Fasting may seem to many as an extreme measure, practised by gurus and monks, accustomed to a very sedentary and uneventful lifestyle. Most people think of fasting as something inconceivable for their bodies, as they cannot bear the mere thought of going a whole day without food or drink. Nor, for that account, would they consider it to be potentially beneficial for their health. However, being enrooted in spiritual practices across the centuries, fasting isn’t only the form of self-sacrifice or political act of rebellion Gandhi made it famous as.
Health benefits of fasting
Founded researches have shown that fasting has innumerable benefits to the body and mind.
Abstaining from eating is a proven excellent method to reset digestion, eliminate free radicals and therefore increase the body’s resistance to stress, as well as training the brain to deal with pressure. Minimizing the production of free radicals is an effective way to counter ageing. By fasting, blood sugar levels are kept low, bringing clear benefits to the skin’s integrity. In the survival mode that occurs while fasting, the brain is relieved from the overactivity caused by processing certain foods and is therefore enhanced to its maximum power.
While spending a day fasting, you will feel a light digestion happening with small burps coming up. Autophagy is taking place, a self-digestion in which your body is being fuelled by fat reserves. You are also processing and eliminating old tissues and malfunctioning cells, leaving the healthy cells alive in a Darwinian style. These are free to reproduce, boosting your immune system. In fact, fasting has also been proven to help prevent cancer and kill carcinogenic cells. Intermittent fasting, or eating only once a day, is an effective way of limiting the side-effects of chemotherapy.
Preparing for fasting
No one is going to tell you it’s an easy challenge. Being used to eating when we are hungry, it may be a real struggle to keep away from food when you start fasting. However, keep in mind that mastering your stomach’s desires will also allow it to shrink and feel fuller and more satisfied sooner. This is also thanks to the decrease in resistance of the leptin hormone that comes with weight loss.
In order to fast, it is essential to be prepared: eat healthy food with plenty of minerals and vitamins during the days leading up to fasting. Prepare your mind by telling yourself the night before you aren’t going to eat for the upcoming hours. You may choose to meditate on it or talk about it with your family, a collective fast will make it easier and more enjoyable. In fact, if it’s the first time you fast you should avoid being around the breakfast table when other people are eating. Ideally, choose a quiet, peaceful and relaxing place you love and feel safe in. Bring a book and a notepad with you and spend most of your day there, away from your kitchen and its fridge filled with all your favourite treats!
Choosing when to fast is more important than you think and may influence your success rate. You can choose to fast in the evenings to prevent indigestion during your sleep or try fasting for one whole day, following the Hindu tradition. You may want to start by fasting on fruit, greens or juice of pure pulp. The most important thing is that you allow your digestive system a day of vacation from the continuous processing of heavy foodstuffs such as pulses, grains and meat. However, this may be harder than not eating at all, because your stomach will open and soon ask for more, making it difficult to resist its spoilt requests. Focusing on chewing well and swallowing small amounts of food is the best practice while introducing your body to fasting. In fact, should be made into a habit also to avoid flatulence. This is because the main principle behind fasting is enhanced consciousness, which implies an aware intake of food as a lifestyle.
When to fast
According to the Indian traditions, our physiology goes through cycles or mandalas. There are three moments of this phase during which our body does not need food. If you learn to listen to your body you may identify the days that suit you best. The Ayurvedic, Yogic and Hindu ancient traditions chose the days for fasting based on the moon cycle. New moon and full moon, when it’s not uncommon to feel more unstable or depressed, are often chosen as days for fasting. This is when tidal changes occur and the sea is turbulent, like our mood. Since our body is made up of more than 70% liquids, the moon’s magnetism affects our body as well as our mind.
Many traditions avoid drinking any liquids during fasting and Muslims who follow Ramadan strictly avoid swallowing their own saliva during the day. However, depending on the heat of the day, it may be wise to drink water and herbal tea in small sips. For such “dry” fasting, the eleventh day after the new moon and full moon are a good choice. Called Ekadashi (which means eleventh in Sanskrit), during these days atmospheric pressure is at its lowest making it healthy to fast. As well as feeling less hungry, fasting on Ekadashi helps prevent digestive disorders. Organs feel less affected by the lunar gravitational force and the mind is able to concentrate and undertake spiritual practices best.
A REAL breakfast
After a whole day of fasting, wake up at the crack of dawn the next morning and have a breakfast in the real sense of the word!
Breaking a dry fast must be done wisely, start with small sips of water at ambient temperature. If you wish to cleanse your bowels, drink a litre of lukewarm water with half a lemon and a tablespoon of salt. After a few minutes, you will find yourself flushing out your toxins but do not fear: you haven’t induced diarrhoea. You can also simply chose to eat small bites of a ripe banana which helps capture leftover toxins in your digestive tract. After an hour or so, you can eat more fruit, yoghurt and prepare a vegetable soup for lunch.
Regular fasting is a useful way to learn to control your emotions, establishing physical and psychic equilibrium. During fasting, it is easier to enter deep meditation, connecting with the inner self, cleansing and enhancing energies from within.
By experiencing hunger, consider you will have the chance to feel empathy towards who are those less fortunate than you for which abstaining from eating is a daily reality.
Finally, by fasting you are giving yourself a chance to do the things you have never got a chance to do, as you will find a lot of time on your hands.