I am a big believer in the power of fasting to improve physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health. I have written a handful of blogs detailing my experiences with intermittent fasting (here), and multi-day fasts (here), both with and without drinking water.. My longer fasts were the most therapeutic, but they would take me several days to recover.. Some of them were so intense I couldn’t imagine doing anything like it on a regular basis, and I would typically space them out over the course of many months… I used to think that in order to reap the benefits of fasting, it was necessary to abstain from all consumption, which included food, and sometimes even water. However, this assumption about fasting simply did not square with a plethora of research I came across. Numerous studies of both humans and animals have evidenced substantial health benefits for people who practice some form of calorie restriction, or fasting regimes where consumption of water was encouraged.
Enter alternate-day fasting / calorie restriction. Experience is king, but the experience of others is as equally valid as mine, which is why I take research so seriously. Take this study, for example, entitled “The effect on health of alternate day calorie restriction: eating less and more than needed on alternate days prolongs life.” Research in this vein is what initially opened my mind to the therapeutic benefits of other, “less extreme,” safer, and more sustainable forms of fasting. It’s a bit long for a quote, but an excerpt from the abstract of the study makes many excellent points that would take even longer for me to summarize.
Restricting caloric intake to 60-70% of normal adult weight maintenance requirement prolongs lifespan 30-50% and confers near perfect health across a broad range of species. Every other day feeding produces similar effects in rodents, and profound beneficial physiologic changes have been demonstrated in the absence of weight loss in ob/ob mice.
Since May 2003 we have experimented with alternate day calorie restriction, one day consuming 20-50% of estimated daily caloric requirement and the next day ad lib eating, and have observed health benefits starting in as little as two weeks, in insulin resistance, asthma, seasonal allergies, infectious diseases of viral, bacterial and fungal origin (viral URI, recurrent bacterial tonsillitis, chronic sinusitis, periodontal disease), autoimmune disorder (rheumatoid arthritis), osteoarthritis, symptoms due to CNS inflammatory lesions (Tourette’s, Meniere’s) cardiac arrhythmias (PVCs, atrial fibrillation), menopause related hot flashes.
We hypothesize that other many conditions would be delayed, prevented or improved, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, brain injury due to thrombotic stroke atherosclerosis, NIDDM, congestive heart failure.
Or take this article, published by The National Institute On Aging, which cites a study in which participants who restricted calories ~12% (a relatively modest amount), showed vast improvements in health outcomes at the end of two years.
Compared to the control group, calorie restriction substantially reduced waist measurements and blood pressure. Lab tests showed reduced LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. In addition, measures of inflammation, insulin resistance, glucose control, and metabolic syndrome greatly improved.
The findings suggest that modest calorie restriction may reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes even in healthy adults who are not obese. “People can do this fairly easily by simply watching their little indiscretions here and there, or maybe reducing the amount of them, like not snacking after dinner,” Kraus says.
There are a bunch more studies out there on the benefits of calorie restriction, both in humans, and animals, many of which animals closely resemble our species.. You can read all about them on your own time.
What surprised me when I started practicing calorie restriction is that I experienced many of the same sensations and benefits of my longer, more intense fasts.. For example, I have noticed positive changes in my physical health and emotional state; my energy has begun to improve, and with it subjective feelings of wellness; I often wake up feeling lighter, and fasting in this manner has been a big aid to my spiritual life. This protocol can also be an effective way to lose weight, with all the other benefits thrown in, although that has never been my motivation. The beautiful thing is that it is far more doable for me than some of my past routines, which means I can experience benefits from fasting every single week..
I have been practicing some form of an alternate-day, calorie restricted diet for ~4 months now. On fasting days, I typically limit my calorie consumption to 20-30% of my daily needs (sometimes more or less). On some days I will consume calories. On the alternate day, I eat “ad libitum,” as they say in the literature, which means eating as much as you want. In my case, I eat until I am full, while avoiding excess added sugars, unhealthy fats, toxic preservatives, and junk food, like one would on any other healthy diet.. I often combine calorie restriction with intermittent fasting, which means I will only consume my 20-30% calorie allotment during a specific time window. However, I am less rigid about this detail than I was in the past.
I still have much to learn, and I do not follow the protocol to a tee every single day. Some weeks, I will only fast or restrict for a day or two, instead of every other day. On a couple occasions, I have restricted calories anywhere from 3 days in a row to 7 days, in order to accelerate the benefits. It is paramount that every period of fasting be followed by adequate rest and recovery, in order to lock in the benefits. One day of fasting will naturally need a lot less R&R than 3 days, and so on.
When doing multiple days of calorie restriction in a row (or water fasting, or even keto), it is critical to monitor electrolyte balance (especially salt). I once had a frightening experience where I felt shortness of breath/tension in my chest, on day 5 of restricting calories. This, I discovered, was due to a sodium electrolyte deficiency. A short while after consuming adequate sodium, I felt completely better. Bottom line: experienced fasters know how important it is to monitor electrolytes, especially sodium, but also potassium and magnesium, during multi-day fasts.
Overall, I have found water fasting, or calorie restriction (alternate-day, once or twice a week, or multiple days followed by several days of recovery), to be the wisest, safest and most effective way to reap the benefits of fasting. Sometimes it pays to work harder. And sometimes it pays to work smarter. Fasting will always be a grind, but it doesn’t have to be torturous.
I am not even half a year in with this lifestyle tweak, but I wanted to share this update/evolution with you, especially since I have blogged about my experience with fasting in the past. I look forward to seeing what changes I experience in the coming months and years!
Feel free to chime in down below..
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and I do not give medical advice. Consult with your doctor before implementing any dietary changes.