Fasting and Intelligent Autolysis
Ahh, fasting!!! What has happened to you? But of course, you've become trendy and commercialized…and we all know what that means. Both ill-informed endorsers and misinformed critics have crawled out of the compost to express their opinions on fasting and detoxing--pro and con. Was it really just a little over a year ago that I talked about an NBC News article that proclaimed that long-term fasts can lead to muscle breakdown and a shortage of many needed nutrients, which can "actually weaken the body's ability to fight infections and inflammation"? And yes, that statement is true as far as it goes, but by not going very far, it totally misrepresents the actual truth. Well, as bad as that article was, things have gotten worse.
Thanks to celebrities like Ben Affleck, Beyoncé, Benedict Cumberbatch, and everybody's favorite whipping girl, Gwyneth Paltrow, now promoting fasting, the attack dogs have gone into hyper drive. Now, we regularly see snarky articles such as one in Slate that opined, "Juice cleanses accomplish exactly none of their physiological or medical objectives; they fetishize a weird, obsessive relationship with food, and they are part of a social shift that reduces health (mental, physical, and, sure, spiritual) to a sign of status. They're annoying as hell."1
Fetishize? I mean really! It's probably worth mentioning that the article didn't cite a single study to support its contentions. It merely referenced other articles with similar opinions and some phone interviews with people who agreed with their point of view. Personally, I find, that to me, that kind of article is "annoying as hell."
In fact, Slate and NBC and most other critical articles are wrong. There are actually several studies that demonstrate the value of fasting. And one study that came out just last week would certainly seem to undermine the doubters. As it turns out, fasting produces definite, quantifiable benefits in the immune system…and most likely in many other body systems and organs as well. We'll get to that study in a bit.
What I've Said About Fasting Over the Years
In the article that I wrote last year on water fasting and juice fasting, I summarized a number of things that I had been saying for the last 40 years. In addition to citing a number of studies that prove that fasting can produce profound, measurable benefits, I explored the concept of intelligent autolysis, which simply means that your body has the ability to intelligently adjust to changing circumstances--breaking down tissue in one part of the body and reassembling it in another, as circumstances require. Or to put it another way, because this process is intelligent, your body, while fasting, breaks down unneeded, damaged, and toxic tissue first. Then when you start eating again, it rebuilds from the ground up with fresh, new, healthy tissue.
I also emphasized that the benefits of fasting lay in this process of intelligent autolysis, not in weight loss. In fact, when it comes to weight loss, the critics are right as prolonged fasting can be counterproductive since, with no calories, your body quickly goes into shut down mode to prevent starvation. In other words, prolonged fasting slows your metabolism so that your body learns to "survive" on fewer calories. This means that you progressively lose less weight as the fast goes on, but even more important, you have a high rebound effect once you start eating again…since your metabolism is now slower and it takes even fewer calories to put weight back on. Short term fasting and alternate day fasting, on the other hand, can be useful tools to kick start the weight loss process. As for fasting as a form of detoxing, we'll talk more about that later, but quickly: yes, there is some benefit in that regard, but fasting is more of a complement to the detoxing process, rather than a primary means of detoxing itself.
The bottom line is that the celebrities pushing fasting for detoxing and weight loss are misguided and the critics attacking it for those reasons are missing the point…and the critics who simply say that there is no value to fasting and that it is dangerous and unhealthy are just wrong. The key value to fasting lies in autolysis, which we'll talk more about later.
So what's changed? Why are we looking at fasting again?
And the answer is Prof Valter D. Longo. Prof Longo is an American biogerontologist and cell biologist known for his studies on the role of starvation and nutrient response genes on cellular protection and aging. In fact, Prof Longo was behind the studies I referred to in last year's article that revealed the benefits of fasting when it comes to cancer and chemotherapy.
Well, he's back with a new study, published just last week in the journal Cell Stem Cell, that now supports many of the things I've been saying about fasting for 40 years, plus adds a new twist to the equation vis-à-vis stem cells and the immune system that even ups the ante. The core conclusion of this new study is that fasting not only protects against immune system damage -- a major side effect of chemotherapy -- but it also stimulates the regeneration of the immune system by shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal. 2 Or to put it another way: fasting, for as little as three days, "flips a regenerative switch" which prompts stem cells to create brand new white blood cells, essentially regenerating the entire immune system. Or as Prof Longo says, "It gives the 'OK' for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system." The three day figure is especially interesting since doing a three day fast once a month has been my recommendation--along with one day a week and five days twice a year--for pretty much the last 40 years.
The new research shows that this could be particularly beneficial for people suffering from damaged immune systems, even cancer patients on chemotherapy. And it could also help the elderly whose immune system become less effective as they age, making it harder for them to fight off even common diseases. And, of course, it would help anyone just looking to tune up their immune system and optimize their ability to fight any disease.
But hold on, it gets better as we dig deeper into the study's results.
As the study points out, in earlier studies, both with mice and a Phase 1 human clinical trial involving patients receiving chemotherapy, periods of not eating significantly lower white blood cell counts. This is not particularly surprising and certainly would match the expectation of fasting's critics. To repeat: if you don't get sufficient calories, your body begins to shut down, losing its ability to generate new cells--including immune cells. However, what this latest study found is that, at least in mice, fasting cycles then "flip a regenerative switch," changing the signaling pathways for hematopoietic stem cells, which are the stem cells responsible for the generation of blood and immune system cells. As the study's authors state, "We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration of the hematopoietic system…What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then, when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. So we started thinking, well, where does it come from?"
They continued, "The good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or ageing, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system…When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells [or any cells, for that matter, Ed.] that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged."
The study has major implications for healthier aging since immune system decline contributes to increased susceptibility to disease as people age. By outlining how fasting cycles -- periods of no food for two to four days at a time over the course of six months -- kill older and damaged immune cells and generate new ones, the research also has implications for chemotherapy tolerance, for those with a wide range of immune system deficiencies, including autoimmunity disorders, and anyone looking to refresh their immune system.
We've always known that prolonged fasting forces the body to use stores of glucose, fat, and ketones, but we now understand that it also breaks down a significant portion of older white blood cells. Longo likens the effect to lightening a plane of excess cargo. During each cycle of fasting, this depletion of white blood cells induces changes that trigger stem cell-based regeneration of new immune system cells. In addition, prolonged fasting reduces the activity of the PKA gene, an effect previously discovered by the Longo team to extend longevity in simple organisms and which has been linked in other research to the regulation of stem cell self-renewal and pluripotency -- that is, the potential for one cell to develop into many different cell types. Pluripotency is the reason the researchers believe the regeneration effect happens systemically throughout the body when fasting, not just in the immune system--although that's all the researchers measured in this study. Prolonged fasting also lowered levels of IGF-1, a growth-factor hormone that Longo and others have linked to aging, tumor progression, and cancer risk.3
Now, before we get too excited here, it's important to rememberthat when it comes to the human body, things are rarely one-dimensional. Trying to equate aging to high levels of IGF-1 can run you right into a paradox. Here's why. IGF-1 is produced primarily by the liver. It stimulates systemic body growth and has growth-promoting effects on almost every cell in the body, especially skeletal muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, nerves, skin, hematopoietic cell, and lungs. It is one of the most potent stimulators of cell growth and proliferation. IGF-1 is a potent inhibitor of programmed cell death. In other words, it counters the wasting effects associated with aging and prolongs the life of cells. Sounds good, right?
The problem is that this can be a two-edged sword. If you don't have cancer, it keeps you young and vibrant. If you already have a cancer, it can speed up its growth and proliferation. That said, IGF-1 is the primary reason that people take HGH injections or HGH secretagogues--to remain youthful as they age. IGF-1 is the primary mediator of the effects of human growth hormone. HGH is released from the pituitary gland and then stimulates the liver to produce IGF-1.
Whereas HGH stimulates production of IGF-1, under-nutrition retards it. Thus, under-nutrition, or prolonged fasting, allows cells to die, thus clearing the way for new cells to take their place. The bottom line is that IGF-1 is neither good nor bad. And fasting is neither good nor bad. They are each part of a health puzzle, and each is useful for what it does. On a day-in, day-out basis, stimulating HGH and IGF-1 production in the body is probably a good thing for maintaining youth and vitality and living a long healthy life as it maximizes the lifespan of your existing cells and tissue. Doing regular 3-day fasts to temporarily stop that process, break down unhealthy tissue and cells, and trigger stem cells to rebuild new cells and tissue would seem to be a perfect complement to that routine. In other words, it's not one or the other, but each in its own place and time.
And now, let's return to the most important conclusion drawn from the study.
"And the good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system."
This, of course, is an absolute restatement of the principle of intelligent autolysis that I and many other proponents of fasting have been espousing for decades. This is the true value of fasting, not weight loss and detoxing.
And finally, Prof Longo says, "We are investigating the possibility that these effects are applicable to many different systems and organs, not just the immune system."
This, of course, is something that those of us who have worked with fasting for years already know firsthand. It's why we fast. It's why fasting is almost always part of any catastrophic illness program. We already know how Prof Longo's studies will turn out. They will find that intelligent autolysis occurs throughout the body, as does intelligent rebuilding once the patient starts eating again. There is nothing magical about this. This is what the body is designed to do. Man is the only animal that seems to not know this. Notice how in nature virtually every other animal stops eating when it is sick. Without ads telling them that they need to eat Cheetos and pizza when they're sick, they innately understand the need to fast and let their bodies break down the diseased tissue and heal itself. Fasting is consistently observed in the animal kingdom. Fortunately, animals don't have nutritionists telling them to do otherwise.
The Medical Community Speaks
The study's co-author, Tanya Dorff, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, said, "While chemotherapy saves lives, it causes significant collateral damage to the immune system. The results of this study suggest that fasting may mitigate some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy."4
Well, so far so good, but then she adds, "More clinical studies are needed, and any such dietary intervention should be undertaken only under the guidance of a physician." But this raises the question: how much guidance can a doctor provide when they know nothing about fasting and are most likely skeptical of the entire process anyway? The simple fact of the matter is that if you have cancer and you're undergoing chemotherapy, yes, you're going to have to work with your doctor--but you're going to have to take the lead when it comes to arguing for a complementary fasting program.
Dr. Graham Rook, emeritus professor of immunology at University College London, weighed in on the topic and said that the study sounded "improbable". Really? And this is based on what research? All this pronouncement shows is that sometimes people who are very intelligent (and yes, doctors are intelligent people) can say some very stupid things. Essentially, his rationale for this opinion translates to, "Ignore the study results. Trust me. I'm a doctor."
And then my favorite pronouncement of all, Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at UCL, said, "There is some interesting data here. It sees that fasting reduces the number and size of cells and then re-feeding at 72 hours saw a rebound. That could be potentially useful because that is not such a long time that it would be terribly harmful to someone with cancer. But I think the most sensible way forward would be to synthesize this effect with drugs. I am not sure fasting is the best idea. People are better eating on a regular basis."
Other than putting it in bold, does anything else really need to be said about this statement? And as Prof Longo points out, "There is no evidence at all that fasting would be dangerous, while there is strong evidence that it is beneficial."
The fundamental problem we face when it comes to fasting and detoxing is that there are thousands of experts, each with their own opinion and protocol. There's water fasting and juice fasting and drinking detox juices without fasting. There are colon cleansing protocols and colon cleansing pills you take while eating your normal diet. There are fasting programs for losing weight and fasting programs for detoxing--with multiple interpretations as to what detoxing really means. And then when we talk about detoxing, are we talking about intestinal detoxing, liver detoxing, heavy metal detoxing, kidney and gallbladder flushes, juice fasting, water fasting, the Master Cleanse, or any of a number of other variations on a theme? No wonder the establishment is so hostile to the concept.
As WebMD says in countering the whole concept of detoxing and fasting, "The good news is that your body has its own natural detoxifying process that works quite well. The liver and kidneys do a good job of processing chemicals and eliminating them in sweat, urine, and feces. For example, the colon's natural bacteria detoxify food wastes and its mucus membranes prevent bacteria and toxins from reentering the body. The liver combines its own chemicals with other chemicals, making water-soluble compounds that your kidneys can excrete in urine. And some chemicals are also excreted through the lungs and skin."5
Or according to the Making Sense of Chemical Stories report published by the London based group Sense about Science, "The human body is perfectly capable of protecting itself from life's excesses. It is a myth that the detox process can be speeded by special diets, body wraps or pills."6 As the report goes on to state, pretty much echoing WebMD's sentiment, "The gut stops many potential poisons getting into the system in the first place. And the liver deals with those that do."
Dr. John Hoskins, a toxicologist, was also quoted in the "Making Sense" report, "There's a sucker born every minute. The only thing that loses weight on a detox diet is your wallet."
And finally, Catherine Collins, an NHS dietician, described detoxing as "a marketing myth" and a "silly concept."
You get the idea: neither WebMd nor Sense about Science are very big on fasting and detoxing.
And yet, according to a 2007 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, the incidence of chronic constipation in the United States is just over 17 percent, or well over 50 million people.7 Clearly, for those 50 million people, their normal elimination channels are not up to the task. They need intestinal detoxing.
Then there's the fact that the incidence of liver cancer in the United States tripled between 1975 and 2005.8 And again, for these people, there's something about the processes of the liver cleansing itself that is not working. Clearly, for these people, their livers can't deal with the toxins that get through the gut.
One of the reasons for all this confusion is that people are conflating detoxing and fasting, and as I said, although they are related, they are not the same thing. So, with that in mind, let's take a look at fasting.
I would agree with fasting critics that fasting, unless done properly, is not a great way to lose weight. They are absolutely correct that extended fasting, for two reasons, is not what you want. First, because of the lack of protein, much of your weight loss during fasting tends to be muscle--not what you want. And as I mentioned earlier, any fast longer than 48 hours runs the risk of causing your metabolism to slow down, which means you gain weight more easily once the fast is over.
If you want to use fasting for losing weight, then fast one day a week. That doesn't cost you muscle tissue and it doesn't slow down metabolism, but it does save you a couple of thousand calories or more that day. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year and you've save yourself 20-30 pounds a year. That's not a "marketing myth." It's simple math: calories in vs calories out.
As for detoxing, if you're looking to remove toxins from organs in your body, then you need to run protocols that are specific for those organs. Fasting in conjunction with those protocols can facilitate them, but it does not replace them.
So what exactly is the benefit of fasting then?
Quite simply, as we have been saying for 40 years, it's intelligent autolysis! As Prof Longo's study showed, during fasting, the body gets rid of the cells and parts of your body that are damaged or old--the inefficient parts, if you will. Then, when you start eating again, it replaces those parts with new, undamaged cells and tissue. That's why you fast. That's the primary benefit now proven by science--a benefit not provided by your liver and kidneys, even on their best day, despite what skeptics might say.
As I've stated in other reports, the basic fasting schedule I like to follow is:
- One day of juice fasting with chlorella a week. (I like Mondays because it cleans things up after the weekend and breaks the flow after any weekend indulgences I may have allowed myself. And if I'm trying to lose any weight, I'll do both Mondays and Fridays for a couple of weeks. By not doing consecutive days, my metabolism never slows down, and I don't have to worry about poor nutrition or loss of muscle mass.) For an explanation of why I prefer juice fasting with chlorella or spirulina vs water fasting, check out my report on Water Fasting and Juice Fasting. (It actually explores fasting in considerable detail, also covering things like what types of juices to drink and what juicers to buy.)
- Once a month, I like to extend that one day juice fast to three days. There's an old saying in the world of fasting. One day gives your body a rest; three days is good for minor repair; and five to seven days works as a complete overhaul for your body. Thanks to the study just published, we now know exactly what minor repair means.
- With that in mind, twice a year, I now do a five-day juice and chlorella fast in conjunction with my bi-annual kidney/liver/gallbladder/blood detox, instead of that month's three-day juice fast. I do one of those the first week in January to cleanse my body of all the bad stuff I ate over the holidays--and to break any bad eating habits I acquired during that period. I do the other one mid-summer, but am more flexible as to the exact dates. (Note: You would think it goes without saying, but we keep getting questions on exactly this issue: do not fast or detox while pregnant or nursing.)
The bottom line is that once a month I'm now letting my body intelligently self-digest old, damaged, and toxic tissue and then replace it with new, dynamic, revitalized tissue. Twelve times a year I'm rebuilding and recharging my immune system--and every other major system in my body. And along the way, as a side benefit, I'm helping control my weight.
What's not to love about regular proper fasting?
- 1. Katy Waldman. "Stop Juicing." Slate. 20 Nov 2013. (Accessed 10 Jun 2014.) http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/11/juice_cleanses_not_healthy_not_virtuous_just_expensive.html
- 2. Chia-Wei Cheng, Gregor B. Adams, Laura Perin, Valter D. Longo, et al. "Prolonged Fasting Reduces IGF-1/PKA to Promote Hematopoietic-Stem-Cell-Based Regeneration and Reverse Immunosuppression." Cell Stem Cell. Volume 14, Issue 6, p810--823, 5 June 2014. http://www.cell.com/cell-stem-cell/fulltext/S1934-5909(14)00151-9
- 3. Morgan E. Levine, Jorge A. Suarez, Sebastian Brandhorst, Valter D. Longo, et al. "Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population." Cell Metabolism. Volume 19, Issue 3, p407--417, 4 March 2014. http://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/abstract/S1550-4131(14)00062-X
- 4. Sarah Knapton. "Fasting for three days can regenerate entire immune system, study finds." The Telegraph. 05 Jun 2014. (Accessed 12 Jun 2014.) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/10878625/Fasting-for-three-days-can-regenerate-entire-immune-system-study-finds.html
- 5. "Natural Liver Detox Diets (Liver Cleansing)." WebMD. March 20, 2013. (Accessed 12 Jun 2014.) http://www.webmd.com/balance/natural-liver-detox-diets-liver-cleansing?page=2
- 6. "Making Sense of Chemical Stories." Sense about Science 2008-2014. (Accessed 12 Jun 2014.) http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/154/MakingSenseofChemicalStories2.pdf
- 7. R. S. Choung, G. R. Locke III, C. D. Schleck, A. R. Zinsmeister, N. J. Talley. "Cumulative incidence of chronic constipation: a population-based study 1988--2003." Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. Volume 26, Issue 11-12, pages 1521-1528. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2036.2007.03540.x/pdf
- 8. Altekruse SF, McGlynn KA, Reichman ME. Hepatocellular carcinoma incidence, mortality, and survival trends in the United States from 1975 to 2005. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2009; 27: 1485-1491