Although fasting is an ancient practice, its popularity has resurfaced recently: from intermittent fasting to juice fasts to multi-day water fasts and beyond.
We can attribute the resurgence of fasting to a litany of new research on its ability to improve body composition, gut health, metabolic health, and support disease prevention.
However, there are also many lesser-known yet equally fascinating benefits of fasting.
- Resetting the palate
- Improving brain health
- Supporting spiritual growth
- Boosting the immune system
- Improving your relationship with food
Read on to learn more about these little-known health benefits of fasting.
Caution: Fasting is not for everyone, especially those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, under the age of 18, or those that have diabetes, low blood pressure, or a history of eating disorders. Please consult your doctor before starting a fasting practice.
The Health Benefits of Fasting
Fasting Improves Brain Health
One physical benefit of fasting not commonly discussed is its ability to improve brain health. Even one day of fasting can have a profound impact on the brain.
Fasting increases the production of a protein in nerve cells called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) . BDNF supports neurons’ survival and growth and plays a critical role in overall brain health, memory, learning, and cognitive function.
Fasting also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and brain, which has been linked to a reduction in brain-related diseases.
Although the science is new, animal studies suggest that fasting can improve Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s symptoms and reduce the overall likelihood of developing neurodegenerative disease .
Aside from long-term brain health benefits, many people report clearer thinking, faster memory recall, and improved mood while fasting.
These brain-boosting benefits are why many hard-charging high achievers swear by daily intermittent fasting as a way to increase productivity and creativity.
Fasting Can Boost the Immune System
According to a study by the University of Southern California, fasting for as little as three days can reset the immune system .
Autophagy, a process that occurs during a fast, prompts the body to recycle damaged, unhealthy cells. Upon refeeding, healthy stem cells are created, causing a surge of new white blood cells: The immune system’s line of defense against both infectious disease and foreign invaders.
In other words, going without food boosts your body’s natural ability to fight off sickness and disease.
Additionally, prolonged fasting lowers IGF-1, a growth-factor hormone linked to aging, tumor progression, and cancer risk .
Fasting effectively flips the “regenerative switch”, so your body can focus on deep healing.
Fasting Helps Reset Your Palate
Over-consumption and unhealthy eating habits cause our taste buds to be less sensitive.
When your taste buds expect over-processed, hyper-palatable foods, natural whole foods can’t compete.
Highly refined sugars found in most processed foods, for example, over-stimulate the taste buds to the point where the natural sugars in fruit no longer satisfy a sweet tooth.
However, fasting has the incredible ability to completely reset the palate. You could say it allows you to start with a “blank canvas of flavor”.
Additionally, fasting provides a jumping-off point for starting a healthier diet. By using the post-fast opportunity to make better food choices, you’re more likely to enjoy the taste of real, unprocessed foods.
A fast can also serve as a physical and mental reset that gives you the space to ditch toxic habits, such as addictions to caffeine or sugar.
While deeply-rooted addictions can make the fasting experience more difficult at first, many people find it easier to break them with a fast and may lose cravings all together upon reintroducing food. When you’re abstaining from food completely, it’s much simpler and easier to ditch the unhealthy food, too.
Fasting Can Improve Your Relationship with Food
Unlike our ancestors, we’re all feast and no famine in today’s convenient, pre-packaged, fast-food culture.
With food perpetually at our fingertips (ahem, DoorDash anyone?), eating has gone from a means of survival to an everyday occurrence we often take for granted.
In addition to generally over-consuming, we have also managed to entangle food with socializing, emotions, boredom, and ingrained habits that go far beyond survival.
Since fasting is no longer a part of our natural cycle, many people haven’t experienced a day without food in their entire lives.
This primes us to buy into beliefs like “you must eat 3-6 meals per day” or “you cannot survive without food for more than three days”. We conform to social norms like “it’s rude not to eat your auntie’s cake”, “ice cream or chocolate will make you feel better if you’re sad”, and the newer motto of “treat yourself”.
These beliefs have led many people to develop toxic eating habits that have alienated us from the sensation of hunger.
We are, quite literally, addicted to eating and terrified of being hungry. Fasting can break these patterns and help you cultivate a better relationship with food.
One significant realization that commonly occurs during a fast is that hunger isn't as bad as you fear it to be: It merely comes and goes, like a wave. Until you’ve gone an extended period without food, you don’t realize this. You’re a slave to your (often psychological) impulse to consume.
As you experience the ebb and flow of hunger throughout a prolonged fast, you will develop a sense of power over your hunger hormones, realizing that they do not control you.
You become aware that your desire to eat is often not a biological imperative but a craving for stimulation. And with this awareness comes the power to choose when and why you eat.
And when you do eat again after a fast, you appreciate food so much more. You don’t take it for granted. You’re genuinely grateful for every bite.
*Fasting is not recommended for those with a history of eating disorders.
Fasting Can Be a Foundation for Spiritual Growth
Fasting has been used in almost all religions for physical purification and spiritual growth.
Spirituality is a deeply personal experience, and fasting helps promote growth in this area in several ways.
First, fasting is a method to care for your body and promote physical health and vitality. It’s a practice that allows you to honor the value and divinity of the human vessel.
Secondly, fasting provides time and space to look inwards and focus on self-awareness.
So much of our day and mental space is consumed by food: From preparing it, to eating it, and then not long after starting to wonder when the next meal is.
Having a block of time where you know food isn’t on the agenda offers time and space to focus on self-reflection.
Many find that practices like journaling, prayer, meditation, and time in nature have a more meaningful impact during a fast. Others experience a heightened sensitivity to emotions, people, places, memories, and dreams. And most report a greater awareness of how things affect their energy.
Third, fasting allows you to confront your unhealthy eating habits head on.
Nowhere else does it become apparent how distracting the obsession with food can be than during an extended fast. We eat when we’re bored. We eat when we’re depressed. We eat to celebrate.
What do we do when we can no longer distract ourselves with food? Indeed, it’s a powerful question and invites us to explore parts of our lives that are dominated by unconscious impulses.
Overall, the spiritual experience of fasting is highly individual and will look and feel differently for everyone. But it’s a rich and worthwhile experience, nonetheless.
Many of us initially turn to fasting to improve physical health but then become aware of its ability to support our vitality in many other profound ways.
While fasting can indeed benefit your physical goals by boosting the immune system, improving brain health, and resetting your palate for healthier foods, it can also help you cultivate a better relationship with food altogether. Not only that, fasting can be an incredibly spiritual experience that brings you greater self-awareness, frees you from attachments to food, and connects you to a higher purpose and sense of meaning.
And best of all: The practice of fasting is free, simple, and accessible to nearly everyone.
Mattson, Mark P. “Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: a neurobiological perspective.” Annual review of nutrition vol. 25 (2005): 237-60. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.25.050304.092526
Halagappa, VKM, Guo, Z, Pearson, M, Matsuoka, Y, Cutler, RG, LaFerla, FM & Mattson, MP 2007, 'Intermittent fasting and caloric restriction ameliorate age-related behavioral deficits in the triple-transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease', Neurobiology of Disease, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 212-220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbd.2006.12.019
Duan, W, and M P Mattson. “Dietary restriction and 2-deoxyglucose administration improve behavioral outcome and reduce degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in models of Parkinson's disease.” Journal of neuroscience research vol. 57,2 (1999): 195-206. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4547(19990715)57:2<195::AID-JNR5>3.0.CO;2-P
Wu, Suzanne. “Fasting Triggers Stem Cell Regeneration of Damaged, Old Immune System.” USC News, 5 Feb. 2018, news.usc.edu/63669/fasting-triggers-stem-cell-regeneration-of-damaged-old-immune-system/.
Straus, D S, and C D Takemoto. “Effect of fasting on insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and growth hormone receptor mRNA levels and IGF-I gene transcription in rat liver.” Molecular endocrinology (Baltimore, Md.) vol. 4,1 (1990): 91-100. doi:10.1210/mend-4-1-91
What is the best practice of fasting, drinking what besides lots of water, what vitamins would you take. Thank you
Kathy Stansberry on
Once again thoughtful well researched important health information…very appreciated.
George V Ohanesian on
Thank you for all that you do Ben!! You are an inspiration to me, and I can’t wait to meet you one day. I love to hear about the beneficial ways that we can all become stronger, healthier, and well-rounded ultimate humans.
chad rod on