Not eating is a tactical strike against the fast-food racketeers. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Intermittent fasting can do things to your head

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I feel like going to synagogue. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get there – I mean, I can’t see myself praying, let alone acclaiming the scrolls – but it just seems like the right thing to do. Why? Because I’m fasting today and the last time I can remember going without food for 24 hours was when, in a sad little effort to fit in at school, I observed Yom Kippur.

You’ll forgive me if I wander digressively in this week’s column, won’t you? Lack of nourishment can do things to your head . . . Anyway, I always hated going to synagogue – almost as much as I loathed church. As a demi-Jew, I didn’t really fit in at my north London grammar, where roughly a third of the boys in my class were recent Hindu or Muslim immigrants, a third Jewish and a third Anglo-Catholic flotsam. My dad took us to church on the high days – and occasionally Sundays – but my Jewish mother wasn’t about to oblige; her Semitism extended as far as a salt-beef sandwich from Bloom’s in Golders Green and no further.

It was left to my Jewish friends to chivvy me along to shul. I was amused by the way the men talked right through the service and in such a toothsomely stereotypical fashion about the price of smoked salmon or property but I hated having to wear the paper kippa given to visiting males, the heft of which was undetectable on my bouffant early-Seventies hairdo. I kept having to reach up to check it was still there – although whether I feared social censure or the judgement of He who must not be named eludes me now.

It hadn’t occurred to me from that day to this to go wilfully without food. Why starve voluntarily when so many people – and increasing numbers right here in Blighty – simply don’t have any choice?

Then, last week, I was visiting my friend Farouk, whom I’ve known since school (he was part of the recent immigrant fraction, obviously) and who was recovering from a painful and traumatic back operation. He was fasting and started telling me all about how it promotes longevity by limiting the production of IGF1 (“insulin-like growth factor 1”), which is manufactured in excess quantities by older livers. Apparently there’s some tribe in Ecuador whose members have congenitally low levels of IGF1; they cane it all they want – drinking viciously strong aguardiente and smoking hand-rolled cigars the size of babies’ forearms – and still live to be 100. There’s a way to manufacture this desirable state of affairs: simply fast intermittently. Farouk recommended 24 hours a week or 72 in a month (in a single block) but the interweb seems to think five days’ normal eating and two of under 500 calories will do the trick.

I would have dismissed Farouk as a crank, were it not that he’s a consultant-level doctor and he’d read a heap of papers on the subject. Besides, he spoke to my condition: I’ve long maintained that the middle-aged don’t need to eat anything much at all, which is why most of the older people you see are wandering around wearing whole-body fat suits and why 12 per cent of the population of the People’s Republic of China has that popular disease, type 2 diabetes. I’m not about to advocate fasting as a way of “getting in touch” with sufferers of “innutrition” (see Real Meals passim for an explanation of this nauseating WHO euphemism). I tend to Thomas Hobbes’s view that charity exists almost solely to relieve its donors of the burden of their compassion.

However, I can heartily recommend not eating for this reason: it’s a brilliant tactical strike against the multinational fast-food racketeers and the monopolistic supermarkets. Just reflect on this – for every meal you don’t eat, you’ve taken a healthy bite out of their profits. Then there’s the rebellion against vapid conformity to the go-round of meals imposed on you by late capitalism; as Raoul Vaneigem so percipiently writes in The Revolution of Everyday Life: “The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs.”

And what are mealtimes, if not the very organised intervals between those organisations? Yes, the eater is perforce a clockwatcher, always with an eye on the next time he can chow down; while the faster – paradoxically – is free from all earthly accounts of this nature. Maybe that’s why I feel like going to synagogue, even though, technically speaking, it’s only a couple of hours since I’ve been without my normal diet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.