Who wants to live forever?
It’s day 4 of 5 in the big faster house and I’m starving. Whose dumb idea was this anyway? I watch Donna keenly as she weighs out oats, muesli and amaranth, the latest ingredient we’ve added, a trick to make it look bigger without any real calorie bulge. This is then blended with too little oat milk and a small dollop of full fat yoghurt, a tiny indulgence in my otherwise grey world of not enough food. Donna’s is bigger than mine, it must be because my bowl is half empty. It’s not. Unfortunately, half a bowl is what 400 calories looks like of the 800 I’m going to devour too quickly today.
It’s all my fault
I have to take full responsibility for my action. I borrowed a couple of books. the fast 800, by Dr Michael Mosley, you know the BBC presenter, writer and diagnosed TOFI, thin on the outside, fat on the inside and The Longevity Diet, Dr Valter Longo, a world expert on how to live healthily for longer. He has made it his business to explore and study world communities who live long lives without losing their physical or mental capacities. What I like about both books is the cornerstone of their arguments are based on science fact not fiction.
The history of fasting
The Greek physician, Hippocrates is reported to have recommended abstinence from food and drink for certain illnesses as far back as the 5th Century BCE (before the common era, seems to have replaced christ these days).
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have fasting periods tied to important religious festivals. Judaism has several days of penitence and fasting such as Yom Kippur. I’m not sure many Christians still observe the 40-day fast of Lent? The Roman Catholic church toned it down to individual choice, apart from fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and I expect that is largely ignored. The month of Ramadan in Islam is particularly tough because there is no water or food from dawn to dusk, which explains why some choose to flip their lives around, working at night.
The French call it jeûne de protestation, meaning, fasting as a form of protest, which we prefer to call a hunger strike.
Often seen as a last resort for desperate people, Gandhi used it effectively to protest about caste separation. More recently, Alexei Navalny went through a 24-day hunger strike in his Russian jail, protesting at the trumped up political charges against him.
Eating less is good for you
Scientists have known for nearly 100 years now that mice fed a third less calories than a normal mouse diet, live longer. But chronic calorie restrictions in humans come with complications, making us more susceptible to other diseases including immune system deficiencies. In Longo’s book he studies communities that have long life expectancy such as the centenarians in Calabria and Sardinia (Italy), Costa Rica, Greece and Okinawa (Japan). They tell a similar tale that you’ve probably heard before. Their diets are mostly plant-based with lots of nuts, some fish, low in proteins and sugars, high in complex carbohydrates. They don’t over eat and have usually finished doing that before it gets dark.
Circumstance has often dictated their favourable eating habits. The centenarians in Italy couldn’t afford meat when they were younger, it was a real luxury for special occasions. Their moderate protein intake came from legumes and vegetables over many years. Ironically, they get more animal based foods these days because their children, who they often live with, prefer them in their diet. Over the age of 65, when muscle mass and strength can deteriorate, more animal based protein is a helpful addition.
Short people in Ecuador
One of the most interesting parts of Longo’s book is the study of a community of short Ecuadorians who lack a receptor for growth hormone, a disorder called Laron syndrome. They typically have very poor diets and lifestyles but had significantly less incidence of cancer and diabetes.
Longo had already proved that the longevity programmes he devised, worked in yeast and mice and that sugar activates two genes, RAS and PKA, which speed-up ageing. The mutation in the growth hormone receptor gene that the Ecuadorians carry, forces their bodies to stay in their own alternate longevity programme, the longer term benefit being less disease.
Good genes still count
It took Longo many years of study to prove scientifically, that controlling the nutrients we consume through dietary intervention does affect particular genes and the changes to them, providing a longer life which is healthy into old age, not necessarily hamstrung by disease.
He also recognises that being born with good genes, like Emma Morano, an Italian who died in 2017 aged 117 helps a lot. Her mother died at 94 and her sisters reached 98 and 102.
Where does fasting fit in?
Fasting in moderation is good for us all. It promotes changes in our blood creating a protected state. This means lower levels of growth factor IGF-1 and glucose accompanied by higher levels of ketones and growth factor inhibitor.
This has the benefit of breaking down and regenerating the inside of cells (autophagy), as well as killing off and replacing damaged cells. Longo uses the analogy of a wood-burning steam train which is low on fuel. To reach the next wood pile down the track, the stoker burns the train’s oldest and most damaged wooden seats.
One of the most remarkable outcomes from fasting has now been realised in clinical trials involving chemotherapy treatment. On a fast-mimicking diet, 2 main outcomes occur: cancel cells are weakened and are no longer safeguarded from immune cells and the immune system becomes more aggressive towards the cancer.
Fast-mimicking diet (FMD)
Longo and his team developed this diet to help humans fast without completely giving up food. You end up with 800 calories a day and you do it for 5-days. It is now commercially available under the ProLon brand in the UK. Apart from fasting destroying any damaged cells it also activates stem cells which become part of the regenerative process when you resume normal eating.
So the 5 days are now up. We both suffered from mild headaches early on. Getting used to it did not exclude feeling hungry all the time. There was also some breathlessness climbing stairs which was a bit disconcerting. Breakfast was any time after 11.00am and supper was always at 6.00pm by which point we were clock watching. The main reward was a square or two of dark chocolate and a diet coke or two in my case (not recommended).
Is there a next time?
If we want to follow Longo’s longevity diet we need two more 5-day sessions, a month apart. Moseley recommends 2 days every week which has proved popular because the purgatory is short-lived.
At 60-years old the benefits might outweigh the hunger pains and the prescription medicines waiting down the road.