Watch Eat, Fast and Live Longer with Michael Mosley - Preview on PBS. See more from Michael Mosley.
So I wasn't intending to watch Michael Mosley's documentary about fasting for health and wellness on OPB Wednesday night, but I found myself zonked out on the couch at just the right time. Despite my intention to catch up on So You Think You Can Dance (I'm mildly addicted, just mildly...) I was mesmerized and just had to check it out.
Let me start by saying that fasting is not a traditional part of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. It is a relatively common naturopathic technique, and can be part of an elimination diet, however, beyond being something gaining popularity for general health. It is not something to be undertaken without supervision if you have chronic health concerns, especially if you are diabetic, and is not appropriate while pregnant or nursing.
That said, theoretically being overly hungry is a bad thing from an energetic perspective. Hunger is a sign that your Spleen and Stomach Qi are waning and if they wane too far, your body pulls energy from the Kidney - your foundation and energetic reserve - to continue normal (energetic) body processes. Intermittent fasting involves shorter fasting times at more regular intervals, and I believe that this is more in line with Traditional Chinese Medicine theory since you don't go for such long periods of intense hunger.
When it comes to longevity, modern research is also clearly showing that calorie restricted diets can contribute to long life. Even more interesting is the recent research - which this documentary reviews and explores - about intermittent fasting for helping to regulate insulin levels (in non-diabetics), decrease cholesterol, control weight and improve health.
To clarify again, intermittent fasting is short term regular fasting - meaning not eating for 6-8 hours anywhere from two to four days a week on an alternating pattern i.e. "feed" one day and "fast" another. Seemingly, this has a similar effect as semi regular long-term fasting (meaning a 4 day fast every few months) and has comparable health effects to a daily calorie restricted diet.
If you think about it from a hunter-gatherer past perspective, it kind of makes sense that intermittent fasting would be somewhat natural to our bodies. If you follow the seasons and the herds, you are constantly going between periods of feast and famine - indeed, our body stores fat to prepare for leaner times - but in modern life, the average American with a home and job doesn't have times so lean that they are forced to go without, even for a 6-8 hour period, unless they are just too busy to eat. Fast food and the carb+meat+dairy heavy modern American diet is also very calorically dense - again not lending itself to "famine" like conditions even for a short while, without making a conscious effort to achieve them.
One of the statistics in this documentary that really caught me by surprise was about lifespan during the Great Depression. Did you know that life expectancy during the Great Depression increased by 6.2 years? Yeah, leaner times, longer lives. Who knew?
Another proponent of intermittent fasting is Walter Willett, MD, the Harvard Researcher and author of "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" which has long been one of my favorite books about general healthy eating. This book advocates for a diet of 1600 calories a day on average, but if you have a hard time maintaining that he recommends fasting one day a week to keep your weekly calories to a minimum. Not a bad plan, and definitely in line with this recent research.
All this said, however, the benefits of intermittent fasting do not mean that if you fast intermittently you can eat whatever you want and not exercise - this method is a technique to help you reach and maintain your health goals, not a way to avoid eating right, supplementing right and exercising. Indeed, regular fasting means your nutritional needs become that much more focused on the days that you do eat full meals, and make supplementation for health that much more important to help you ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need for a long and healthy life.
What I like best about the idea of intermittent fasting is that it feels moderate to me. You aren't doing anything extreme for any prolonged period of time - you're just taking a break from eating for a short duration - so there's a focused time delimited period of cravings that I think most anyone can overcome. Again, it doesn't mean you can eat whatever you want on "feed" days, but it does help balance out an extra piece of cake here and there, so that you don't feel like you have to maintain a "perfect" diet every day to be well; you just have to do the best you can do and indulge consciously.
For me? Intermittent fasting is the newest addition to my personal repertoire of activities for good health. Exercise is tough at the moment as a mom of two little ones, but I get just enough not to feel insane. Supplementation is a given and I participate in the same All Ways Wellness program I promote for my patients taking regular multivitamin, fish oil, green food, B vitamins and probiotic supplements and get acupuncture regularly to stay on track. Considering that ALL my grandparents who died of natural causes died of heart attack or stroke, to say heart disease is risk factor for me is an understatement. With a congenital heart murmur to boot, I can't afford to mess around with my heart health if I want to be here to see my children grow up some day, so if intermittent fasting can help give me a leg up on keeping my cholesterol down I'm all in.
My plan is to start with once a week for the next 4-6 weeks with a goal to increase to twice a week after that. More than twice a week would be difficult for me between the kids and work (my son won't eat if I'm not sitting at the table eating myself at this stage...), but evidence suggests that even two days a week can have a significant impact on your long term health, so here goes!
I'll check in here about my progress around the 6 week mark, so if you're interested be on the lookout for a "Rebecca Fasting Experiment Update" to come. Yesterday was my first day - I figured fasting at work when I'm busy would be easier than fasting at home - and it went great. Plenty of tea and water later, I felt like I sailed through the day and was almost hyper-productive. Wish me luck for next week folks!
Until next time,
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.