocado and 1 yellow bell pepper – you can mash the avocado or make “guacamole” and use it like a dip for the chopped yellow bell pepper.
Dinner – Salad
- 3 cups arugula or spinach
- 1/4 cup chopped almonds
- 1 cup chopped cucumber
- 3/4 cup halved strawberries
- 1/4 of an avocado
- season with lemon or balsamic vinegar and salt/pepper
DAY 2-5 800 calories
Breakfast – black coffee and Smoothie – same as day 1 minus the kale and coconut oil
Lunch – cold pressed juice by DOSE – Yogi – it has to be this particular one – low in sugar // 1 tbsp coconut oil // 1/2 cup of whole almonds
Dinner – 1 cup roasted sweet potato // 1 cup roasted broccoli // 1 tbsp coconut oil. You can spice the vegetables however you like.
That’s it! Before you complain about how small the portions are, remember that you still get to reap the rewards of what would normally take a 3 day water fast. But I do highly recommend trying a long water fast at some point in your life. The 5 day fasting mimicking diet will leave you hungry and there are some good psychological lessons in being hungry and appreciating the food that you do get throughout the day. But I can attest to the spiritual connection with life, food and your surroundings when you go for 72 hours with just water. It is a tough but very rewarding experience.
I wish you all the best in health as we proceed through this covid-19 pandemic. For all of us but especially for those of you with compromised immune systems, it is so important to try and find ways to optimize your health. Autoimmune disease used to be a life sentence but more and more studies are showing that this is not the case. Trying a regular routine of fasting may just be the thing you need to get you on a new path of improved immunity. I hope this helps and please let me know if you have any questions!
For information on online nutrition / fitness consultations please contact Joey at email@example.com