People have been depriving themselves of food on purpose for millennia. Fasting has long been seen as a spiritual and religious act, giving practitioners of world religions a way to show sacrifice and to purify their spirit as they cleanse their body. Only in the last century or so has fasting been pursued as more of a physical health practice, and only within the past several decades have researchers begun to look at the physiological benefits of fasting — determining its effects go far beyond enlightenment or religious ritual.
Fasting is depriving yourself of food and/or liquids for a set period of time. It should be noted that fasts should always be controlled and done with close attention to how your body is responding.
Negative side effects can accompany fasting, so please don’t start starving yourself without doing research into safe practices.
What science says about fasting
More and more, scientists are finding out that controlled fasting can have numerous health benefits.
Researchers surmise that intermittent fasting of less than 500 calories per day is like exercise for your brain, boosting cell growth. This, they say, is a leftover from ancient times, where in periods of starvation, the people who maintained clear thinking (to avoid predators and to help find food sources) were more likely to survive.
Alternate-day fasting, or having what you want one day and restricting yourself to less than 500 calories the next, has also shown promise in weight loss and related disease prevention. Although the research indicates this isn’t a long-term diet plan (due to difficulty sustaining drastic measures like this), it is one way to boost weight loss. This method of fasting has also been proven to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease, according to the American Journal of Cardiology.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, scientists have found again and again that a dramatically reduced caloric intake, through intermittent fasting, can extend life. Yes, periodic fasting can help you live longer.
Dramatic reductions in calories have numerous physiological effects within the body. When you are accustomed to eating a 2,000 calorie diet every day for the past 25 years, for instance, the immediate restriction of calories causes your body to immediately change its approach to living.
Non-medical benefits of fasting
There is a reason that so many people around the world fast for spiritual reasons. And while tradition is often a big part of it, these practitioners experience spiritual and mental benefits from the tight calorie restrictions.
During these periods of spiritual fasting, practitioners often cope with the side effects of hunger and possible lethargy, by going inward, meditating and praying more. This not only reduces stress, but can provide lasting clarity and a deeper sense of spiritual connectedness. Learning to control one of your body’s most basic needs—the need for food—leaves you with a sense of control, a sense of mastery. Also, because your digestive system is usually constantly in motion, working on digesting your foods, giving it a break, so to speak, leads to an unexplainable calm and feeling of regeneration.
How to fast safely
Everybody reacts to fasting differently. And if you are new to fasting, you want to start slow and cautiously until you know how your body will respond.
Planning for a fast is important. Eat normally the day before you intend to fast and determine how long you will abstain and what it is that you plan on abstaining from.
For your very first fast experience:
- Limit your first fast to 12 hours
- Keep your calorie intake below 500 calories for the maximum benefits
- Eat something in the morning before you begin fasting
- Break your fast with a light meal
- Stay hydrated throughout the day by drinking a lot of water (this is very important)
This is your fast, so you determine the rules. For most people, juices are off limits and herbal tea and water are the only “allowed” beverages. When you break your fast at the end of the day, have something light to avoid upsetting your stomach.
Once you’ve established how your body will respond to a 12-hour fast, you can extend your fast to 24-hours. Do not go longer than 24 hours. Although some spiritual fast practitioners will fast for days, they have usually been doing it for years and are in touch with their body’s responses to know when they need to stop.
Throughout every fast, monitor how you feel. It’s not uncommon to feel tired, as your body doesn’t have the fuel that it is accustomed to. Many people prefer to fast on weekends when they don’t have to be out and about, avoiding any potential brain-fog while on the job or driving. This is especially good advice for beginning fasting.
Fasting has a whole range of benefits—both physiological and mental. It’s a practice as old as time. While there are risks, taking it slow and being ever-conscious of your body’s reaction can help ensure a safe fasting experience. This sort of self-awareness can further increase the potential spiritual benefits of fasting, adding a sense of enlightenment to the proven physical perks.
If you have any ongoing medical conditions, please check with your physician before starting any fasting practice.