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The recent periods of Navratri and Ramzan had many people fasting and abstaining from certain foods and drinks. While the religious and spiritual reasons for fasting are many, it also appears to have many health benefits. Fasting—for any reason, religious or otherwise—can be a much-needed natural detox for the digestive system. Little wonder that diet regimes such as intermittent fasting and circadian fasting make ample use of the principles of fasting to regulate metabolism and arrive at a healthier way of living. It is more effective than calorie restriction, especially at increasing fat loss while simultaneously preserving muscle tissue, which is hard to achieve, even for regular gym-goers.
Sharath K Iyer, a banker from Pune and his wife Junita struggled to manage their cholesterol levels and were suffering from weight-related lifestyle issues. “Hard-pressed for time, regular gymming was out of the question. We needed a lifestyle change, which would also be beneficial to our health," says Iyer. He approached a family friend and nutritionist, who advised that they start on the comparatively easy circadian fasting—one of the most natural ways of fasting. It aligns the fasting and feeding window with the circadian rhythm (sunset and sunrise), resulting in a natural 12-hour fast. The ‘circadian rhythm’ has a deep connection with digestion, detoxification, repair, and recovery, making it the perfect go-to diet regime for those looking for an easy route to healthy living. “We have been following this regime for six-odd months now. We could easily adapt to the method, and for the first time in years, we feel mentally and physically healthy," says Iyer.
While the most notable data related to the evidence supporting the benefits of fasting have been recorded in animal studies, these findings are also promising for humans. When we fast, the body does not have its usual access to glucose, which is needed to generate energy. This, in return, forces the cells to resort to other means and materials within the system to produce the required energy. As a result, the body begins gluconeogenesis, a natural process of producing its own sugar. The liver kicks in by converting non-carbohydrate materials such as lactate, amino acids, and fats into glucose energy. Because our bodies conserve energy during fasting, our basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy our bodies burn while resting) becomes more efficient. As a result, it lowers our heart rate and blood pressure.
“Ketosis—a process that occurs later into the fast cycle, if one is a regular with it—happens when the body burns stored fat as its primary power source. This is the ideal model for weight loss and balancing blood sugar levels," says consultant and section coordinator of Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Dr David Chandy. Fasting puts the body under mild stress conditions. It leads to our cells adapting by enhancing their ability to cope. To simply put, they become strong. This process is similar to what happens when we stress our muscles and cardiovascular system during a round at the gym. As with exercise, our body grows stronger during these processes when there is adequate time to rest and recover. That’s why short-term fasting is recommended.
Overeating exposes people to a wide range of diseases. The powers and benefits of fasting can be a mind-opener. It is one of our most powerful inner physicians that we human beings are blessed with as it is capable of reviving our body’s inherent intelligence. If practised properly and at regular time intervals, it can reduce inflammation and trigger the activation of our immune system. Among its benefits, it helps remove toxins from our bodies and improves our mental health. Fasting is a welcome break for our digestive system.
Zamurrud M Patel, CDE, RD, chief dietician, Global Hospitals, Parel, Mumbai, says, “Researchers have also found that fasting during chemotherapy strengthens the immune system and exposes the cancer cells. Getting rid of old, poisonous cells and replacing them with new, healthy ones could be the solution. Fasting boosts cognitive performance, reduces inflammation and decreases the risk of metabolic diseases." Though research is mostly limited to animal research, several studies have found that fasting could have a powerful effect on brain health, such as fasting increases the generation of nerve cells to help enhance cognitive function.
Fasting is sometimes viewed as unhealthy, depriving, or reserved for religious reasons. However, as research grows, fasting is rapidly becoming more widely accepted as a legitimate means of managing weight and preventing lifestyle diseases. In general, most fasts are performed over 24-72 hours; the hours vary depending on the person and the situation, as many undertake fasts for religious or spiritual reasons. Some fasts—especially Intermittent and Circadian Fasting—also involve cycling between periods of eating and fasting, ranging from a few hours to a few days at a time.
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Some studies have found that fasting could decrease inflammation and may be helpful in treating inflammatory conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. Several studies have found that fasting may reduce insulin resistance by reducing central body fat. “Decrease in insulin resistance can increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, allowing it to transport glucose from the bloodstream to the cells more efficiently. Keep in mind, though, that some diabetes medicines may cause low sugars during fasting. For people with diabetes, one should always discuss with their doctor before starting to fast," Chandy says.
Fasting is a practice that has been associated with a wide array of potential health benefits. A well-rounded routine of fasting can lead to weight loss, as well as improved blood sugar control, heart health and brain function. But if you decide to try fasting, be sure to stay well-hydrated. Also, the daily diet should be filled with nutrient-dense foods to maximise the potential health benefits. Additionally, if fasting for more extended periods, one should look at minimising intense physical activity and getting plenty of rest. The body needs to recuperate and heal. “Fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every person has to work around the parameters to find his or her comfort zone. Thankfully, for Junita and me, we have arrived at the perfect intersection," smiles Iyer.