Eat your veggies. Stay away from sugar. Avoid eating fast food. Increase your consumption of fish. When discussing heart disease prevention, we often refer to foods we should avoid and those we should consume more. However, what if refraining from eating altogether is the key to a healthy heart?
Fasting is a craze that has taken over social media and fitness magazines. Celebrities and health practitioners alike tout the benefits of time-restricted eating. From weight loss to lowering disease risk, fasting claims to provide miraculous benefits. But can fasting reverse heart disease? Indeed, fasting is an incredible hack for heart health.
What is fasting?
While there is a lot of recent hype around fasting, the practice itself is as ancient as our original ancestors. Evolutionarily, our Paleolithic ancestors naturally practiced fasting, likely going days between successful hunts. For many religions, fasting is an integral part of worship and a way to strengthen faith. Even the father of medicine, Hippocrates, recommended fasting as far back as the 5th century BC.
Fasting, also referred to as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, is the abstinence from food (and sometimes drink) for a determined amount of time. Fasting is done for various reasons, including health, religious, ceremonial, and ethical purposes.
Intuitively, fasting makes sense. Biologically, humans live according to a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour internal clock that adjusts according to the sun. Therefore, consuming food during the daytime is naturally when our digestive systems are primed to work. Those who sleep with the sun break our fast in the morning, hence the name breakfast.
What happens to cells during fasting?
Food is essential to life. All body parts, from the brain to the muscles to the heart, need energy to work. The food we eat provides the fuel required to perform our bodily functions.
The body derives energy from two primary sources: fat and glucose (carbohydrates). After food intake, our bodies immediately use the glucose needed for energy. If we consume more glucose than is needed, insulin will help store the excess amount in the liver or muscles to use at a later time. It does this by turning the extra energy into larger particles of glucose called glycogen. Excess glucose in the body is typically stored as fat.
The exact opposite happens when our bodies go for prolonged periods without eating. Insulin levels fall and signal the body to use stored fats as energy. The body first uses glycogen in the liver, and then fat reserves are broken down to fuel the body’s needs.
If enough time goes by without food, causing a drop in glucose and insulin, the body activates autophagy. Autophagy means “self-eating” and refers to the process by which old cells are destroyed and new ones develop. When cells are deprived of nutrients during fasting, they are forced to find other energy sources, and autophagy is one such way. The hungry cells digest damaged cellular components, providing the energy they need to survive. Autophagy is a normal biological process constantly occurring in the body, but fasting speeds up the process.
How does fasting affect the heart?
Normally, the body is fueled by carbohydrates and glucose. However, during fasting, the body switches from using glucose to using ketones for fuel. As insulin levels drop, the liver releases ketones from the breakdown of fats. Ketones are a superfood for the heart, and studies show that failing hearts need ketone bodies to survive. In other words, if your heart is damaged, it benefits significantly from the availability of ketones.
The benefits of fasting for heart health are numerous. First, fasting improves the health of the lining of the blood vessels. This increased endothelial function helps the blood to flow more smoothly throughout the body. In turn, the arteries become less stiff, lowering the risk of atherosclerosis.
Studies show that fasting lowers chronic inflammation. As inflammation is a driving force of cardiac disease, it stands to reason that lowering inflammation reduces the risk of cardiovascular problems. Research shows that fasting significantly reduces inflammation markers, including c-reactive protein (CRP). While the mechanisms by which fasting lowers inflammation are not entirely clear, a 2021 study found that fasting may increase a key protein that controls inflammation in the body.
Fasting helps to reduce numerous risk factors that lead to heart disease, such as elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity. For example, a 2020 study found that women who ate only within a 10-hour window saw their blood pressure and cholesterol levels fall. They also experienced fewer blood sugar spikes.
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the body lead to hardening arteries and an increased risk of heart disease. However, fasting has been shown to improve lipid levels. Not only does fasting lower total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides, but it also increases LDL particle size and HDL numbers.
Restricting how often we eat may even prolong life. A recent study of over 2000 people who had undergone a cardiac catheterization procedure found that those who regularly fasted had a 50 percent lower mortality rate than those who ate freely. Using the same data, scientists saw a 71 percent lower rate of heart failure in fasting subjects.
Other heart-related benefits of fasting include:
- Increased heart rate variability
- Decreased oxidative stress
- Improved mitochondrial health
- Decreased insulin resistance
- Stimulates weight loss
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers resting heart rate
While fasting is an excellent way to prevent heart disease, it also works to reverse it. Studies show that autophagy can digest cholesterol accumulating in the artery walls. As a result, heart disease can be stopped and even reversed by giving the body time to heal during fasting.
Types of fasting
There are many different ways to fast for heart health. Fasting is not a diet. Instead, it’s a pattern of eating that involves abstaining from food for a set amount of time. Those who practice intermittent fasting cycle between periods of refraining from eating and periods of unrestricted eating.
One of the most common fasts is a juice or water fast. These fasts restrict intake to only healthy green juice or water for a specified period.
Minimally, everyone should practice intermittent fasting for at least 12 hours daily. This means that eating stops at a specific time in the evening and only resumes 12 hours later. So, for example, if dinner ends by 7:00 pm, breakfast does not happen before 7:00 am.
Other popular fasting methods include:
|16/8 Method||The most popular type of intermittent fasting, this method involves eating during an eight-hour timeframe and spending the other 16 hours consuming only water, black coffee, and herbal tea. |
The timing of this fast is entirely customizable based on preference and lifestyle. Most people start this fast after eating dinner. Then, they skip breakfast and eat their first meal at lunch.
This fast is typically done each and every day.
|Wake up until noon Drink plenty of water and herbal tea; 1-2 cups of black coffee as tolerated|
12:00 pm – First meal of the day
4:00 pm – Healthy, hearty snack
7:00 pm – Dinner
8:00 pm – All eating ends; continue to hydrate
|20/4 Method||This type of intermittent fasting is often done by a more experienced faster. During this fast, individuals eat during a four-hour timeframe. For example, a person fasting under the 20/4 method might have a late lunch at 3:00 pm and eat a reasonable dinner at 7:00 pm.||Wake up until 3:00 pm Drink plenty of water and herbal tea; 1-2 cups of black coffee as tolerated|
3:00 pm – First meal
5:00 pm – Healthy snack
7:00 pm – Dinner
8:00 pm – All eating ends; continue to hydrate
|23/1 Method||This extreme fasting method is also referred to as one-meal-a-day (OMAD). Individuals using this method restrict daily eating to a one-hour window each day.||Wake up until 3:00 pm Drink plenty of water and herbal tea; 1-2 cups of black coffee as tolerated|
3:00 pm – First meal
4:00 pm – All eating ends; continue to hydrate
|24 hour fast||A full-day fast is done intermittently, usually once a week or less. |
In this technique, individuals fast for a full 24 hours, only consuming water and other healthy non-caloric beverages.
|6:00 pm- Last meal of the day|
Wake up until 6:00 pm Drink plenty of water and herbal tea; 1-2 cups of black coffee as tolerated
6:00 pm – First meal of the day
|36 hour fast||This is the most effective fast, but should only be attempted by experienced fasters under the supervision of a doctor.||6:00 pm – Last meal of the day|
Nothing to eat the entire following day
6:00 am – Break the fast with a healthy greens drink, followed by breakfast.
Common pitfalls of fasting
Fasting is incredibly beneficial, but only as part of an overall healthy eating plan. Many individuals who fast choose to “reward” themselves by eating unhealthy food. However, this negates any possible benefits of fasting.
The key to intermittent fasting success is consuming organic, whole foods during your eating window. When resuming food consumption, it should be eaten mindfully and slowly, with the mindset of nurturing your body for health.
Five tips for a successful fast
The most crucial aspect of a successful fast is finding the appropriate balance between persisting through discomfort while listening carefully to your body. As the body detoxifies through fasting, many unpleasant side effects may occur. Inexperienced fasters may notice low energy, irritability, temperature sensitivity, persistent hunger, and decreased work and activity performance.
If you are someone who has eaten frequently throughout the day for the past 50 years, taking breaks in your food consumption could come as quite a shock to your body. Therefore, it’s imperative to begin fasting on a day with low responsibility so that you can take breaks if needed. Other helpful tips for fasting include
Believe it or not, fasting creates stress in the body. Studies show that fasting can increase cortisol levels in the body as the body tries to understand why it’s not getting food as frequently as usual.
Fasting on low-stress days is essential for success. Choose a non-work day and plan on rewarding yourself with easy activities such as reading a book, listening to a podcast, meditating, sitting in the sunshine, or going for a light walk.
Hydration is always vital, especially when fasting. Humans get much of their hydration through food. Since you will not be eating, you must obtain that water elsewhere.
Additionally, the body needs fluids to flush the toxins from the body. So be sure that the water you drink is high quality, free of chemicals, and that you drink at least 1.5 gallons per day.
- Get a massage
Massages are a great way to get the lymph flowing in our bodies, which helps to move toxins out of the body. It’s also an incredible way to reward yourself for caring for your body.
- Get enough sleep
Getting enough quality sleep is important regardless of your fasting status. However, during times of food restriction, it becomes even more vital. The body does much work during fasting, so providing it with sleep is essential. Interestingly, studies show that intermittent fasting may improve sleep quality.
- Replace electrolytes
Fasting can be risky for cardiovascular patients if they don’t get enough electrolytes. Having the right balance of electrolytes ensures the electrical system of our hearts functions smoothly. Consider adding a high-quality salt to your water or using an electrolyte powder, such as Electrolyte Balance.
Fasting is a powerful and often under-utilized tool for reversing heart disease. It’s a fast, easy, and cost-effective way to help your body heal.
If you are interested in fasting but feel apprehensive about starting, consider a free 20-minute health coaching strategy call. Our experienced team members will listen to your concerns and provide initial guidance to point you in the right direction. Remember, the power to reverse heart disease is literally in your hands.
Medical Review: Dr. Jack Wolfson, 2023