Does the thought of going off food for a few hours scare you? How about going off food for a day?
While skipping meals may not be good for you, therapeutic fasting under guidance can have many health benefits. In a world where we are inundated with information on what foods to eat, sometimes taking a short break from food can reset the digestive system and metabolism to process your nutrition more efficiently.
While intermittent fasting is a newer trend that you may have heard of, fasting is not a new concept. If you look at most of the major traditions in the world, fasting was observed in many of the religious and spiritual times of the year: Lent for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims, Passover for Jews, Ekadasi and Shivratri for Hindus. Fasting was often aligned to the natural cleansing periods of the solar and lunar calendars. Spring is one of those significant periods where food is naturally scarce and we can burn up the excess fat stores after winter.
Fasting essentially means abstaining from food for a period of time, but the actual practice of fasting may vary from completely avoiding food and water to taking lighter foods or juices such vegetable broths, coconut water or fruit juices.
What are the different types of fasting?We will explore common types of fasting and their therapeutic benefits. Speak to your ND before you start any of these fasts for more than one day so they can guide you on the safest and most effective method for you.
- Water fasting: this is the most stringent type of fasting where you avoid food and beverages completely other than water. This should only be done under guidance by a health professional and avoided in individuals with blood sugar imbalance. Individuals with a Kapha constitution often respond well to this type of fasting, but you should only do it for a short period of time.
- Juice or broth fasting: this fasting involves avoidance of solid food and includes drinking only light beverages that are either fresh pressed fruit or vegetables, herbal teas or cooked broths. These liquids provide nutrition that can be absorbed by the body without taxing the digestive system. Kapha body types do better with vegetable juices with bitter, astringent and pungent tastes like leafy greens and ginger and Pitta types respond well to fresh, cooling juices such as cucumber, celery or watermelon. This type of fasting may be difficult for vatas, but may be done for a short period of time.
- Mono diet: this fasting doesn't mean you avoid food altogether; you choose specific healthy foods that are simple and easy to digest. Choosing the same combination of food over a period of days allows the body basic nutrition without taxing the digestive system. A typical example is an Ayurvedic kitchari fast where you eat a porridge for each meal of the day and typically is vegetable based and free of common allergens such as wheat, dairy and eggs. Or you may eat only steamed vegetables in a mono diet. This type of 'fasting' is suitable for vata body types.
- Intermittent fasting: this method has recently gained popularity and involves eating food during specific times of the day and avoiding food for 16 hours or more. For example, you would skip breakfast and eat lunch & dinner between 1pm - 8pm and avoid food after that. Another method may involve eating a brunch at 10pm, giving a break and eating dinner at 6pm.
Rest is an essential part of healing, and there's no exception for the digestive system. During evolution, humans would alternate between periods of abundant food to scarcity and it would be common to go through days with little food. Fasting activates a process called 'autophagy' where cells break down cell components and damaged structures and use them for energy. This is an essential process of renewal which increases longevity. This process is triggered by around 12-24 hours of fasting. There is a lot of growing research in this field of the benefits of autophagy. When you take a break from eating, initially you may feel weak, but once you pass a certain point, the body kicks start another process to generate fuel.
What are the benefits of fasting?
Some of the benefits you may experience with therapeutic fasting:
- Weight loss
- Improved energy
- Enhanced clarity & focus
- Improved digestion
- Reduced insulin resistance
- Reduced inflammation
- Increased longevity
Who can benefit from fasting?
If you have never fasted before, it is important that you start slowly and work with your ND to make a plan based on your body type and health concerns. If you have blood sugar imbalances (diabetes, pre-diabetes or adrenal insufficiency due to stress) fasting may be less advisable for you, though fasting is recommended for some individuals to reduce insulin resistance. Those with a Vata constitution do not do as well avoiding food. Cleansing for this type may include doing a mono-diet (eating the same foods over a period of days or weeks) such as a kitcharicleanse in Ayurveda. Pitta types and Kapha types generally experience many benefits from fasting. For these types, doing a warm herbal tea in the morning and fasting until lunch can support the body in detoxification.
Some ways fasting can be incoporated into your routine:
1. Start with a 1 day fast either with water only, coconut water or vegetable juice.
2. Eat a moderate breakfast, substantial lunch and skip dinner.
3. Try a regular 16+ hour fast. Have dinner by 6pm and breakfast or brunch after 10am.
It is always recommended to work with your ND on ways that fasting can be incorporated safely for your body type and lifestyle. Always drink water while fasting. Incorporating therapeutic fasting into your daily routine will allow your digestive system to rest and your body to go into cleaning mode. When your body has a chance to clean up, you will burn your fuel better, feel lighter and absorb your nutrients more efficiently.