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The health benefits of fasting

A new USC-led study has shown that a diet designed to imitate the effects of fasting appears to reverse diabetes by reprogramming cells. The fasting-like diet promotes the growth of new insulin-producing pancreatic cells that reduce symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes in mice, according to the study on mice and human cells led by Valter Longo, Director of the Longevity Institute at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. The study published on February 23rd, 2017 in the journal Cell, is the latest in a series of studies to demonstrate promising health benefits of a brief, periodic diet that mimics the effects of a water-only fast.

Diabetes is a state of sugar toxicity. Insulin resistance is caused because the cells are already over-filled with glucose. Like trying to blow air into an over-inflated balloon, it simply takes more force. The cell resists the glucose because it’s completely full. Insulin resistance is an overflow phenomenon and can be detrimental to your health, with 42% of heart attacks caused because of it.

As well as helping to lower the risk of diabetes, what other positive changes can occur in your body when you fast?

Human Growth Hormone (HGH): The levels of growth hormone skyrocket, increasing as much as 5-fold. This has benefits for fat loss and muscle gain, to name a few.

Insulin: Insulin sensitivity improves and levels of insulin drop dramatically. Lower insulin levels make stored body fat more accessible.

Cellular repair: When fasting, your cells initiate cellular repair processes. This includes autophagy, where cells digest and remove old and dysfunctional proteins that build up inside cells.

Gene expression :There are changes in the function of genes related to longevity and protection against disease.

Extended lifespan: One of the most exciting applications of intermittent fasting may be its ability to extend lifespan and overall health. In a study on rats, those that were put on a fasting diet lived 83% longer than rats that weren’t fasted.

Fasting also has a dramatic effect on your brain health.

Scientists refer to the brain as the most complex thing in the universe. It is jam-packed, containing about 70 billion neurons and over 200 trillion connections between them. It is the most metabolically active (requiring the most energy per unit weight) organ in the body. Thus, while weighing little over 1300 grams – just a fraction of the weight of the human body – it gets 25% of the heart’s output every second.

It sits within the protective confines of your skull, and is bathed in a fluid that reduces its effective weight to about 50 grams. This further protects it from rapid movements, which would otherwise tear it or bruise it. It is mostly fat and water, and its language is electricity, sending information through small packets of electrical charges.

Amongst other nutrients, the brain needs glucose to function – yup, good old-fashioned sugar. It loves it, so it is no wonder we love to eat it. However, during prolonged starvation, and likely during some of the longer fasts this Ramadan, it can switch its metabolism to use the byproduct of fat breakdown called ketone bodies. In fact, for those of you who are physically active during Ramadan, you will likely be able to smell the ketones on your breath – it smells kind of like acetone.

Ketones are produced by the liver when it runs out of glycogen – a type of storage form of sugar. So once the glycogen disappears, fat starts to be broken down and you get ketone bodies. Remarkably, the brain can completely switch from using glucose to using ketones after about three days of absolutely no glucose intake.

The fact that we replenish our glycogen every day during Ramadan (Suhoor and Iftar), is likely why our brains don’t fully switch to using ketone bodies, and hence why we might, in the middle of the day, find it a bit hard to concentrate.

Ketosis is a normal metabolic process that provides several health benefits. During ketosis, your body converts fat into compounds known as ketones and begins using them as its main source of energy. That being said, achieving a state of ketosis can take some work and planning. It’s not just as simple as cutting carbs.

Here are seven effective tips to help your body get into ketosis.

1. Minimize your carb consumption

Eating a very low-carb diet is by far the most important factor in achieving ketosis.

Normally, your cells use glucose, or sugar, as their main source of fuel. However, most of your cells can also use other fuel sources. This includes fatty acids, as well as ketones, which are also known as ketone bodies.

Your body stores glucose in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. When carb intake is very low, glycogen stores are reduced and levels of the hormone insulin decline. This allows fatty acids to be released from fat stores in your body. Your liver converts some of these fatty acids into the ketone bodies acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate. These ketones can be used as fuel by portions of the brain.

The bottom line is simple – Limiting your carb intake to 20–50 net grams per day lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to the release of stored fatty acids that your liver converts into ketones.

2. Include coconut oil in your diet

Eating coconut oil can help you get into ketosis, as it contains fats called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Unlike most fats, MCTs are rapidly absorbed and taken directly to the liver, where they can be used immediately for energy or converted into ketones. In fact, it’s been suggested that consuming coconut oil may be one of the best ways to increase ketone levels in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other nervous system disorders. MCTs have also been used to induce ketosis in epileptic children without restricting carbs as drastically as the classic ketogenic diet.

Although coconut oil contains four types of MCTs, 50% of its fat comes from the kind known as lauric acid. Fat sources with a higher percentage of lauric acid may produce a more sustained level of ketosis. This is because it’s metabolised more gradually than other MCTs. A high-MCT diet containing 20% of calories from carbs produces effects similar to the classic ketogenic diet, which provides fewer than 5% of calories from carbs.

3. Get active

Being more active can help you get into ketosis, and working out while fasting has been shown to drive up ketone levels even further. When you exercise, you deplete your body of its glycogen stores. Normally, these are replenished when you eat carbs, which are broken down into glucose and then converted to glycogen. However, if carb intake is minimised, glycogen stores remain low. In response, your liver increases its production of ketones, which can be used as an alternate fuel source for your muscles.

4. Increase your healthy fat intake

Consuming plenty of healthy fat can boost your ketone levels and help you reach ketosis. Ketogenic diets for weight loss, metabolic health and exercise performance usually provide between 60–80% of calories from fat. The classic ketogenic diet used for epilepsy is even higher in fat, with typically 85–90% of calories from fat.

Good fats include olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, and tallow, as well as healthy, high-fat foods that are low in carbs. However, if your goal is weight loss, it’s important to make sure you’re not consuming too many calories in total, as this can cause your weight loss to stall.

The bottom line is – Consuming at least 60% of calories from fat will help boost your ketone levels. Choose a variety of healthy fats from both plant and animal sources.

5. Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting, a dietary approach that involves regular short-term fasts, may also induce ketosis. In fact, many people go into mild ketosis between dinner and breakfast. Children with epilepsy are sometimes fasted for 24–48 hours before they start a ketogenic diet, so that they get into ketosis quickly allowing them to reduce the amount of seizures as quickly as possible.

Moreover, “fat fasting” is another ketone-boosting approach that mimics the effects of fasting. It involves consuming about 1,000 calories per day, 85–90% of which come from fat. This combination of low calorie and very high fat intake may help you achieve ketosis quickly. Because a fat fast is so low in protein and calories, it should be followed for a maximum of three to five days to prevent an excessive loss of muscle mass. It may also be difficult to adhere to for more than a couple of days.

6. Maintain adequate protein intake

Achieving ketosis requires a protein intake that is adequate but not excessive. It’s important to consume enough protein to supply the liver with amino acids that can be used for gluconeogenesis, which translates to “making new glucose.” In this process, your liver provides glucose for the few cells and organs in your body that can’t use ketones as fuel, such as your red blood cells and portions of the kidneys and brain. Secondly, protein intake should be high enough to maintain muscle mass when carb intake is low, especially during weight loss.

7. Test ketone levels and adjust your diet as needed

Like many things in nutrition, achieving and maintaining a state of ketosis is highly individualised. Therefore, it can be helpful to test your ketone levels to ensure you’re achieving your goals. The three types of ketones — acetone, beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate — can be measured in your breath, blood or urine. Testing your levels of ketones can help you determine whether you need to make any adjustments to get into ketosis.

The benefits of fasting are huge and affect so many aspects of our physical and mental health; provided that when we break the fast we keep carbohydrates to a minimum. You shouldn’t drink sugary juices and need to keep the amount of bread, rice, pasta, desserts, and dates you consume to a minimum. You should also include organic coconut oil, olive oil, academia nuts, walnuts, avocado, mushrooms, broccoli, salads and some beans in your diet for best results.