What is fasting?
Fasting means abstaining from all or some kinds of food or drink. Once every 24 hours, we all undergo a nocturnal fast. While sleeping, remarkable cleansing processes are undertaken within our brains and bodies. Melatonin is actually a major antioxidant that repairs us while we rest. If we go to bed on a full stomach, the nocturnal fast is thwarted. Our body energies will be focused on digesting rather than repairing and we won’t be as rejuvenated when we awaken. The process of digestion uses a lot of energy, so fasting essentially frees up that energy for use within.
Fasting is an extreme method of detoxification and a highly controversial aspect of detoxification. On one hand it is fundamental to healing and revitalisation. On the other, if done incorrectly, it can cause a significant amount of damage to the human organism.
A spiritual perspective
Many religious or spiritual pursuits involve fasting. Indeed, most major religions of the world endorse some form of annual fasting. The Christians have Lent, Muslims Ramadan, and Jews Yom Kipur. These religious periods are allocated as times of clarification and purification, with the overriding goal of attaining a closer connection to the divine or to become more attuned to our own spiritual essence. Buddha learnt to fast while cultivating compassion and patience.
Cleansing your physical and mental self provides easier access to your subtle, spiritual aspects and fasting can accelerate that. However, the days of fasting like Jesus did for 40 days and 40 nights are finished for most humans currently on the planet. In times of old, there were no persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the levels of heavy metals were significantly less and possibly the strength of internal and external natural healing forces far greater.
Fasting has a long tradition as a vitality and youth optimiser. Hippocratic medicine had fasting as a cornerstone of treatment. It cleared encumbrances, revealed underlying disharmonies through a “healing crisis”, supported the vital force to facilitate cure and developed a prognosis or insight into what will happen. In Arabic or Tibb medicine, a detoxification fast is still used. Naturopathic physicians revived the fasting tradition in the West, with Dr Lindlahr leading the way.
Fasting demands simplifying and slowing down. When going through a fasting period, one may find an alignment with the gentle rhythms of the body and of nature. Tibetan medicine believes the pulses of the earth heal our nervous systems. Fasting allows you to tune in. The quietening required can be quite highly challenging given the modern toxic buzz most of us are caught up in every day. To the ancient Greeks, fasting was conducive to bringing visions and dreams the priests and priestesses could interpret. Fasting intensifies thoughts and wishes, according to David Wolfe’s Sunfood Diet Success System. Our abilities to realise our mental constructs are accelerated when we fast.
Jethro Kloss, a US nature-cure pioneer, wrote about the clarity of mind achieved through fasting, and the “victory over appetite” through no longer needing to tend to the feeding of the body. Any fasting procedure will bring your relationship with food into focus. In my experience, it brings about a great sense of empowerment and respect for food and enhances mindfulness in making the healthiest food choices. Additionally, fasting frees up lots of time because there’s no shopping, food preparation, food eating or cleaning up.
Fasting involves the restriction of foods and generally a reduction of food energy, or calories consumed. Caloric restriction on a sustained basis is a scientifically endorsed enhancer of longevity. Epidemiological studies of populations with enhanced longevity, such as on the Japanese island of Okinawa, have endorsed that health is often more about what we don’t eat! Contemporary epidemics such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer all have the underlying common denominator of high calorie intake, or over-consumption of calories we really don’t need. As Wolfe suggests, the less you eat, the longer you live, so the more you get to eat!
Fasting heightens detoxification. Toxins are liberated into the bloodstream from storage in fat cells within the body and brain. The toxins are transformed by a well-nourished liver and, all going well, excreted via the bile, urine, sweat or breath. Fasting can clear old rubbish from the body. Essentially, a fast takes the responsibility for having to metabolise food away from the body for a time. In that time, your body can devote attention to other eliminative processes, which means you get a good clean-out.
For effective detoxification, the elimination channels must be operating optimally. This includes the small ducts within connective tissue as much as the gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary and integumentary (skin) systems. If unable to leave the body, toxins move throughout the body, creating stress. During a fluid-only fast, bowel action ceases because a lack of digesting bulk fails to trigger peristaltic waves that normally facilitate bowel movements. If the bowels aren’t opening regularly, ideally three times a day, fasting can result in increased internal toxicity.
Enemas are an excellent option for avoiding the heavy detoxification symptoms that occur with constipation during a fast. Enemas involve injecting warm, purified water into the bowel twice daily using an enema kit available from your chemist. The water is held in for a comfortable duration then released over the toilet. It often triggers peristaltic waves and effectively washes the bowel walls of waste matter. Alternatively, you can have a colonic hydrotherapy session with a trained hydrotherapist. To keep the bowels opening during a fast, David Wolfe suggests tea made with dandelion root and Epsom salts.
Our mental processes are an important component of detoxification. Recognising and releasing toxic thoughts, negative attitudes and fruitless habits serve to provide an uncluttered mental spaciousness. The study of psychoneuroimmunology is proving that our thoughts affect our physical functioning more than we ever realised.
1. Total fast
This is the most extreme form of fasting. It entails taking nothing, or only water, into the body for the duration of the fast. Metabolically, it puts the body into stress.
Complete abstinence from foods means that, after about 24 hours, reserves of glucose are drastically reduced. The brain uses glucose as its preferred fuel, so to maintain brain functioning, the body’s metabolism shifts into one of two different pathways to manufacture energy.
One pathway breaks down fats to produce ketone bodies for energy. After 36–48 hours when the blood levels of glucose are very low, the hormone glucagon rises and insulin drops. Glucagon liberates stored fats to increase free fatty acids in the blood. The carbon skeletons of the fatty acids can be used for fuel. The process of creating fuel for the brain from fatty acids generates ketones for the energy cycle to use. This use of ketones and the byproducts of their creation (ie acetone) can induce a “drug-like” state, which provides a biochemical explanation of the “mystical experience” of the total faster over long periods of time.
The other pathway starts to use proteins to produce more glucose. These proteins can come from muscle tissues, potentially reducing muscle mass and contributing to a lowered metabolic rate post-fast. Using these alternate fuels for energy creation contributes to an acidic internal environment.
Since many toxins are held within fat cells, the liberation of them while the body is challenged to fuel its basic functions is of questionable benefit. Total fasting for long periods creates a deficiency in numerous nutrients. Most evident are water (if a total fast), energy nutrients, protein and potassium. Simultaneously, because of lack of nourishment, many intestinal bugs die off rapidly, releasing more toxins into the gastrointestinal system and blood, which can exacerbate further detoxification symptoms. More toxins into the bloodstream creates more free radicals and more damage. Additionally, because bowel motility ceases, putrefaction and reabsorption of bile wastes occurs, which further hinders detoxification.
With calorie restriction, the body adapts as if in a state of famine. So it increases metabolic efficiency by burning fewer calories to do the same work than an equally matched effort would burn in an adequately fuelled person, explains Maryanne Long Exercise Physiologist Fernwood Women’s Health Clubs. So rather than weight loss, quite often a fast will result in gaining weight afterwards.
Total fasting can often do more harm than good and is not recommended without professional supervision!
2. Juice fasting
Juice fasting is covered in detail elsewhere in this publication. Regular introduction of freshly squeezed, antioxidant-rich juice quenches damaging free radicals and supports the detoxification process. Each juice provides a wealth of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals and plant water to support the process. In addition, it provides glucose to prevent the shift to using ketone bodies or burning up proteins. Juices can be organic or spray-free vegetable or fruit.
Celery, cucumber, parsley and other greens provide wonderful cleansing vegetable juices. Virtually all fresh fruit and vegetables can be juiced. Grapes make a lovely sweetener.
Juice fasting can slow or stop bowel motions. It’s advisable to take psyllium husks and/or slippery elm powder to assist in maintaining movement, bowel cleansing and repair. Psyllium will also help with balancing blood glucose levels. Colonic irrigation, osmotic laxatives or herbal bowel tonics can also be recruited.
People who juice regularly look vital. Rich in antioxidants, fresh juice can quench free radicals, support optimal organ functioning and nourish body tissue like no other food. Dr Rudolf Steiner, the founder of educational, farming and medical methodologies, described fresh produce as containing “compressed sunlight”. Perhaps it’s that sunlight that shines out of regular juice drinkers. Juices prepared freshly and drunk immediately provide the best nourishment.
Monofasting involves restricting food intake to only one type of wholefood for a short period of time. A single-day fast on apples can be a lovely rest for the system once a month. Apples, called the “body’s broom” in traditional medicine, provide a great nutrient profile, including flavonoids, antioxidants and fibres such as pectin.
Brown rice contains a good range of vitamins and minerals, stabilises blood sugar and provides good fibre for the bowel. The bowel generally functions well during a monofast. Obviously, the risk of nutritional deficiencies for any longstanding monofast is very high.
4. Living raw food vegan diets
Raw foodists believe cooking devitalises food, while consuming raw foods provides vital, life-giving energy. Heat denatures proteins. This can be witnessed by watching an egg white fry. Cooking destroys nutrients. Microwaving broccoli and cruciferous vegetables destroys 97 per cent of all cancer-preventing phytochemicals. In general, the nutritional content of food is reduced by the application of heat.
The raw food enthusiasts who have prevented potential deficiencies of vitamin B12, essential fatty acids and imbalanced protein radiate good health. Their diets are free of animal products and consist of plant foods. This includes sprouted beans and grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables and superfoods prepared in all manner of ways. At the Tree of Life in Arizona, people with diabetes type 2 have effectively cured their conditions by participating in a program that involves eating only raw food for 30 days.
Breaking a fast
Breaking your fast unwisely can undo all the good the fast has done. A gradual reintroduction of wholefoods follows any fast, starting with the simplest live foods and gradually becoming more complex.
Providing live bacteria to the digestive tract, through either fermented foods such as sauerkraut or supplements, is very important to re-establish colonies. Provide good food for them, too: a half teaspoon of oatbran over fruit salad (on the second or third day) will serve as a prebiotic. Adopt a new habit of chewing well and ensalivating your food well to reduce the stress on your rested digestive tract.
Sensitivity and awareness increase during fasting. On re-entering the world, the noise, air, water and food pollution can be downright disturbing. Try these tools to assist the transition back in:
- Invest in some flower essences to help readjust to the hectic pace. The Australian Bush Flowers Angelsword and Fringed Violet assist in protection. Bottlebrush or the Bach flower Crab Apple help to continue cleansing on an emotional level.
- Take antioxidants as a daily habit.
- Reduce, recycle and reuse.
- Re-introduce “toxins” slowly and in small amounts, ie alcohol, sugar, caffeine. Don’t overload your purified system.
- Prioritise time out for yourself every day. Whether it’s five minutes of shut-eye on the train to work, 25 minutes of sitting meditation before breakfast or counting three breaths slowly while waiting for a lift, tuning in is a cornerstone to maintaining spaciousness of body and mind.
Sally Mathrick’s How To Fast Well guide
Step 1. Preparation — This phase may take a few weeks or a few years, depending on your toxic load, health of internal organs, lifestyle and habits. First, start to really mineralise your system. You can do this by taking green powders (algaes), seaweeds, whole salts, herbs, biodynamic foods or supplements. Second, a gradual reduction and eventual removal of all day-to-day drugs is important. This way, you will avoid withdrawal symptoms from nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, sugar or other drugs during the fast. If you are on prescription medications, discuss a tailored cleansing plan with your health professional. Third, rehydrate. Gradually increase your daily hydration levels to your optimal intake and increase your intake of raw, living foods. Decreasing demineralising (refined) foods and reduce use of synthetic chemicals on your body and in your environment.
Step 2. Prefast — This phase may take a week or two. Slowly omit dairy, animal products and wholegrains from your diet. Eat only vegetables (including sprouts), fruits, herbs and (washed) nuts and seeds for three days before your fast.
Step 3. Time management — It’s very important to relax during your fasting period. Reduction of work demands and deadlines is paramount. Clear your diary of all appointments and schedule time out of the world. Create a timetable of sorts to arrange your juices and activities, but don’t become too attached to following it. You may become highly motivated and productive during a fast, but this must come naturally. You may want to sleep a lot. Don’t set expectations on achievement for your fast. It’s a lot about being simple and present.
Step 4. Space — Selecting the right space is important. Have a place where you can sunbathe for at least 20 minutes each day. Have a warm place that is comfortable for “air bathing” (20–30°C). Have access to a powerful natural setting. A forest or jungle (complete with waterfall, please), a seascape or mountain hideaway is the ideal scenario. Failing that, have a place where you can lie, sit or walk barefoot on the earth. Ideally, the space you choose will be uncluttered and clean. Burn essential oils to inspire you further and support your detoxification.
Step 5. Gentle exercise regime — Be familiar with a program of gentle exercise that works for you. It must include abdominal breathing practices. Yoga is an ideal companion to fasting as long as it’s done with sensitivity and good breathing throughout. Always rest if you feel tired or dizzy at all.
Step 6. Supplies — Have an abundant supply of pure water. The best water is the purest water you can access. At the very least, filter your tap water and source organic, high-quality herbs for your herbal teas. Ensure you have a good understanding of what each herb does so you can use them according to your needs. Have your supplements ready and a clear understanding of what the regime is. Have a plan about how you will manage unpleasant detoxification reactions. Have a discussion with a trained and experienced healthcare professional. Get your juicing produce from biodynamic or organic sources.
Step 7. Tools — Have a cold-pressing juicer to get the most out of your organic products. Get an enema kit from the chemist to ensure your bowel opens twice a day. Have a tongue scraper, neti pot and skin brush for daily cleansing each morning. Think about hiring a sauna (see the article on Saunas in this publication).
Step 8. Distractions — At times during a fast it’s comforting to have distractions available, a place where you can “go” to forget about any discomfort for a while. Take a juicy novel, a comedy DVD, some excellent music or some charcoal and butcher’s paper for drawing. Any escapist activity you can enjoy for a while and can let go into is a great aid, even if you don’t use it.
Step 9. Mind and soul food — Support for the metaphysical cleansing and rebuilding will further your fasting results. Regular meditation is highly recommended, at least twice a day. Find techniques that work for you; there are many available. Source inspiring books that allow you to develop better ways and habits for your own life and just to feel great. Engage in meaningful discussions with family, friends or fellow fasters. Fast with others — you are less likely to sneak off for some chocolate if you are being supported by a group or sitting in a forest. Record the insights that come. Establish key performance indicators on how you want your health or personal development to unfold if you’re goal-oriented. Allow yourself to vividly imagine your ideal life, then the plan that can take you there. Alternately access a heartfelt gratitude for your life and allow that to develop.
Step 10. Post-fast — Break the fast with mindful ingestion of a vegetable or fruit. Take a good while to return to eating all the food groups, as the breaking of the fast is considered the most important element. A general rule of thumb is to take half the number of days spent fasting to return to eating normally. Choose raw vegetables and fruits for the first day. Rediscover the joy of chewing. Then introduce other plant foods over the next days. Then bring in wholegrains. Then dairy, eggs or animal products as you choose to. Schedule this post-fast phase in so you don’t find yourself in the midst of a raging party directly after eating your first piece of food. Re-enter the consumptive world gently. You’ll be refreshed, revitalised and refocused.
Sally Mathrick is a practising, university-trained naturopath. She provides workplace wellness programs for companies and groups. For details see www.soundmedicine.com.au
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