Life can be extended by dietary restriction, a process which can also lead to a dramatic reduction in the chances of developing chronic disease in old age.
This powerful statement is among the most important findings made by research doctors Weindruch and Walford, based on the hundreds of animal experiments which they have conducted involving dietary modification and restriction (see Chapter 5). And, what is more, they believe that what they have found is available to all of us by simply applying the principles they have established from their studies.
As well as this, they point to another phenomenon, and that is that animals already ill with chronic disease at the start of the dietary restriction experiment frequently recovered full health, with the illness significantly improving or vanishing completely. They explain that a number of diseases arise ‘spontaneously’ (it might be more accurate to say they commonly arise, since they do not appear in everyone there is obviously a cause, and this cannot therefore be considered spontaneous) in humans as they age, including cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia, cataracts etc. Some of these are clearly life-threatening, adding markedly to the likelihood of a reduced life span, while others increase the chances of accidents as well as reducing the quality of life.
The animal studies that the two researchers conducted showed that not only are these diseases far less likely to occur when diet is modified, but that if they do occur it will be at a far later stage in the life of the animal. Thus ‘spontaneous’ diseases of old age are reduced in animals that live on a diet which contains a full complement of nutrients (vitamins, protein etc.) but which has a lower than usual level of calorie content.
A longer life, less chance of developing serious disease and even recovery from such disease if it already exists. These are quite astounding and revolutionary claims.
Different patterns of dietary restriction
The ways in which animals are induced to achieve a restricted diet varies. In some instances they are allowed to eat whatever they wish of a fully balanced diet for a restricted amount of time; often this is for 12 hours every other day. In other instances they are fed a known amount of food which represents between 40 and 70 per cent of what similar animals would eat when offered the chance to feed whenever they wish. In some experiments these restricted amounts are boosted by supplements of nutrients to ensure that no deficiencies occur. Diets which contain an identical amount of nutrients (apart from calories) to those given to non-restricted animals are called isonutrient diets.
The animals were started on a restricted diet both very early in life, and later in life to compare the effects brought about by early and late changes. In each case the diet, when used experimentally, produced similar results in increased life span and reduction of disease, but it was found that when the diet restriction was started early in life it could have particularly harmful side effects through changes in the development of the animal, unless nutrient intake was kept at levels of absolute excellence.
These two research pioneers say that they decided to introduce adult animals to dietary restriction with the express purpose of learning more about the improvements in the disease patterns commonly seen in human ageing. Such eating patterns, they believe, can plausibly be usable in humans. But, in responding to the two searching questions which they had posed-‘Can adult dietary restriction slow down the onset of late-life disease in humans? and ‘Can human adult dietary restriction forestall the progression of, or aid in curing, ongoing diseases?’ – their answer included what can only be a mistaken assumption because they said: ‘Although human data are unavailable, results of adult dietary restriction studies in rodents, although much less extensive than early life dietary restriction studies, also show favourable effects on late-life disease patterns.’
The assumption that no data exists to support human results following dietary restriction ignores much research into therapeutic fasting and naturopathic treatment methods which include dietary restriction. I will outline these methods later in this chapter and in other chapters.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Weindruch and Walford had fed their experimental animals an isonutrient diet (that is, all the nutrients that a free feeding animal would receive but with calorie restriction), and they reported equal success in terms of life extension and disease reduction with animals fed every day but in reduced quantities. Whichever regimen, their overriding rule was that the animals were never malaourished and always received their total requirement of protein, vitamins and minerals whilst calories were restricted. The pattern of feeding, therefore, was one of ‘undernutrition without malnutrition’.
If you or I were eating on alternate days only, we would be fasting on the others, and even if we ate just once daily, we could be said to be fasting for the rest of the day. It is in the variations of patterns of eating and fasting that we should look to find our personal strategies, for it is the effects of periodic fasting which might hold the key to the door to life extension and disease reduction. The benefits seem always to be the same whatever variation in pattern used, as long as the basic principle of calorie restriction is kept to.
Reduction in disease levels
From strains of rats and mice specially bred for experimental it is possible to select types which are more than commonly prone to particular diseases. These may involve different types of tumour (lung, breast, leukaemia etc.) or a variety of other chronic degenerative diseases. When such prone types were used in the dietary restriction experiments of Weindruch and Walford the development of a wide array of diseases was seen to be delayed and the overall incidence was dramatically reduced. As the dietary restriction programme was intensified the disease prevention effects became greater and this was most marked in the case of cancers of many types. On top of this, research also shows that despite the dietary restriction normal physiological function is maintained and in many instances improved.
Weindruch and Walford’s experimental work is recent and ongoing. Another man’s efforts in researching the nutrition health link dates back to earlier this century, but it is no less valid and important today than it was when he carried it out.
McCarrison’s Indian observations
During his many yeas in India, the famed medical researcher into nutrition, Sir Robert McCarrison, observed the varying patterns of health current amongst different groups on the subcontinent. He was fascinated by the different levels of health and physical efficiency, and found that the single factor that had the most profound influence on these characteristics was not the climate, endemic disease or race, but food. His first observations were of the decline in stature, body weight, stamina and efficiency of the people as he traveled from the north to the south of India. He compared this with the local diets and found a direct and constant correlation in that there was a fall in nutritive value of the commonly eaten food, from north to south. He makes the following statement in his book Nutrition and Health (McCarrison Society, London, 1982):
This is not to say that in these parts [the south] there are not
people of good physique nor that in the north of India there
are not many whose physique is poor. But speaking of the
generality of the people, it is true that the physique of northern races of India is strikingly superior to that of southern, eastern and western races. This difference depends almost entirely on the diminishing value of the food . . . with respect to the amount and quality of proteins, the quality of the cereal grains forming the staple article of the diet, the quality and quantity of the fats, the minerals and vitamin contents, and the balance of the food as a whole.
What were the diets?
In northern India at that time grains such as wheat were eaten, usually as whole grains. Whole wheat has a high protein content,
McCarrison observed, especially when eaten freshly ground, with the grain retaining much of its high levels of minerals and vitamins. Also, in the north, the diet included milk products such as clarified butter (ghee), buttermilk and curds, as well as pulses (lentils mainly, eaten as dhal) and fresh vegetables and fruit. Meat was eaten sparingly if at all, although some groups such as the Pathans ate it in abundance.
By comparison the southern diet was based on white rice (mainly milled, polished or parboiled [often all threel, following which it was washed in many changes of water and finally boiled, reducing its nutritional value to virtually nil). Little milk protein was consumed in the south and meat was largely proscribed for religious reasons, and there was only a poor intake of vegetables and fruit.
Just as and longevity research is based on animals because human experiments are impossible, having made his observations amongst humans, set out to prove his thesis by applying to laboratory rats – all of which started from the same level of well-being – the various patterns of diet he had seen. Rats mature about 30 times faster than humans, making an experiment lasting 140 days equivalent to roughly 12 years in human terms.
In his first major experiment in this series he took seven different groups of the same strain of rat, with each group containing 20 rats, each having an even number of males and females, matched for body weight. They were kept in large cages under precisely the same conditions, each group being fed on a different pattern of diet, containing exactly the normal ingredients of either the Sikhs, the Pathans, Ghurkas, Mahrattas, Kanarese, Bengalis or the Madrasis. After 80 days and 140 days the animals were weighed and photographed, and their health was monitored throughout. The results proved precisely what McCarrison had anticipated, that the best diet of all was the Sikh (abundant in all nutrients) and the poorest the Madrasi (high in poor quality carbohydrate and deficient in protein and other nutrients).
This initial experiment so impressed McCarrison that he decided in future to keep his stock of rats (used for other experiments) on the Sikh diet. He had roughly 1,000 such animals to which he subsequently fed whole grain chappatis, fresh butter, sprouted pulses, raw fresh vegetables (cabbage, carrots) plus milk and water. Dry crusts were provided to keep their teeth healthy. Once a week a small amount of meat and bone was given. The rats were kept in these conditions for an average of two years – about 50 to 60 years in human terms, with young rats being taken periodically for experimental purposes and the older 1,000 being kept on the diet for breeding purposes.
Over a five year period McCarrison noted no case of illness, no death from natural causes, no maternal mortality and no infantile mortality amongst this group of rats. They were of course kept clean and had exposure to the sun daily and were generally well cared for, but the same conditions and care were given during these years to thousands of other rats fed deficiently on southern Indian diets, amongst which a wide variety of illness was observed. It was the altered diet which provided a disease-free environment for the rats, and this corresponded with a sturdier physique, just as McCarrison had observed amongst humans following these different dietary patterns.
He concluded that if attention is paid to three things cleanliness, comfort and food – it is possible to exclude disease from a colony of cloistered rats, and that it is possible greatly to reduce disease by the same means in human beings.
McCarrison’s final experiments
Having found that the Sikh diet provided an ideal for good health and long life, McCarrison then took two groups of 20 matched rats and fed one on a Sikh diet and the other on a typical British diet (white bread, margarine, sweetened tea, a little milk, boiled potatoes and cabbage, tinned meat and tinned jam). The differences between the two groups of rats were dramatic and rapidly observable. The Sikh-diet fed rats were, as in previous studies, contented and healthy. The British-diet fed rats did not flourish:
Their growth was stunted; they were badly proportioned; their coats were sparing and lacked gloss; they were nervous and apt to bite; they lived unhappily together, and by the 60th day began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them.
The experiment continued for 187 days – around 16 years in human terms. The ‘British’ rats showed a tendency to diseases of the lungs and gastrointestinal disease, while those on the ‘Sikh’ diet were free of such problems. McCarrison noted that when he kept rats on either the deficient Madrasi diet, an even worse Travancore diet or a Sikh diet, for 700 days (50 human years) many animals died, and peptic ulcers developed in 29 per cent of the Travancore-diet group, in 11 per cent of the Madrasidiet group and in none of the Sikh-diet group. This is precisely the pattern of ill-health seen in humans living on the same diets. ‘Here again, we see that a disease common in certain parts of a country can be produced in rats by feeding them on the faulty diets in common use by the people of these parts.’
McCarrison has proved similar dietary connections in numerous other disease patterns found in humans, including skin diseases (ulcers, abscesses, dermatitis); diseases of the eye (cornea! ulceration, conjunctivitis, cataracts); diseases of the ear (otitis media); diseases of the nose (rhinitis, sinusitis); diseases of the lungs and respiratory passages (adenoids, pneumonia, pleurisy); diseases of the alimentary tract (dental disease, gastric ulcer, cancer of the stomach, duodenal ulcer, enteritis, colitis); diseases of the urinary tract (pyonephrosis, pyelitis, renal stones, nephritis, cystitis); diseases of the reproductive system (endometritis, premature birth, uterine hemorrhage, testicular disease); diseases of the blood (anaemia, pernicious anaemia); diseases of the Iymph glands (cysts and abscesses); diseases of the endocrine glands (goitre, adrenal hypertrophy, atrophy of the thymus, hemorrhagic pancreatitis); diseases of the heart (cardiac atrophy, cardiac hypertrophy, myocarditis, pericarditis); diseases of the nervous system (polyneuritis, beri-beri, degenerative lesions); diseases of the bone (crooked spine); general diseases (malnutrition oedema, scurvy). ‘All these conditions had a common causation: faulty nutrition with or without infection.’
McCarrison’s heroic studies, whatever may be thought of the suffering of the animals involved, have provided a basis for understanding a relationship between nutrition and health and can help us to see the relevance of Weindruch and Walford’s research more clearly. There is a direct correlation between diet and disease, and the restricted patterns of eating which this research has looked into (in contrast to what might commonly be eaten in industrialized societies) are seen to have clear benefits to offer in terms of reduced levels of disease. But, what effect on everyday ability to function does a restricted diet have in humans?
Do Kuratsune’s dietary experiment on himself and his wife
Interesting results emerged when Professor Masanore Kuratsune, former Head of the Medical Department of the University of Kyushu in Japan, decided to see what would happen if he followed a restricted dietary intake similar to that provided to concentration camp inmates, using the same food content, sometimes cooked and sometimes raw.
He and his young breast-feeding wife continued with their activities and normal lives during the length of the three periods of restricted feeding involved (120 days, 32 days and 81 days). The quantities of food consumed daily were between 22 and 30 grams of protein, 7.5 to 8.5 grams of fat, and 164 to 207 grams of carbohydrate. This amounted in total to between 729 and 826 calories daily (whereas the recommended minimum would be 2,150 calories for their body size).
In camp conditions there was often a rapid onset of ill-health, with infection and anemia common, while nothing of the sort occurred during these three periods of restricted diet, apart from when the intake of food was switched from raw to cooked food. The diet of fresh and raw food (consisting entirely of whole grain rice (soaked not cooked) plus shredded greens and fruit, with no animal protein at all) kept the couple healthy and active, with the wife finding her milk supply increased rather than decreased. But, when the experiment switched to cooked food (same ingredients) they both developed symptoms of hunger, oedema and weakness, which vanished when the eating of raw food was reintroduced.
This personal study was recounted in a 1967 monograph written by Dr Ralph Bircher of Zurich, and entitled Way to Positive Health and Vitality published by Bircher-Benner Verlag, Switzerland.
Raw food diet applied to rheumatoid arthritis at London Hospital
Dr Ralph Bircher also outlines the application of a raw diet, restricted in calories, to people with chronic disease, citing the dozen classic cases documented on film, in which the dietary approach developed by his father Dr Max Bircher-Benner was used at the Royal Free Hospital in London just before the Second World War.
One of these cases is outstanding in its demonstration of just what can happen when dietary restriction is applied to a serious crippling degenerative disease like rheumatoid arthritis. This involved a 55-year-old woman who had been afflicted with this condition for over two years and who was bed-ridden, unable even to sit up, and quite unable to stand, walk or use her arms or hands. She was dependent upon two people for all her needs.
For two weeks she consumed nothing but raw food, salads and fruit, following which she was allowed a liffle lightly cooked vegetable food as well as the raw food. For six weeks there was no change apart from the development of even more severe pains, and finally a high temperature. This was seen as the turning point, following which improvement was seen month by month until after five months she was walking with sticks. By ten months she was pain-free and had regained most of her mobility. One year after beginning the programmed she was fully mobile. Ten years later, still following a 75 per cent raw food diet she was digging her garden and growing her own food.
Some dietitians argue that the diet outlined was deficient, unlike the isonutrient diets of Drs Weindruch and Walford. Dr Bircher would disagree, saying that the high enzyme content of raw food compensates for an apparent lack of protein or other nutrients. The fact is that many people have survived in excellent health for many years on just such a diet.
Where does fasting fit into all this?
Later in this book, after evaluating the life extension effects of animal studies, I suggest strategies which mimic these experiments and which you can put into daily practice. For now, the purpose of this chapter is to highlight a different aspect of the potential which this knowledge offers us, the use of fasting and dietary modification as a means of health promotion, rather than with the aim of life extension.
Fasting is not starvation
During starvation (once fatty tissue has been used up) the body draws on its own essential protein reserves for fuel, whereas in fasting it is the non-essential fat and protein stores which are used for this purpose. Clearly, if fasting continues for too long a period, starvation will take over, but no such risk exists when fasting is used according to certain strict guidelines which I will explain.
One definition of fasting is of a period during which no solid food is taken and when (ideally) water only is consumed. Fasting in the treatment of chronic disease has been used for centuries, and research into its effectiveness has been carried out for at least 100 years. 1 A number of university studies have been conducted which show quite clearly just what happens to the various body
systems when humans and animals fast.2,3 In some of these strictly controlled studies prolonged fasting (months in some cases) was shown to produce no harmful effects, only benefits. Some of the diseases which have been found to improve with fasting are listed at the end of this chapter.
What happens to the body on a fast?
The body’s basic metabolic rate (BMR), which is an index of the rate at which the body burns fuel to create energy, is seen to slowly reduce, by around one per cent daily until it stabilizes at 75 per cent of its normal rate.4 In animal studies a number of ways have been found to slow BMR, induding dietary (calorie) restriction and the cooling of core temperature (such as occurs during hibernation)5 and indeed one of the major markers of animals and humans whose potential life spans are extended by use of reduced calorie intake is a slowing down of the rate at which they ‘burn’ oxygen; in other words their BMR slows down. The effect of fasting, in slowing BMR, is therefore one way in which it promotes longevity. Just how this is achieved is of some importance for it brings into play a degree of adaptation in which energy is conserved, making the process more ‘thrifty’. Weindrudh and Walford have shown that longevity is directly linked to efficient energy consumption (‘thrifty’ as opposed to ‘burner’ animals and people).
When fasting begins, the first source of energy which is tapped is the stored glucose in the liver (glucose is vital for brain function and red blood cells). When its own stores are used up, and whatever remaining food in the digestive tract has been used as an energy source, the body begins to synthesize more glucose, taken as stored glycogen from muscle tissues. After about 24 hours these sources will be depleted, and free amino acids and protein, and later fat stores (triglycerides), from various nonessential sites will be turned into energy by the liver and the kidneys.
A combination of a lower requirement for energy and careful use of what fuels are available (including some recycling, for example of red blood cells) allows fasting to continue for many weeks before any vital tissues become threatened (unless at the starting point the faster is already emaciated or malnourished). The longer the fast continues the more efficient the body function in reducing its dependence on glucose and the more efficiently it uses fatty tissues for its reduced energy requirements.6
Changes seen on a fast
A wide array of biochemical changes occur during fasting, some of them unpredictable, being dependent on your state of health at the outset. Many, however, are predictable, including hormonal changes of particular significance to longevity.7 Except in very overweight people, one of the key changes seen is an increase in the production by the pituitary gland of Growth Hormone (GH), of which much more will be heard in our continued exploration of life extension mechanics.
From the viewpoint of enhanced health there are the many beneficial changes which take place in immune function during fasting.8 Most of these improvements, notably affecting immune function, carry on into the period after the fast. This is perhaps the most important aspect of fasting for better health.
What fasting can achieve
Among the conditions successfully dealt with by fasting alone are the following: diabetes,9 gangrene,9epilepsy,10,11obesity (although this condition requires counselling and lifestyle modification for continued benefit),12heart disease,13,14,15pancreatitis,16poisoning with toxic chemicals (dramatic benefits with seven to ten day fasts),17autoimmune disease such as glomerulonephritis, 18 rheumatoid arthritis,19,20,21 (a 1984 study in the US22 showed remarkable improvement after seven-day fasts), food allergy,23 psoriasis, varicose ulcers, bronchial asthma, schizophrenia and many more (references to these are given by Salloum and Burton, reference 6 below).
Recent proof from Norwegian research
A one year study of people with rheumatoid arthritis was carried out in Norway. The researchers stated that while fasting is proven as an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, many patients relapse when they start eating again. In this study they followed the four week semi-fast with a one year vegetarian diet, and it was found that all the benefits of the fast (marked reduction in number and intensity of swollen joints, pain and stiffness; increased strength; improved blood chemistry and overall health status) were maintained at the end of the year. The fast itself was not total but included herbal teas, vegetable broth and vegetable juices (no fruit juices because of sugar content). The calorie intake during the fast ranged between 800 and 1,250 per day. When eating was resumed the participants were, for the first three to five months, asked to avoid meat, fish, eggs, dairy produce, refined sugar, food containing gluten (e.g. wheat), citrus fruits, strong spices, tea, coffee, alcohol and preservatives. After this they were allowed dairy produce and gluten-containing foods, unless there was any reaction to them (swollen joints or pain etc.) in which case these foods were stopped again.
The calorie intake during this stage of the treatment is not given, but it must have been in the region of 1,800 and 2,000 calories, as recommended by life extension experts. The conclusion of these researchers from the University of Oslo was:
We have shown that a substantial reduction in disease activity can be obtained by fasting followed by an individually adjusted vegetarian diet. We do not believe that this regimen carries a health risk; on the contrary it seems to be a useful supplement to ordinary medical treatment.24
Side effects of fasting
During the early stages of fasting a number of predictable changes occur which commonly lead to headache, nausea, dizziness, coated tongue, body odour, palpitations, muscle aches, discharge of mucous and skin changes.
These symptoms need to be borne philosophically since they represent a necessary passage in the healing process. The benefits to be gained are well worth the short-term inconvenience of this catalog of minor problems which commonly vanish after a few days, to be followed by a sense of well-being and clarity of mind of remarkable degree.
It is essential if a fast is to be carried out for more than 48 hours that there is a degree of guidance available from a health professional who is experienced in fasting techniques, ideally a naturopathic practitioner. For shorter fasts the guidelines given later in this book will be sufficient.
It is now time to examine the Weindrudh and Walford research into longevity enhancement – natural life extension and the prescription for youth.
8b. Win& E. et al, ‘Fasting enhanced immune effector mechanism in obese patients’ American Journal of Medicine (1983) 75:91-6