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Modern humans in most parts of the world follow a “three meals plus snacks” eating pattern daily, but this paradigm is actually somewhat of an anomaly when thought of in terms of human evolution. Before the development of agriculture 10,000 or so years ago, humans survived on more irregular food intake due to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Fasting was a fact of life in hunter-gatherer societies.

Humans evolved to function well physically and mentally even amid fasting conditions. Present-day scientists are exploring how intermittent fasting (consuming either 500 calories or less two days per week or eating within a 6-8 hour period daily) may yield benefits in terms of lower chronic disease rates, reduction in neurological disorders, improved weight management, and a slower rate of aging.

Fasting and Chronic Disease

Research in animals indicates that intermittent fasting (or time restricted eating) can protect against chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. The theory is that intermittent fasting teaches the body to respond better to stress, so damaging stressors have less of an effect.

Cellular structures designed to remove damaged molecules are believed to work better under intermittent fasting conditions. No human data is yet available concerning the effects of intermittent fasting on cancer prevention and treatment, but scientists believe reduced levels of glucose, insulin and other hormones during fasting may create a protective environment that reduces DNA damage, therefore reducing cancer risk.

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Early studies of intermittent fasting as an adjunct to chemotherapy in cancer patients have produced promising results, with intermittent fasting patients reporting fewer chemotherapy side effects.

Fasting and Neurological Disorders

Research is mounting on the benefits of energy restriction on brain function in mice. Studies have found that intermittent fasting enhances brain performance as measured on behavioral tests of sensory function, motor function, learning, and memory.

Dr. Mark Mattson, one of the leading research scientists on aging and a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, has been able to slow down age related neurodegenerative disorders in the lab through calorie restriction in mice. His TEDx presentation on the topic reviews his findings.

Mice and rats put on an intermittent fasting diet showed better production of new neurons from stem cells, and less neuronal dysfunction and deterioration. That resulted in fewer clinical symptoms in animals with modeled versions of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. Intermittent fasting animals also had better outcomes after severe epileptic seizures, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries.

Weight Management and Fasting

Careful, supervised fasting can boost weight loss efforts.

While fasting has generally not been recommended as a weight loss method, research is discovering that periodic fasting or time restricted eating may impact the body’s natural circadian rhythms in a positive manner.

When we eat is seeming to be an important factor in sustainable weight management. The evidence on intermittent fasting in humans is showing potential benefits for fat loss, in that periodic energy restriction triggers the body to produce more enzymes needed to burn fat for fuel instead of producing glucose metabolizing enzymes.

Over time, the energy metabolism of the body shifts to burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of carbohydrates. Back in 2012, BBC producer Michael Mosley decided to use himself as a test subject on intermittent fasting and created a documentary around his experience. The results were quite profound in favor of periodic fasting.

Effects of Fasting on Aging and Longevity

Researchers at the University of Southern California have been studying a five-day diet that mimics fasting as a method of slowing down the aging process.

This same research team found that fasting for as few as three days can trigger the body to create new white blood cells and regenerate the immune system, which could have long-term positive health implications.

A diet consisting of vegetable soups and chamomile tea, which mimics fasting, apparently increases the number of regenerative stem cells in organs, including the brain.

The results in mice include improved memory and learning, lower incidence of chronic disease, reduced inflammation, and slower bone mineral density loss. This type of fast essentially reprograms the body to enter into a slower mode of aging.

Fasting has been practiced for several millennia by many different civilizations, but it’s only recently that scientific studies on fasting have been conducted. Evidence continues to support the practice of periodic fasting or time restricted eating, may have a host of health and weight management benefits. 

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