I love systems because, when done right, they don't need many rules. In some cases, like the one I'm about to show you, they only need one rule. Everything else just logically follows from this one rule since they make it easier to accomplish, creating what is called a positive feedback loop; this is a cycle that is self-reinforcing. This cycle continues until a new equilibrium is reached, resulting in new positive habits or cultures for teams, companies or society as a whole.
You're probably asking, "what's the rule?!" It's quite simple really; provide your body a minimum of 16 hours of rest from digestion after your last meal before eating again. This means that if you finish eating at 5pm you wouldn't break your fast (hence the word breakfast) until 9am or later. The powerful thing about this system is that you don't need to count calories, or worry about the foods you eat and you can even shift around your eating times to coincide with your social activities each day as long as you follow the main rule: Wait a minimum of 16 hours after your last meal to eat again. However, even with all this flexibility, you'll soon see how this system is self correcting.
Wait a minimum of 16 hours after your last meal to eat again.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to eat every 4 hours to survive. Crazy right? In fact, your body takes up to ~5 hours to move food out of your stomach depending on its density, grapes take 10-15 minutes while a large steak can take up to 6 or 7 hours. However, your stomach is only the first step. This food, then enters your intestines where your body pulls nutrients out over the course of ~40 hours. In other words, your body still has food and nutrients for the better part of two days stored inside the digestive track. But then, "why do I get hungry?", well there's multiple factors to that:
- Habit - you're used to eating at a certain times (and in certain settings or environments). Also, assuming you're eating 3 meals a day, your stomach is used to receiving new food when it's empty but it can be trained.
- Stress - stress makes us hungrier. Our body feels like it will need more energy in the coming fight or flight scenario.
- Type of Food - Sugars and simple carbohydrates (ie. candy, white bread and instant oats) get digested really fast (~1 hour) compared to proteins, fats and fibers (~4 or more). Note - While fruits have sugars, their high content of fiber makes them digest slower than processed sugars.
- Food Layering - Ever wondered why restaurants usually start you with a salad and finish with a desert? This is a tradition, handed down through generations. The salad (fiber) actually slows down digestion of the carbohydrates and sugars that are to come in the following dishes, thus keeping you full longer.
- Thinking of Food - It's not a crime to enjoy eating, I sure do! But just because you're thinking of food doesn't mean your body actually needs it. Your brain is in charge and learning to control those urges can do wonders for your hunger.
Hunger comes in waves
While all these play a factor in hunger, it's worth noting that hunger, above all, comes in waves. Passing through these waves will start to reset some of the signals that your stomach sends you so that it won't bother you as much when it's empty or expecting food. The first step in accomplishing this is understanding that just because you're hungry, doesn't mean you're starving. You're body has a beautiful little system built-in to keep you from starving.
What is fasting?
The idea of conciously abstaining from food (ie. fasting) is not a novel idea. In fact, you fast each night, though not conciously. However, fasting for medicinal use has been around for as long as anyone can remember and has been used by prominent figures and religions throughout history to energize, rejuvenate and cleanse the body. Fasting is even used by animals instinctively when they get sick or injured. To understand this, we first need to understand what happens when we eat.
After a meal, our bodies begin the process of digestion and breakdown our food into glucose (a form of sugar) to energize our bodies. Glucose is usually our body's primary full source, however, glucose cannot enter our cells directly and needs the help of a hormone called "insulin." Sugar disturbs the body's pH levels (making it too acidic) and since your body always tries to seek homeostasis (or balance), insulin is excreted by the pancreas and begins to move the glucose out of the blood stream and into the cells. When all the cells are filled, the rest of the glucose gets stored in your liver in the form of glycogen for when our glucose levels drop. Once the liver is filled with glycogen, the rest of the sugar gets turned into fat in a process called lipogenesis.
The Guinness Record for fasting was 382 days on only water and vitamin supplements completed by a 456 lbs. man in Scotland who lost 276 lbs.
When our body starts to fast, the whole process reverses. Sugar levels drop which affects our body's pH (making it too alkaline) and causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin and start releasing glucagon which tells the body to start converting glycogen (remember that's the glucose that's stored in the liver) into glucose to return the body to homeostasis. Once all these sugar storages are empty, the body starts the process of turning fats and proteins into sugars (plus a molecule of water) in a process called gluconeogenesis. During this process, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a hormone responsible for muscle development and growth in the human body, gets released to protect your muscle from getting broken down for food. At this point, your body is running on your fat storages and a process called "autophagy" begins. This can be sustained for days, months and even a year or more. In fact, the Guinness Record for fasting was 382 days on only water and vitamin supplements completed by a 456 lbs. man in Scotland who lost 276 lbs.
Eating raises insulin, makes waste and produces fat
Fasting lowers insulin, detoxifies and burns fat
Benefits of Fasting
Now that we know how it all works, why should we do it? Well, it turns out, there's some really good benefits that one can attain from fasting. Some of the main ones are listed below:
- Restore Insulin Sensitivity - Because you allow your insulin levels to finally drop for a substantial amount of time, fasting, especially regular fasting, allows your cells to start to respond to insulin again. Think of it like that child crying on the plane, at first it's loud but as the minutes turn into hours, the noise fades into the background (maybe with the help of your headphones). It also allows your liver to release it's store of glycogen which detoxifies and cleanses it.
- Increased HGH Production - Insulin and HGH (again that's Human Growth Hormone) share an inverse relationship, meaning that when one is high, the other one is low. Since you finally are allowing your insulin levels to drop, you unlock the growth potentials of HGH. This allows you to burn fat and gain muscle almost naturally.
- Weight Loss and Detoxification - As your body depletes its food stores and glycogen stores, you start to burn into your fat stores. This starts to allow your body to breathe fat in during eating and breathe it out during your fasting periods. Since many toxins, vitamins and minerals get stored in fats, it also helps to cleanse and detoxify your body.
- Reduced Appetite - Since you're giving your stomach a rest and your body starts to get comfortable burning fats, you won't feel as hungry. However, depending on which schedule you choose to follow, your stomach will still send a hunger signal when it's usually time for you to eat but you can train that to whichever time suits your lifestyle.
- Endocrine Rejuvenation - Constantly sending out one type of hormone gets tiring for your hormone glands (ei. pancreas, adrenals, pituitary, reproductive, etc.) by following a cycle of building (eating) and repairing (fasting) you allow your glands to exercise their other functions.
- Reduced Inflammation and Cellular Cleansing - This was studied by the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Medicine from Japan, Yoshinori Ohsumi, in a process called "autophagy." This is the process where the body breaks down weak, old, damaged or unused cells including cancer cells to recycle their nutrients to make new cells. Think of this as survival of the fitness. This also extends to cleaning the brain of runaway proteins that clog it up. These waste proteins are said to be the cause of Parkinsons and Alzheimers.
- Increased Hydration - Since eating uses energy and water, not eating for a substantial portion of the day allows your water levels to naturally improve, assuming you drink water during your fasts.
- Increased Energy - Digestion is labor intensive. Do you know that sluggish feeling you get after you eat a carbohydrate heavy meal? By using your fat stores instead you provide your body with a more efficient and constant fuel source which can keep your energy levels stable.
- Stem Cell Production - Research shows that there are only two times (that we've discovered) where the human body creates stem cells. One is at birth and the other is when we fast for more than 2 days. Stem cells have the special ability to become any type of cell. For instance, a medical trial on stroke victims who had had parts of their bodies paralyzed for years, were injected with stems cells in the motor center of their brains. After a night of sleep, all of them were able to regain partial movement.
- Ketone Production - After ~40-60 hrs of fasting, your body transitions from gluconeogenesis to ketosis. In this state, you brain starts to use ketones for fuel instead of glucose. Ketosis is a more efficient process than gluconeogenesis and after 3-4 weeks, your entire body can become ketoadapted which is when almost all of your body starts to use ketones for energy instead of glucose.
After my morning routine, I tend to break my fast around 9 or 10 am and finish eating around 3 pm. It's comforting to know that I can still eat until 5 or 6 pm depending on when I started or plan to start the next day. This window usually allows me to eat breakfast and lunch on most days, as well as dinner every now and then, if I still feel hungry. On Fridays, I then usually fast for 24 hrs. until lunch Saturday. I still play sports after work during my fasting periods and have found that I have more energy the further I am away from my last meal.
Be cognizant of your salt intake, I was not taking in enough salt to keep up with the amount of sports I was playing and the amount of water I was drinking. This caused me to feel lethargic and infinitely thirsty; a negative cycle (more on that later).
There's many ways to fast. If you're starting out, you can begin by paying attention to your eating habits and then try to increase your (already natural) fasting as you start to feel more comfortable. Or maybe, a full-day or two-day fast once a week makes more sense for your lifestyle. There's also a 36 hour fast which goes from dinner to breakfast and skips one day. Whichever you choose, the point is to make fasting a part of your lifestyle.
Natural systems have cycles of growth and decay which intrinsically call forth the other. Growth leads to weakness and ultimately decay. Decay then destroys the parts of the system that aren't necessary in sustaining it. With a lighter load to carry and recycled resources, the system can continue growing. Eating and fasting are those two sides of the same coin. Eating without fasting leads to weakness and decay. By conciously choosing the times when we clean our systems (ie. fast), we enable our bodies to remain nimble, strong and healthy.
Other forms of sugar like fructose, lactose and dextrose get turned into glycogen and stored in the liver. Overflowing your liver's storage capabilities through chronic overeating is what leads to diabetes. ↩︎