Fasting for optimum health and longevity
Steve Hendricks | Journalist
BY PETER BOWES | FRIDAY DECEMBER 16, 2022
Of all the lifestyle interventions that could help us live longer and better, fasting has been hailed by some as the holy grail of health. It comes in many – and somewhat confusing – forms. From time restricted eating to intermittent fasting and longer term food deprivation, fasting has a long and fascinating history. Steve Hendricks is a freelance journalist and the author of The Oldest Cure in the World, Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting. The book attempts to put into perspective what we know about fasting, how realistic a “cure” it is for some conditions and whether it is a practical option to fight disease and live longer.
Read a transcript
In this interview we cover:
- Discovering fasting through an exploration of caloric restriction and ways to live longer
- To what extent could fasting be considered a cure for certain diseases?
- Repair mechanisms and how fasting can fix problems in cells
- How fasting can be considered an adventure in art as well as science
- Entering a “contemplative state” through fasting and the physiological reasons for it
- What does self-experimentation involve?
- Weight loss and fasting
- What it means to go into a ketogenic state
- Dealing with depression and idiopathic hypersomnia
- A cautious approach to whether fasting is beneficial to people with some forms of cancer
- Are some people better able than others to cope with fasting over a number of days?
- What is a fasting mimicking diet and why choose it over a complete water fast?
- Why people are motivated to fast and stick with the regime
- Fasting and mindset and how it changes our attitude towards food
- Time restricted eating and what happens when we stick to a narrower eating window during the day
- The science behind the old adage, ‘eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’
- Steve’s motivation to live as long and as healthy a life as possible.
Connect with Steve: Website | Bio | Book: The Oldest Cure in the World: Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting | YouTube
“Fasting has been looked down upon for so long that many scientists and doctors would have absolutely nothing to do with it. So we are only beginning to really figure out scientifically what is the best and most useful way to fast if we want to live long and master aging”Steve Hendricks
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Peter Bowes: Steve Hendricks, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Steve Hendricks: It’s great to be with you, Peter. Thanks so much for having me.
Peter Bowes: Very good to talk to you. I really thoroughly enjoyed this book and that’s probably in large part because I feel as if I’ve been at least in part on the journey with you and some of the scientists involved. My deep interest in this subject started when I met and interviewed the researcher Roy Walford, more than 20 years ago. Now here in Los Angeles, you write about him in the book. How did you become interested in fasting.
Steve Hendricks: Through, you know, Walfordian means, I might say so. You know, Roy Walford was enormous in the field of calorie restriction and that’s how I first came to fasting. I was interested in this would be apropos of your your podcast. I was interested in living longer. I wanted to find out more about the science of longevity and specifically what I could do to make changes in my own life. And the first thing that I came across that made a lot of deep sense to me was caloric restriction, which as you know, is just the practice of simply eating less each day than your body would ordinarily want while getting all the nutrients that you’re supposed to be getting. The trouble with caloric restriction is that although it is amazingly effective at increasing the longevity in virtually every lab animal it’s ever been tested in and minimizing the amount of disease that those animals get. And there are also similarly wonderful effects that seem to be happening in the humans who practice it. It is devilishly hard to do to go through a day constantly eating less day after day after day means you are just ravenous with hunger and people who practice caloric restriction tell me you get used to it sort of after a while, but that hunger never goes away. So I didn’t find that to be a very sustainable practice for me. But what I did find was that the ultimate form of caloric restriction, which would be fasting, taking no calories at all, is ironically vastly easier to do than eating a partial portion of what you’re supposed to have each day. So I thought, Aha, this is very interesting. You get many of the same health benefits and in fact probably some that you don’t get on caloric restriction. You do get through fasting. And so that’s how I first became deeply engrossed in the science of it.
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Peter Bowes: That’s interesting and of course, very debatable. There are people who will say exactly the opposite to what you’ve just said in terms of complete fasting as opposed to caloric restriction, which some people would actually say that they prefer. And I guess that’s down to the individual. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is something that you can grow to love when you understand the benefits. Let’s go back to the let’s start with the headline of the book. You describe this book as the oldest cure in the world. That’s a statement. It’s not a question mark there. Is it a cure?
Steve Hendricks: It is and it is not. So I should perhaps clarify. So why is it called the oldest cure in the world? Because we have science that shows that going back at least a billion years to our closest ancestors at that time, which were yeast, these mechanisms. Well, let me go back a few steps. Fasting unlocks some very impressive repair mechanisms, and it does this in all kinds of organisms, including going back to yeast with whom we last shared an ancestor a billion years ago. So we know that these repair mechanisms that fasting unlocks are common and they are as almost as old as life gets. They are some of the most fundamental processes in living organisms. When you get all the way up from yeast, don’t get a whole lot of diseases that you might call curable, right? They have little things that go wrong within their cells that are fixed by fasting. But when you get into more complex organisms such as humans who can get diseases, we do know that fasting can in fact cure many of these diseases. And have known this for probably a century or two. It’s important to point out, though, that fasting is not a cure all. Obviously, the title of my book, I don’t think it’s inaccurate, but it’s meant to be the title of a book, right? It doesn’t say fasting is the oldest cure in the world, but it can’t cure absolutely everything that possibly ever goes wrong with you. Which if you read some of the accounts of fasting, you might think is the case. So we know, for instance, that fasting is very good, let’s say reversing high blood pressure. Fasting tends to be extremely good at reversing the symptoms of many autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, ulcerative colitis. It’s very good at reversing for some reason, stubborn skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema. The list goes on and on and on of diseases that fasting can either ameliorate or in fact 100% reverse and completely get rid of. So it is a cure for some things. It is not a cure for everything. And part of the fascinating science that’s going on in the last decade or so is teasing out which things exactly can it cure, why which things can only alleviate why which things is it just powerless against and has almost no effect on?
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Peter Bowes: And just to complete the title of the book, Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting, you’ve already referred to science, and I think that’s what people would instinctively refer to the science behind what you’re talking about. To what extent is fasting an art?
Steve Hendricks: So, you know, fasting has been around ever since writing has been around. When the first writings appear about 3000 B.C. or so, fasting follows not long after it. So we know that it is something that people have practiced, the reasons they have practiced it have been extraordinarily varied. It is only occasionally for health in the older oldest writings that we have much more commonly, people are practicing it for things that are very hard to quantify scientifically. Hence the art. Usually that’s for religious purposes. Fasting can put you into a very contemplative state and there are physiological reasons for it. It’s going to lower your blood pressure, It might lower your heart rate, it might change your brain waves and so on, conditions that are very conducive to being reflective. It can also, if you take it too far, puts you into a hallucinatory state where you’re getting visions and so on. You can understand how a more primitive mind that was in contact with omens and deities and so on as a daily basis would see in this a sign of, you know, a portal to another world is what fasting was for many of them. So we could go through the the 5000 years since then. But to spare your listeners some of that, suffice to say that fasting, ever since we are first aware of it, has been used for things more than simply getting healthy. And people do that to this day. The term art also exists in that subtitle because the science is very incomplete. The science is very young. Fasting has been looked down upon for so long that many scientists and doctors would have absolutely nothing to do with it. So we are only beginning to really figure out scientifically what is the best and most useful way to fast if we want to live long and master aging. Right. And because of that, yeah, it’s a scientific question and it’s also a matter of art. It’s a matter of, you know, doctors who have or practitioners who have used fasting over a period of time. And they seem to think that this helps or that helps, but it’s not nailed down solid. And when that’s the case, to me, that seems to be as much art as science.
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Peter Bowes: Exactly. And you tease apart in the book the various regimes. You look at the science and I want to delve into that. But just before we do that, just tell me a little bit about your career. You are, as I say, a freelance journalist. You’ve written on other topics as well. Can you just give me a quick summary of your career to date that’s brought you to this point?
Steve Hendricks: Yeah. So I went to college 30 years ago thinking I was going to go into politics, and so I studied political science. After going back and forth for several years between practicing politics, I ran for office a couple of times, even in Montana, when we lived there and writing about politics, I eventually decided I was a much happier person and the voters were much happier people when I was writing about politics rather than practicing it. So that’s what I did for most of my freelance writing career. My previous two books are both on political topics, and this fasting interest came about very personally for me. The first time I wrote about it was about ten years ago. It was a cover story that I’d written for Harper’s Magazine that played a small part in the resurgence of fasting that we’ve seen in the last decade or so. But I really set fasting aside, at least from the professional writing point of view, for about the last, I’d say eight years after that article. And then a few years ago I had some own health changes in my life that were brought about improvements in my health, that were brought about through fasting, and that renewed my interest. And also in the last decade or so, the science of fasting has evolved in just the most beautiful way. It has blossomed incredibly. And as I explored it, I thought, well, you know, there’s more here. There’s a story to tell here. So that’s why the switch from this political focus that I had done for so long to the writing on fasting and where I go from here, whether I continue in health or whether I jump back to politics, we’ll see.
Peter Bowes: Well, as someone who divides his life between talking about the kind of stuff we’re discussing now and a lot of the time politics and current affairs here in the United States of America, I will resist the temptation as it is a temptation to dive down a rabbit hole and talk to you about politics, which is equally fascinating, I think, during the times that we’re living through. But perhaps that’s a discussion for another day. You talk and you write in this book about your own. You just referred to your own personal experiences. So I’m curious maybe to kick off with to talk about that self experimentation that you’ve done and maybe you could encompass for us what it takes to be a self experimenter because it isn’t scientific. In that there is no control, you’re just an N equals one, just as I am with a lot of the self experiments that I’ve done looking at the different regimes, where did you start and what kind of conclusions have you reached?
Steve Hendricks: So yeah, the self experimentation piece is really a curious thing, right? You’re doing something that on the one hand is deeply scientific in one sense that you are doing this experiment right, on the other hand is deeply unscientific. But the reason I did that with fasting was because the science tells us so little. Certainly at the time that I first started fasting about 15 years ago. So if you wanted to know if fasting was good for your health, really the only way to do that was to try it yourself and see. Now there are problems with that method. Of course, you might feel great on, you know, any number of diets or patterns of eating or so forth. They might in fact be doing terrible things to you inside. So you need to view this with a certain amount of humility and caution and say, just because I’m feeling great or get a great result from this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthy thing. Which is why I also went diving into the science to see if the science backed up. Some of the things that I found that were going on that seemed to be going on, I guess I should say, within myself. I came to fasting, as I said, for reasons of longevity, but the first deep, long, fast that I really did, I did for a reason that many people do when they fast, which is to lose weight. I had like a lot of the rest of us started putting on a pound or two each year, and by the time I was in my thirties, I weighed about 30 pounds more than I wanted to weigh. So I undertook a fast of about 20 days. It is not something that I would recommend that people do unsupervised. I should caution I was not aware of the dangers of long unsupervised fasts, but I did it and found it deeply rewarding. Had some highs and lows. But you know, when you tell people that you fast for that long, they think you’re probably going to be ravenous the entire time. In fact, when you fast eventually you start burning your own fat, your fat breaks down. And one of the breakdown products that your body runs on are these ketone bodies. They’re the basis of the ketogenic diet. You go into this state called ketosis that a lot of your listeners are probably familiar with by now. And when you when you do that, those ketone bodies suppress your hunger hormones and they stimulate your satiety hormones that make you feel satiated so you’re not hungry. After most people, the hunger goes away after a day or two days. So so it was it was a surprisingly easy thing to do to fast for three weeks. So to make a long story short, I lost all that weight. I lost I would think I was aiming to lose about 25 pounds, which I did, and felt very gratified by it. Now, in the long run, I don’t think that fasting is a great weight loss strategy because it turns out most of us are putting on the weight because of what we’re eating. And so if you just go back to eating the way you always ate, well, you won’t put on the weight, you know, all all of it back on the next day, but eventually you will put that weight back on. And you need to change your lifestyle to to encompass a healthier diet. So that was my first experience with a long fast – I would like to say that after that I continued to fast, regularly and healthily, but in fact I didn’t. I was only a very sporadic faster. I would fast now and then and over the years, particularly through my forties, I’m 52 now, my health deteriorated. I had long suffered from sort of manageable mental illnesses and neurological illnesses that grew worse and worse and worse as the years went by. Some of them are common. Your readers excuse me, your audience would be familiar with clinical depression, which I took antidepressants for, for a quarter century of of my adult life. Some of the more uncommon the strangest one was called idiopathic hypersomnia. Hypersomnia means you are exhausted all the time. And the worst part is, is even when you sleep, you wake up refreshed, unrestored – idiopathic just means the scientists and doctors don’t know what causes it, and they sure don’t have a cure for it. Some poor people with this disease are sleeping 20 hours a day. The 4 hours that they’re awake, they stumble through the day, you know, barely able to keep their eyes open. Mine wasn’t that bad, but it was still horrible. It was robbing me of of my career. It was robbing me of an ability to be a decent father to my son or a decent husband for my wife or a decent friend to anyone. It was just terrible. My life had really ground to a halt. What gave me my life back was fasting, and it never occurred to me to fast to try to cure these mental and neurological illnesses. Because the literature of fasting for the last 150 200 years is really about somatic disorders, disorders of the body, not psychiatric and neurological disorders. We all know mind and body are interrelated, but it’s very hard for us to digest that when we’re talking about medical conditions and particularly mental conditions. Anyway, I had put on a bunch of weight over a particularly exuberant holiday period and I wanted to fast to take off 15 pounds. So one January this would have been about three and one half years ago. I did a two week long fast to take off that weight, and after several days my disappeared and then stayed away for the duration of the fast. It was the first week I’d spent without feeling exhausted, sleepy, fatigued, irritable. You know, I could go down a half dozen other awful symptoms The first time I’d had that in, I don’t know, a decade or so. When that happened, I was faced with the question that fasting doctors have been faced with for the last two centuries, which is this. If the disease goes away when we take the food away, is it possible that something in the food was either causing or at least contributing to the disease? So I had to visit the question of, well, you know, I’m terrified to start eating again and have this disease come back. What in the world might I eat that might keep these diseases away? And I did a fair amount of research and looked at some old interviews that I had done with fasting doctors and and one of them had mentioned that they had found that their their diseases tended to stay away when they put people on a very minimally processed vegan diet. And you just eat plants that haven’t been turned into Twinkies and Coca-Cola or something. And I tried that. My disease is stayed away. I was able to wean off my antidepressants and every other drug I had been on. It’s been more than three years now and they have stayed away. So that’s a long way of answering your question. What did I find with self experimentation? Again, with the caveat that you have to be very careful and cautious about it and that it’s not for everyone. I found a cure to these diseases, or at least one heck of a remission that gave me my life back by doing this. What a lot of people would say was a crazy self experiment.
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Peter Bowes: This is the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. Our guest is Steve Hendricks, author of The Oldest Cure in the World: Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting. And Steve, what you’ve just described, the motivating factor there is extremely powerful, isn’t it, when you see something that whether you describe it as a cure or not, but something that just clearly works.
Steve Hendricks: Emphatically so, and that has been the history of fasting. You know what doctors throughout the centuries realized, really starting intensely at the beginning of the 19th century, was that when we take food away for some reason, these patients do better than when we give them these pills and potions. And at the time, of course, the pills and potions were, you know, quite often far worse than whatever the illness was, certainly had the ability to make it worse. And it was more than pills and potions. It was, you know, bleeding people with lancets and giving them these substances. That would make them throw up or have diarrhea. But it was the simple observation of, wait a minute, our science doesn’t say anything about this. The science doesn’t say if you take food away, people get healthy. The science says if you take food away, people starve to death, they die. So it’s extremely counterintuitive. But in fact, yes, when we do this time after time after time, we notice these cures or at least remissions or improvements. So it’s a common theme throughout the history of fasting. And it continues to this day because we don’t have enough science to say for sure, do this, do that. So a lot of people are experimenting and seeing if it helps for their conditions. And I get emails every week since this book has been published with people saying, Hey, I tried fasting for long COVID, my symptoms improved or I tried fasting for X, my symptoms improved. Do you know anything about this? And I can say, Well, we have some hypotheses as to why these mechanisms might improve your condition. Or I can say, yeah, fasting doctors have been reporting that same thing that you just mentioned for the last 70 years or something. But more than that, we really don’t know. But obviously in the absence of knowledge or the absence of a cure, people are more apt to try this self experimentation and sometimes good things grow out of it.
Peter Bowes: And in fact, you start the book with a very powerful account of a woman who had cancer. She was clinically diagnosed as having cancer, who tried fasting, fasting over a long period of time, and the results were quite extraordinary.
Steve Hendricks: Yes. So I should caution first that it doesn’t appear that fasting will completely reverse most cancers. However, we do know because of some excellent work done. You have spoken often of Professor Valter Longo at the University of Southern California, who has done fantastic work on fasting and cancer. And what he and other scientists have found is that when you when you fast cancer is starved, the glucose that it normally prefers to grow on the growth factors that cancer hijacks to divide and spread across your body are also tamped down. And fasting also increases our immune cells that go out and and kill cancer. And there are some cancers certainly in mice that we have found that can be completely reversed through fasting alone. For instance, there’s one form of leukemia. On the other hand, there are other forms of leukemia that it will not reverse. Even in mice. We don’t have enough tests in humans to say, But from clinical observations of fasting doctors who have fasted people with cancer, it appears that cancer is very devious and wily and can get over these hurdles that fasting throws up. Right. But there does appear to be one cancer, follicular lymphoma. And as you mentioned it in this one case, which is extremely convincing because this woman had before and after scans that could document the existence of her cancer before her fast. And then she fasted for 20 days on water only at a fasting clinic in Northern California. And at the end of the 20 days, she had more scans and the tumors were gone. And I have actually just been an email contact with her a couple of months ago. It’s been eight years. Tumors are still gone in follicular lymphoma. It’s common that the cancer will sometimes go into a spontaneous remission, that it will just disappear on its own. But usually that remission goes away and the cancer comes back after just say, a year or two years at most, three years or so. This was such a compelling case because the cancer didn’t come back because the woman wasn’t doing 12 different other treatments or something. And the results were confounded by was it fasting or was it chemotherapy that did it or was it something else? She just went and fasted and the cancer disappeared. It was so compelling that the British Medical Journal first published a write up of the case report, and then a few years later, when the cancer still hadn’t come back, they published another one, not without some controversy. I cannot say that fasting would reverse follicular lymphoma and absolutely every case, but we know it’s happened in this case, and the fasting doctors who were supervising her have had other follicular lymphoma patients who have come to them, who have also had very deep reversals of symptoms on fasting. And I should say the importance of this is follicular lymphoma, so far as we know, is incurable. There’s no treatment for it, or rather you can treat it, meaning you can do chemotherapy or radiation and so on, and it will buy you some extra years, but you will still eventually die of the follicular lymphoma if you live long enough. If something if you’re if you get it when it’s sort of like prostate cancer, if you get it when you’re 80, you’re not going to die of the disease. You know, your cardiovascular disease or something will get you first. But if you get it, as in her case, when she was 42, she was going to die of this disease.
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Peter Bowes: It is a remarkable story. You mention Valter Longo who, of course, aside from his work on cancer, is known for the fasting mimicking diet, which is quite different to a complete water fast over a long period of time. And it’s something that you’ve looked into a lot, and so have I. In fact, I was and I have said this many times on this podcast, one of his early subjects and his first clinical trial with humans. And the results were quite remarkable to me. And that was really my first experience with with any form of fasting. And you look into this and you also talk about Laron syndrome and the work that Jaime Guevara is doing in Ecuador with the very small population of people with Laron syndrome, looking at the science of IGF-1 Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 and how that relates to fasting, which to me is hugely fascinating and has certainly kept my attention ever since that first clinical trial, watching how it has developed over the years. And one of the reasons that Valter Longo gives for developing the fasting mimicking diet is that he believes most people are not able to sustain a complete fast and perhaps benefit from what a complete fast does to your body. So therefore he’s developed the fasting mimicking diet to do just that to mimic a fast. You write interestingly in your book that you don’t actually agree with that – you don’t actually believe that most people couldn’t do a long term fast.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question. I will I will say first, being more charitable to Valter than I perhaps was in the book, he may be right. It may be the case that most people will not fast. When you are presented with a horrible cancer diagnosis, however, and you are told if you were to fast while doing chemotherapy, your odds of the cancer going into remission would be X percent if you were to do a fasting mimicking diet instead, when you did chemotherapy with your cancer, your odds would be y percent. And they had some sort of comparison. If it turned out that by fasting you had a higher chance of your cancer going into remission, I think a lot of people would fast. Now, whether it’s most I don’t know. What is clear. So you see, what Valter did was he stumbled on this wonderful research that talked about how fasting not only damages cancer cells, but protects healthy cells during chemotherapy, so that if you fast people for just a few days during each chemo treatment, they end up with fewer side effects, less nausea, less fatigue, fewer headaches. On and on. People who, you know, who have fasted during chemo routinely say, like, I would absolutely do this again if I ever have to have a course of chemotherapy treatment. The problem was he was going to oncologists who had not been schooled in fasting, who were not giving a lot of support to their patients. And so he had a heck of a time convincing the oncologists to do it. And even the ones he got to do this study had very little to offer in the way of help to their chemotherapy patients who are understandably terrified of this. And pretty understandably, the oncologists were also afraid that their patients were going to end up losing too much weight on on this diet. The problem is we haven’t had a real comparison with what happens when you give people a lot of support. What happens when the doctors who are offering the treatment are all in on fasting, who know its benefits, who know that it doesn’t hurt their cancer patients, who know that they lose a tiny bit of weight, but they put it back on rapidly. We have, however, had a few trials in Germany and the Netherlands. And in those places. What we find is, is that when the patients are well supported, most of them an overwhelming number, I don’t know, 80 or 90% of them say absolutely this was no problem to do and I would gladly fast again during my treatment. So my my biggest complaint with Valter’s research is not actually so much with this research. I think fasting, mimicking diets are great. There are a lot of people who absolutely will not fast, and for them these are just fantastic or people who would like to fast. But you know,you weren’t a cancer patient, Peter, you were just doing it for health. But you have a life you took, you know, whatever it was, four or five days out every month eating this diet for three or four months in a row. Well, not everyone can take the time out to fast and, you know, 100% fast on water only with zero calories during that time. They’ve got jobs, they’ve got kids, they’ve got things they have to do. So so for for a bunch of different reasons, a fasting mimicking diet is great. My problem is with our system, which is just the nature of how research is funded in the capitalism that we live under, which is that the money goes to research that is going to make money and you can make a lot more money on a fasting mimicking diet than you can on simply saying, we’ll just go home and drink water. There’s not a whole lot of cash to be made off of that. So we don’t have the proper research to do what really ought to be done, which is really simple. Take a fasting mimicking diet, compare it to fasting just to have a head to head on whatever condition you’re looking at, whether it’s diabetes or cancer, or just simple high cholesterol or high blood pressure or whatever, and see which which one works. And then we can present that information to patients and say, hey, if you do a fasting mimicking diet, your cholesterol may drop 15 points. Let’s say if you do an actual fast, your cholesterol may drop 20 points or 25 points, or maybe we’ll be surprised and it will actually drop more on the fasting mimicking diet and less on the fasting. We just don’t know. We just don’t have those heads head to head studies and that’s what we really need to see more of.
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Peter Bowes: I think what is interesting, and I do agree with you that in terms of motivation, what is your motivating factor to do this? And mine was it wasn’t because I wanted to lower my blood pressure or because I wanted to lose weight or any of the other potential benefits. It was that I had a fascination with human longevity and there was a lot of good evidence that some of the clinical changes in my body might help me live longer for better. In other words, extend my health span. It might over a longer period of time, lower my IGF-1 level, which Valter’s science suggests could potentially be good for me. But I can’t see it and I can’t feel it now. And the question I’ve often posed to myself is if I could, or if there was some defining factor that motivated me, like being morbidly obese or having a tremendous blood pressure problem or whatever it happened to be, would that be enough to get me to fast? And you bet it would, because it isn’t that difficult, as you’ve already described, once you get into this process, whether it’s a complete fast or indeed a fasting mimicking five days after a couple of days, even on the first round, it gets a lot easier. And then round after, round after round it almost becomes a routine. The limiting factor and the jading factor for me was the the repetition and the eating of the same fairly mundane food. Even if it was just for five days that I found increasingly difficult over a longer period of time. But yes, I agree with you. If the motivation is there, you bet I’d do it.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah. The motivation to fast is really interesting. You know, one of the characters in my book is Dr. Alan Goldhammer, who is the founder and director of the True North Health Center, which is America’s largest and oldest fast and clinic in Santa Rosa, California, up north of San Francisco. They’ve probably had 50,000 patients over nearly 40 years, about 20,000 of them fasting on water only. And, you know, when you ask Goldhammer, what is it that motivates people to come to your clinic and do something as crazy as fasting, because these people are fasting for two weeks, three weeks, anywhere up to 40 days, and some of them will come back six months later and fast another 40 days if they have a really scary condition. And his answer is it’s very simple. I have highly motivated, self selected patients and people are not willing to become those patients. They’re not willing to fast for these lengths of time unless they are strongly motivated, motivated by pain, debility or fear of death. And that’s really it. And if you ask them, well, what does it take to get fasting out, you know, to more people to understand that it’s a safe thing to do, to understand that it’s something that could help them very much? It’s his short answer is, well, why don’t you give them a little more pain or debility or fear of death? Because the average person going through their life with the 3000 things that they have to do today is not going to deprive themselves to the extent that they think that they will have to when they’re fasting. The irony is, so with your your five day fasting mimicking diet, many people often find that doing a fast of five or seven days is somehow more, Oh, I don’t know what the right word would be, almost sort of spiritually restorative than doing a fasting mimicking diet. You have a reset that occurs and some of this is physiological. There is a taste bud reset that occurs if you fast long enough. We’re so used to, most of us eating very salty, very sugary, very fatty diets, vastly saltier, sugary and more fatty than anything that our ancestors ate, anything we evolved to eat over time. Our tastebuds get habituated to that. If you clear the palate, you can actually reset that. You can taste the salt in celery again. In fact, a fast that my wife and I did up at the True North Health Center in Northern California that we did for this book. She broke her fast on a smoothie. And it’s only two ingredients where celery and watermelon. And she almost couldn’t drink it because it was so salty from the celery. The celery was just overpoweringly salty. So one of the things that people find is, yeah, it’s a deprivation. Sure, you miss food when you don’t eat for a week or so. You get this huge sort of bonus, though, that food tastes better than it ever did before. After you start eating again and people find that that, you know, once they’ve experienced it, that is motivation enough to go through a fast. Now, for people who’ve never experienced that, trying to tell them, hey, you know, applesauce is going to taste like, gosh, I don’t know, like apple pie after a fast they have a hard time believing you. Quite understandably.
Peter Bowes: It also resets your mindset. I found that just seeing TV ads for junk food or billboards or going to the cinema and seeing piles of popcorn revolted me. To be absolutely honest, the thought of even considering eating those foods was way off the scale compared with how I felt about it, and it was fairly negative how I felt about it before the fast. But that attitude and that mindset changed and that I was so much more attuned to eating the right things and not too much of the right things. Eating a modest diet. After that five day period, the clearly the benefits were going to continue for a long period of time afterwards. And then as suppose as the whole point of a periodic diet is that you then do it again and you do it again and you do it again. So you reinforce those feelings and that changed mindset.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah, that mental reset you refer to is extremely common. One thing that fasting doctors urge upon their patients and seem to have a pretty good amount of success with is to use the opportunity of that reset to establish new habits. Healthy is the fast is whatever repairs are occurring during a fast and there are some substantial ones that are occurring during a fast. Probably the biggest long term benefit that one might get out of a fast is that reset if you then don’t go back and eat, you know, stadium nachos and pizza and, you know, bacon covered donuts and so on because you have a new outlook on food and what’s going to be healthy to put in your body. That may be the longest improvement that many people get from a fast.
Peter Bowes: You’ve also looked into time restricted eating, which is actually something that I’ve gravitated towards as opposed to either complete fasting or a fasting mimicking diet time restricted eating. Well, you can explain it to us, but it’s essentially having a window during the day, whether it’s 8 hours or 10 hours, 12 hours, whatever suits you where you eat. And the other part of the day when you don’t eat most generally during the night, is that period of time perhaps extended. So you’re having a later breakfast or whatever suits your way of life, which is something that you’ve looked into as well for yourself. Did you have a positive experience?
Steve Hendricks: Emphatically so, and I didn’t think I would. So, you know, the interesting thing, the science behind time restricted eating is just fascinating. Over the last just really five or ten years, what scientists have realized was we all fast every day, you and I have been talking about these prolonged fast of days and weeks and so on. But there’s the daily fast, and that’s what happens when we stop eating at night. And for most of us, it’s night. We sleep, we get up, we break fast in the morning either with an actual meal or our first cup of coffee with cream, whatever it is. And the question that scientists ask was, Are we healthier if the fast is longer? And the answer they’ve gotten is an emphatic yes. And the reason is because these repairs that we’ve been talking about, we’ve been talking about them on multi day fasts, but they also occur on these daily overnight fasts. The catch with those repairs is that they don’t really start kicking in the second we stop eating. It takes about 6 hours from our last meal before these repairs start ratcheting up. And even then they only ratchet up slowly until about 12 hours from our last calories when they go into a kind of overdrive. All right. So what scientists have found is that if we extend our overnight fast, we narrow our daily eating window. Anything any fast of greater than 12 hours seems to yield health benefits in humans. And if we can go as much as 16 hours or even 18 hours, we get even more health benefits. We get all kinds of cellular level repairs that wouldn’t otherwise happen. So I had been vaguely aware of this science and I had restricted my eating window before I was working on this book to about an eight hour window. I would I would get up, I would skip breakfast, I would eat from noon to eight. And that was all great. Seemed to be working fine for me. Then I did the research on this book and found that just in the last few years there have been very convincing studies showing in fact that it’s healthier if you’re eating. Window is earlier in the day. And the reason for that is that our bodies are just hardwired by our circadian rhythms to process nutrients better. In the morning and early afternoon. They wane as the day goes on. And there are all sorts of studies we can talk about if you want. But this led me to change my eating window to match what was going on in those studies, which is start to eat about an hour or two after you wake up in the morning, eat for 6 hours, and then eat no more. All right. So for me, that was about 8:00 am to 2:00 PM, maybe 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days, which I hated. At least I hated the thought of it. I love dinnertime. I love absolutely everything about dinnertime. It’s my favorite time of day. While I was writing part of the book. My wife and I had the luxury of living for a year in Barcelona, where, you know, dinnertime is 9:00 at night. Just I love everything about that lifestyle. It’s fantastic.
Peter Bowes: It was the psychology of the situation that you hated as opposed to the the physical restraints.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah, the the missing out on this cherished part of the day, which also happens to be one of the most social parts of the day. Right. Well, so I thought but, you know, I tend to follow the science so I will try it and see what happens. And within just two or three days of trying it, I adored it. I found it very easy to do. And I found that I had two or three wonderful changes. One of them was I had more energy than I had had before, perhaps because all this food wasn’t lingering in my gut and in my arteries and other places where it shouldn’t be lingering as long as it was lingering because I was eating so late. Another important change that happened to me was my food cravings diminished radically. See, when people eat in a narrower window, and particularly if it’s earlier, earlier in the day, what scientists have found is their peaks and valleys of their sugar surges are smoothed out. There are no longer these sort of if you look at look at them on a graph, they’re no longer these huge jagged cliffs that drop precipitously to very low valleys and then surge back up again. The next time you eat. That all smooths out. And I suspect that was part of the diminishment of my food cravings, which was fantastic. So there were changes like these that made it very easy for me to make this change. Now, a couple of caveats here. I’m a freelance writer. I work at home. I have one of the most privileged jobs in the world. It’s no problem for me. I don’t you know. Well, for instance, a few years before that, I took a couple of years off my job to renovate a house and I was playing carpenter and mason and so on for 16 hours a day. It would have been very hard not to have a dinner at night. Right? So I recognize that not everyone can do this. Science does seem to have a compromise, which is stack most of our calories during that earlier eating window, which runs from an hour or two. After a week, we wake up till about mid-afternoon. If you put most of your calories there and then keep your dinner, you know, on the early side, if you can lighter if you can, you seem to get many of the benefits you do from eating in that early window. So that old ish adage, it only dates to mid 20th century. But that adage that says to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper actually turns out to be scientifically validated advice.
Peter Bowes: And one of the huge benefits that I’ve noticed is sleep. I’m one of these people who traditionally has not slept well. And like you, I’m a journalist and work from home a lot of the time, and that inevitably means working till quite late and your your mind is buzzing. It’s difficult to wind down sometimes, but a combination of trying to finish work as early as possible and eat as early as possible. I’ve reaped the rewards in terms of better deep sleep especially. That has really made a difference in my life.
Steve Hendricks: I found the exact same thing and I wish I had a study that I could point to that said if you eat in an earlier window, you will sleep better. I don’t. Unfortunately, we do have some really good hypotheses as to why that’s the case, and it just simply boils down to what you might imagine, which is that if you are digesting food later at night, your body is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. One of those important things is making all the overnight repairs that we need in order to avoid disease and stay healthy. But the other and more obvious one is helping you sleep. So it does make sense that you and I would have that. And I’m sure. Well, I have I’ve talked with other people who have stated that similarly. And maybe someday we will find a scientific explanation or validation for it.
Peter Bowes: Steve, this is a tremendous book that you’ve written. You go into a huge amount of detail that we don’t have time to to talk about right now, but I would thoroughly recommend it for that reason that you really dive deep into the science more generally. Let me ask you this. This is a podcast about human longevity. It’s about aspiring for a great health span. We don’t necessarily aspire to live forever or even for 200 years or 150 years. It is a. Maximizing the number of healthy years that we have. And I’m curious with with your background and your knowledge, what are your aspirations and to what extent are you motivated to do what you do by those aspirations?
Steve Hendricks: You know, it is almost entirely my motivation for my own health changes for sure. Are these aspirations that I’m about to talk about, and that is to live a Blue Zone’s life. Your audience is probably very familiar with the Blue Zones, right? These five longevity hotspots where people not only live to 100 at a much greater rate than in the rest of the world, but they get there doing all the gardening they were doing when they were 60 and 50. They’re playing with their grandchildren, they’re riding bicycles, they’re doing all the activities of life that we get meaning and joy from. That’s what I aspire to and that’s why I try to make the health changes that I do. And because I know there are other people out there, that’s what motivates me to write a book like this one, because I think that there are a lot of people who would benefit from it. On that note, I will say that one common characteristic of the blue zones is they tend to eat automatically, not because of the science told them to, but just by default in a time restricted eating window. And in a lot of places, their biggest meal of the day is not our traditional American dinner hour. At 6 p.m., it’s lunch. So they have most of their calories in this earlier window that I have been talking about.
Peter Bowes: Interestingly, it can be a long lunch with a bottle of wine. It doesn’t have to be what you would imagine to be a super health conscious lunch. I mean, generally in these zones it is health conscious food, but it doesn’t mean depriving yourself ultimately.
Steve Hendricks: Correct. And you know, I still drink wine. Let’s not pretend it’s health food. I’m not seeing any studies that I’m convinced by that say it’s healthy. But you know what these blue Zones show is you can get away with a little bit of joy around the edges, probably. Yeah. And what may be helpful on that is drinking that wine at lunch rather than doing it at 9:00 pm when our insulin mechanism slows down and we can’t move the glucose, that’s the sugar and the wine out of our arteries and into the cells where it belongs. So it lingers in the arteries and it dings up the walls of the arteries and damages us. They’re drinking it during the time of day, most of them when they have the ability to process it best. So that may well be a key as to why they’re able to do these things that aren’t entirely healthy but are joyful and seem not to hurt them too much.
Peter Bowes: I said I would avoid politics and I really do want to avoid politics. However, one thought just occurs to me. We both have an interest in health, in longevity and in politics. What would it take to get more people interested in longevity and the science of healthy eating and lifestyles that promote health span and the clear political benefits there are presumably spending less money on people’s illnesses in later life, perhaps money that could be put towards researching some of those clinical conditions that we assume that fasting doesn’t necessarily benefit. Politically, that is an issue, isn’t it? In the Western world, let’s say globally, it is a huge issue. But I say the Western world because it’s in the West where we seem to be suffering most because of our diets.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah, you don’t have to be a socialist to understand the mechanisms of the market. And the problem with that is, is that there are immense vested interests in keeping us unhealthy. It’s not some vast right wing conspiracy that’s keeping us unhealthy. It’s market forces. And yeah, there are some nasty people atop some of these corporations that are peddling unhealthy food to us. Sure. Like there are some bad guys out there, but for the most part, it’s just capitalism working the way it’s supposed to. So we have hospitals just to pick on one part of the chain, right. Who make enormous amounts of money from treating disease after it has already developed. We don’t have a model in which they can make money by certainly not in the equivalent amount of money by preventing the disease before it develops. Right. So we would have to flip that model. Now, how you do that, once you have people who are enormously invested, I don’t know. I tell the story just sort of glancingly. I don’t make a big deal out of it, but of a researcher in Europe who ran a national health organization. And at one point in his career, he worked for a hospital and he wanted to set up a preventive program to keep his patients from getting sick. He was a young doctor at this time, and the older doctors came to him and said, you know, if you do this, dear boy, you’re going to be taking away our customers. So please stop doing this. And they. They ran him out. So, you know, those older doctors were somewhat villains, but they were also simply responding to economic mechanisms for which they had a very strong incentive profits, a strong incentive. Once you have layer upon layer upon layer of these incentives, it’s the hospitals, it’s many of the doctors themselves, it’s the big pharma companies, it’s the medical device manufacturers. And then there’s all the money that all these corporations and people are dumping into the political system. How you overturn that probably is just the same answer as to how you overturn any big monolithic thing like that. And it comes down to organizing. Now, unfortunately, we don’t have enough people deeply invested in health to organize the way, say, a labor union or someone you know, you see every Starbucks and Trader Joe’s in the country practically now, as you know, organizing, they have a very strong incentive, right, for their lives to be better and make more money. We would think that we have a very strong incentive to improve our own health. But it’s such a remote thing. You know, you’re going to tell me I’m going to organize to get the hospital to do preventive care and somehow I’m going to live to 90 instead of 80. And my last ten years, I won’t be in and out of a doctor’s offices and then in a nursing home drinking from a straw or something. It’s very hard for people to see. So that’s sort of a ramble on my thoughts, Peter, and I’m so sorry that I don’t have a more brilliant exposition or answer as to how to change it.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, exactly. And that’s really exactly why I raise the issue, because I think we need to talk about these things and we need to draw in decision makers and politicians and CEOs to try to get them to get it to understand the points, the kind of points that you’re making. Let me just in closing, it’s a great read, as I say and a fascinating insight into the way that you followed your passions and your interests as a work from home freelance journalist I’m just curious in closing, how do you live your day? How do you we’ve talked about eating early, getting up early, eating within an hour or so of waking up. But just give me a quick snapshot of what Steve’s daily life looks like.
Steve Hendricks: So one of the centerpieces of my day is actually what I eat. And so I start my day off with a large salad full of mixed greens and tomato and berries and nuts and avocado and the whole wheat croutons. And and I kicked my day off with the best fuel I can possibly come up with. And that usually seems to set a nice trajectory for my day. So I work for a few hours at a time and then I take my dog out for a walk. We have an active dog and so say three or four times a day, we’re going out for a 20 minute to 60 minute walk.
Peter Bowes: Having read your book, this is a Border Collie cross dog that you have. I have two border collies. I know what you experience there.
Steve Hendricks: They do demand some exercise, don’t they?
Peter Bowes: They do. Yes, they do. They’re great fun.
Steve Hendricks: Which is fantastic. You know, people there there are reasons that there are studies that show people who have dogs live. I forget what the number is, five years longer or something.Right.
Peter Bowes: I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
Steve Hendricks: Yeah. So. So then I work a little bit more in the afternoon and because I have the great privilege to live in Boulder, Colorado, where the mountains are right here in town, I’ll often go out for a hike in the afternoon, so I’ll hike for an hour or two and then I’ll come back somewhere in there. If I’m being good, I’ll work in some meditation and then I try to get off all screens by five or six in the evening. Work doesn’t always allow that, but I try to do that and I spend the last three or 4 hours the night just reading and hanging out with my wife. We’re empty nesters now, so there are no no more children around to take care of and try to get a good night’s sleep. If I’ve done the day well, sleep usually comes easily. If I’ve done the day poorly, I have a sign because my mind is usually racing and rather than being asleep by 1030, I’m still worrying at midnight.
Peter Bowes: But I suppose the the skill is to analyze why you might get that occasional bad night’s sleep. What I appreciate is that you you never know the full story you’re continuing to learn and I think we can all benefit from just doing a deep dive into our own personal way of life, our own metabolism, how we respond to the environment around us and we can ultimately benefit. Steve, it’s been really fascinating talking to you. Good luck with the book. It’s a great read and I look forward to following you further and seeing what the next step is.
Steve Hendricks: Thanks so much, Peter. It’s been a great conversation.
Peter Bowes: Thank you. Steve’s book is The Oldest Cure in the World Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting. It is, as I say, a wonderful read. The scientific detail is accessible if that concerned you, because I know it is a worry of some people that it is going to be too deep into the science. But the way that Steve writes this book, it is accessible, the storytelling is captivating and just occasionally a few paragraphs are not necessarily for the faint hearted, but Steve does give adequate warnings when it gets a little detailed, shall we say. Details at LLAMApodcast.com in the show notes for this episode. Indeed, you’ll find the notes on whichever platform you’re listening to the podcast on. This has been a Healthspan Media Production. In social media you’ll find us @LLAMApodcast. You can email me Peter@LLAMApodcast.com. I’d love to hear about your experiences with fasting. In the meantime, thanks so much for listening.
The Live Long and Master Aging podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.