When was the last time you were REALLY starving?
You might recall a school camping trip when you thought you were going to die from hunger after a four hour trek, or that time you did an 8 hour shift and left your packed lunch at home, but was your life really dependent on getting that next meal?
It’s likely the cravings and excessive salivating were more due to habit and socialization than a actual physiological need to intake more fuel.
We have a funny relationship with food. It’s everything from a social lubricant, a means of distraction, and an event, to a performance enhancer, a source of pleasure, and a deadly addiction. Rarely it’s put to use for its primary purpose: to maintain life and growth.
Thankfully, there are special tools in the world that have the power to shake us out of such dangerous patterns of thought—for example journaling, yoga, and meditation. But when it comes to changing how we think about food, that tool is fasting.
Along with pressing the reset button and getting us back in tune with what and when we eat, fasting—much like the other tools—has heaps more benefits to offer us.
Studies have shown that fasting can help alleviate depression, reduce chronic pain, burn fat (particularly nasty organ fat), strengthen willpower, heighten brain function, improve digestion, and even cause feelings of euphoria.
So how do you get started? Well, an easy and well documented way into the world of fasting is through what’s known as ‘intermittent fasting’. The term is used to describe frequent periods of calorie restriction, for example eating your day’s meals within a limited time-frame of 8 hours, or having full days where you eat nothing or consume less than 400-500 calories.
The mechanism in which it works its pretty complex, but the underlying idea is simple. By periodically giving yourself a break from eating, you’re challenging the body and mind and allowing them to become stronger, more efficient, and better able to handle the daily stresses that come their way—it’s the same principle as weight training and other forms of exercise.
So now you have a basic idea of what fasting is and how it works, let’s dive into the five reasons to make it a part of your life today.
Free up trapped energy and have full control of your mind
The act of abstaining from food can be a powerful workout for your willpower, strengthening it as if it were a muscle. Taking such action against your urges naturally leads to greater self-esteem and increased control over your thoughts and actions. And as the digestive system is one of the most energy intensive systems in the body, freeing up reserves that would otherwise be spent on digesting food helps cause a dramatic increase in clarity and mental clearness.
Normally our digestive systems are active the majority of the day, but even when they are not, we are thinking about where the next meal will come from. Thus many of us don’t realize when our stomachs are empty that we have heaps more resources at out disposal. Following a period of fasting, many report feeling less slugglish, having a greater clarity of mind, and even being enlightened.
Maintain clean and healthy blood for optimum health
When we consume carbohydrates, say for instance bread, the body breaks them down into sugars to be absorbed into the blood. The pancreas then releases insulin to transport the sugars from the blood to the various cells in the body that need them—particularly those in the brain, organs, skeleton, and muscles. Eat too many carbohydrates and overload the blood with sugars, and the pancreas isn’t able to keep up and produce enough insulin to clear it, eventually leading to cells being starved of energy, and the 7th leading cause of death in the US: Type 2 diabetes.
Therefore, by periodically cutting out food, you can give your pancreas a break to become once again sensitized to any sugars that enter the blood, helping in the short term to prevent things like fatigue, cloudy thinking, and irritability, and in the long term the plethora of problems associated with Type 2 diabetes.
Enrich your life with heightened senses and experiences
Realistically, true hunger takes around 12 to 24 hours to set in. When lunch time comes around, we may think we’re hunger, but we are so out of tune with our bodies that they usually have different ideas.
Fasting resets your definition of hunger so you can experience once again what it’s like to be truly hungry. It does so by regulating out of whack hormones in the body and returning signals that let you know when you are full and when you need more food. What’s more, receptors in the nose and mouth come fully alive, causing smells and flavors to become more intense and vivid and opening up a whole new world pleasure that transcends well beyond the dinner table.
Accelerate brain functioning for better learning and memory
We know challenging the brain through puzzles and difficult tasks has great advantages for memory, learning, and growth. But it turns out the brain also responds in a similar way to the challenge of fasting.
Putting the brain in such a stressful situation means it resorts to boosting the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BNDF is recognized as an important protein that prevents death of existing brain cells, induces the growth of new neurons, and supports greater cognitive function.
Studies have also shown periodic fasting to increase synaptic plasticity. The greater your synaptic plasticity, the better able you are to make connections between neurons in the brain. As memories are made up of interconnected networks of synapse in the brain, this means an improved ability to create, store, and consolidate memories.
Kick into action your body’s immune boosting response
The first thing animals do when they get sick is stop eating. It’s a deep primal instinct to reduce stresses on the internal system and divert all resources to fighting infection. However, whenever we get sick, we tend to turn straight to food (chicken soup)—mostly out of comfort and habit.
Similarly to how fasting bolsters brain functioning, it puts a strain on the immune system and consequently lowers white blood cell counts. This is turn triggers a response for the body to start producing new white blood cells—the key to building a strong immune system.
Fasting is an incredible tool that deserves a place in everyone’s normal routine of development and growth. Just like challenging your muscles with weights at the gym, pushing your heart and lungs when jogging, or testing your mind and reactions with puzzles and games, it offers us a great opportunity for improving ourselves and enjoying our lives that little bit more.
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Joseph is a freelance writer and student of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. He believes a new approach to mindfulness is needed if it’s to have an impact on life in the fast-paced and hyper-stimulating digital age.