Imagine gaining health by stopping food for a few days—a period of rest, meditation, slowing down and just listening to your body while it is fed little or nothing. A lot is made of fasting because a lot happens while fasting. The pause button pressed on food (even if super healthy) allows the body to go into repair-restore mode. Fasting also builds inner awareness like nothing else. The body flicks switches, reversing conditions that you believed, or were told, are chronic. You gain insights, lose the weight of ill-health and learn strategies to build wellness in body, mind and spirit.
It’s no wonder that all or most religions advocate fasting during certain periods of the year or at regular periodicity. Fasting seems to be the common thread between Good Friday, Yom Kippur, Shivaratri, Ramadan and Paryushana, to name just a few significant days or festivals from disparate religions. Fasting has also been used as a peaceful but potent weapon against oppression and injustice, way before Mahatma Gandhi linked it in our minds with satyagraha and India’s freedom movement.
“Fasting establishes an environment within the body that reinvigorates its inherent healing abilities that may have been compromised (by)…poor nutrition, physical inactivity, chronic sleep deprivation, dehydration, toxin accumulation, chronic stress and overeating,” explains Goa-based integrative lifestyle expert Luke Coutinho. He attributes the “remarkable mechanisms of healing” set in motion by fasting to “the resting of the digestive system.” The gut heals, inflammation subsides and “longevity genes are activated,” he says.
Allopathy, which offers a pill for every ill, is also slowly catching on to fasting. Though medication for symptomatic relief, keeping in mind fast-paced lifestyles, still rules, ancient wisdom is making a dent via social media. Health coaches, practitioners of integrated medicine, holistic healers, nutritionists and doctors from various streams of medicine are speaking about the dos and don’ts of fasting. Terms like ketones, autophagy, fruit fasting and intermittent fasting are trending. Rightly so.
A recent study conducted by the University of Illinois, Chicago found intermittent fasting to be as effective as counting calories in weight loss. Talking about the findings published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine in June this year, lead researcher Krista Varady said that intermittent fasting helped people eat less food, which in turn helped them lose weight.
Have a personalised plan
Coutinho says that the practice of fasting is “deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history” as cycles of fasting and feasting were essential to survival. In earlier times, procuring and preserving food was a challenge, enforcing periods of fasting or lesser intake of food, but modern life is marked by a perpetual abundance of food, with an extended shelf life and easy access to nourishment. “This has disconnected us from our innate hunger and satiety cues, leading to eating driven by habit rather than hunger,” he says.
The constant food churning by the digestive system “consumes approximately 80% of the body’s total energy that when saved through fasting, can be diverted towards healing, repair, recovery, growth, and rejuvenation,” he explains. Though there are many kinds of fasts, from water fasting to intermittent fasting, Coutinho advises a personalised fasting plan because “everybody is unique,” and holds that “a 12-hour sunset-to-sunrise fast or circadian rhythm fast is one of the most natural fasts to observe.”
Set out a clear intention
Dr. Rashmi Menon, a homoeopathic doctor based in Mumbai, points out that “Navratri, Ramzan and Lent (among other religious observances) provide good opportunities to tap into the collective energy of restraint and self-discipline.” Establishing “a clear intention and unwavering determination” before setting out to fast or fruit-fast, is extremely important, according to her.
A 56-year-old doctor from Bengaluru, who did not want to be identified, swears by fasting to heal as she recovered from abnormal uterine bleeding while going through menopause a few years ago, after following a fruit fast under the close supervision of her naturopathist. Ever since, she has tried to observe a 10-day wellness fast every year. She recommends fasting for disease reversal only under daily medical supervision or in consultation with a doctor. “I took leave from work and rested at home eating an abundance of pomegranates and citrus fruits for at least 10 days,” she recalls. The bleeding stopped after five days, she says, adding that going vegan about a year earlier had also helped.
Rajashree Preetam Mutha, 47, a health entrepreneur who makes herbal body-care products, recently completed eight days of water fasting for religious reasons. She says she experienced a sense of wellness “that goes beyond description” during the fast. In her opinion, anyone, of any faith, can benefit from fasting, especially if combined with practices like chanting and meditation.
“I felt I could hear better, see more clearly and my sense of smell also sharpened. When I got my periods after the fast, it was trouble free,” she says. Her family, which includes doctors, who were worried for her during the fast, later commented on the glow she exuded, she recalls, laughing. She emphasizes that being on a “sattvic lifestyle and diet” prior to the fast besides entering and exiting the fast very gradually, helped her tremendously.
“When executed correctly, healing fasts such as fruit fasts, juice fasts, or water fasts can trigger a detoxification response in the body,” but delaying the abandonment of unhealthy dietary habits “until the last minute can tamper with the cleansing processes and even lead to abandonment of the fast,” Menon says, adding that chants or positive affirmations “can support detox and rejuvenation”. Menon also believes that it is crucial to acknowledge individual challenges. Some may find that engaging their minds helps them stay on track, while others may prefer isolation and rest. “However, mind-body practices like meditation and yoga can significantly contribute to cultivating mental restraint and discipline,” she says.
“Reverting to problematic foods immediately after fasting can undermine gains made (during the fast), and even cause harm,” cautions Menon. She suggests fasting with a community of like-minded people, and staying in touch with them online or offline.
Hunger and starvation can cause deficiency and disease but wrong or excess food can also destroy wellness. The wellness possibilities presented by fasting are many, so it is ideal to check with your doctor before you go on a fast.
Charumathi Supraja is a Bangalore-based writer and journalist.