We all have within us an inner force of healing and rejuvenation that endeavours to create a state of perfect health. Our DNA, shared identically inside every cell in our body, contains a perfect set of codes to create and maintain optimal health. All we have to do is keep out of its way!
But poor dietary choices, mental and emotional stress and environmental toxicity create obstacles that derail this harmonious system and introduce errors that give rise to disease.
For over 5000 years, healers have endeavoured to correct ill health by working with and enhancing this inner life force through various interventions, including nutrition, herbalism and fasting. Medicine systems from Ancient Greece and Ancient India both speak of the value of tailored and supported fasting. Hippocrates is famously quoted as saying “Let food be thy medicine” but the full quote is “ Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.”
If we look to the animal kingdom, we see clear evidence of the natural instinct to reduce food intake and fast when an animal is in an injured or diseased state. When the crisis is over and healing has begun or been accomplished, the appetite returns of it’s own accord. We humans instinctually exhibit the same behaviour. Loss of appetite is a well documented symptom of most diseases described in modern medicine, from the flu to cancer.
Scientists have linked the instinct to fast partly to the production of chemicals by our immune system called cytokines, as part of an inflammatory response. In addition to their bug-fighting and anti-inflammatory actions, cytokines also curb the appetite and turn down our senses of smell and taste in an effort to reduce the temptation to eat. Fasting is also associated with an activation of dormant stem cells, leading to growth and proliferation of rejuvenated healing cells in the body. Why would we do this? What about the energy needed to fight a disease and heal?
Digestion is one of the most expensive processes occurring in our bodies. We spend on average 10-15% of all the energy we consume each day on digesting, absorbing, metabolising and eliminating food. When we consume foods with more fibrous bonds between food particles this energy spend goes up, e.g. meat uses up around 30% of available energy to digest and fibrous vegetables and fruit use about 20% of energy to digest whereas vegetable juices and other liquid meals use 3-5%.
Fasting aims to redirect the energy ordinarily used by the digestive system towards areas of the body that require healing and repair.
Fasting may also be described as cleansing and healing for the spirit or soul and has been practised as a spiritual discipline. Just as fasting helps the body eliminate physiological debris accumulated during day-to-day life so to can it help one focus and surrender emotional, mental and spiritual debris. Examples include Ramadan in the Islamic faith, Lent in the Christian faith and the many auspicious days of the Hindu religious calendar.
There is no one-size-fits all answer to the question of which type of fasting is best. Ultimately it requires a change from your baseline norm. If your baseline is a typical western diet, then eliminating meat and/or processed foods may be considered a form of fasting. If your baseline is a gluten-free, sugar-free vegan diet, then switching to liquids or juices may be a more appropriate form of fasting. When people go too deep or too extreme with fasting regimens, it is often the ego or a fear of missing out that drives them to ultimately doing harm to their bodies.
Fasting is also not indicated for everyone – the young, the elderly and the very weak should not undertake fasting. If you have a medical condition for which you are receiving treatment of any form, your health care practitioner should be consulted before beginning any form of fasting.
Levels of Fasting
Ayurveda describes different levels of fasting as a primarily healing intervention, to be prescribed for different levels of health or ill-health:
Level 1: Simply avoid overeating. By not consuming too much food at a meal you avoid smothering the fires of digestion. Use different tools to help prevent over-indulgence such as using smaller plates, chewing your food thoroughly and with more time until it is almost liquified before swallowing, and pay attention to the combinations of foods you consume in a meal.
Level 2: Mild undereating begins with developing a sensitivity to the satiety button within you – satiety refers to that feeling of fullness or satisfaction you experience when you know you have had enough to eat, like a baby who stops breastfeeding automatically when s/he has had enough for the time being. The idea is to stop a bite or two before you are full. In the beginning you may miss the mark often. To help remember, rebuild sensitivity and reduce wastage, take smaller portions and stop while you still feel hungry and relax – it takes time for the satiety signal to travel from your digestive brain in your abdomen to your neurological brain in your skull via your vagus nerve. If you are still hungry, grab a little more and repeat the exercise.
Level 3: Corrective measures are short-term interventions used to correct a mild to moderate imbalance in digestive or immune health. For example, if you have a sluggish bowel one morning you could skip a meal or skip solid foods for the day or drink some herbal tea or a lemon juice and honey drink.
Level 4: Intermittent, daily fasting is the easiest to conduct since it will take place in between your ordinary daily activity. Finish dinner by 6-7pm then fast until your breakfast the next morning at around 8-9am, resulting in a good 12-14 hours without food or evening snacks. This frees up resources for healing to happen while you sleep. Try this 2-3 days per week, alternating with days with normal dietary intake.
Level 5: An elimination diet refers to removing one or more types of food from your diet for a period of time. This can be as simple as removing sugar or gluten for 6 weeks, whereafter you may reintroduce slowly, observing for how your body feels with the eliminated food back in it’s system. Eliminations diets can also be more complex, e.g. removing both sugar, gluten and dairy at one go – this is a more traditional approach to a detox or cleansing diet. Again, if necessary, reintroduce the eliminated foods slowly and observe for how your body feels. The awareness after a period of elimination is a more honest reaction of your body to a particular food than when everything is muddled by regular exposure.
Level 6: Mono diets refer to consuming a single type of food for a period of time. In Ayurveda, this typically takes the form of eating kitcheree, a mix of basmati rice, split mung beans and mild digestive spices like turmeric and cumin, several times per day. In Ancient Greece, ptisan, a kind of barley water or gruel was used, whereas in Chinese medicine congee, a rice gruel, is used. Both may be consumed with land and sea vegetables, herbs and beans or pulses. Alternatively, fruit may be used to create a mono diet, e.g. a day of only eating watermelon.
Note that while water continues to be consumed in larger volumes throughout all forms of fasting because it is the primary means by which toxins liberated during fasting are transported out of the cells and tissues, into the elimination organs of the colon and the bladder.
Level 7: Liquid or juice fasting is as the phrase describes – each meal is replaced with a liquid counterpart, e.g. a combination of soups, smoothies, vegetable and/or fruit juices, teas and water. Juice fasting instigates quite a deep cleanse and it is important that you ensure your intake of antioxidants and protein in your liquid diet is sufficient to support your liver, kidneys and gut. If you are new to this level of fasting, start off with a 1-3 day fast once a year during the warmer months of Spring or Summer. As you get more experienced, you can move up to one day a month and then once a week for specific protocols.
Level 8: This level of fasting is hardly ever indicated and mostly not recommended. It involves a water and/or food fast, where all food and/or all water is avoided.
If we regularly engage with earlier levels of fasting, there should be little or no need for us to entertain the later levels of fasting as our bodies will naturally continue to create equilibrium. If, however, you wish to engage with a later level, then do so by adopting a slow and steady approach, i.e. start low, move up a level every 3-4 days and, most importantly, observe closely how your body reacts with each step up. Similarly, when you are coming down from a fast, utilise a step-down approach, for example moving from a couple of days at a level seven vegetable juice fast to a week at a level six kitcheree mono diet, before transitioning back to a mixed diet.
A key partner to fasting is physiological elimination. You should not engage with a fasting protocol if your elimination pathways, both colon and bladder, are not working optimally. If you are concerned, speak to your local GP or naturopath. During a fast, stored toxins are liberated and float around the body in lymph fluid and blood. These need to be filtered out of the blood stream by the liver and transported to the colon and bladders, ultimately for deportation out of the body. If this does not occur efficiently then you run the risk of these toxins creating new inflammatory processes in your body. A healthy detox considers the needs of these pivotal organ systems – liver, kidneys, gut – during the planning phase.
Ayurvedic wisdom states it takes around 40 years to master fasting. Employing the slow and steady approach to fasting allows for the benefits observed by researchers at institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities to fully manifest. A healthy fasting regimen has been shown to:
- Prolong life
- Fight chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and cancer
- Improve learning and memory ability by helping your brain cope with stress, producing new nerve cells, increasing the number of mitochondria in neutrons and reducing the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
- Protect against immune system damage, especially in patients undergoing chemotherapy
- And most importantly, enhance the cells ability to repair damaged DNA
The bottom line is that diet is one of the key determinants of health and longevity. Use your diet in a therapeutic manner to activate a powerful ally to initiate real change in your body.