To Fast Or Not To Fast?
Fasting has been done for religious and ascetic purposes for thousands of years, but it also has many health benefits as well. I’ll be looking at these benefits here, and examining whether it might be something you might want to incorporate into your life.
Before we begin, If you’ve never fasted before, I don’t recommend jumping straight into longer fasts immediately - you can get great benefits from fasting for shorter periods, and it’s definitely a good idea to ease yourself into this practice gently. 18 or 24-hour fasts have many great benefits and can begin to prepare you for longer fasts if you choose to do them. It can also get you used to missing meals and having an empty stomach for prolonged periods of time.
So what are the benefits of fasting? There are many schools of thinking, and many books and articles have been written about this subject. It’s worth mentioning that many of the scientific studies regarding fasting have been carried out on animals, but, as our anatomy is similar, it is fairly safe to assume that many of these benefits will also be relevant for human beings.
The most intriguing studies show the effect of fasting on general health and lifespan:
“A group of scientists from the NIA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana found that increasing time between meals improved the overall health of male mice and lengthened their lives compared to mice that ate more frequently. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the health benefits were seen regardless of what the mice ate or how many calories they consumed.”
As you can see, if this is true, then it is definitely worthy of attention. In fact, fasting has been shown to greatly alleviate, and even cure many diseases, increase energy and mood, and rejuvenate the body. This is due to the body releasing increased amounts of growth hormone during periods of fasting.
The type of fasting that seems to be most beneficial for the majority of people is up for debate. It’s my belief that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, and it’s important to find a fasting technique that works for you. One of the most popular fasting programs at this time is known as ‘intermittent fasting’ or IF.
Intermittent fasting involves limiting the amount of time that you spend eating each day, i.e. creating an ‘eating window’. This is usually around 8 hours, for example 11am - 7pm. The fasting window allows the body to enter ‘ketosis’, a state where the body turns to fat reserves for its energy source, and also gives the digestive system and organs more of a break. You may have heard of the ‘ketogenic diet’ which also facilitates this state. However, while ketosis is useful for people who wish to lose fat, I don’t really recommend specific diets as they can be difficult to stick to over time and can feel restricting. It is much better to focus on lifestyle changes that can be beneficial and easier to integrate over the long-term. Incorporating fasting is one such lifestyle change.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, we are taught that intermittent fasting is about the spaces in between meals. In giving the body adequate space to rest instead of digesting, we optimise the metabolism. In Ayurveda, proper digestion is reliant on Agni, or fire, and is essential to good health. If the Agni of the individual is weak, digestion is poor, and there is a buildup of Ama in the body, a toxic substance which is the root cause of many illnesses and chronic diseases.
There are further benefits to longer fasts, especially for people who already have some toxicity or long-term illness. Even if you just have some minor aches and pains, they can be alleviated and even cured through this practice. I’m not talking about abstaining from food for extremely long periods either; 24-hour fasts are not too difficult, and 36-hour fasts take on even greater benefits. This is due to something called autophagy. In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine for his research on autophagy in yeast. The study found that short periods of fasting have a positive impact on cell renewal and help slow down the ageing process. Although this has only recently been proven and recognised by Western science, Ayurveda has long spoken of the same effect, as toxicity in the body is neutralised through periods of fasting as the body absorbs metabolic toxins that are not good for health.
I find it ironic that fasting is usually the last thing that is recommended as a cure for illness, if at all. There is a reason why appetite is greatly diminished during bouts of acute illness, as the body’s own wisdom kicks in, and the energy it takes to digest food is preserved. Overconsumption is the cause of most diseases, yet we are usually encouraged, in one way or another, to consume something further to cure it. The cure should rather be in abstinence, and controlling consumption. This can be achieved through short fasts, moderate food consumption and healthy eating.
If you are interested in trying a 24-hour fast, I recommend doing it on a day when you don’t have much to do. Eat your last meal in the evening at, say 7pm, and then skip breakfast and lunch the next day, eating dinner at a similar time the following evening. You can drink tea or coffee, as this will not break the fast, and I also recommend drinking plenty of water.
If for any reason you feel particularly ill during the fasting period, I recommend breaking the fast. It’s not a competition, and easing yourself in slowly is much better than going in gung-ho and putting yourself off for life.
I hope you consider fasting as an option for health and well-being. Look at your periods of fasting in a positive light and focus on all the benefits that are happening in your body during the process. I’m confident you’ll find through regular fasting intervals that your health improves overall.