As part of the natural health movement there are a growing number of people who advocate for the use of fasting as a means to promote health in the human body. However, their enthusiasm is not universally shared. There are many people, medical doctors and common-sense folk alike, who ask the obvious question: why on earth would I want to go a prolonged period of time without food? Just because somebody somewhere says that something has health benefits doesn’t mean I should believe it. In a society bored to death with new health trends’ popping up every other day it seems reasonable to want something more than mere assertions. Show me the money!!!
As with most controversial issues there are fiercely divided camps. Those who defend fasting as a useful process give a laundry list of benefits that they claim occur as a result of depriving the body of all substances except for water in a state of total rest. Despite their claims, many MD’s call farce. Opponents say that food contains essential nutrients that the body is deprived of during a fast; hence, the entire point of eating! These doctors claim that fasting lowers the body’s metabolism so that when re-feeding occurs the body will rapidly store calories depleted during the fast; this means weight gain. Once re-feeding commences appetite hormones return to normal and the subject is likely to binge. Thus, any weight lost, which is mostly water and sodium, comes back and brings more with it. The doctors who oppose the practice of fasting conclude that it is an unsafe and unsustainable method for weight loss.
So how do the fasting advocates respond? Their arguments falls into one of two categories: anthropological reasoning and clinical research. The anthropological arguments draw deductions from human interactions with nature throughout the course of human history. These arguments are supported with modern, scientific understandings of human physiology. For example, much of human existence has occurred in an environment of scarcity. Pre-industrial man did not have the convenience of grocery stores and food manufacturers. Because of this it was often necessary for humans to go periods of time without food. Fasting, in the physiological sense of the word, is a biological adaptation that enables the body to function without food. The human species had to adjust to water-only fasting as a survival mechanism in order to sustain life in a scarce environment. Since humans have a large cerebral mass at the top of the spinal column (the brain) which burns a disproportionate amount of glucose relative to the rest of the body a constant supply of glucose would be required to sustain life if the body were not able to shift fuel sources in the absence of food. In other words, if the harvest comes late one year, or the car breaks down and you can’t drive to the grocery store, you die. We know from experience and from science that this is not the case. Human physiology tells us that once glucose from the liver is consumed during a fast the body shifts to burning muscle glycogen to fuel the brain. Once this is depleted, adipose tissue (stored body fat) is metabolized into ketones which can fuel the brain for a very long time. Fasting clinics routinely observe water-only fasts lasting up to 40 days. The fasting process has been a natural part of the human experience for thousands of years. In fact, the current, modern, post-industrial revolution, convenience saturated, fast food addicted culture we currently live in is way beyond the norm.
In addition to these arguments, there is a growing body of clinical research that supports the claims of the fasters. Experiments on laboratory rats have shown that calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can extends the lifespan of rats by 25%. Critics argue that since these experiments on longevity haven’t been conducted on humans (it is difficult for researchers to follow humans around for a hundred years) we can’t be sure to see the same results. However, one study entitled Medically Supervised Water-Only fasting in the Treatment of Hypertension observed humans in a clinical trial. The experiment was conducted on 154 subjects suffering from severe hypertension. After a treatment of water-only fasting for 10-11 days 90% of the subjects had achieved blood-pressure levels in the normal range without the use of medication. Since high blood pressure is a major factor that contributes to pre-mature death it is reasonable to infer that a treatment that has such success curing this condition would contribute to longevity in humans.
Finally, fasting supporters have the clinical observations of medically supervised fasts in facilities designed for that purpose. Conditions that have been observed to have a healing response to water-only fasting include high blood pressure, chronic headaches, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, degenerative arthritis, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, uterine fibroids, acne, eczema, systemic lupus erythematous, benign tumors, and others. Advocates claim that fasting gives the body a period of digestive rest whereby metabolic toxins are mobilized and expelled as the body heals itself through natural physiological processes. Furthermore, fasting hastens the energetic states associated with healthful living which motivates sustainable improvement. Based on these observations, fasting advocates conclude that water-only fasting is a safe and effective method of facilitating optimal health and functioning in the human body.
So how do the opponents respond these arguments? They don’t. In the research that I have done I have noticed that fasting opponents seldom acknowledge the clinical research done on this subject. They routinely attack the weakest arguments for the use of fasting while ignoring the bulk of research that advocates cite. Perhaps this is because the evidence contradicts the modern medical belief that optimal health is achieved by taking the right drugs. This may have a healthy effect on the profit margins of the drug companies, but not on my body.
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