Though the practice of fasting has been around for centuries—and plays an important role in many cultures and religions across the globe—recent science on its health benefits has sky-rocketed its popularity in recent years.
So why exactly would you willingly restrict your food intake? Here, I’ll walk you through the health benefits fasting offers and how to give it a try yourself.
Fasting Through The Ages
Though it’s only gone mainstream in recent years, fasting has long been a regular part of human history. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, we fasted intermittently all the time, eating only when we’d found—or caught—ourselves food.
Fasting has also taken on significant meaning in many of the world’s major religions, from Christianity to Judaism to Islam. Often, the practice is used during times of solemnity to enhance self-control, physical purification, and spiritual rejuvenation. Throughout Ramadan, for example, Muslims fast from dawn until sunset each day for a month.
Now, though, a growing body of research suggests fasting offers notable health benefits, catapulting it onto our social media newsfeeds. These days, fasting is a trendy practice in its own right.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Typically, when we hear experts and wellness gurus talk about fasting these days, they refer to ‘intermittent fasting’ or ‘IF.’
Intermittent fasting (sometimes also called cyclic fasting) technically refers to eating patterns that involve alternating between periods of eating as usual and periods of abstaining from food.
However, it’s often used more as an umbrella term, describing a variety of approaches to fasting—each with their own unique approach and structure.
Various Forms Of Fasting
As fasting grows more popular, the different methods of approaching it grow more numerous.
It’s now easy to find a method of intermittent fasting that fits into your daily routine. A few of the most common approaches include:
- 5:2 Fasting: With this type of fasting, you restrict food consumption to just 500 to 600 calories on two nonconsecutive days per week. On the other five days, you eat normally.
- 16/8 Fasting: One of the most popular approaches to fasting, the 16/8 method involves abstaining from food for 16 hours per day and eating only within a given eight-hour window. (People often eat between noon and dinnertime.)
- Alternate-Day Fasting: This type of fasting involves severely restricting food intake—or fasting completely—every other day. On off days, you follow your usual diet. (Think of it as a beefed-up version of 5:2 fasting.)
- Eat-Stop-Eat: With this method of fasting, you pick one or two nonconsecutive days per week to fast for a full 24 hours and eat normally for the rest of the week.
Benefits Of Intermittent Fasting
With research on fasting popping up left and right, the practice of intermittent fasting has now been credited with everything from reducing levels of oxidative stress in the body to slowing cellular aging and more. Here are five of its most well-established perks.
1. Enhances Insulin Sensitivity
With so many Americans affected by insulin resistance and diabetes these days, maintaining healthy blood sugar should be top priority for all of us.
You see, after we eat, our body breaks any carbohydrates down into glucose (sugar), our primary source of energy. Then, we produce and release insulin, a hormone that transports sugar out of our bloodstream and into our cells.
The thing is, consuming high amounts of carbs can increase insulin levels, leaving our body less sensitive to its effects.
That’s where intermittent fasting comes in. The practice has been shown to both improve our sensitivity to insulin and help us control our blood sugar.
In fact, one 2015 Malaysian study reported that healthy men who fasted during the day throughout the month of Ramadan decreased insulin levels by 53 percent and slashed blood sugar by 12 percent.
2. Decreases Inflammation
Chronic inflammation, a state in which the immune system gets stuck in ‘attack mode’ without the presence of infection or injury, has become a growing issue in public health—and one that fasting may be able to combat.
Not only does chronic inflammation worsen symptoms of autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, but research now suggests it also contributes to the development of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Related: 6 Signs You Have Inflammation
Fortunately, several studies have found that limiting food consumption to a smaller window during the day can decrease markers of inflammation, ultimately supporting overall health and aiding in disease prevention.
3. Promotes Heart Health
Fasting’s benefits for our long-term health don’t end with its inflammation-fighting abilities.
Some promising research now suggests intermittent fasting can also help neutralize several risk factors for heart disease.
For example, one UAE University study of people who fasted during Ramadan found that fasting helped:
- reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels
- improve ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels
- reduce systolic blood pressure
- reduce triglyceride levels
Interestingly, the cholesterol benefits lasted four weeks after Ramadan ended and participants stopped fasting.
4. Enhances Cognitive Function
Although current research on fasting and cognition is still developing, some early studies suggest forgoing food offers big brain benefits.
For instance, a 2013 animal study published in PLoS One found that alternate-day fasting improved mice’s brain function (by enhancing learning and memory) and helped prevent changes in their brain structure.
Certainly, these results warrant research on intermittent fasting and cognitive function in humans—so stay tuned!
5. Boosts Weight Loss
Perhaps the buzziest of intermittent fasting’s health perks: its ability to boost fat-burning and weight loss.
When you fast, you force your body to turn to its fat stores for energy—and the more body fat you utilize for energy production over time, the more pounds slide off.
In fact, one Nutrition Reviews paper found that people who practiced alternate-day fasting for up to 12 weeks reduced their body weight by up to seven percent. They also shed up to 12 pounds.
How To Try Intermittent Fasting
Want to give intermittent fasting a go? Your first step is to find a method that works for you. Although you can use any of the intermittent fasting methods listed above, many beginners find 16/8 fasting the easiest.
With 16/8 fasting, you can start fasting after dinner so that the bulk of your fasting hours are spent asleep. Then, skip breakfast the next day and break your fast at lunchtime. Most people find the adjustment surprisingly easy!
Regardless of which method fasting you choose, remember to pay close attention to what you put on your plate when you do eat. When you have a fasting practice, you tend to eat fewer calories overall, making the nutrients you do consume all the more important.
To supply your body with the nutrition it needs, make sure your meals include a balance of fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and protein.
Finally, listen to your body. If you start feeling tired or weak while fasting, eat a small snack and gauge its effects. You may also want to consider experimenting with other types of intermittent fasting to find a better fit for your lifestyle.
Pin this handy infographic for quick reference:
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.