Roughly four years ago I woke up and didn’t eat breakfast. It was the result of the natural trajectory of my food consumption patterns and research into health, along with a gradual, increasing discomfort that came after piling in about 5 slices of rye sourdough slathered with almond butter and blueberry jam first thing before work on a daily basis for the previous 7 or 8 years. And if I’m to be totally honest, it had a little to do with a comment my mother made when she thought she spotted me cultivating a little pot belly. I may be skinny. But skinny fat is the worst, not only from an egotistical aesthetic point of view, but also, skinny fat, suggests visceral fat, the worst from a health standpoint indicating a covering of fat on our abdominal organs, and which is indicated in some serious disease risk.
Visceral fat comes to the party with some majorly unhealthy mates, the sort you don’t want to let in at all - from diabetes to stroke and heart attack, visceral fat is an almost silent killer, not showing up in standard BMI (body mass index) readings, unless using the more advanced body composition scales, and given a chance to take hold, visceral fat is incredibly hard to shift, compared to its more visible and better known partner - subcutaneous fat. This is the stuff we more typically get upset about, and yes it has its own risks.
Fat cells produce inflammatory markers (cytokines), and also estrogen, which in healthy amounts all have their roles to play in managing immunity, but have serious disruptive effects on our bodies’ ability to stay healthy and resist disease when they’re produced in abundance. It feels like all we talk about is inflammation these days, but it’s for good reason - the current paradigm of ill health sweeping the western world is not due to infections and external disease sources - these days our bodies are attacking themselves. In fact we’ve done so well at killing off the bugs in our environment, that (the theory goes) our bodies’ defences are just stuck looking for new invaders and, as they gaze over the hilltop to see no invading armies, they start turning on their host to apply their weapons. It’s an old story, and strangely familiar. To justify their presence and function, all armies need an enemy. The hygiene hypothesis is a chat for another day, but basically without getting too much into the nitty-gritty, the more we can do to soothe our (in many cases) overactive immune systems, and regulate them so that in case of a real infection they’re ready to go to work, the better.
In terms of estrogen production, whilst that’s an essential part of female hormonal cycle, and support bone density, excess estrogen is often associated with a lot of the negative aspects of PMS, more pain, less stable mood, etc, and makes it harder to lose excess body fat, and tougher still to adjust body composition to a higher proportion of lean muscle mass for women who are interested in athletic performance or, dare I say….aesthetics..?! And whilst we always think of estrogen in terms of female hormones, yes men also have estrogen floating around their bodies too. We produce it in our brains, liver, muscle and most importantly fat cells through a mechanism called aromatisation, which is when an enzyme stored in the fat cells converts free testosterone into estrogen. Again, as with women, the presence of estrogen has an important part to play in men’s health, maintaining bone density as it does in women, but also playing a role in protecting men from congestive heart failure. Perhaps its ability to help direct calcium into bones and away from soft tissues where calcium stiffens arteries and puts more pressure on the heart is the root of this relationship - studies are ongoing.
One other key factor that men are especially interested in, especially skinny guys like myself, or those interested in getting the most out of a training regime is the effect that IF has on HGH (human growth hormone). At least partly due to its effects on blood glucose (we’ll talk about that in a bit) and the body’s response to the overall reduction in blood glucose, studies have shown up to a 5 fold increase in HGH during IF sequences. Growth hormone spikes overnight as our body goes into its repair state, a factor which could play a key role in when you fast.
Another point we’ll cover further on. But in terms of health outcomes, for everybody, not just athletes or skinny guys like myself, there’s good reason to pay attention to growth hormone, as body composition in terms of our lean muscle/fat mass ratio has a huge part to play in how well we age, and healthy ageing is what we’re all about right?
So if I was looking for even a few nuggets to get me on board with fasting I’d seen enough, I was ready to give it a go - but fasting comes with other benefits too. The one that is most reported and felt early on, is a marked improvement in blood sugar response. I remember sitting at a party in Bristol nearly a decade ago, Pukka Herbs had invited us to share in a celebration of their 10 year anniversary. Nobody was talking about fasting. The chat then was all about eating little and often, not eating too much sugar, and maintaining a stable blood sugar curve throughout the day and taking pressure off the body’s insulinemic response in order to support weight loss, energy etc. But at this party, I was lucky enough to sit for 5 minutes with a man who I think is the greatest brain in nutrition alive today - Dr Robert Verkerk. Pressed for time and with buses about to whisk us away from the venue (a set of teepees overlooking a lake with bonfires and great live music - we had to be dragged kicking and screaming), I asked him what was the most major change he saw on the horizon in the world of diet and nutrition. He quoted me a study that had just been released that gave subjects two big meals per day and reversed type 2 diabetes...I was floored. This was so totally counter to what we were saying in the shop and all the education that was out in the media at the time. But it stuck with me, and low and behold, a decade on - it’s everywhere.
When we give our body a rest from food, we obviously remove excess circulating glucose, which is the main cause of late-onset (type 2) diabetes. The concern with fasting for a diabetic is that when you introduce carbohydrates after a round of fasting that you cause a sharp upward spike in blood glucose, putting pressure on the body’s production of insulin to help store all the unwanted/unused sugars. But quite apart from the expected worsening of the condition through such measures, the body seems to respond as our muscles do - it trains the pancreas to come back stronger, producing sufficient insulin, and more crucially, it gives the cells which have become resistant to insulin due to its chronic overproduction a chance to regain their sensitivity, allowing them to mop up the excess glucose more effectively! Nutritional science was turned on its head. It’s amazing actually, so many of the more progressive studies in human health have focused on this idea of applying stimuli that in excess could cause harm but applied with nuance and understanding can provide powerful health benefits. Thinking specifically of sauna therapy, where it has been shown that excess heat exposure (and we mean hot sauna) introduced to the body in short blasts in repeat cycles and mixed with cold water exposure, has a powerful effect on the body’s defence mechanisms. Again, just like physical training, it tones the system, improving our response to stimuli in the future. Another one that springs to mind is the paradigm of “hormetic” stressors - plant compounds that in high doses are extremely toxic, but introduced in small doses, actually support our antioxidant defences and support healthy ageing. Indeed many of the foods that we think of as rich in “antioxidants” it turns out are actually sources of these hormetic stressors that trigger our body into adapting and becoming more resilient for their ingestion. Time for a quote - “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”...sound familiar?
Can there be more benefits you ask? Haven’t we had enough???! Sorry folks, yes indeed the list does go on. And the next one’s a biggie. Who’s heard of cellular autophagy? You have? Okay well, you can skip to the end so, you super nerd. But for the rest of us, it’s a topic worth exploring. So we’ve all heard the facts spouted about our population being chronically overfed, some of you may even feel you’ve been bashed over the head with the concept. But there’s a good reason for it. When we eat every couple of hours, our body is basically always devoting a good proportion of its energy quota to digestive mechanisms. It’s not a train that it can just shut down halfway around the track - the show must go on so to speak. And if our only gap in eating occurs overnight for 8 hours or so, then the body has to ignore some housekeeping processes to keep the food train moving. Just like those busy weeks where the washing piles up and the bins don’t get taken out, the dirt just piles up.
Dirt, in this case, comes in the form of senescent cells, cells that have damaged DNA or are overproducing inflammatory markers (adipose tissue contains large numbers of these types of cells). Senescent cells are linked with all kinds of long-term degenerative illnesses and nasty physiological processes, their regular metabolism is interrupted and they tend to “infect” cells around them. An example of this is when you see grey hairs appear on your head in clumps as opposed to evenly spread across the scalp. This is a result of the stem cells that precurse the pigment producing melanocytes becoming damaged due to oxidative stress and spreading their senescence to neighbouring cells, producing these localised greying patches.
The part that fasting has to play in this process is fairly straightforward, as it gives the body a dedicated window to do the much-needed housework, clean up those damaged cells through a process called autophagocytosis and excrete them from the system before they spread to other sites. Studies show that within about 12 hours of not consuming food this process really starts to ramp up, giving even further credence to our IF cause.
As a general note, we should also mention how many studies demonstrate the role of fasting in regulating the inflammatory response overall, and how much sense this makes when we break it down into its constituent processes as we’ve done above. And there are so many more specifics we won’t get into here regarding the host of inflammatory markers that start to tumble when folk start with an IF program on a regular basis. So whether it’s inflammation in your gut, your brain, or your ankles, fasting has a role to play.
My other big push for attempting fasting was again down to Dr Rob, as I followed him and watched his progression to becoming a fat adapted athlete (crucially this is dissimilar from nutritional ketosis, although that’s what he mostly maintains these days, and at 58 years old, he’s still far fitter on foot or on a bike than I can ever hope to be... well maybe with 20 years hard training…). Essentially what Rob (and thousands of folks around the world) are tapping into is a reserve energy system that our body has nearly forgotten about, as since the advent of agriculture, our diet has shifted from one consisting of wild grains, fruit and occasional protein to one that relies predominantly on cultivated grains, with their rich source of carbohydrate, and lower fibre content to supply our body’s energy needs. But this old primal energy system is only a fast away...
When we remove sugars from our bloodstream our body is forced to produce an alternate unit of energy, known as a ketone body, in order to fuel our brain and other organs in their constant thirst for fuel. The thought process is that ancestrally, humans would have spent long periods somewhat fasted as they tracked and hunted large game, nomadically foraging what wild plant foods were available to them along the way. At the end of this fasting session, at which you would expect them to have extremely low energy, their bodies were expected to be able to explode into action to catch and kill their prey. The fuel source for this athletic endeavour? KETONES!!
Whilst there are lots of studies talking about ketones and their ability to help the body cope with and even fight off some serious disease, we’ll leave that conversation to the experts. My greatest joy from all this messing around fasting, was how much my energy levels stabilised over time, so that blood sugar highs and lows became an actual thing of the past, and as a result of this newfound balance in energy, my moods also stabilised to a large degree (although in this respect I’m very much still a work in progress!!). But the clarity of thought and ability to engage in productive long workdays shot through the roof, some would say it perhaps mildly contributed to my workaholic lifestyle...whatever, I sure found it enabling!!
Which brings us right back the start...to around 4 years ago when I ditched breakfast for good. The first couple of weeks weren’t fun, I won’t lie. I felt both hungry and envious of those around me scoffing whatever they wanted to their hearts’ desire. But I took it easy and I stuck with it. The first month or so it was just a 12 hour fast, so I’d try to finish eating around 9 pm (later than I’d like but that’s my life), and then I’d just go as long as I felt I could in the morning, until working in a food shop got the better of me and I’d grab a protein shake and mildly berate myself for breaking so soon. But over the weeks and months, I got used to the hunger, and dare I say got to even enjoy it a little. I know that sounds a little perverse and also permissive to those who might have more serious compulsions around not eating. Let’s put those compulsions to bed right here though, with IF and ketosis the intention is not to restrict calories, but to gently adjust the body’s food intake from a macro standpoint, increasing the amount of fat and fibre from leafy green vegetables, and reduce the overall carbohydrate and protein portions. This formula requires a LOT of tweaking and personalisation, so I’m not going to get into that here. If you want more personal recommendations, come and see us in the shop, or engage the services of a good nutritional therapist or functional medicine practitioner.
Back from that diversion, what I’m saying is that hunger can be a really good thing to feel, it’s one of those fundamental messages our body gives us, probably the loudest next to pain from acute injury and it’s always useful to be able to tune your senses to pick up the more subtle messages that your body gives you. And as you begin to become familiar with hunger and understand your limits, you can start, as I did, to expand your fasting window up to 14, 16 or even 18 hours. It’s actually not hard. Just be sure that what you put in when you go to refeed is real, nutrient dense, healthy food. If it’s fast food and the like, then you’ll be doing worse than just undoing the hard work, and actually putting your body into nutrient deficit, so keep it whole food!!
A final note here, there’s a bunch of little tricks you can do if you want to get into ketosis a little quicker (what they call fasting mimetic enhancements).
Drink coffee - for some reason coffee stimulates the production of ketone bodies.
Take 1 tbsp of MCT oil after about 10 hours fasted. MCT oil contains a certain type of fatty acid (a medium chain triglyceride, the holy grail of which is a C8 fat called caprylic acid, just google it).
Drink a bulletproof coffee, which combines step 1 and 2.
Have a hard workout whilst fasted - any medium/ high-intensity training has been shown to really spike your blood ketones. So how’s about combining all steps!! That’s what I do most morning and feel 1000% better for doing it.
*Please remember to always start these things at your own pace, don’t make any grand changes to your diet when you’re for example under stress studying for a big exam, or going through some other big change in your life. Also, women need to be more careful with these fasting regimes, as some studies have shown a deterioration in hormone balance over longer periods.