The Benefits of Fasting
”There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.
If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and the belly are burning clean with fasting,
every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and a new energy makes you run up the steps in front of you….”
Seemingly anathema to most westerners, fasting is practised in many religions and Eastern philosophies. It is nature’s way to best heal and cleanse the body . Animals instinctively fast when overcome by feeling unwell, they understand intuitively that for the body to heal itself without the use of external remedies – the body needs to relinquish squandering excess energy on digestion.
Digestion takes up a tremendous amount of energy, fats and carbohydrates being the most complex to digest. The typical western diet of large portions, irregular eating patterns and complex food combinations adds even more strain on the digestive system. Our bodies can become overburdened with toxins brought in from outside (exogenous) sources from our diet, water, and the environment, it also becomes overburdened with toxins created inside the body (endogenous). These endogenous toxins are the waste products of cellular metabolism. When a system is heavily burdened, it’s unable to process and eliminate the cellular wastesquickly enough, and these wastes build up – causing illness.
In Ayurvedic philosophy, it is believed all disease originates in the gut. Sloppy eating habits and uneducated food choices all create ‘Aama’ – a waste which is produced when digestion isn’t operating properly. Accumulation of Aama leads to disease as it spreads into the body. Unless Aama is cleansed from the organs and the body and is allowed to detox, we experience feeling unwell.
Most westerners have lost the intuitive ability to sense what the body needs and as symptoms arise, we often numb the signal with pills and medicines. Sinus congestion, fever, swelling, even pain, are created by the body on purpose, and are messages that the body is out of balance. If we listen to the body, we can help bring homoeostasis back by the method of fasting.
When we fast, we access a storehouse of energy which applies itself to cleansing and healing ridding the body of toxins. The actual detoxification process itself can summon feelings of being unwell, these symptoms however are signs that the process is working. Aches and pains can manifest for the same reason, as the energy previously used for digestion makes it’s way to old injuries to heal.
When the body detoxifies, a sense of well being can begin to arise and evidence shows that fasting elicits the following benefits:
Improved energy and vigour; Increased mental clarity and concentration ;Recovery from illness.
Improved immunity and anti ageing benefits (when Ghandi died at 77, doctors say his organs were that of a 35 year old and attributed this to his intense fasting)
In spirituality, fasting has been said to reduce bad karma, increase strength and confidence and evoke a stronger sense of ‘spirit’ – understanding that we are not the body alone.
My own experience of fasting in the past, has consisted of a water only fast for 2 days. I have found this approach necessary when recovering from illness; as a Vata type, I find every Spring my body naturally detoxes and I honour this with a fast. I find the process hard and experience shifts in mood, however, the sense of lightness and space I experience after the 2 days brings a profound sense of lightness in both body and mind.
My recent experience of fasting however has been harder, I chose to do a 2 day juice fast: 3 juices a day and lemon water only. I feel that fasting without necessarily feeling poorly is much more of a challenge on the mind. As I feel relatively well, I crave my usual foods . I find myself quite miserable at times in the absence of the ritual of mealtimes and coffee breaks. I realise as somewhat of an epicurean, I am indeed attached to food! The process found me struggling to concentrate and at times with a frustrated mood as I go about my normal working day and family life. I found myself at times a little short tempered. Conversely however, I also experienced moments of a profound sense of stillness within.
Throughout, my body felt lighter and I could viscerally feel the detox taking place. I found some comfort in knowing intuitively that I am honouring what my body needs. I broke my fast early – 5pm on the second day as my body temperature had dropped so much, I couldn’t warm up. I feel this was also honouring the body’s need. I could see a difference in my meditation practise also and I was actually more aware outside of my seated practise of the fluctuations of thoughts and their nature. After breaking my fast, I found my seated practise very peaceful and I sat for the rest of the day in a very positive and happy state.
These experiences inspire me to study the three gunas further and how they relate to food: ‘What we eat, so we think’. In Ayervedic philosophy, it is wildly known that although onion and garlic can be beneficial for health, they actually stimulate a busy mind and the mind can become overactive – rajasic.
It is clear that food can bring a sense of purity to the mind – foods rich in prana. Likewise, foods depleted of it can bring dullness. In the absence of any food, the mind is similar to the body in terms of it’s ability to regenerate itself:
”Autophagy, or “self-eating,” is the process by which cells recycle waste material, downregulate wasteful processes, and repair themselves. Brain health is highly dependent on neuronal autophagy.”
- Mark’s Daily Apple.
The difference between, and the cases for and against complete fasting and juicing are interesting, as are the results of one day, longer term, and intermittent fasts. When juicing, nutrients are still being absorbed, the choices of fruit and vegetable juices can be cleverly compiled to provide a strong detox, the digestive system still rests and the body finds some space to heal.
When fasting completely, there are beneficial physiological changes that occur in the complete absence of nutrients. The body goes through a series of steps to meet its constant glucose needs, looking first to the digestive tract, next to glycogen stores in the liver, then to muscle tissue to create glucose, and finally, to adipose tissue. This last step doesn’t happen if there are any nutrients coming in.
This is important because we retain toxins primarily in the adipose tissue – our long-term fat stores. With nutrients coming in, the body never switches to burning adipose tissue as a primary source of fuel. The result of this is that juice fasts are generally much easier on the body because there is much less detoxification going on.
All fasting is beneficial for the body – even very simple intermittent fasting such as overnight fasting. I feel if one were to experience the full benefits of fasting , a full fast is the most affective and one which spans at least a few days to see optimum results.
From this research, I can summise that all fasting is beneficial for the body – even very simple intermittent fasting such as overnight fasting. I feel if one were to experience the full benefits of fasting , a full fast is the most affective and one which spans at least a few days to see optimum results.