Fasting – Risks & Health Benefits


Fasting is a usual practice during the month of Ramadan, during many Hindu festivals and other auspicious occasions. Several studies have revealed that fasting is associated with several health benefits. Read through this HealthSpectra post to learn more in depth about fasting, its health benefits and risks.

What Is Fasting?

By definition, fasting is going without drink and/or food for a period of time. Check out this famous 5:2 Fast Diet. It is an intermittent fasting diet with a plan that involves the recommended calorie intake for 5 days a week but reducing calorie intake to 25% for the remaining 2 days – to 500 calories a day for women and 600 a day for men.

The author of The Fast Diet books says this comes with not just weight loss, but offers too many health benefits. It shows improvements in blood pressure, insulin levels, and cholesterol levels.

A study reported in 2014 by the Medical News Today suggested periodic fasting reduce the diabetes risk among those with high risk. It was defined as 1 day water-only fasting a week.

As per a study conducted at the the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles by Dr. Valter Longo and his colleagues, longer period of fasting i.e. for 2-4 days may reboot the immune system, which means washing out the old cells and regenerating new ones. The process protects against cell damage due to chemotherapy or aging.

Are there any specific foods to be taken after breaking the fast?

after breaking the fast

Health foods like raw vegetables, soothing fruits, sprouts, all help body regain missed nutrients during the fasting period.

Here are the underlying mechanisms to reap the health benefits of fasting?

To reduce weight: During fast, the body cannot get energy from the food and thus, dips into glucose that is stored in the muscles and liver. Around 8 hours after the last meal, the process begins. After the stored glucose gets used up, the body burns fats for energy source. Thus, the weight reduction happens. Additionally, the process helps preserve the muscle as well as reduce cholesterol levels.

To detoxify the body: Fasting also helps body detoxify, as the toxins stored in the fat are dissolved and eventually removed out of the body. A few days after fast, endorphins or feel-good hormones are released out of the body, thereby having positive mental impact. Prolonged fasting helps with regeneration of the immune cells.

According to a study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the repeated fasting cycles of 2-4 days over a 6-month period has destroyed the damaged and the old immune cells in mice besides generating the new ones. Also cancer patients on fast for 3 days before the chemotherapy were protected against the damage to the immune system caused especially due to the treatment because of the immune cell regeneration.

More health benefits of fasting include:

  • Fasting decreases inflammation through better hormone balance and preventing food-related inflammation.
  • Fasting improve your skin’s integrity by generating healthy collagen.
  • Fasting substantially lowers blood sugar levels.
  • Fasting seems to kick start protective mechanisms in your brain.
  • Blood triglycerides decrease during the fasting state, improving heart health.
  • Lower salt intake and increased loss of salt through the urine help keep blood pressure under control during fast.
  • Improved leptin sensitivity during fast increases the metabolism rate if you have a sluggish thyroid.
  • Overall, fasting contributes to a better body composition in several ways.

Thus, intermittent fasting is linked to too many proven health benefits. But are any health risks linked with fasting?

The Health Risks Associated With Fasting

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) reveal that many health risks are linked to intermittent fasting. Here are a few of them:

  • Dehydration is the common problem linked to fasting among many people as the body does not get fluid from the food. So people following fasting diet should ensure to take in penty of water (water fasting) to keep themselves hydrated.
  • In some, fasting may increase stress levels besides disrupting the sleep.
  • Issues like dehydration, stress and sleep loss may contribute to headaches.
  • Fasting may cause heartburn, because smelling food or mere thought of it may trigger the brain to generate stomach acids (ideally produced for digestion) causing heartburn.
  • Some nutritionists believe that the intermittent fasting is not beneficial for long-term weight loss.
  • People with underweight, pregnant women, type 1 diabetic patients and those who are recovering from surgeries are not supposed to follow the diet

Madelyn Fernstrom from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Weight Loss Management Center says, “The appeal is that [fasting] is quick, but it is quick fluid loss, not substantial weight loss. If it’s easy off, it will come back quickly – as soon as you start eating normally again.”

So could we reap the benefits of fasting without fasting?

Any fasting pattern has to be started after consulting the doctor to check if it is compatible with one’s body and health. Adherence also becomes important.

According to a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, conducted by  Dr. Longo and colleagues from USC, indicate that fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) can trigger the immune cell regeneration and extended the lifespan of mice.

Those who adhered to this diet for 5 days a month for 3 months have reportedly reduced risk factors associated with aging, cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and cancer.

What Is FMD?

According to the researchers, FMD is low protein diet which is low in unhealthy fats and high in healthy fats. Markers linked to high levels of ketone bodies and low glucose levels are stimulated by the diet, so as to mimic the prolonged fasting effects

More research is required on whether FMD  offers more of benefits or risks. This is also the case with the existing fasting diets. So to be on the safer sie, ensure that you talk to your doctor before getting into any form or type of fasting diet. Even if you are fasting for religious and health reasons be careful and listen to what your body whispers.