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Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Hugh Jackman as X-Men character Wolverine - Poster child for intermittent fasting

The 16:8 Intermittent Fasting celebrity poster child… or err, man. Hugh Jackman got jacked (and ripped out of his mind) for his role as X-Men character Wolverine using 16:8 intermittent fasting and carb cycling

Is intermittent fasting just another diet fad or actually something worth trying?

Intermittent fasting can help people lose weight and gain muscleThere are so many different types of diets and supplements constantly being thrown around on TV, blasted on the internet and popping out of grocery store magazines. It’s hard to know what is simply hollow hype and what could potentially change your life for the better.

Intermittent fasting has been gaining more and more publicity these days. You might be thinking, “What health benefits could possibly offset the gnawing agony of hunger pangs? Isn’t fasting starving yourself?”

Well as it turns out, there are actually quite a bit of impressive health benefits that result from intermittent fasting (IF for short) that have turned my head and I think they’ll get your attention too. Aside from these benefits there is a form of intermittent fasting known as 16:8 Intermittent Fasting that is fairly easy to keep to and hunger is rarely a problem.

There are of course challenges, drawbacks and people it simply won’t work for. I’m here to try and give you a balanced view of the landscape.

Fasting Basics

Fasting is most commonly intended to mean a period of time that one goes without food or nutrition. Caloric abstinence.

In water fasting, water is the only substance that is permitted to enter the body. Juice fasting is not a true fast but entails allowing only juice to satisfy nutrition or hunger needs for the duration of the fast. An example of a modified juice fast in the Master Cleanse or Beyonce Lemon Detox Diet. Even greater aberrations than the juice fasts include “fasts” that limit you to eating only a small selection of specific foods. I think that calling these “fasts” is silly and would be more accurately termed “restricted diets.”

Benefits of Water FastingEveryone fasts. You fast for hours at a time as you sleep at night. You then wake up and break that fast with break-fast. Now, obviously, someone who says they are going to fast are intending to carry on this absence of food for quite a duration longer, which could range from 16 hours, to many days, to in some cases, a period of weeks.

Traditionally, people have most commonly fasted for religious or spiritual reasons, healing the body or for personal insight and mental clarity.

Fasting’s existence has been recorded for thousands of years and can be observed in numerous religions and cultures. As the “modern age,” as we know it, emerged and the field of science blossomed we began to challenge the wisdom of this practice.

Are the purported benefits of fasting just a bunch of made up nonsense created by old cultures full of foolish superstition or is there true wisdom in it? Is this challenging self-denial beneficial to our health and vitality or is it just one more dangerous, archaic practice that needs to be exposed and eliminated?

Thankfully, science has finally reached a certain maturity, enabling it to more competently investigate the matter empirically.

What is “intermittent” fasting? Are there different types?

Intermittent fasting (IF) is alternating between fasting and non-fasting on a consistent schedule.

Alternate-Day Intermittent Fasting

An example is alternate-day intermittent fasting and is theoretically supposed to be where the individual fasts for 24 hours and then resume regular diet for 24 hours.

I say theoretically because most people who practice alternate-day fasting end up fasting for 36 hours followed by 12 hours of eating. It ends up being lopsided because of the way sleeping hours interfere with the ideal 24/24 schedule. The BBC2 Horizon documentary Eat, Fast and Live Longer chronicles this form of fasting. You can watch below but I’ll warn you that it’s about an hour long.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting

Another form of intermittent fasting is where a person fasts two non-consecutive days a week. More simply put, the individual will fast for a period of 24 hours two times out of the week but there must be at least one day between the 24 hour fasting days. This is known as  5:2 intermittent fasting (5 days non-fasting, 2 days fasting).

16:8 Intermittent Fasting

The 8 Hour Diet - Losing weight through intermittent fastingNow comes my favorite form of intermittent fasting and one that I think truly has promise for not only its ability to create some remarkable health benefits and body transformations but, more importantly, for its long-term feasibility.

In this form of intermittent fasting the individual will fast for 16 hours followed by an eating window of 8 hours. So a good chunk (half, if you’re sleeping 8 hours) of the fasting will be accomplished while sleeping. This is most commonly referred to as 16:8 intermittent fasting and book The 8-Hour Diet: Watch the Pounds Disappear Without Watching What You Eat!

The Benefits of 16:8 Intermittent Fasting

Anti-aging is a byproduct of intermittent fasting and is thought to be caused by increased autophagy within cellsAnti-Aging – Studies have shown that fasting and intermittent fasting slows the aging process. This is believed to be caused by the benefits of autophagy.

Autophagy | Nature’s Fountain of Youth – Autophagy, if broken down, literally means to “eat oneself.” When you have reached a fasting state of around 12 to 16 hours your body’s energy requirements are no longer so labor intensive for digestion and nutrient assimilation. In each cell of your body are lysosomes which are ogranelles that act as a “clean-up crew” for damaged cells and unused proteins in each cell.

When in the fasted state, lysosomes begin seeking out comprised cells and damaged machinery and destroy them. Anything that’s compromised will be consumed and the proteins they were made from will be recycled to be used for other cell repairs and new cellular components.

Regular autophagy is critical to keep your body clean, well-maintained and optimized. It is believed that a consistent lack of autophagy is responsible for the accumulation of cell damage and aging. [1]

intermittent sleep promotes restful and restorative sleepBetter Sleep – Many people including our immaculate celebrity specimen above, Hugh Jackman, claim that they never slept better than while on a intermittent fasting regimen.

Brain Function | BDNF ↑ – What is BDNF? Brain-derived neurtrophic factor. It is a protein that supports our neurons (brain cells) and associated synapses as well as stimulating the growth of new neurons. It’s active in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory and higher thinking (hippocampus, cerbral cortex and basal forebrain). [2]

Mental clarity and increased cognitive performance is commonly reported with intermittent fasting practitioners.

Anti-inflammatory | IL-6, CRP & Homocystine ↓ – In one study intermittent fasting proved to decrease 3 of the most important biomarkers for inflammation, namely, interleukin-6, c-reactive protein and homocysteine. High levels of these biomarkers are associated with heart disease, artery inflammation and ischemic events (myocardial infarction, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, transient ischemic attack).

Accelerated Fat Loss – Exercising during the fasting state increases fat loss compared to after a meal. [3] This has to do with stored glucose in your liver and muscle cells (glycogen) being depleted. Your body will preferentially liberate glycogen into glucose to be used as fuel for your workouts. When glycogen is used up (such as during fasting) your body begins to use fat stores to fuel your workout.

intermittent-fasting-increases-brain-function-bdnfHuman Growth Hormone (HGH) ↑ – Fasting and calorie restriction have been extensively studied and proven to increase human growth hormone. [4, 5] The secretion of HGH is thought to be an attempt for the body to maximize available glucose in the body (as it has a smaller supply than per usual). The thought is that intermittent fasting may be long enough to induce the elevated growth hormone levels cited in these fasting studies that will allow increased muscle mass when the individual refeeds and in conjunction with high stress-load weight or resistance training.

Growth hormone is also known to increase lipolysis (fat loss), stimulate the immune system, support thyroid function, stimulate growth of internal organs including your brain and create strong bones through proper calcium utilization.

Insulin Sensitivity ↑ – Intermittent fasting has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity. With increased insulin sensitivity your body is able to utilize glucose to maintain, repair and build your body more efficiently. The opposite of increased insulin sensitivity is insulin resistance which is universal among diabetics. [6]

Calorie restriction - Science is now inconclusive of longevity claims with the negative impact being quite substantialCaloric Restriction (CR) Alternative – Many people have switched to a form of diet called caloric restriction to slow the aging process. This is based on multiple studies that has shown that mice on a calorie restricted diet live significantly longer than mice fed a regular caloric intake. There is also some loose interpretations of the Okinawan population who have have had a lower calorie diet and have had a very long life expectancy and many centenarians (people 100 years old or better). However, their are conflicting studies on the benefits of calorie restriction. Some studies show that calorie restriction increases nutritional deficiencies, lowered immunity, fraility, depress and irritability. So maybe you live longer but you’re also miserable. Enter intermittent fasting.

Studies have shown that intermittent fasting provides all the benefits of calorie restriction diets but without any of these negatives. A recent study conducted also found intermittent fasting to be superior to calorie restriction in weight loss. [3]

Fasting Benefits Optimized – This has to be the easiest form of fasting. You get to eat every day, hunger usually isn’t an issue, you minimize the negatives (catabolic muscle breakdown, hunger and early fatigue) while getting most of the benefits of longer forms of fasting.

Weight Loss and 16:8 Intermittent Fasting

Weight loss using 16:8 intermittent fastingThis is the new craze in weight loss. By simply minimizing your daily eating window to 8 hours you can not only melt away the pounds but also get better muscle tone.

The author of the 8 Hour Diet claims that you can basically gorge yourself during this 8 hour feeding window. However, although I would also say to eat as much as you like, I would admonish you to eat healthy foods, generally meaning whole foods that aren’t processed and/or pre-made inside a a box.

Gaining Muscle Mass with 16:8 Intermittent Fasting

gain-muscle-anthony-ellisAs Hugh Jackman has illustrated, you can pack on muscle and apparently become cut like the razors edge simultaneously using this form of intermittent fasting.

Usually maximum muscle gain requires a high calorie bulking phase which also packs on extra body fat, which you then have to follow with a cutting phase to trim down. This protocol seems to have the best of both worlds. Something that most trainers say is impossible: gaining substantial lean mass without adding body fat. I think that you will have to eat like an absolute animal during your 8 hour window to do this and I don’t think it will work for everyone.

Skinny guys, or hard-gainers are probably wondering if this will work for them. I myself am a hard-gainer that rapidly loses lean muscle mass when even missing one meal, so I have my reservations on this as well. However, Hugh Jackman is naturally more of a slender body type. Before entering Hollywood with his major debut role as Wolverine, he was a 6’2 stick at 170 lbs. So, seeing this work for Hugh to such a remarkable extent is an exciting possibility for not only guys with higher body fat but also us “skinny,” hard-gainer types.

I think its definitely worth a shot. I myself will be trying it in the near future and perhaps follow up with an article sharing my experience.

What about potential drawbacks or negatives?

Intermittent fasting may leave you feeling "Hungry Like the Wolf" a little more than you'd likeHunger

Although hunger is reportedly not an issue for many people who begin using 16:8 intermittent fasting , a good amount of people will not be so lucky and may find themselves hungry quite often. If your body is not able to adapt and the hunger routinely causes a distraction in life, well-being and productivity than this diet isn’t your long term solution.

Eating Like a Ravenous Wildebeest

Having to eat all of your food in an 8 hour window so you’re nutritionally satisfied and not hungry during the fasting phase can require you to eat more than you’d like. You will have to spend a lot of time eating in a short frame of time. This might end up disrupting your day and you find it hard to strike a balance between getting things done and having to cozy up to the feeding trough.

Muscle Wasting in Skinny Guys

Some of the guys who are looking to gain muscle mass and are traditional hard-gainers may experience muscle wasting, especially if they aren’t able to eat upwards of 4 to 5,000 calories every day in that little 8 hour window.

Some guys have reported this and have not seen very good gains. One way to stop this is to supplement with a little BCAA (branch chain amino acids) during the fasting state. This will stop your body from wanting to tear down your muscle tissue to harvest those same amino acids. As long as you don’t exceed 50 calories your body will remain in the fasted state.

Conclusions on Intermittent Fasting

Give intermittent fasting a goI don’t think intermittent fasting by itself is the end all of diets or regimens for optimal health but I think its a powerful tool that every person should experiment with to see what kind of benefits they experience from it and whether they can sustain the practice for a long period of time.

Combine intermittent fasting with a healthy nutrition plan to see the best results. You can eat more on this type of regimen so enjoy it and have your indulgences here and there but focus on quality whole foods as your primary dietary sources.

The science is there. Intermittent fasting isn’t an empty, hyped up fad. It may be a fad but it has merit and I think it will stick around longer than the usual suspects (South Beach Diet, etc).

A say, give it a shot! It might change your life.

About Doctor Scott Health

Dr. Scott McLeod, PharmD is an independent researcher, health advocate and author living in Santa Barbara, CA. For more information about Scott and Doctor Scott Health please visit the 'About' section, here.

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