The practice of fasting is common in nearly all faiths as a form of physical self sacrifice to achieve spiritual renewal. Naturally, during this time of spiritual cleansing, there is a physical cleansing that happens due to the nature of the act —omitting certain foods, or all foods for designated time periods. And with that, comes health benefits that are an added bonus.
Much of fasting is guided by a spiritual notion or ritual but the purpose of this article is not to pose a philosophical discussion but rather to shed light on the physiologic effects that take place when the body is in a fasting state and ways to “take advantage,” so to speak, of these effects.
The more frequently you eat, the more work your body has to do. Think about it like this: when you eat there’s a series of reactions that occur to break down the food, move the food, further break it down to be absorbed, remove what doesn’t need to be absorbed via lymph, urine, sweat, feces. And if the diet is one that is inflammatory, filled with junk, coupled with a stressful environment such as a demanding job or an existing pathological state (or both) then this process doesn’t always go as smoothly. The body makes compensations to carry out its basic functions -these compensations are often felt as low energy, weight gain, achy joints, brain fog, sluggish digestion, frequent illness, congested skin etc. When fasting though, the body gets more time to rest and restore itself allowing for basic functions to be carried out more efficiently with less symptoms. Paracelsus once said, “fasting is the greatest remedy —the physician within;” because we allow our bodies to heal when the energy is freed up to do so.
During this time of restoration, some of the physiological effects that can take place include strengthening of the mucosal lining of the digestive tract, lowering insulin levels (better blood sugar control), initiation of ketosis (fat burning state), detoxification and decrease of inflammation ..to name a few. Research from the Nutritional Journal of Biochemistry has shown that the effects at the cellular level of periodic fasting and caloric restriction on the heart and brain are similar to that of regular physical exercise. If you take part in fasting, make sure you do what you can to get those benefits also; might as well right?
Some helpful ideas:
- Stay hydrated. If you are fasting for the month of Ramadan and can’t drink throughout the day, make sure to drink of plenty of water before starting your fast and at the end of the day after breaking your fast. A tip: divide your body weight (in pounds) by 2 and that will give you the amount of water in ounces you should drink per day —divide that in half to drink half in the morning and half in the evening thereby ensuring you get adequate water for your body. You can also consider adding electrolytes to your water for added hydration since it will be hot and you might be losing more water and electrolytes through sweat.
- Choose your foods wisely. Start your fast with foods that will keep you satisfied for a longer period of time such as good fats and proteins (eggs, avocado, nuts, seeds, protein shake). Be mindful of how you break your fast. Whether its a long term fast or intermittent daily fast as with Ramadan, remember that your body has been resting for a long period of time. When reintroducing food, you don’t want it to be anything that will spike your blood sugar really high or something really greasy and inflammatory —consider something with protein, good healthy fat (nuts, avocado, nut butter) and a lot of greens rather than bread or starchy carbohydrates.
- Lymph brush. This is especially important if you will not be exercising during your fast. Detoxification happens inherently with fasting in part because of the fat burning which takes place —toxins are stored in fat cells and in burning them they get released. Lymph is the body’s garbage disposal of toxins so it’s important to make sure they are being moved. Exercise is one way to move the lymph but if you are not exercising, then lymph or skin brushing is an excellent way to move the lymph. Always brush toward the heart and to the point of getting the skin pinkish-red. Here is a diagram for reference.
- If you choose to exercise, do so as you near the time to break your fast. The effects of exercise coupled with fasting force your body to burn more body fat as you are using up glycogen (stored sugar) and fat as fuel but you need to make sure to eat within 30 minutes after.
I realize this can be challenging, especially during the first few days as you adjust; this is a normal reaction of the body. You may find you feel a bit more tired or irritable than usual but this will pass; keep the big picture in mind, whatever that may be for you, to keep pushing forward. As you free up the energy and reinforce good nourishment and healthy habits, you’ll find it becomes less challenging. Your attitude will be boosted as you will feel lighter physically and mentally. There is the added benefit of stillness and clarity that comes from removing the excess and being in a state where you are able to reconnect with the fundamentals of life -spiritually and physically.
Whatever your faith or reasons for fasting, my desire is that you achieve all the therapeutic benefits. And Ramadan Mubarak for those fasting this month.