There are a plethora of nuanced steps that humans can take to optimize their health. Among the most practical and useful is intermittent fasting. The physical health of the individual is of first order importance as the mind then closely follows once the body has an opportunity to optimize. Finally, the spirit can undergo transformation following body and mind development. However, it all starts with the body as the mind is unable to develop further without the body being well suited to support the mind.
The body is an immaculate machine, it builds components, responds to stimuli, and performs highly complex operations to allow consciousness to run. However, these components are both literally and figuratively strings within the body. Much like the guitar strings which begin to ting when they have been overused, the molecular machinery also begin to function lesser in harmony. Let us begin with a short segment on genes, only the amount necessary to understand the importance of intermittent fasting.
A Short Segment on Genes
Many people do not understand a simple fact about genes: genes code for proteins. The genome undergoes impossibly complex levels of regulation and controls how genes are expressed and which proteins are made. Upon creation of a protein, it is necessary to understand that a single protein, for simplicity sake, will modify a single molecule into another molecule. This will be its only job ever, another protein is required to continue the transformation of the initial molecule, the result is a breakdown or build up of cellular components. The totality of these processes is what is known as metabolism. So to boil this down into a bite size chunk, many proteins are required to coordinate the metabolism and maintenance of the body. Depending on the concentration of the proteins and molecules in the cellular environment, the body is able to regulate the passage of energy throughout the body and conduct work like the digestion of food.
It is necessary to present a simple and important example of this fact. Sugar has a particular molecular shape, this shape is a ring. Depending on the specific arrangement of atoms within the ring, the sugar will behave differently and thus be utilized differently. For example, glucose is used for energy and ribose is used to stabilize DNA. The body is exceptionally equipped to recognize and harness the diversity of molecules. Thus, when glucose has been detected, a cascade of responses take place. Specialized cells reach into the genome to make the proteins involved in the complete transformation and appropriation of the energy contained within the sugar molecule. An incredible process to be sure, however there are things that can hijack this system, namely another sugar called fructose.
Extremely Brief Note on Fructose
Fructose is found in fruit but also manufactured to sweeten beverages and foods. When connected to glucose, it is known commonly as sucrose or the sugar on the table at restaurants. Fructose is interesting because it has the shape of a sugar (specific ring shape) but escapes the initial steps of the sugar breakdown pathway which is known as glycolysis. Glycolysis has three critical control points that regulate how much glucose is allowed into the system at once. Fructose inserts itself into this pathway past the first two control points. In short, fructose proceeds unregulated through the body and puts unnecessary stress on the mechanisms responsible for the breakdown and storage processes. Since fructose can bypass certain regulatory proteins that modulate sugar breakdown, fructose proceeds to the end and overwhelms the system completely. The result is often fatty liver disease as the liver has no place to store the massive amounts of sugar that it is being told to handle, so it deposits it upon itself. This alone leads to a massive inflammatory response as the body flips out about the absurd amount of adipose tissue laden on the liver!
Bear in mind that this is a quite simplified version of this complex molecular process, but the point is the same. Proteins are the lifeline of how the body works and when consumed substances evade the system and bypass proteins, things become dis-regulated.
How Fasting Works
So that is a tad bit on gene function. Fructose is beyond pertinent as most of the foods in the American diet contain this poison; yes it is poison, tastes good though, right? How is this relevant to intermittent fasting – by fasting the body generates molecules which reach into the genome and activate certain proteins. Just as the body responds to the presence of sugar, the body also responds to the lack of sugar/energy and begins producing other molecules.
The low energy form of ATP is AMP which can be detected and the genome will reach into its repertoire of genes to produce the corresponding proteins. AMP is the signaling molecule that the body responds to which unlocks yet another cascade of cellular reactions. The proteins that are made following the low energy signal have very important jobs throughout the body. All cellular components are checked for optimization, if they are not optimized then they are marked for destruction or repaired. Further, fasting stimulates a process known as autophagy wherein cells within the body move about and consume defective cells. Both a macromolecular cleaning and cellular digestion occurs in an attempt to forage for energy by consuming defective parts. When the fast is over, it is time for the re-feed in which the consumed cells are reproduced brand new.
The most profound usage of this mechanism is by the mitochondrion of the body, which produce the aforementioned ATP for the cells. Fasting stimulates the destruction of worn mitochondrion and replaces them with healthy brand new mitochondrion. The replenishing of mitochondrion is massively important for boldily maintenance, over time mitochondrion sustain damage from their cellular process of energy creation. If the mitochondrion are not replaced often then the cells begin to suffer greatly. On the low end, fatigue may set in more often; on the high end, the DNA might become damaged which can lead to a host of serious disease.
During the fast, the body has the opportunity to turn off the GI tract and focus on all other cellular maintenance. This is of crucial importance because the GI tract takes a substantial amount of energy to operate, its deactivation frees energy for other processes. But that is not all, when the time comes to eat again, the body is primed to absorb all the nutrients that it is given and utilizes then effectively. During the re-feed, the system juxtaposed to AMP becomes activated, this system is known as mTOR. The mTOR pathways is extremely complex and will not be explained here, but the basics are that it stimulates the generation of new cells and new components all across the body. In order for this widespread building to occur, the body needs resources. This is why the re-feed is important and should not be composed of primarily junk food. It is also important to turn off the GI tract so that the body can recharge and be primed for absorption. None of these processes occur if food is eaten all day long, the body is instead tied up digesting food constantly with decreasing efficiency as the day rolls on. Cells are not maintained properly, mitochondrion are not replaced, and the body becomes fatigued so it stores all that food as fat.
How to Fast
Those are the basics of how fasting supercharges the body to perform all of its important functions. Now it is time to dive into how to intermittent fast. Intermittent fasting is simple, it includes restricting the time in which one eats into a pre-determined window, much like the name suggests. There are a few different ways to conduct the window and each has differing benefits. The most traditional intermittent fast is an 8:16 fast where food is only eaten within an 8 hour window with 16 hours of fasting. Next is the 7:17 and the 6:18. The research indicates that eating past 8 hours in a day begins to sharply reduce the overall benefit and by 11 hours there really is not an impact worth noting. This is because the length of the fast is more important than the duration of eating. Once the threshold of 8 hours is reached, benefits are abundant and by 6 hours they are maximized; at the 6 hour window, nutrient uptake is vastly enhanced. By increasing the fasting window, signals responsible for clearing cell debris and conducting repairs are boosted. In the hours leading up the re-feed period, these operations are in full swing.
Next, what is allowed and what is not allowed during a fast? All hard food is strictly off limits; the body is an all or nothing system, if the fast is over and some food is consumed, the body fires up all engines. In fact, if the fast is over at 4pm and food is consumed at 9pm, this is a tragic misstep as the body will initiate all systems as it prepares for more food to come! Sleep will be lost. Questions often arise about whether or not certain liquids are allowed, and some are. Teas, coffee and water are allowed but the coffee must be black and unsweetened, same with the tea. Coffee is an excellent way to push a fast into the afternoon as we will see in the next section. Finally, alcohol is also strictly off limits, consuming alcohol within the window is fine.
When to Fast
The next issue at hand is timing the fasting period and the feeding period. Many times people are unable to fit a fasting schedule into their day as classes or work severely impedes any clear options. However, for beginners, the 8:16 fast starting at 12pm and going to 8pm is excellent. This allows the body to become used to a regime and is easy to keep track of as time goes by. As an added bonus, it is much easier to put off eating food in the morning than to not eat any more food at night. This is where a cup of black coffee in the morning comes in handy to push the fast into the afternoon.
The critical thing to remember is that the feeding period can be placed anywhere within the day, although eating after 8pm can have repercussions as it pertains to sleep. The duration of the fast is more important than the length of the feeding window. Thus, it is fine every now and again to play with the feeding windows as long as the schedule is generally stable. For instance, starting the feeding window at 8am but ending at 6pm, which is 10 hours of feeding, simply means that the next days feeding window must start at 10am to ensure 16 hours of fasting. The idea is to form a stable schedule, this allows the body to sync up with itself and lead to better sleep and better health. Keep mind that different times of day permit different foods as well; coffee cannot be enjoyed with all of its glorious additions unless it is within the feeding window.
Next, the 6:18 hour fast produces the most profound results within the body. This is due to the length of the fasting window which is the longest discussed thus far. This schedule has pros and cons as it is both extremely short but also concise. When fitting this window into the schedule, it is typically easiest to find a chunk of time when one large meal can be eaten. Next, there is actually more flexibility when moving this window around and even if the window is exceeded in a day. The 6:18 is the easiest to get back on track. However, this window is pretty extreme and if the 8 hour window is difficult to adhere to, the 6 hour will be impossible for those who are new to fasting. Start with what can be adhered to and work from there, slow and steady wins the race.
Tips and Tricks
When an intermittent fast begins, the body must adjust to the novelty. This means that excessive hunger will typically accompany the newbie but this goes away after about 3 days when the body becomes adjusted to a cycle. Once the body becomes used to fasting, hunger overall disappears and even the 24 hour fast can go without a hitch.
Cheat days are okay, but be aware that once the body gets a taste for optimized cells, it does not hesitate to bite back when this cycle is busted. In other words, a prolonged breach from the established routine will produce noticeable undesirable effects. It is wise to set a schedule and then stick to it because breaking the schedule will prevent proper adjustment. This can be overridden with the 6:18 fast as it is short enough for higher mobility which is a more advanced technique. With the 6:18 fast, it is possible to start the fast at 11pm and end at 5pm, then the next day push the fast until 2pm and eat until 8pm. This is not easy for longer feeding windows and those who practice the 8:16 should stay within the established time as much as possible.
The two most important facets of intermittent fasting are how long the fasting period is and what is eaten to break the fast. When breaking a fast, the food that is consumed will be exceptionally utilized, therefore, eating a sugar rich meal will only serve to spike blood sugar and lead to a crash. The body will suck up all of the nutrients that are available during the re-feed, aiming for high protein will kick start the mTOR pathway and rebuild the digested components.
Hunger becomes much more tolerable over time, fasting cycles can be pushed further, moving toward a 6:18 becomes much easier. There is no need to rush the transition to 6:18, it is far better to start slow and progress over time than to begin with the most extreme form and fail.