Friday, January 1, 2010

Intermittent fasting and reduced inflammation

A recent post on the Primal Wisdom blog led me to do go back to some of the research on an approach to dieting that I tried myself, with some positive results. The approach is known as intermittent fasting (IF). I also found an excellent blog post by Dr. Michael Eades on IF (see here).

Typically IF involves fasting every other day. On the non-fasting days, food and water consumption is not restricted in any way. On fasting days, only water is consumed. Variations of this approach usually involve replacing water with juice, and having an eating window of only a few hours within longer periods – e.g., fasting 19 hours and then eating during a window of 5 hours, for each period of 24 hours.

IF is different from calorie restriction (CR), in that in the latter total daily calorie intake is restricted to a somewhat fixed amount, below one’s basal metabolic rate (the number of calories needed to maintain one’s current weight). In CR the calorie restriction is not normally achieved through fasting, but through careful portion size control and selection of foods based on calorie content. Having said that, some prominent CR practitioners also practice IF.

One interesting aspect of IF studies is that often they do not involve any calorie reduction in the participants' diet; that is, individuals consume the same amount of calories that they would if they were not fasting at all. In other words, they consume 2X outside their fasting window; where X would be their normal caloric consumption without fasting.

Yet, the benefits of IF are still achieved. For example, during Ramadan, the levels of inflammation markers and factors, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine, go down, and remain low for several weeks after IF is interrupted. These inflammation markers and factors are known to be strongly associated with heart disease.

In fact, animal studies suggest that virtually identical benefits can be obtained through IF in terms of increased lifespan and disease resistance, as those normally associated with CR. Again, this is somewhat surprising because often IF does not involve any reduction in calories consumed.

Fasting promotes increased levels of growth hormone in humans. A decline in growth hormone levels is associated with aging. Thus, increased circulating growth hormones may be one of the mechanisms by which IF may affect lifespan.

There have been some reports of IF being associated with negative effects on health, but I suspect that they are associated with gorging on refined carbohydrates and sugars during the eating window. Refined carbohydrates and sugars promote inflammation, and IF reduces inflammation. It is conceivable that a very high consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars during the eating window may completely negate the benefits of IF, particularly if one is doing a half-hearted version of IF to start with.

A combination of IF and a diet low in refined carbohydrates and sugars probably makes sense in terms of our evolved physiology. Our Stone Age ancestors had to fast on a regular basis, based on the availability of food – there were no refrigerators or grocery stores during the vast majority of our evolutionary history as a species. When food was available, it was consumed to satiety. In other words, our Stone Age ancestors practiced IF, against their will. Because of that, this is the state in which our body evolved to operate optimally.

If you watch enough episodes of the TV show Survivorman, you will probably notice that it is very unlikely that our Stone Age ancestors had access to enough calories to survive on plant foods only, assuming that they faced problems similar to those in the show.

Our digestive tract has evolved over millions of years from a mostly vegetarian diet, practiced by our Australopithecine ancestors, to a primarily carnivorous diet, adopted by human ancestors as far back as Homo erectus, and probably Homo habilis. Given that, only the recent invention of refined carbohydrates and sugars has given us access to enough dense carbohydrate sources of calories.

So, a combination of IF and a diet low in (or devoid of) refined carbohydrates and sugars makes evolutionary sense, and is probably why so many people who adopt Paleolithic diets see so many improvements in health markers such as inflammation markers, blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol.