What is fasting?
A fast is the avoidance of all or the majority of foods. There are different types of fast; some involve drinking just water or juices, while others are mono fast, involving eating just one type of food such as grapes for a predetermined number of days. Fasting is probably the most ancient of all self-healing techniques.
To our modern minds, it may seem illogical that avoiding food can assist anything but weight loss. However, done in the right way, fasting can be one of the most powerful self-healing options available to us. All ancient systems of medicine include fasting as part of their therapeutic regimes. In ancient Chinese medicine, fasting is an integral part of Taoist spiritual and medical disciplines, usually involving the drinking of water and medicinal teas. Since the communist revolution in China, however, fasting has been actively discouraged because it is linked with Buddhist and Taoist spiritual practices. In Europe the Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen routinely used fasting therapy with their patients.
It is, in fact, difficult to find a culture, apart from modern-day civilisation, in which fasting is not an important healing principle.
In Ayurveda, fasting is classed as ‘the first and most important of all medicines’. In this system of medicine, toxins are deemed to originate in the digestive system. Through fasting, these toxins are digested in the body, then broken down and eliminated.
When animals are unwell, they usually stop eating for a few days to aid their recuperation. Most of us, when we are ill, experience loss of appetite. This is our body telling us to rest by not eating.
The physical benefits of fasting
As a general principle, when we abstain from food we activate healing processes in the body. In the 1970s my father attended a lecture in California by the famous naturopath, Paul Bragg. Even though Bragg was in his eighties at this time, my father remembers him being a very fit and vital man. In his book, The Miracle of Fasting, Paul Bragg wrote:
Fasting works by self-digestion. During a fast your body intuitively will decompose and burn only the substances and tissues that are damaged, diseased, or unneeded, such as: abscesses, tumours, excess fat deposits, excess water, and congestive wastes. Even a short fast (1 to 3 days) will accelerate elimination from your liver, kidneys, lungs, bloodstream and skin.(Bragg 2004)
Without food to digest, the body goes into a different gear and speeds up the elimination of metabolic waste.
Research in the twentieth century has also demonstrated the benefits of fasting, or the ‘fasting cure’ – particularly in cases of toxic poisoning where no antidote is available. Sixteen patients poisoned by the ingestion of rice oil contaminated with poly-chlorobiphenyls (PCBs) in Taiwan voluntarily took part in a trial fast, of either seven or ten days’ duration. The participants had been poisoned approximately between 26 and 35 months prior to the trial. During fasting, they followed a fixed dietary schedule, consuming mixed juices of fresh vegetables, fruits and boiled soybean. Every patient showed signs of improvements in their poison-related symptoms, some of them dramatic in the relief of severe headache, lumbago, arthritis, cough, mucous and acne eruptions (Imamura and Tung 1984).
Other studies have demonstrated that fasting can promote healthy blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and reduce the severity and frequency of seizures among people with epilepsy (Allen 1915; Guelpa 1910; Lennox and Cobb 1928). I have seen patients with autoimmune diseases benefit enormously from fasting, particularly those with rheumatoid arthritis. A study in Scandinavia in which patients undertook a fast followed by a vegetarian diet for one year had similar results (Kjeldsen-Kragh et al. 1991).
I have also observed improvements in patients with inflammatory bowel conditions such as colitis and Crohn’s disease. one patient managed to avert an operation to remove her colon by drinking just carrot juice for ten days. To this day, she remains free of symptoms.
I once dropped a large weight on my right foot, creating a two-inch wound, which then got contaminated by infected water. This developed into septicaemia and I had the fever from hell. Through fasting and the use of a huge amount of Echinacea, however, I managed to cure myself – though not without overdosing on the alcoholic tincture and getting slightly tipsy! It took about three days for the swelling to go down and for the sepsis to resolve. After a week I had made a full recovery.
So, fasting can be beneficial in a number of different cases and, by resting the gut, can promote healing processes that would not otherwise occur. When someone has a disease or health condition it should, however, always be done under close supervision, and serious conditions should be closely monitored by a health professional. In my early days of practice I had a patient who had severe Crohn’s disease, which developed into a bowel abscess. Even though we tried natural intervention, the condition deteriorated and, eventually, life-saving surgery was necessary.
Fasting and mental health
The benefits of fasting on mental health are also significant. A part of many ancient psychiatric approaches to mental illness, fasting, together with prayer, has also been used for spiritual purposes and has been known to have a stabilising effect on the psyche.
In modern times, too, a number of independent researchers have used fasting to treat mental illness. Dr Yuri Nikolayev, who worked at the Moscow Research Institute of Psychiatry in the 1970s, conducted fasting regimes with over 10,000 people over a 30-year period, during which he demonstrated its value in treating mental illness, particularly schizophrenia (Seager 1972). While writing this book i undertook a few fasts to help clear my mind. Like most people who fast, I experienced a change in consciousness and the ability to think more lucidly. This sensation usually comes in waves, with periods of light-headedness alternating with phases of incredible clearness and peace.
Emotional and spiritual aspects of fasting
I know many people who report that fasting gives them clarity of thought during periods of confusion or indecision in their lives. This would explain why fasting is encouraged as a spiritual discipline to help us feel more connected with our spiritual selves.
In Islam, Ramadan is a fasting regime. In Christianity there is Lent. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. In India there is fasting on the appearance day of Lord Krishna and other saints. In Vaisnavism, an Indian spiritual tradition, every two weeks with the cycle of the moon there is a day called Ekadasi. on this day, people abstain from grains, legumes and pulses. Some devotees go even further and fast from all food to maximise the spiritual benefit. And one day each year there is nir-jal, which is Sanskrit for ‘without water’. It is believed that fasting on this day increases one’s love and connection to the divine.
When the US Constitution was being drafted, its creators fasted to gain inspiration and clear insight. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were famous fasters. Perhaps best known of all, however, was Mahatma Gandhi, whose periods of fasting facilitated political reform in his homeland, India.
Fasting can restore equilibrium and sense of self. I have known many people who, after experiencing trauma, have used fasting to get their lives back on track.
My friend and colleague, Muhammed Salim Khan, wrote this in his book on Islamic medicine on the subject of fasting:
Sawm – complete fasting – is one institution that combines the spiritual, physical, individual and community needs in a most harmonious act. The spiritual aspect of an individual is developed and enhanced in the most sublime manner. Taqwa – God consciousness, discipline and empathy with the poor and needy – are the main emphasis behind fasting. Fasting as a devotional process and internal purification enables the person to transcend his gross and physical needs. The deep cleansing process clears the mind and the internal organs and tissues. Biologically, fasting is an effective, natural process of detoxification and healing. (Khan 1986)
Fasting allows us to review our relationship with food. When changes occur in our emotional state, we often turn to so-called comfort foods – especially sugars and carbohydrates. Fasting can bring emotional issues to light, suggesting that we may be eating to block their impact.
From Make Yourself Better, © 2012 by Philip Weeks, published by Singing Dragon.