Most people are familiar with the term ‘fast’ but are really quite vague in their understanding of what it’s all about. This article is meant to educate the lay person on the basics of fasting. It is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but a brief exposé to the concept of fasting. The article will be updated periodically whenever I get the opportunity, so be sure to visit this page if you plan to undertake a fast or are simply in the process of learning more.
Fasting is not an instant cure for all ills. However, it’s a very effective cure for most common ailments and diseases that Nature has provided for all creatures. Fasting takes time, patience and determination, to be sure, but it is the most effective remedy for many health problems that people face today, and an important step in the road to good health. This is at the core of what natural healing is about.
There are numerous books on fasting, some of which make it sound really simple while others make it appear too complicated and dangerous to undertake on your own. Herbert Shelton’s Fasting Can Save Your Life is a classic; Principles of Fasting by Leon Chaitow is a concise treatment of the subject. There are several others on the market.
The fact is, fasting can be simple or difficult, safe or dangerous, depending on how you approach the matter. Fasting is not rocket science, and lengthy fasts have been employed in many religions for enhancing spiritual awareness, and as a remedy for health conditions since time immemorial. Early recorded references to fasting go back to Hippocrates around 400 BC. In the last two hundred years, fasting became an organized form of treatment for many diseases, in both the US, started by the Natural Hygiene movement, and in Germany and other places in Europe, where it later became a central aspect of the science of Naturopathic Medicine. Not many people know that Dr. John Kellogg (yes, THE Kellogg of corn flakes fame) ran the enormous Battle Creek Sanatorium reported to have housed over a thousand patients, most on fasts, at any given time. He and John Tilden, MD, were pioneering advocates of fasting as a remedy in the first half of the last century. At the places that sprung up in the US and in Europe, supervised fasts lasting anywhere from a few days (but more usually two to three weeks) to a year or more have been conducted with results unparalleled by traditional medicine. According to Leon Chaitow, an established naturopath, there is no recorded case in which fasting carried out under proper conditions has proved fatal; to the contrary, the evidence for therapeutic and remedial effects on health over hundreds of thousands of cases is overwhelming.
That said, for those considering fasting for the first time, the following information would be useful:
1. Fasting is not starvation. During fasting, the body uses nutrients from the body cells to sustain itself, and it is during this process that toxins are drawn out of cells and eliminated. Depending on the individual, primarily considerations of body fat, this process can last several days or weeks, and in rare cases months, before the body enters a state of starvation.
2. Although short fasts (48 hours) are safe, their benefits are also minimized, because the body can take up to 36 hours or more to get past the socialized hunger programming and get into real cleansing mode. Longer fasts, on the other hand, offer more benefits, but require caution. Many experts strictly advocate supervision during fasting, although I personally know people who have gone on extended fasts on their own. Please note that I do not advocate undertaking long fasts on your own, especially if you have a health problem. If you do go on your own, however, it is best undertaken after moving progressively through shorter fasts, and after a thorough study of the fasting process. It is important, too, to follow appropriate diet guidelines. Most important of all is learning how to tune into your body, to know when to stop.
3. Some conditions are believed to be generally contraindicative to fasting longer than 48 hours—such as pregnancy, menstruation, infancy, emaciation, Type I diabetes, severe anemia, liver or kidney disease (since fasting places extra load on these two organs of detoxification), and those on medication, drugs or alcohol. Consultation with a qualified health professional experienced in fasting supervision is well advised under these circumstances.
4. Fasting of any sort, long or short, is contraindicated in cases of emaciation due to cancer, eating disorders such as anorexia, kidney failure, AIDS, TB, or other debilitating diseases that affect the autoimmune function. Diets of unprocessed foods and raw fruits and vegetables have been used with great benefit in such cases, however.
5. Long fasts are not advised for those who do not believe in fasting or have reservations. In such cases, short fasts or other dietary programs can be beneficial until one feels mentally ready to undertake a longer fast.
My own approach and emphasis is one of getting to know one’s body well enough to know when to fast and how long to fast. I do not believe there is any substitute for this preparation, not even qualified supervision during a fast. When I supervise fasts, I always recommend plenty of rest—both mental and physical.
During a fast we try to stay conscious of the work the body needs to do. Therefore, it is important to rest during a fast. The more we rest, the more energy is available to the body for reparative work in addition to the energy saved by eliminating the digestive function. On the other hand, with voluntary activity of any kind, mental or physical, it is very easy to lose even the energy saved by the absence of digestive activity so that the entire benefit of the fast is practically lost. It should be noted also that when the ingestion of food is stopped the digestive function does not shut off completely, but continues at a “sleep” level. That is why one may experience a bowel movement 5 or 6 days after beginning a long fast.
Before the fast
Before beginning any fast we take care to eat light meals during the 24 hours before the fast. When undertaking long fasts we eat light meals starting three days or more before the fast, consisting mostly of fruit. Such a diet makes it easier to start the fast, especially if we decrease our intake gradually over the countdown period before the fast.
In cases of sever chronic constipation it is a good idea to do a colon cleanse before the fast if possible. This step can significantly reduce the cleansing work of the body during the fast; but more importantly it can help reduce the chances of cleansing reactions that may occur if the elimination route is blocked for the toxins extricated from the cells during a fast.
During the fast
The fast officially starts with the last ingestion of food before the fast. However, effectively the body has not yet recognized that a fast has started until at least the next mealtime is well past. When we are accustomed to fasting and in close connection with our bodies it may be possible for the body to recognize a fast simply through the power of our intention. However, for first-time fasters it may be 36 hours or more before the body recognizes that the absence of food is intentional, and that it is now free to attend to necessary reparation work. In such cases, then, it is most important to embed our intention to fast clearly and strongly during the beginning hours or days, choosing to meditate and focus on the spiritual self rather than go for distractions that involve physical or mental activity of any sort.
Recognizing the end of a fast
It is important to recognize when our body has done all the repair work it can for the moment and is ready to take in food again. If we fail to recognize this point we may set the body on starvation mode, in which it starts to consume vital protein from the body in order to survive. Obviously this is not our intention, so we need to begin ingesting food again. The signal after a long fast comes in the form of a deep hunger that is not born of a mental desire or craving, but a call from the body. Of course, the hunger does come into our consciousness through our minds, but if we take the time to meditate a little whenever we feel a craving or desire for food we would be able to tell the difference between real hunger and a ‘mental’ hunger.
After the fast
Breaking a fast is perhaps the most important aspect of the fast, for it is possible to undo the benefits of a fast completely, or even do oneself great harm, by improper treatment of the body after a fast. This is especially so after a long fast. It is important to recognize that the body has been shut down from a major activity for quite some time, and that the stomach is now shrunk down to a fraction of its original size as a result. Thus when we begin eating we should be careful to begin slowly, with foods that are easy on the digestive system and that do not shock the system with a load of sugar. The appropriate food with which to break a fast depends on the metabolic characteristics of the individual. Watermelon, grapefruit, apple, or thin vegetable broth have all been used with success. The quantity is important, because at the first taste of food one may feel enormous hunger—and it is important not to give in to that feeling because that would be misleading. When in doubt, it is safer to err on the lower side rather than on the higher side and take in incremental amounts over a period of two or more days. Fast or eat with spiritual awareness and you cannot go very wrong!