Thanks to a number of promising mouse research studies*, the link between fasting and cancer has been called to attention, with fasting being explored more and more as a potential healing technique. Although research for humans is currently minimal, fasting has been used as a way to improve health for centuries, dating back even to biblical times. To understand if and how fasting can complement your healing program, we first must understand what fasting does to the human body, and how fasting and cancer relate.
The Science Behind Fasting
Our bodies derive energy from three sources: carbs, fats, and proteins. Inside the body, carbs are broken down into glucose, simple sugar molecules that circulate the bloodstream for immediate energy use. Any excess sugar is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle matter as an easy-to-access deposit for future energy needs.
Fats and proteins, on the other hand, produce a cleaner energy source, but can only be utilized when carbohydrate reserves are completely exhausted. By periodically abstaining from food for 14-16 hours, a process known as intermittent fasting (IF), patients can help healthy cells tap into these clean reserves while systematically weakening cancer cells.
During the first few hours of fasting, the amount of glucose available in the bloodstream drastically lowers. While both cancerous and healthy cells use glucose as their primary source of energy, cancer cells require significantly more and respond differently when deprived of sugar. Healthy cells enter an initial “hibernation” mode, while cancer cells exhaust themselves continuing to search for an energy source.
Around the 8-hour mark of fasting, free circulating glucose will be depleted and the body will resort to those easy-access glycogen stores. Only after 12 hours, the body starts to burn fats and produce ketones, an alternative energy source that cancer cells can’t process.
While refraining from eating is not a long-term solution, short periods of fasting aid the body’s metabolic processes and can produce a number of health benefits throughout the body. In addition to weakening diseased cells, intermittent fasting has been shown to:
- Accelerate weight loss
- Reduce oxidative stress
- Remove toxins
- Preserve lean muscle mass
- Reduce cholesterol levels
- Balance insulin and leptin levels
- Improve endorphin levels
- Decrease binge-eating/cravings
- Improve growth hormone levels
- Stimulate gut regeneration
- Promote longevity
- Reduce inflammation
- Stimulate immune system cells
Furthermore, intermittent fasting helps the body induce autophagy, a natural process in which damaged cells self-destruct and cellular components are reused for new, properly functioning cells.
“Think of it as our body’s innate recycling program,” says Dr. Colin Champ, M.D., a radiation oncologist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Autophagy makes us more efficient machines to get rid of faulty parts, stop cancerous growths, and stop metabolic dysfunction like obesity and diabetes.”
Risks of Fasting
It’s important to note that any fasting should be taken under the guidance of a qualified nutritionist and monitored for progress or regression. If nutrition and fasting is a stressful undertaking, the cost will outweigh the benefits. Every individual has specific dietary needs that vary, and for patients with advanced disease who may already be depleted of energy, the priority must be to build up the body before beginning a fasting program. No matter what your diagnosis, the possibility of enhanced risks and diminished benefits should always be considered.
Potential risks of fasting include:
- Increase in stress levels
- Disrupted sleep
- May trigger eating disorders/binge-eating
- Lack of optimal nutrient consumption
Fasting is potentially dangerous for individuals with emotional or psychological eating disorders, and particularly risky for individuals who are underweight, under 18, pregnant, recovering from surgery, or have type I diabetes.
Fasting and Spirituality
At this point, we can understand the physical effects of fasting, but what about the spiritual? At Hope4Cancer, we treat cancer as the physical expression of underlying emotional, mental, or spiritual struggles, so how does fasting affect these roots?
Fasting affects each facet of our body, soul, and spirit, and is in fact a common practice in many religions. From a biblical perspective, fasting isn’t about diet, but rather an expression of our hunger for God above all things. Bypassing food is a method of self-discipline that allows us to detach from physical requirements and focus more energy in prayer, drawing us closer to spiritual clarity.
If you are considering a fast, we encourage you to let your decision be guided by the Holy Spirit. Listen to your intuition when deciding if fasting is right for you or whether it is the right time for your body to undertake. If for medical reasons you cannot fast, consider abstaining from something else to spend more time seeking God. Many patients choose to fast from coffee, or even non-food related things, such as TV and digital devices.
Final Tips for Fasting
Only when we combine the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of our being can we truly heal completely. Fasting has the unique ability to span across each of these dimensions in the healing process. If you feel that fasting resonates with your body and you are able to safely fast under the guidance of a medical practitioner, we leave you with a few final fasting tips:
- Plan your fast ahead of time
- Consider your schedule
- Tell only the people you must
- Wean yourself off caffeine
- Disconnect from distractions
- Beware of your emotions
- Get ample rest
- Keep yourself physically active
- Practice being still
- Focus on God!
*mouse study source here