I don’t know about you, but I love food! I love the simplicity and pure perfection of a fresh banana, the juiciness of a ripe tomato, and the new and wonderful flavors you can create by combining whole foods and various spices. Food is also one of our most powerful allies in the pursuit of good health. As Hippocrates once said,
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Of course, not all food is created equal. And if you’re healing your body from cancer – or just working to prevent it – the timing of your food intake may be almost as important as what’s on your plate. While most of us are familiar with the concept of fasting – abstaining from food and drink for a certain period of time – a technique known as “intermittent fasting” may be especially beneficial for those healing from cancer.
Usually a much easier adjustment for most people, intermittent fasting is basically adjusting your daily eating window to a chunk of time (usually six to eight hours), instead of spreading your meals throughout the day. The typical fast with this approach is about 18 hours (and often includes time you’re asleep), but the number of calories you consume remains the same. Typically used as a weight-loss technique, intermittent fasting has also been shown to battle chronic disease and even fight aging.
Fasting and Cancer
Fasting is nothing new. In fact, the practice has been part of medical recommendations and religious practices for centuries. But now we have scientific evidence to back up what we intuitively knew: Fasting can help the body rid itself of disease. One of the first major studies took place in 1945 and showed that intermittent fasting not only prolonged life but reduced the prevalence of breast cancer tumors in rats. Another more recent study in 2009 proved the practice can even reduce the severity of side effects due to high-dose chemotherapy.
So what’s going on here? How does simply moving food from one time of day to another really make that much difference? The answer lies in how the body and its cells react to what they perceive as “starvation mode.” Valter Longo, associate professor of gerontology and biology at USC, was part of the 2009 study. His study results were explained this way:
“In essence, these cells are waiting out the lean period, much like hibernating animals. But cancerous tumors respond differently to starvation; they do not stop growing, nor do they hibernate because their genetic pathways are stuck in an ‘on’ mode. Longo realized that the starvation response might differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells by their increased stress resistance and that healthy cells might withstand much more chemotherapy than cancer cells.”
A few years later, Longo also reported that fasting alone was enough to treat many types of cancer in mice. Because the body’s healthy cells were in this hibernation mode, the cancer cells tried to find other ways to divide and spread, without much success. As Longo explained,
“The cell is, in fact, committing cellular suicide. What we’re seeing is that the cancer cell tries to compensate for the lack of all these things missing in the blood after fasting. It may be trying to replace them, but it can’t.”
Of course, fasting is no magic bullet, nor is it appropriate for everyone. For those cancer patients who have already lost 10 percent of their body weight, or who have chronic diseases (such as diabetes), fasting could prove to be dangerous. Always consult your physician before beginning any fast. At Hope4Cancer, we work with each patient to plan a customized nutrition plan and will recommend fasting when it’s most appropriate.
Fasting and Prevention
For those trying to keep cancer at bay, intermittent fasting may improve your sensitivity to insulin and reduce your insulin resistance, which has been linked to several types of cancers. There’s also some evidence that fasting induces your body’s cells to begin the process of autophagy – including neuronal and general autophagy – to clean up cellular “garbage.”
While the scientific evidence on cancer prevention is still premature – and keep in mind the majority of clinical studies have been in animals, not humans – nevertheless there is some exciting evidence showing the potential!
Fasting and You
If you’re ready to try it, the first – and I think the largest – obstacle to overcome is mental. While you may be thinking, “There’s no way I can skip breakfast!” I assure you it’s easier than you think. Plus, a big dinner the night before will actually carry over pretty well into the next day.
There are actually many different types of schedules for intermittent fasting. One of the more popular is the Leangains model, which is named after Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com. I like it because it’s the same schedule every day, which makes adjusting to it quite easy:
Before you get started, remember it’s not wise to begin fasting if your diet still needs improvement. You want to make sure you’re consuming the right calories during your periods of eating. Finally, always listen to your body. Every body responds differently, so be aware of your energy levels and adjust accordingly. And those who are hypoglycemic, diabetic, pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid any kind of fasting.
Happy fasting in the 2016!