Life seems so hurried, especially now that the holidays are upon us. In these days of drinking and dining, we can, however, make a deliberate decision to discipline ourselves. We can slow down the season quickly in a time-tested way. How? By fasting!
Fasting is an effective means to lose weight, improve health, and live longer. More and more people are taking to it given its positive coverage in the popular press. So much so that some physicians and nutritionists dismiss it as a ‘fad’ wherein benefits are blown out of proportion and risks are pooh-poohed. Yet, there is a long history and science of, and even a spiritual tradition to the practice of fasting.
Fasting, in its broadest definition, is the willing withholding of food or calories for any reason for a period of time, from a few hours to months. Note that animal studies on fasting may not technically meet that definition since these creatures are participating in the trial involuntarily. Unless you eat in your sleep, we all reach that metabolic state at night of completing the digestion and absorption of a meal which happens in about 3 – 5 hours after consumption. Our first meal of the day after waking up is therefore appropriately called ‘break/fast.’
Although Hippocrates, the ancient Greek Philosopher, said, “Let food by thy medicine..,” he is also known to have prescribed fasting for all serious conditions. Plato and Aristotle both fasted regularly; and not for a lack of food! Fasting is indeed the oldest healing technique known to man; and the most common throughout all of nature: animals instinctively fast whenever they become sick. Spiritual teachers of all stripes including Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Gandhi, and Zarathustra, have all recommended fasting for purification of mind and body.
Fasting is not a ‘diet,’ a term which relates to the kinds of food that a person habitually eats. Fasting, however, can be introduced to any kind of diet: vegetarian, kosher, paleo (aka. pre-agricultural), seafood (not the kind where you eat what you see), and even the ketogenic diet. In this latter diet, the body keeps burning fat for fuel which is what happens, too, when we fast for longer than 12 – 16 hours; i.e. our glycogen stores deplete and we start using fat which form ketone bodies to fuel our brain and metabolism. And this process of ketosis alone has been shown for decades to cure or improve seizure disorders and has shown promise in alleviating other neuro-psychiatric disorders.
And beyond that, there is a large body of research that supports the health benefits of fasting; most of it has been conducted on animals and a few on humans. Fasting and calorie restriction (CR) have passed every test as a treatment for aging; it is, in fact, the only thing we know that is able to consistently slow aging in all varieties of animals, including various mammalian species. Fasting and CR has been shown to postpone degenerative diseases such as cancer, arthritis and atherosclerosis. It improves one’s metabolic profile including lowering cholesterol, increasing the good triglycerides, and reducing insulin resistance (a marker for diabetes); all of which are good for metabolic and cardiovascular health.
And the most fascinating thing is that fasting turns on the process of autolysis or autophagy, in which the body prioritizes the preservation of cells, discarding the oldest and most worn out cells. Relieved of their usual digestive responsibilities, the body’s enzymes begin roaming about and digesting diseased, damaged, dead and dying cells, a process that has been described as ‘the burning of rubbish.’ Autophagy is imputed to play an important role in the prevention or treatment of some kinds of cancer. There are even small studies that show cancer patients will tolerate and have better responses to chemotherapy when they are in a fasted state.
The benefits of fasting are much broader than the physical; it can help you attain deeper states of awareness. People on fasting protocols have reported marked, distinct feelings of clarity and self-awareness; especially when the brain is fueled by ketone bodies rather than by glucose. Fasting has been used in many spiritual traditions to enhance prayer and reflection. Together with the mastery of the tongue and the gonads, the mastery of the stomach through fasting is part of the practice of yoga in order to attain control of the body and mind to reach meditative states.
And the best thing of all is that intermittent fasting regimens are not harmful physically or mentally in healthy, normal weight, overweight, or obese adults. It can be practiced safely unless you are pregnant or under18 years of age, and you would definitely want to consult with your health provider if you are doing it to manage a health condition such as diabetes or for a neurological or eating disorder.
Fasting is relatively easy to incorporate in your lifestyle. Do what is most comfortable for you based on your energy requirements. Fasting is usually expressed as “the number of hours you spend without taking in any calories vs. the time spent feeding.” So 16: 8 means that you fast for 16 hours (e.g. from 8pm to 12pm) and eat for 8 hours (12pm to 8pm). The 5:2 is where you eat normally for 5 days and fast for 2 days. People have extended this concept in many different ways including eating only one meal a day (Warrior Fast), fasting for a continuous 36 hours (Monk Fast), or doing alternate day fasts or fasting for 3 or more days. During the fast, drink lots of fluids especially water, but it can include black coffee or tea. During the feeding periods, you can eat anything in your preferred diet but make sure to eat slowly and mindfully so you don’t binge or overeat after coming out from a fast. (A good source online for more information is WeFa.st)
In short, eat sensibly most of the time, eat nothing for an extended period every now and then, and indulge only on occasion. Deepen your self-awareness and monitor your thoughts and feelings as you go through your fasting and feeding cycles. Make sure you are not using food as a ‘pacifier’ of emotions. The practice of fasting calls upon us to know and master ourselves so we can free ourselves from dependencies and attachments. For as Herman Hesse, the German author of Siddhartha, said: “If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do…!”