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The holidays are here — and it’s a good time to contemplate fasting

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Science has again caught up with some ancient wisdom, this time with the the health benefits of fasting. For thousands of years, fasting has been limited chiefly to religious practice. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism — virtually all faiths embrace fasting in one form or another for centuries. Whether or not we practice a religious lifestyle, we have fasted for medical procedures such as blood tests or surgery.

Of course, most of us expect to be much engaged with feasting rather than fasting over the coming holidays. But this time, once the holidays are over, we may want to consider some startling discoveries from recent research on the benefits of fasting for most of us.

Fasting simply means the willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink or both for a period of time. Water fasting allows water but nothing else. An absolute fast or dry fasting normally calls for abstinence from all food or liquid for a defined period, usually 24 hours. A person is presumed to be fasting after 8 to 12 hours from the last meal.

Enter Valter D. Longo, a professor at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology and director of USC’s Longevity Institute. In an extensive research project on fasting that he carried out on humans and animals, participants fasted regularly for between two and four days per month for a six-month period. He came up with conclusions that other scientists describe as a major “breakthrough.”

Strangely, however, Longo’s research project has gained far more notice overseas than in the US. We can only wonder if that’s the handiwork of some here in the medical profession, the pharmacy industry and the insurance companies up to no good. But we digress.

As published in the British newspaper “Telegraph UK” by their science correspondent, Sarah Knapton, on June 5, 2014, Longo’s study showed that a three-day fast can regenerate the entire immune system. To fast, this article reports, is to “flip a regenerative switch.” This in turn prompts our stem cells to create brand new white blood cells of adults, even in the elderly, whose immune systems grow less effective with age. While many scientists have described dieting for weight loss by fasting as unhealthy, this study finds that starving the body, then refeeding, kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.

Longo and his team of USC scientists herald this discovery as enormously promising as well for people suffering with damaged immune systems, such as cancer patients on chemotherapy. They also found that prolonged fasting reduced the enzyme PKA, linked to aging, as well as a hormone that increases cancer risk and tumor growth.

Longo described it this way: “The good news is that the body gets rid of the parts of the immune system that might be damaged or old, during the fasting. Now if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemo or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system. When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one thing it can do is recycle a lot of immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.”

Some experts are skeptical, saying fasting is too risky for some. These critics prefer “synthesizing” fasting with drugs. But the medical profession does not have a stellar record with drug prescriptions, witness the current scourge with opioids. Consider my column of Feb 5, 2016, about holding the medical profession accountable for losing control of prescription practice ().

Yet one of these skeptics, Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, interviewed in the “Telegraph UK” article, said that while he “wasn’t sure” fasting would be better than a drug regimen, he admitted that Longo’s research looks “very promising,” especially for chemo patients.

Longo’s work has inspired other research on fasting, including one published as recently as June of 2017 in the Journal of Fasting and Health in an article entitled “The Effect of Islamic Fasting in Ramadan on Osteoporosis.” Others have shown how fasting helps with symptoms of depression.

Owing to how food is ubiquitous, and to how we eat when we don’t need to, or even want to, fasting seems so out of place in our culture of consumerism. If you can decide to move beyond that, be sure to consult a physician to guide you with any fasting program. Start small, maybe one meal a week for several weeks. Then work your way up to two meals a day, then fast for a whole day. Allow yourself juice and water to assure nutrients. Plan what you will do at those mealtimes instead of eating, and consider the impact of your fasting on others. This will take somewhat of a tenacious mindset, not dwelling on food and that you are hungry.

For what it is worth, Longo has developed a “Fast Mimicking Diet” that he claims mimics the effects of periodic fasting, while still aiming to provide the body with nutrition. He explains that the Fast Mimicking Diet formula, consisting of a low-calorie, low-protein, low-carb, high-fat regimen, will “inhibit the same metabolic pathways that fasting would, thereby providing the body with nutrients that do not trigger the body’s growth responses.”

Whatever our ingrained reluctance about, or bias against, fasting may be, clearly we have reason to update our sense of what it actually can do for our health. As we consult our health care providers, we should be prepared for some (many) to be unaware of the strides made with the science behind fasting. But their guidance is a must. This, coupled with our own research, could prove to be a life-changing step for many of us.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg