Even though fasting is an ancient practice, its popularity has resurfaced recently in a number of ways, from intermittent fasting to juice fasts to multi-day water fasts and beyond.
The recent resurgence of fasting can be attributed 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. These include improving brain health, boosting the immune system, resetting the palate, improving your relationship with food, and supporting spiritual growth.
Read on to learn more about these little-known health benefits of fasting.
Fasting Improves Brain Health
One physical benefit of fasting not commonly discussed is its proven ability to improve brain health. Even a single day of fasting has a profound impact on the brain by promoting the increase of natural growth factors.
Fasting increases the production of a protein in nerve cells called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF supports the survival and growth of neurons, 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 symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and reduce the overall likelihood of developing neurodegenerative disease.
Aside from the long-term brain health benefits, many people report clearer thinking, faster memory recall, and improved mood during a period of fasting. These palpable increases in cognition are why many entrepreneurs and leaders now 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 provide a reset the immune system.
Autophagy, a process that occurs during a fast, prompts the body to recycle damaged, problematic cells. Upon refeeding, healthy new 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, simply going without food boosts your body’s natural ability to fight off sickness and disease. Additionally, prolonged fasting lowers levels of IGF-1, a growth-factor hormone that has been 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
The patterns of over-consumption and unhealthy eating habits many people pick up over a lifetime cause our taste buds to be less sensitive.
When your taste buds are conditioned to expect over-processed, hyper-palatable foods, natural whole foods simply 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 the start, many people find it easier to break them with a fast and may simply 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, in today’s convenience, pre-packaged, fast food culture, we’re all feast and no famine.
With food essentially 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 3 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 patterns, as well as a total disconnection from what being hungry actually feels like.
We are, quite literally, addicted to eating. And terrified of being hungry.
Fasting can help reset these patterns, and help you cultivate a better relationship with food. One major realization that commonly occurs during a fast is that hunger doesn’t build up until it’s unbearable: It simply comes and goes, like a wave. Until you’ve gone an extended period without food, you don’t realize this. You’re simply a slave to your (often psychological) impulse to consume.
As you experience the ebb and flow of hunger throughout a prolonged fast, you also develop a sense of power over your hunger hormones, realizing that they do not in fact control you. Often times, you don't need to eat; you want to 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 truly 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, the root of all spirituality. So much of our day and mental space is consumed by food: From preparing it, to consuming 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 people find that the spiritual experience of a fast is enhanced with journaling, prayer, meditation, and time in nature. Some report an increased sensitivity to emotions, people, or places, vivid memories or dreams, and a greater connection to how things affect their energy.
And third, fasting allows you to meet your attachments to the eating experience face-to-face. Nowhere else does it become clearer how much of a distraction 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 lean on the distraction of food? It’s a very interesting question, indeed, and may shed light on many thoughts and feelings we can numb with food.
Overall, the spiritual experience of fasting is highly individual and will look and feel differently for everyone. But it’s a potent experience, nonetheless.
The benefits of fasting are multi-faceted, and extend across mind, body, and soul. Many of us initially turn to fasting as a means to improve physical health, but then become aware of its ability to support our vitality in a number of other profound ways.
While fasting can indeed benefit your physical goals through boosting the immune system, improving brain health, and resetting your palate for healthier foods, it can also support you in cultivating 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.
*Fasting is not recommended for everyone, especially those with diabetes, low blood pressure, or a history of eating disorders. Please consult your doctor before starting a fasting practice.