Friday, November 20, 2009

The Science of Fasting

Beginning at sundown every Friday I don’t eat for 24 hours. It is my own personal Sabbath, although I will work in the garden or back by the compost heap cutting up small sticks.
I can’t read the future and fate may hold other cards I’m not aware of, but I’ve always thought I would live a long life. I am 45 now and I feel my life is close to being halfway over. I don’t feel like the end of my life is approaching in the next decade or so. No, I am pretty sure I will see 2050 and my mind will be sharp when I do, even if I will often repeat myself.

I eat well and I fast a bit, and that will be my secret – that and I was lucky enough to make it through the highways and the terror of violence that is always at hand somewhere in the world. Some will say I died peacefully after a good long life, and I suppose they will be mostly correct. Life has been, is and will be satisfying although the way to the end, even with whatever trauma inevitably awaits me. I hope I will have grandchildren around me and a son I am so, So proud of, even if he has broken my heart several times with the inevitable turning away from the dreams I hold for him.

But, through all the good and bad luck, I will have eaten well and done my fasts, so I will live long, I suppose. I’m just wingin’ it. I don’t know any secrets and I don’t have any good science on my side, although I do think like a scientist. Eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health. Eating Kimchee and Yogurt is good for your digestion. You don’t need science to tell you this. Make these foods a significant part of your diet and you will start to feel better. But what about fasting.

First, anecdotally, humans have been fasting as part of our evolutionary history forever. Read any old text on ancient or nontraditional cultures and medicines and fasting will have played a part in religious and healing ceremonies. Second, there are Seventh Day Adventists. They fast once a week and they live longer and healthier lifestyles when compared to the general population. I read that somewhere. Look it up.

Finally, we come to my science. I read a New York Times article a few years back and a year or so later caught a 60 minutes episode on a new discovery. Both were a reporting of the discovery of a chemical compound found in wine that could extend the average human lifespan. This chemical apparently causes the human body to produce a chemical or hormone that switches our body chemistry and tells our cells to change emphasis from reproduction to longevity. In the New York Times article, just in passing, they mentioned that the Body is also induced to produce the chemical when we fast. But, hell, there is no money to be made in fasting and Americans love their pills. So, the race was on for patents to produce a product that can be sold as the fountain of youth to Americans and others wanting a long lush life. Eat McDonalds, take a pill, live a long life.

Well, I don’t think it works that way. There might be a chemical in red wine that induces the body to produce a chemical that changes our body chemistry. But, that is probably just happenstance. It is the fasting that the body is reacting to. Think about it. We go along millions of years, living as hunters and gatherers and having to face times and seasons where food is scarce. Evolutionary, we also strive to pass on our genes from one generation to another. So, when food is available, our bodies and cell structures put their energy into reproduction and the passing of our genes to our offspring. Men use their caloric intake for producing sperm and scheming for mates, while women prepare their body to carry a child to term. The child is born and then food becomes scarce, what do we do? We fast out of necessity and any scarce food goes to the children and the young whose bodies are also being prepared for reproduction.

When elders and parents fast, for the benefit of children and the passing on of genes, their bodies produce this chemical that induces cells to stop putting all this energy into reproduction. Evolution favors adults that produce this chemical, because once we have passed on our genes, longevity is more important than spreading more of our genes around. We need to live long for the sake of our offspring to teach and guide them in the world and to help them secure nutrition.

Enter the modern age where food, not nutritious food, but corn syrup and empty calories, is always available and we no longer fast. We get heart disease and cancer. Moreover, as our sex drives decrease we desire to recapture our health and take Viagra to feel young and sexual again.

Fasting may also kill those unhealthy cells that may lead to cancer or heart disease. And, fasting feels good. It makes you aware of your body and everything you put into it. You don’t eat for 24 hours and you will stop shitting for 24 hours. 24 hours after the Saturday night when you eat a salad and a meal, Sunday afternoon comes along and you have felt that salad and meal go all the way through you as you expel the remaining waste products.

So, I fast for 24 hours once a week. A few times a year I attempt to fast from 2 to 5 days. I’m wingin’ it, no doubt. Some people might think I’m doing it all wrong. People who eat regularly and are conscious of their health and diet cannot fathom the idea of going without a meal. They think their body has to maintain some homeostasis and their blood sugar levels need to be constant, or they will feel weak. But, I think they are wrong. I think all systems and parts of our bodies need rest and this includes the digestive system. Our cells also need to rest and need a trigger for the release of built up toxins from the constant metabolism stimulated by the constant caloric intake.

That is the purpose of the Sabbath. It’s not necessarily a testament to the creation and the rest required by the creator after a week of making the universe. Like every tale, the story of creation is a myth that provides us with a metaphor. We need to fast to allow our bodies to rest. Growing children need a constant supply of nutrition to meet their needs as their bodies grow, but adults should fast once in a while. That's my theory with the science to back it up.

1 comment:

Richard Loggins said...

I think you are on to something. Ever see fat people in there 90's? Their all skin and bones. Thats' the secret.