Why I Fast
Yin and Yang. Expansion and contraction. Both are essential to the development of every system in the world. We see in it nature - growth and decay - in the financial markets - bull and bear - and in ourselves - activity and rest. As a young professional trying to launch my career, I’ve spent many sleepless nights pushing to grow our business. As a bachelor, I’ve spent many days in the gym pumping weights to build muscle. But if all my time is spent building and there is no balance, I will crash. I find myself burnt out, over-worked and depressed. I find myself disappointed in my plateauing body. Lastly, I find myself sick. When I’m always pushing, life will force me to contract and it will happen in ways that are not planned for, disruptive, and quite frankly annoying. Though at the end of it, I will find myself saying, “I needed that.”
A planned three day water fast is my planned commitment to contract. To give my body and mind a rest. To slow down, take stock of what I have, notice the things around me, and to grow in appreciation and awareness of my body. I’ve been pushing my hard body for the last six months. I’ve training and completed two olympic distance triathlons and recently I’ve been trying to pack on some muscle. Complementing my hard workouts has been a full diet of nutrient dense food. In response my body has been in a state of building for quite some time. But this always on mentality does not leave room for the other important activities that my body has to carry out for me to live a long healthy life.
After reading about how Patrick Collision, the co-founder of Stripe, has a countdown clock from his estimated death date as the wallpaper on his computer, I recently decided to do the same. I put the clock up as my screensaver with the goal of living to 90 years old. I hope to be able to live to 90 but the odds are against me. Life expectancy in the US has been leveling off and may be declining at 78.8 years of age. This is due in a large part from the rising levels of obesity in our country. For men specifically, heart disease is the leading killer. It is responsible for 1 out of every 4 deaths with the leading factors being poor diet, physical inactivity, overweight and obesity, excessive alcohol use, and all of this will culminate in diabetes where 25% - 1 out of every 4 American's - are pre-diabetic. Interesting.
So when I am looking at my countdown clock, I’m not scared of the time ticking away, I’m more fearful of the ability for me to live a healthy productive life for another 63 years. I’m asking myself the question, what is going to help me ensure that my body is working well and can support the life that I want to lead for the next 63 years. I’m no longer living for tomorrow, I have one life to live and I want to live it long and full, not short and fast (tell that to my 21 year old self!). If the leading causes of death for men are 1) Cardiovascular disease 24.5% and 2) Cancer 23.4%, what can I do to decrease my chances of dying from them?
The common thread for both of these causes of death are carbohydrates and sugar, both of which are converted into glucose in the body and to be used as fuel or stored as fat. However, in our Standard American Diet, we take in way too many carbohydrates then our bodies need. And I’m a culprit. In high school I used to drink at least one large powerade a day because I was an “athlete" and needed to stay hydrated. I have frequently found myself eating pizza, chipotle bowls of rice, beans, and chips, and slamming ice cream. All in addition to the binge drinking that I’ll do on the weekends. During this time, my body is awash in glucose which spikes my insulin levels attempting to shove the glucose into different parts of my body starting with my fat tissues. As my fat tissues become fuller, they resist more glycogen being shoved into them and thus become resistant to the effects of insulin (insulin resistance) leading to high blood sugar. When the blood sugar reaches a certain level (over >7mmol) you are considered to have diabetes.
So what is the cure? Our bodies have the ability to run on two forms of energy, glucose and fat. If our bodies live in a glucose rich environment, they never have the ability to burn fat and become really poor at doing so. People with a higher metabolic flexibility, the ability to burn fat and glucose, are less likely to gain weight (and subsequently experience the life threatening effects that I mentioned above). So far I know of three ways to increase my metabolic flexibility, encouraging my body to spend time burning fat and not glucose, and in priority order: 1) time restricted eating or intermittent fasting - where I fast for 14 hours every day and only eat for 10 thus giving my body the opportunity to burn fat during the fasting period, 2) eating less carbohydrates with my meals so that I have less glycogen available and have to burn fat, and 3) prolonged fasting - which is really an extension of the first one.
I’ve already changed my lifestyle to accommodate the first two, so now it is time to embark on the third. I plan to do this quarterly, a quarterly break where I enter a state of full ketosis (fat burning). Now I still may not live to 90, time will tell, but I’m going to do everything I can to optimize my chances of getting there.
But, won’t you like die if you don’t eat? To this I respond, do you think that every human in the history of humanity had 3 square meals a day? Do you ever think that our we had to survive great floods and famines? Yes, we did. How did we do it? Our bodies are these wonderfully powerful machines that come with the tools to weather the storms. They are wired to not only withstand long periods of fasting but to be alert while doing so. Imagine a hunter venturing out into the wilderness in search of something to feed the tribe. They are on foot covering many miles as they track down their prey, feeding on minimal, if any food. Their bodies and mind have to stay alert in this period of calorie depreciation so that at a moment’s notice, they can sprint towards their prey or make a snap judgement, take aim, and fire. Could you imagine doing that after two days of barely eating? No, probably not, your caffeine headache would set in and you’d be so irritable you couldn’t think straight.
Our bodies have three sources of energy that they can burn - carbohydrates/sugar, fat, amino acids (protein). Glucose is fuel source #1, then fat and lastly protein. As I mentioned above glucose the body has to store glucose if there is too much of it in our bloodstream. To store the glucose it first puts it in our liver, then our muscles (where it can quickly be used as energy), and then it is converted to fat which is then stored in our liver, then around our organs, and lastly right under our skin. When we eat fat, it doesn’t just become those same fat stores in our bodies that glucose does. Depending on the type of fat we eat, our bodies may use it for energy or to repair and build new cell walls. When we eat protein, it is converted into amino acids, which are used to repair and build new cells and muscles. [Why does the body oxidize protein constantly? What is the difference between the oxidization rate and glucosgenesis?)
After we stop eating our last meal, our bodies start using the glucose we’ve ingested as fuel to create the energy we need. It uses the glucose available in the blood first. As the glucose is used up, our liver releases more from it’s stores to keep up with demand. As the liver starts to run out of glucose it goes to its fat stores and starts converting it into ketones to be used for energy. But this process takes a bit of time, so to supplement the time it takes to convert fat to accessible energy (because we lack the practice), we start pulling the glucose out of the muscles. In our muscles, glucose is stored with water, and it is the combination of these two items that makes our muscles look fuller, but also softer. As we start to utilize the glucose in our muscles, you may find that you do not fill out your shirt as much as you did before. However, our actual muscle fiber has not changed. Your muscles are still there and if you look closely, they will look more defined and harder. This is the look that bodybuilders and fitness pros go for on stage. The body is not eating it’s muscles. It is doing everything that it can to preserve it’s muscles as these are it’s tools to obtain food in the future.
Our blood glucose level stays pretty steady and our ketone levels rise as we burn more fat. For most people, they feel more alert and sharp a few days into fasting as their overall body energy rises.
There is a second thing that our bodies are doing during this time of fasting, which is called autophagy and apoptosis. Going back to my analogy above of expansion and contraction, these are the contraction mechanisms of the body during fasting. To illustrate what is happening, imagine your home. As you are living out your busy life, you are constantly adding to it. Buying new furniture and knickknacks, buying new clothes, new books, etc. If you have just a few minutes of downtime, you may start to clean it. If you are like me, you start in the most used portion of you house, the kitchen and clean that up. If you have enough time, you may move to cleaning the bathroom, then the floors, and so on. Given enough time you will do a “deep clean” where you really scrub the place down, organize your closet and books and even get rid of extra items that are outdated, broken, or no longer fit your style.
What if you never cleaned your place? Never wiped down your counters, never took out the trash, gave away old clothes and organized your books? If you never wiped down your counters, they would start to smell and mold would start to grow. This is the same thing that is happening in your body. It cleans itself out so damaged cells do not become breading grounds for malicious bacteria causing infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
In your body, the act of surface cleaning is called autophagy. It is defined as "is the natural, regulated, destructive mechanism of the cell that disassembles unnecessary or dysfunctional components" (wikipedia). Like cleaning your counters and organizing your house at the end of the week, the body starts doing this when we are not ingesting new food and is in full cleaning mode 24-36 hours after our last meal.
As our body is cleaning away, it starts taking out the trash and getting rid of those old clothes we no longer want through a process called Apoptosis. Apoptosis means “programmed cell death,” which is a strong way to say, “get rid of those clothes that I no longer fit me, or that are damaged but are still hanging out in my closet.” Just like we need to do this to make room for new clothes, our bodies have to do this to grow new muscles. This is so important that if we try to stop the autophagy and apoptosis processes in mice, their muscles actually become weaker and they lose muscle mass (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550413109003106 and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001457931000089X). You can learn more about it in this video if you watch for at least 3min https://youtu.be/d6PyyatqJSE?t=3m47s).
For the same reason that we would do it in our homes, a cleaner home with less clutter, allows us to rebuild it with newer, better items and live more fully in it. Fasting is the act of contraction so that we can expand faster and better than before. We are expanding on a cleaner, more efficient platform, that can support our future growth enabling us to burn fuel more efficiently, reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer enabling us to live longer, healthier lives.