It is the year of 1917; the First World War is still going on. Army doctor Otto Buchinger is just 40 years of age when an ailment almost totally immobilises him. He has to walk with a stick. Every bit of movement causes him pain. Nothing seems to ease the heavy rheumatism he is suffering from.

Finally, Buchinger decides on a radical cure: strict fasting. ‘After 19 days I was thin’, he wrote later. ‘But I could move all my joints again like a young man.’ A Eureka moment. Soon, numerous people seeking help made the pilgrimage to Buchinger’s therapeutic fasting clinic in Witzenhausen / Hesse.

Just an accident? Or a promotionally effective myth? Never mind. The Buchinger cure has survived all other natural medicine fashions since. Today, it is still one of the most popular methods of temporary foodstuff abstinence, together with the F. X. Mayr method and the relatively young method of intermittent fasting.

In 2019 – before the Corona virus temporarily overshadowed all other health issues – ‘fasting’ was the most-googled health term in the USA. One reason for the hype might be the perceived need to do something against all those additional pounds we carry around. But that is not all: Scientific research has given the trend towards temporary abstinence some tailwind.

Current research suggests that the experience of fasting pioneer Buchinger is no isolated case. Studies indicate numerous cases where foodstuff abstinence has more effects than just the shedding of a few pounds. Positive effects have been discovered not just with rheumatism, but also with other chronic inflammations and pain, with migraine and multiple sclerosis.

In a large-scale study, a team led by dietary expert Dr Françoise Wilhelmi de Toledo researched the data of over 1,400 people on foodstuff abstinence. With 84 per cent, severe health problems like arthritis, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure or severe fatigue receded. But why can hunger cure ailments?

Species-Appropriate Diet

Dr Matthias Riedl, a Hamburg-based expert on nutritional medicine, has a simple explanation: fasting is a part of human nature. ‘It is a part of our species-appropriate diet.’ Meat and dairy products every day, with sweets and salty snacks in top. Up to ten meals a day – never before in the history of mankind has our diet been that way. Meal skipping and even longer breaks from food intake would have been the reality instead.

‘The body was perfectly adjusted to that’, says Riedl. If we consume too little energy, our body automatically switches to an alternative energy programme. After a little over a day, the sugar store in our liver is used up. Next are the fat stores. The problem: The brain needs sugar. Our liver thus metabolises fatty acids into an alternative fuel that our head can also work on: ketones, acetone amongst them. Fasting people breathe out some of those, hence the sometimes-sour smell.

New Brain Cells Grow

The brain benefits from the sugar break. There are indications that fasting may prevent dementia. It is proven that it encourages the growth of new brain cells.

The rest of the body also benefits if you take a holiday from abundance. Usually, our everyday diet with plenty of sugars and easily digested carbohydrates drives up the insulin in our body. ‘There are hardly any breaks where the level gets significantly lower’, says Riedl. But the hormone does not only regulate our blood sugar levels. It also leads to energy being stored as fat. If the insulin level is permanently high, overweight is the likely consequence. Especially abdominal fat is a problem, as it has a negative impact on our metabolism and abets inflammations.

If the body is overweight, our cells react less and less to the messenger insulin. That leads to lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure, chronic inflammations and fat metabolism disorder are also more likely. Fasting is a good strategy against all that. Experts call it a ‘metabolism reset’.

The body gets reset to its default position. ‘It looks as if we need the phases of hunger to stay healthy’, Riedl suggests. But as with every therapy, foodstuff abstinence is not for all. If you are underweight or have to fight an eating disorder, you should not fast. Also, children, pregnant women and people with gout or gallstones should abstain from abstaining. Generally, you should see your general practitioner before embarking on temporary foodstuff abstinence, especially if you have prior ailments.

Generally, people with type 1 diabetes are recommended not to fast. The metabolism might derail, it is said. But a new study could be good news for diabetes sufferers with a wish to fast: Dr Bettina Berger is in charge of the research group ‘integrative type 1 diabetology’ at the University of Witten/Herdecke. She and her team supervised 20 people suffering from type 1 diabetes on a week of fasting. Their blood sugar level was good. ‘Weight and mood benefitted’, Berger summarises. However, she adds, type 1 diabetes sufferers should not fast unsupervised.

Professor Andreas Michalsen has been fasting regularly since his childhood. His father, also a doctor of natural medicine, ate wheat germs only for one day a week – and did not miss other foodstuff. Today, Andreas Michalsen is head of the Section for Natural Medicine at the Immanuel Hospital in Berlin. He offers foodstuff abstinence as a treatment, and he is also considered one of Germany’s leading authorities on fasting.

He likes to show new patients a chart with all the changes occurring in the body during the abstinence. ‘The great orchestra that is our metabolism changes into a different key, so to speak.’ The layperson might not fully understand the complicated chart. ‘But everybody understands that there is no point in boosting just one element artificially’, says Michalsen. If you are fasting, however, you become the conductor of the whole metabolism orchestra.

Research on one process enforced by fasting was even worth a Nobel Prize in 2016: The Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the honour for enhancing our understanding of autophagy, which might be translated as self-devourment.

It might sound threatening to hear that cells have the inclination to auto-digest. However, they only devour their cell waste, be it faultily generated proteins, used-up cell modules, or even viruses and bacteria that managed to enter the cell. The waste is stored inside the cell, waiting to be recycled. If that does not happen, the cell eventually stops to function properly, ages prematurely and dies. If the system of autophagy weakens, in older age for example, the risk gets higher for various diseases, including cancer.

The Waste Removal Inside the Cells

‘Fasting definitely stimulates this scrap recycling called autophagy’, says Michalsen. That somehow reminds one of an old natural medicine idea: detoxification. Scientific medicine has always rejected the idea. ‘Our metabolism does not produce waste products that can be done away with by fasting’, Michalsen confirms. And no amounted toxins are washed out of the body by detox cures, either. Nevertheless, ‘scrap recycling’ would be the appropriate term from a scientific viewpoint, he insists.

If you want to declutter your cells properly in a stylish environment, you could travel to Lake Constance. Dr Eva Lischka has lost track of the number of patients she has supported in their fasting cure. The doctor for preventive medicine and naturopathic treatment is chairwoman of the German Medical Association of Fasting and Nutrition.

She has been working at the Buchinger Wilhelmi fasting clinic in Überlingen for 14 years. At the clinic, which is responsible for many studies on fasting, she has seen type 2 diabetes patients who succeeded in fasting away their ailment, so to speak. Chronic pain patients, who were able to sleep properly again after the treatment.

The Beginning of an Easier Life

And many people who used fasting to fight a deep mental fatigue. ‘Initially, that is hard. You are at rock-bottom, and then your food is taken away on top of that’, Lischka describes. But after two or three days, most people experience a turn for the better. They feel strengthened. Some even experience a ‘fasting high’: a feeling of exhilarant mental clarity. That is probably one of the reasons why fasting has a place in so many world religions. It leads to mental contemplation and opens up the mind.

The reason for this high is probably the hormone serotonin. In terms of evolutionary biology, such a hormonal kick is rather useful. If you are exhausted due to a longer period of lacking food, your stomach stays empty. But nevertheless, your mood remains upbeat. ‘It’s like switching on the light’, says Lischka, who is fasting on a regular basis.

This mood switch is probably one of the reasons why therapeutic fasting – unlike most weight-loss diets – is not followed by the yoyo effect from weight-loss to rapid weight-gain. The main reason for that effect: If you reduce your energy intake rapidly, the body switches into an energy-saving mode that remains intact for a while even after the diet. You need less calories. If you begin to eat like before the diet, you regain the lost pounds and kilogrammes very rapidly.

When you engage in therapeutic fasting, your body also switches into an energy-saving mode. But while most people return to their usual chips and pizza diet after a week of cabbage, fasting is more than just temporary self-control. ‘You change your attitude to food’, says Lischka.

Afterwards, foodstuff tastes more intensively. You eat with more awareness. The mood high also makes it easier to change your dieting habits for good. Even if weight loss is only a by-product of fasting, as experts always emphasise: Fasting is often the beginning of an easier, healthier, and also more conscious life.

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