Those interested in rejuvenating their bodies and minds post Diwali, listen up. The secret to extending your youth while keeping disease at bay seems to lie in, ever so often, not eating at all. Fasting, or not eating for 12 hours or more, triggers a protective response in our bodies at a cellular level. Our bodies seem to become stronger and more able to fight diseases, both chronic and acute, as a result of this short stint of starvation.

And while the thought of starving once in a while may seem unpleasant, this is how pre-historic man lived. Eating three meals a day, with snacking thrown in for good measure, is not normal from an evolutionary perspective. And recent research suggests that fasting or eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors has the potential of helping us live longer, disease-free lives.

Isaac Mathai, chairman and managing director of Soukya, a holistic healing centre in Bengaluru , says naturopathic medicine has always recommended fasting for a host of medical conditions, from constipation to arthritis. “It is considered beneficial for healthy adults as an anti-ageing and detoxifying regimen too," he says. Dr Mathai suggests a water-only or juice-only fast for 24-48 hours every month for healthy adults. “A fast longer than 48 hours or in someone who is taking medicines is best done under medical supervision," he says.

Fasts are highly beneficial in reducing the risk of chronic diseases, particularly in people who are obese and sedentary, according to a review of the research on fasting published in February 2014 in the journal Cell Metabolism. Authors M.P. Mattson and V.D. Longo said that in animal studies, fasting improved important health indicators like blood pressure, body fat, insulin, brain performance and inflammation. Fasting has also been found to reduce the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, stroke and, sometimes, even prevent cancer. The reason that fasting works this way, they argue, is because at a molecular level it enhances anti-oxidative pathways, protecting cells from DNA damage and suppressing unrestricted cell growth while simultaneously destroying damaged cells.

In humans too, studies on fasting are promising. According to a review published in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences in November 2014, multiple studies have shown that fasting can reduce the symptoms in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

Dominic Benjamin, a consultant geriatrician at the Bangalore Baptist Hospital in Bengaluru, recommends shorter fasts as a weight-loss measure to patients—to accrue the benefits of fasting and manage weight. “I suggest to my non-diabetic obese patients that they aim for a 14- to 16-hour fast over the weekend. They can eat an early dinner on Friday and Saturday and eat a late breakfast or an early lunch at noon the following day. This kind of a fast isn’t too demanding for my patients," says Dr Benjamin.

Fasting works in many ways. For one, it suppresses inflam-mation, which is a pivotal participant in arthritis, asthma, heart disease and cancer formation. Another way that fasting works is by increasing the “autophagy" or “eating" of defective proteins and membranes within a cell by the cell. In other words, fasting makes the cell “cleanse" itself of damaged biomolecules.

If you want to give fasting a try, there are many ways to do it, writes Dr Mattson, chief of the laboratory of neurosciences at the US’ National Institute on Ageing, in an email interview. He writes that while we don’t know yet which way is the most beneficial fasting method, and some methods may be more beneficial than others, there is no doubt that fasting is a healthful practice. “Fasting one or two days/week or fasting for two consecutive days every week or every other week are all worth trying. I would suggest starting by eating only one moderate-size meal one day each week for one month and then do this for two days each week for the next month," he says.

You could also try the intermittent fasting diet called the 5:2 diet popularized by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer in their book The Fast Diet: The Secret Of Intermittent Fasting—Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, Live Longer. In this, you would eat 500 calories (600, if you are male) two days a week and eat whatever you want (within reason) the remaining five days of the week. Dr Longo, director of the US’ USC Longevity Institute, cautions that the 5:2 diet has several limitations. “It requires that someone eat a low-calorie diet every third day, which is difficult for most people to maintain, and it can also confuse the body the same way that sleeping erratically would; the body’s circadian clock doesn’t like frequent changes. However, it is still better than not fasting at all," he writes.

It’s important to add, however, that the research done thus far is limited in its scope and till there is more evidence, it’s best to check with your doctor before incorporating regular fasts into your lifestyle. I fast once a week, living on 500 calories of juices and fruit, and find myself more energetic and alert on fast days.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness consultant, life coach and a clinical scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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