Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Life's Barbell: Fasting for Health

Human's have lived natural lives for millions of years. That lifestyle consisted of hunting and gathering food, being hunted for food by other animals, surviving through lack of water and drought etc. We were used to a way of life which was completely random with many highly stressful events. Imagine yourself surviving on little food when faced with a drought, leaving few animals for hunting. On the other hand there would be times when food would be plenty, each hunting party bringing in many kills every night. We would lose and gain weight, dictated by the capricious weather system. Humans from different regions would adapt to their environment. Orientals are small in size simply because they live in the tropics and need to climb trees for survival. People living in the tropics would have diets that would contain more fruits and nuts because of their abundance. On the other hand people living in plain areas would probably be more dependent on hunting. The point still is that our diets were much more random and erratic than the regular three meals that we get today. Another point is that, since our diets were erratic hence a survival mechanism must have evolved which would be able to take advantage (or at best survive) this erratic nature of our ancestral dietary habits. If that is the case then, we probably are not used to the high calorie three meals that we get daily.

The high sugar content in our meal has forced our pancreas to work over time. Most people become diabetic early in life and this has now become a very common disease. The increase in sugar content can be attributed to the agrarian lifestyle we adapted a few thousand years ago. Carbohydrates themselves are therefore unnatural, especially in the form of wheat and rice. Its hard to imagine ancient humans having anything to do with rice and wheat. These were wild plants that were discovered much latter and most of the carbohydrates derived came from wild vegetables and fruits.  These fruits also did not look anything like the genetically modified fruits seen in our local super markets. These fruits were much smaller and less sugary then their modern counter parts. I have posted a picture of a wild banana to give you an idea about what we were used to eating.
Now coming back to the topic, fasting has been a very ancient ritual found in many traditions and religions. No one really knows what the origins are. In my opinion fasting probably came from rituals which were derived during periods of drought. As humans migrated during dry seasons then their food supplies would run low. Rituals like fasting were probably helpful in reducing the food intake of the tribe on the move and must have helped during tough times. The mythological aspect of fasting can be easily derived from one spiritual leader (prophet) in the tribe who probably built an entire mythology around the idea. An interesting thing about mythology and their development is that only those mythologies survive that actually use the same prevalent ideas. Mythologies that are radically different from the social norms are generally rejected. If one studies Islam, then it is extremely difficult to differentiate the original creed from Judaism which was thought superior to the Arab creeds at the time. Almost all ritual, social and moral ethics of Islam are copy pasted from Judaism, except that it is worded differently. The point is that fasting probably preceded the mythology.

Lets examine how fasting helps physically and mentally. The most cited scholar on the subject is Mark P. Mattson who has conducted several studies on mice and studied the physiological aspects of altering caloric intake. Mark has discovered that many age related and cardiovascular diseases can be tackled by intermittent fasting and binging. This could also be achieved by simulating the much more unpleasant semi starvation diet but intermittent fasting with excessive binging is much more pleasant. Feasting and famine is the way to go according to Mark if one yearns to be physically fit and healthy. Chronic stress is bad but a severe shock lasting for a shorter interval is beneficial and turns on the bodies defense mechanism. The results obtained by Mark Mattson have shown the benefits of shocking your digestive system, and improvement have been seen in diabetes and Alzheimer. Its also found extremely beneficial for cardiovascular diseases and leads to better and more efficient (blood) circulatory system. Some research has also shown the effects of fasting on making cells more resistant to chemo therapy (link). Here's a link to read some of Mark Mattsson's research.

Personally I have been on a fast for twenty days with the occasional binging at night when the fast is broken. It amazes me when i realize that just twenty days ago I would have suffered immensely from hunger pangs at 12 noon but now my body has so expertly adapted to this (artificial) famine that it hardly asks for food. I can perfectly go hungry from 4 in the morning till 12 at night except that it is not recommended. If i do that, then i would be in chronic stress and its very important that i binge after 7 in the evening to break the fast.  I am currently on a complete fast which includes both food and water and it lasts for 14 hours every day. I need to also stress that a complete fast is different from living on fruit juices which are sufficiently packed with calories. To keep an effective fast one needs to make sure that one's body is capable of ketosis. Otherwise fasting could be dangerous, but most normal humans generally achieve ketosis where the body starts scraping calories from the stored fat and muscle and switches off the digestive track as nothing could be found there. In my case, after the first few days, my body adjusted and switched off my digestive track which put an end to all those initial hunger pangs. I can safely state that i am living on my back up system and the effects on my life style have been minimal. Energy levels do go down significantly as you prolong the fast but I have also experienced better concentration poweres as one's energy levels go down, which is similar to going into a meditative state. Prophets through out the world, from Budha to Muhammad have taken to fasting to improve their mental prowess and intuition.

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