Slowly Coming Around to Fasting
We were designed with the knowledge that we would endure periods of lack. Throughout human history, drought, insect infestations, war, and seasonal changes have limited food availability, sometimes for months at a time. Oftentimes, this resulted in starvation, the involuntary abstention of eating. After the rise of agriculture and the civilizations around it, these periods became less frequent and, for the most part, were eliminated.
However, many ancient societies recognized that there was something profoundly beneficial to the practice of intermittently and voluntarily abstaining from food, otherwise known as fasting. For millennia, people have fasted for spiritual, health, and other reasons.
Most of us have never experienced scarcity. We have 24-hour access to highly processed, engineered-for-taste, high-caloric density food and have no compunction about ingesting it – day in and day out. We have even been told to eat frequently in order to “stoke our metabolism”. As a result, we have seen a sharp rise in the diseases of modernity: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.
The age-old practice of fasting has been coming into its own in recent years due to the burgeoning research illuminating its many physiologic benefits. Here are just a few of those benefits:
· Encourages the body to use its own fat for fuel 1
· Reduces inflammation 2
· Stimulates the function 3 and development of stem cells 4
· Enhances autophagy (the breakdown of old and abnormal cells) 5 and mitophagy (the breakdown of old and abnormal mitochondria) 6
· Boosts the production of growth hormone by greater than 1000% 7
· Improves mood 8
Given this broad range of beneficial effects, you might be able to see how fasting can help with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, digestive issues, and even substance abuse.9
Forms of Fasting
Two main features usually characterize fasts: what is allowed on the fast and its duration.
Traditional fasts for health and spiritual purposes are typically water-only fasts. However, depending on the goals of your fast, you can allow other non-caloric beverages like teas. Juice fasting and broth fasting are options, although some might not consider them as fasts, as they do contain some calories. Some more extreme forms of religious fasting restrict all intake, including liquids. These “dry fasts” are typically less than 24 hours in duration.
The duration of the fast dictates the magnitude of the benefit. Fasts can range in duration from 12 hours (known as time-restricted feeding) to the longest recorded water fast (plus a multivitamin) of 382 days.10 There are many variations in between.
Although generally regarded as very safe, there are unique and potentially dangerous issues associated with prolonged fasting – not only the fasting – but the refeeding, as well. Water-only fasting longer than 2 days should always be medically supervised.
Although it is true that most of us possess the physiologic mechanisms that allow us to survive for extended periods without food, not all of us should undertake fasting on our own – or at all.
You shouldn’t fast if:
· You are severely malnourished or underweight
· You are under the age of 18
· You are pregnant or breastfeeding
· You have an eating disorder
It is always wise to consult a medical professional before fasting. It is crucial for those potential fasters that fit the following criteria:
· You have gout
· You are taking medications
· You have any form of diabetes
· You have gastroesophageal reflux disease
Heading in the Right Direction
I recently visited a facility called TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California. They are a unique organization of healthcare professionals including medical doctors, chiropractors, naturopaths, psychologists, and other disciplines treating patients in an integrative fashion. Their true claim to fame is that they are the largest medical facility in the world that specializes in medically supervised water-only fasting.
They have been at it since 1984 – taking people with a variety of chronic illnesses through water-only fasts lasting from 5 days to the truly biblical duration of 40 days – with remarkable results. They have published some of these results in peer-reviewed journals documenting the safety 11 and efficacy of fasting. 12
Closing in Fast
Fasting is a powerful, safe, and inexpensive therapeutic modality when approached correctly. Here are some helpful resources to learn about fasting – its implications, applications, and implementation:
Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Curing Disease
Joel Furhman, MD
The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting
Jason Fung, MD with Jimmy Moore
TrueNorth Health Center: www.healthpromoting.com
Have you fasted? If so why, how, and for how long? What was your experience like?
Let us know below.