If you’ve read my most recent posts you might’ve gotten the idea that starving yourself is a new form of treatment for nearly everything. That’s only partially true…
Without going too deep into the science, I’d like to take this moment to explain some concepts and review some research that is relevant to this conversation. Previous posts have discussed how fasting physiology results in alternative energy production called ketosis, but the benefits go well beyond.
The basic idea is that the human species has genetically adapted to, over millennia, to be in both a fasting and feeding state and to benefit from both. It makes sense that good things happen to our physiology and gene expression when we are eating. However, because we have all felt uncomfortable, jittery, light headed or even “hangry”, we assume that not eating is bad for you. We also have seen the death and misery caused by famine on this planet.
The truth is, we are now seeing the opposite: death and misery caused by an overabundance of cheap nutritionally challenged calories, in the form of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, psychiatric conditions and neurodegeneration. This is because those suffering from chronic disease are not experiencing what has driven cellular, animal and ultimately human physiology for millions of years. The technology of the past centuries has made life seemingly easier but perhaps has also made life less healthy.
For those who have a knee jerk reaction and feel that it’s important to point out we are living longer and therefore are healthier because of technology and science, please read through my previous posts on the subject or read what various experts have to say, i.e., Nina Teicholz, Laurie Garrett PhD, Dr. Loren Cordain, among others.
The fact is science, medicine and technology has allowed us to live longer and longer as we become sicker and sicker at younger and younger ages. You can be ill with chronic disease, robbing you of your quality of life, joy, passions and productivity and live on average longer than our recent ancestors who lived in filth and unnecessarily passed deadly communicable diseases to each other. But let’s not pretend that our indigenous hunter gatherer ancestors for the past 100,000 years were in any way sicker than we are. It’s just not true.
What about genetics?
Without going deep into the science of genetics, I can summarize that when it comes to chronic disease and symptoms, the genes you are born with are less important than the genes you activate while you are living. Genetic disease like Down Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, Fragile X, or Cystic Fibrosis are rare and should not be confused with genetic predispositions for Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer. Genes are activated by the environment, this is called epigenetics. Too often, when we attribute a health problem or disease to being “caused by genetics” we are really saying that certain genes were either activated that are hurting you, or certain genes have not been activated and therefore the lack of their effects is hurting you. The problem is not the genes, rather it is the environment you put those genes in.
Eating, the presence of food going through your gut is an “environment” for your immune system and intestinal cells and organs to deal with. Fasting, or food not going through your gut is an environment as well. Both environments have been part of human experience over the entire time we have evolved as a species and therefore we have genes that are coded to respond (turn on and off) to both of those environments, both a feeding state and fasting state.
What is the research saying?
“Fasting physiology is quite possibly the most exciting thing to happen to understanding human physiology and health since the double helix was discovered in 1953.”
Fasting physiology is far reaching, from gut to brain to hormones to immune system to detoxification to blood sugar to brain function, just regulation to name a few. The coordination of functions that are triggered by alternating between the the fasting state and the feeding state are remarkable in their scope and exceed even that which has been documented with exercise. All of the changes observed are positive and quite surprising to researchers.
Some examples of diseases that benefit from by alternating between the fasting and feeding states include autoimmune diseases like MS and Lupus as well as cancer, Alzheimer’s and more.
Alternating between fasting and feeding states
Only being in a state of fasting will definitely be considered a threat to your health and your life. Only being in a state of feeding can also be considered a threat to your health and your life. It is the back and forth between fasting physiology and feeding physiology that is so beneficial.
Taken from the journal Immunology: In lupus, an autoimmune disease, it has been shown that the proinflammatory adipokine (an adipokine is a communication signal between immune cells and fat cells that promotes inflammation ) leptin contributes to lupus disease progression. Leptin also decreases T-regulatory cells, immune cells that prevent autoimmunity. Fasting state physiology dramatically reduces leptin, resulting in T-regulatory cell surges that prevent and reduce autoimmunity. This has been shown to be true with MS as well, another autoimmune disease.
From the journal Cancer Cell: In cancer treatment, fasting protects against the dangerous side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Fasting is protective of our healthy cells and makes our cancer cells (the ones we want to die) more sensitive to the chemotherapy and radiation therapy, requiring less chemotherapy and radiation.
The bigger picture is that fasting promotes the expression of genes that would otherwise never be expressed were it not for the alternation between the fasting state and then the feeding state. These genes dramatically and quickly alter our expression of inflammation, hormones, cardiac function, lung function, blood sugar responses, brain cell activity, immune function and more.Fasting promotes the expression of genes that would otherwise never be expressed... Click To Tweet
The mistake is to think that the benefits of being in an alternating fasting and feeding state comes from being in ketosis. There are many benefits to ketosis as we have previously stated, but fasting physiology yields many benefits beyond ketosis.
If you are having health challenges that may respond to fasting physiology you should speak to a professional who can recommend the best method and safest way to get maximum benefit from alternating fasting and feeding physiology. Please share this post with people who may benefit from learning more.
Understanding human health is increasingly becoming an exercise in challenging what we consider to be “normal” or conventional wisdom. When it comes to “gut health”, we have to question a few things we take for granted.
I don’t want to go into all of the details I’ve outlined in the past about food sensitivities, autoimmunity, food processing, stress adaptation and all of the factors that can impact gut health on a daily basis. I’d like instead to discuss something a little more conceptual.
Are we creating an environment that gives our “gut” the best opportunity to thrive? To answer this question we have to understand what environment our genetics are best adapted to. The quick answer is found by understanding who we have been as a species throughout our evolutionary experience. Afterall, life as we have come to know it over the past 120 years, 500 years, and 5,000 years is markedly different from the 99.99% of human history that shaped our genetics and physiology. We could argue that we are adapted genetically to a human environment that no longer exists for most of us living in the industrialised world.
The ancestral model of physiology states that we are most likely to express optimal human function when we are exposed to the same environmental stressors that molded the current human genome over millions of years. When it comes to human health, fitness, wellbeing and protection from chronic disease, the hunter gatherer experience is what shaped us.
There is no shortage of information available to us, either clinically, anecdotally, inferred by basic science and clinical research, indicating the benefits of making changes to our diet, avoiding foods we are sensitive to, avoiding processed and refined foods, removing chemicals and pesticides from our dietary experience as well as utilizing nutrients and “nutraceuticals” that are believed to improve our gastrointestinal integrity.
This post is about two concepts that have not been discussed very much.
- The value of both fasting and feeding cycles.
- The value of eating according to seasons and geography
Fasting and Feeding.
If you lived in Vermont, 10,000 years ago, and it was January and you had just consumed every last morsel of your last kill, what would you eat tomorrow? The answer is nothing, unless you had another kill. There are no fruits or vegetables to gather. No nuts and seeds that have not already been consumed and the ground was probably frozen with a decent amount of snow.
Perhaps a few days or more would pass before you successfully killed a squirrel or perhaps another deer. Would it make sense that during that fast you would get sicker and weaker, more lethargic and tired? No it does not make sense, our species would not have survived. In order to survive we had to make the next kill and in order to do so we had to have biological processes that would increase the probability not decrease it.
What happens during the fasting phase is that the human species, gets faster, stronger, better able to utilize oxygen (VO2 max can increase by 20%), we become more alert and are able to focus and concentrate. It sounds counterintuitive, especially when you think of the last time you got “hangry” and experienced a hypoglycemic headache. That’s because we have been essentially domesticated and turning on that efficient system is slow to occur and requires a little coaxing and training to make it happen. The truth is, we all have that fasting response built into our DNA (think of it as software we never get to use). This software is called being in a state of “nutritional ketosis”. This can be defined as having blood ketone levels of 0.5-6.0 with the sweet spot being 1.0-3.0.
What does this have to do with my gut health?
One thing that makes the lives of our hunter gatherer ancestors and modern industrialised humans certainly different, is the fact that our ancestors did not have a consistent abundance of available calories (certainly not the empty calories we have). Our culture has created an environment where we have access to nearly unlimited food all the time. Our ancestors did not have a refrigerator or a pantry full of ready to consume food. The further away from the equator you lived the longer periods of time your ancestors would have to be in fasting states.
That is not to say that they starved, on the contrary, if they did starve there would be no reason to populate and thrive at latitudes where there were winter seasons. At the equator, there was greater abundance simply because plant based food grows year round. Today only 15% of the world’s population can be considered equatorial.
I’ve written in the past about how theirs is the model of success. The myth that they lived horrible lives that ended at 30 years of age killed off by some infectious disease has been debunked.
30,000 foot view.
How have evolutionary pressures on the human species over the past 100,000 years and more impacted our genes? We know that genetics, our DNA, the code that we share that has been shaped over the past 600 million years (since the arrival of the eukaryotic cell) is what contributes to how we are able to express ourselves in every way. We know that the human genetic code has been shaped by adapting to environmental pressures. Those pressures include climate change, food and fuel sources, seasons, solar and lunar activities, interaction with other forms of life, geography, etc.
What foods are necessary for human health? The paleo and ancestral communities over the past decade has put forth an effective argument questioning the need for some common foods such as dairy, grains and legumes. We now know that the introduction of these foods have contributed to much of our modern health problems, while at the same time providing cheap, albeit low value nutrition, to billions of people who would otherwise not be able to eat.
This post was just to describe and rebuke some of the criticisms and erroneous understandings of the fasting method. If you would like to know more details about this kind of this method, including types, how to incorporate it into your regular diet, and some more pros and cons, check out my previous blog posts. Also make sure to stay tuned for my upcoming eBook on the subject!
Thanks for reading,