Watoga Park Foundation
The search for constant comfort
Hunger and Food
In 1820, a small town called Overkalix located in a remote part of Sweden experienced a crop failure, specifically potatoes. As usual, during these intermittent famines, the people had very little to eat. They rationed their foodstuffs so that each citizen had only 20% of the food available to them in non-famine years.
A few of the townspeople would die of malnutrition, but most survived on the severe rations.
These occasional famines resulted in something good, very good. Not necessarily for the people who suffered through the famine but for the descendants of a distinct group of the survivors.
Overkalix is unique because the village church has kept meticulous records of the citizens for hundreds of years. The parish recorded not only births, deaths and marriages, but the cause of death of every citizen. The records included heart disease, brain disease, drowning, cancer, influenza, pneumonia – you name it.
So when a researcher from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden searching for familial patterns in high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases heard about Overkalix, he knew he had found a gold mine of information.
What the researcher discovered was nothing short of incredible.
It turned out that boys between the ages of nine and 12 would pass on genetic modifications to their children. Genetic changes that were imposed by hunger.
In this case, the changes were to the sperm of boys just entering puberty when the genetics of their sperm was developing. These modifications affected the boy’s offspring by increasing their longevity up to 30 years beyond expectations.
In addition to increased longevity, the descendants had much fewer cardiac disease cases, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. Once again, we see that environmental stressors often initiate survival modes that result in dramatic health benefits for multiple generations.
And, as mentioned in last week’s article, we are not totally at the mercy of our DNA. How we live our life can affect gene expression, not just for our children but within our own lifespan.
Now, we will move on to two methods of harnessing the body’s ability to respond to adversity in a positive way. But a word of caution is called for.
We should all have a healthy skepticism of fad diets and exercise regimens; they come, and they go. The promoters tend to exaggerate their benefits, and few offer any real scientific research to back up their claims.
Fasting and cold therapy are in the initial stages of research. Long-term studies on humans in these types of research are challenging, but rodent studies are quite promising.
Beyond that, there is a lot of human anecdotal support that the findings in animal studies will translate to humans.
But at what point does anecdotal evidence become scientific data?
For most scientists, “never” is the party line answer. Yet, if enough people are injured or die in a specific year, make and model of a vehicle, it strongly suggests that the vehicle may have an inherent safety problem that should be investigated.
My point in discussing the following two health strategies is not to suggest that you actually try them. Instead, I want you to have an appreciation of our body’s marvelous systems to repair damage and prevent diseases when faced with certain stressors like hunger and exposure to cold.
Fasting and Cold Therapy have hazards associated with them and should only be tried after consulting with your doctor. Likewise, qualified instruction is highly recommended.
References to fasting are found throughout the Christian Bible. In fact, fasting is practiced in every one of the world’s major religions.
Fasting as an adjunct to better health has had a slow start in the West. However, it was practiced for secular reasons as far back as the early Greeks, and possibly even earlier in China.
Here in the U.S., it has been widely practiced as a method of rapidly losing weight, generally as part of a prescribed diet. There are many permutations of fasting, and we will examine a couple of them.
A friend completed a 28-day fast, drinking only water. Bev described her experience this way: “The first few days required commitment but after the fifth day it became shockingly easy. I still had hunger pains but no desire whatsoever to eat.”
Most fasting regimens are not as extreme as the 28-day fast that Bev endured. But as for the benefits, she said, “By the end of my 28 days, I no longer had gut issues, arthritis or sinus issues. And the medication I took for my thyroid condition was cut in half. I think that I actually felt my body healing itself. It was an amazing experience.”
Many people report these kinds of results, and it may confirm the healing effects of stressing your body.
Intermittent fasting is currently a popular way to fast that gets results but doesn’t require the longer-period, zero-calorie commitment. If you search for intermittent fasting plans online, you will find a range of methods that require periods of fasting interspersed with periods when you can eat.
I have embarked on an intermittent fasting plan called the 16/8 Method. I feel that if I am going to write about fasting, I should try it out myself.
My fast for the next two weeks consists of fasting a straight 16 hours of my choice and eating meals during an 8-hour window. I opted for a fasting period from 5 p.m. each day until 9 a.m. of the next. I plan to eat a regular diet on the first week, and a 25% calorie-restricted diet on the next.
I really don’t know what to expect but I am secretly hoping for the restoration of a full head of hair at the conclusion of my fast!
Of course, the key to success in any of these fasting plans is to trigger the utilization of body fat by setting in motion a physiological response to what the body perceives as a condition of famine.
Most importantly, any significant and sudden modification of your diet should be in the direction of “real food.” Something Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, defines as food that your grandmother would recognize as food. Not the highly processed foods that make up the bulk of many Western diets.
If you are considering fasting, you should always start by discussing it with your doctor. The same goes for a radical change in diet. For example, many healthy diets include the consumption of plant seeds and tree nuts, which would be disastrous for those with certain nut allergies.
Periods with little or no food are something that our ancestors experienced regularly. Nature is fickle when it comes to food availability for both man and nearly all other forms of life.
Our DNA reflects the adversity imposed upon us due to the millions of years that we survived as hunter-gatherers through feast, famine and ice ages.
Even after humans entered into the agricultural age some 12,000 years ago, it was not a certainty that crops would always be successful.
Once we became dependent on domesticated plants for food we were at the mercy of droughts, pestilence, weather and plant diseases. There is no guarantee of eternal sustenance, even today.
Research does confirm that we can trick our body into initiating physiological mechanisms to protect us. There is growing evidence that the same agencies can also extend our longevity.
A 1935 study at Cornell University demonstrated that laboratory rats fed a diet of 25% indigestible cellulose (cardboard), had considerably longer lives than the control group eating a full diet.
This early experiment was an indication that staying right at the edge of hunger promoted longevity. Many more studies followed with the same results – hunger, not starvation or malnutrition, stimulated defense systems in the body that resulted in increased lifespans.
Longevity researcher David Sinclair Ph.D., at Harvard Medical School, describes the mechanics of improved health and longevity through fasting as, “Calorie restriction engaging the survival circuit, telling longevity genes to do what they have been doing since primordial times: boost cellular defenses, keep organisms alive during times of adversity, ward off diseases, minimize (negative) epigenetic changes, and slow down aging.”
Bottom line: If there is one strategy proven to increase longevity, it is eating “real” food and less of it.
I have purposely saved the most outrageous method of boosting our health and longevity for last.
Next week’s issue of the Watoga Trail Report will examine, probably with incredulity, something called Cold Therapy. The hardy and brave folks who participate in this method of stimulating physiological survival responses for the sake of their health are definitely on the radical fringe.
Tune in next week when we will take a 10-minute dip in ice-cold water so that we can live longer. And please, don’t try this at home.
A special thanks to Bev Ressler for sharing her experience with fasting.
All citations at the conclusion of the final episode.