The Joy of Fasting

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The practice of fasting is probably as old as the practice of eating. It is built into the body's wisdom. Have you ever noticed that a sick animal will abstain from food? Ever noticed when you've come down with a really wicked virus your appetite disappears? When illness overtakes you, overloading your system and producing uncomfortable symptoms, it is your body's instinct to want to detoxify. And one of its natural methods of detoxification is food abstinence. What we don't notice is the slow, gradual process of toxic accumulations our bodies suffer, producing vague symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, weight control problems, aches and pains, and even memory problems. Toxins come from many sources in both our external and internal environments. Chlorination of our drinking water, pesticide residues on our food, mercury in our teeth, metabolic debris, and pollutants from the air we breathe combine to create a toxic burden for our bodies. 

Over time our primary organ of detoxification, the liver, struggles to keep up with this load until it becomes overwhelmed and symptoms appear. We begin to age faster and to get sick more often. Energy needed for creative activity gets diverted to fighting off opportunistic assaults on our health. We become mentally and physically sluggish as our bodies cry for rest. We can help our bodies rest and detoxify by the often forgotten ancient practice of fasting. A story is told in the Bible where the disciples of Jesus were unable to heal a child suffering from psychosis and epileptic seizures. In the paradigm of the time, he would have been described as "possessed by demons." When his disciples asked why they were unable to heal the child Jesus replied, "This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." (Matthew 17:21) 

Fast forwarding to modern science we find numerous experiments and population studies that show a direct relationship between long healthy lives and methods of caloric restriction including fasting. Recently a study of mice showed that fasted mice fed every other day were more protected from disease than were mice on either low calorie or unrestricted diets. A human study done in 2002 showed that 70% of patients with psychiatric disorders improved with fasting. Taken together, over a hundred studies on the effects of either fasting or CRON (caloric restriction with optimum nutrition), looking at numerous species as diverse as worms and humans, demonstrate a significantly increased lifespan from these practices. 

So what is fasting? Let's start with what it is not. Fasting is not a faddish method of rapid weight loss, although many fasters experience some weight loss during a fast. It is not another gimmick for those suffering from bulimia to use for purging, although many who suffer from bulimia report remission after a fast. It is not permission for anorexia nervosa sufferers to starve themselves: a properly done fast will actually provide more calories than an anorectic person usually eats. Fasting should never be done during pregnancy, and should only be done after clearance by your health care provider and with guidance by a nutritional therapist if you are experiencing serious health problems. 

Fasting, properly done, is a short term means of supplying basic necessary nutrients through juices, herbal teas, and water. Although fasting can be tailored to your lifestyle and schedule, a typical healing fast is preceded by two days of eating nothing but raw whole foods (raw organic veggies, fresh fruits, raw seeds, and raw nuts) along with plenty of water. Raw foods provide enzymes, sparing your body from using resources to produce these for digestion. This begins the cleansing process and eases your body into the fasting experience. 

Next will be three days of taking in nothing solid. It is important that the juices be freshly made from fruits and vegetables, and consumed immediately after juicing. Dilute the juice with plenty of pure water. Water acts as the flushing mechanism to rid your body of toxins, so it is important to not use tap water (which contains traces of chlorine, nitrates, and ammonia) unless you have a water purification system. Bottled water can be distilled, although I prefer using spring water because it contains minerals. 

Herbal teas should be used according to the specific conditions you want to heal. Irritable bowel syndrome, for example, tends to respond well to fasting with the use of peppermint and chamomile teas. Valerian tea can be used for anxiety and insomnia. Ginger tea is good for many inflammatory conditions, including arthritis. A nutritional therapist or herbalist can help you select the right teas for your fast. 

After your three days of fluids, break the fast gradually with two more days of eating only raw foods. This completes a seven day cycle. At this point you should be experiencing many wonderful things. The first time I fasted, the first solid food I ate was a hunk of raw cauliflower. I'll never forget what it was like to discover that cauliflower has a flavor! By the end of the entire experience my senses had sharpened, and I felt a closeness and participation with nature that was new for me. 

I very much like to encourage group fasts. The shared experiences and support of others is of great value. This can be done with your family, a circle of friends, or even on the Internet. The support I received during my first fast came from a distance learning forum while attending the Global College of Natural Medicine. Using the Internet, we posted daily our experiences, emotions and concerns, giving and receiving knowledge and ideas. It was truly remarkable how rapidly we developed a strong sense of community and connectedness - having never even met. 

Like our group, your fasting experience will follow a pattern. Early in the fast, toxins begin to be released. If your body is highly toxic you will experience a healing crisis at this point. The release of toxins can create symptoms such as headache, nausea, or skin eruptions. The higher your level of toxicity, the longer this period will last. If this becomes too difficult for you, slow the rate of detoxification by returning to a bit of solid food, but keep it raw. You will find that hunger comes and goes. In my case I had no hunger until exactly 72 hours into the liquid fast. It was as though I had mentally programmed my body to go for three days without eating. That was when I put the raw cauliflower in my mouth and found this simple act to be so infinitely delightful. 

After making it through the toughest part of a fast, experiencing a healing crisis, appreciating, then letting go of hunger, you will most likely experience a new sense of who you are. Some common results are: clarity of thought, enhanced spirituality, feeling lighter, and having more energy. And you will almost certainly lose your taste for junk food. As one of my fellow students described, "It's like someone cleaned a window and I can see again."