The benefits of fasting safely
Fasting for the good of your health can be extremely beneficial, but it must be done for the right reasons and more importantly it must be done safely.
Fasting is held in very high regard by yogis and in ayurveda and is believed to help keep the body and mind in perfect health.
What is fasting?
ting means to eat no, or extremely limited amounts of, food for a set period, usually one-three days. It is possible to fast for longer periods but that is best done by people who are very used to fasting, or done under medical supervision.
If you have never fasted before it's best to start with a one day fast, or consider intermittent fasting - see What is intermittent fasting? later in this post.
I am going to talk about fasting for your health over one-two days, done in a consistent way such as once a week, or once or twice a month.
It is very important that you fast in a safe way. Please consult your doctor if you have any medical issues, or you are unsure if fasting will be good for you. Do not fast if you have diabetes, anemia, are pregnant, or have an eating disorder.
The benefits of fasting
Done properly fasting has many benefits. At its most basic it's a great rest for your body, especially your digestive system. If you don't get proper rest your body will eventually breakdown. Your digestive system also needs a rest sometimes - a bit like a holiday from food.
There are many ways to fast and there are many benefits. As this is an introduction to fasting, I've listed the main benefits below with a brief description. For more detailed information, and further reading on fasting, see Further information later in this post. Some of the main benefits of fasting:
a rest for your digestive system. While your body is not digesting food it can use that energy in repairing the body
helps the body to detox and get rid of impurities. Your body is always detoxing through your liver and kidneys. Giving your liver and kidneys a rest during a fast is a great way to help them detox your body
a clearer, quieter mind. If you are not focusing on food three times a day, you can put that energy and focus into breathing or meditation techniques, or things that you don't usually have time for. Having something to focus on helps to keep your thoughts from food and helps with a clearer calmer mind
maintaining a healthy weight. Many people use fasting solely as a means to losing weight or to keep their weight at a healthy level. While this is an excellent benefit of fasting it shouldn't be your main focus. Use fasting for your whole body and your mind, don't just focus on your weight
better sleep. If your body is not digesting food, especially a heavy meal not long before you go to sleep, you can more easily get to sleep, and your sleep can be much improved.
When and how to fast
If you are new to fasting:
start with a short fast such as one day
pick a time when you are not so busy or active, a weekend is a good start
decide before you start if you are doing a total fast -
no food or liquid food (water is not a food), or a liquid (juice) fast. Make sure you have what you will need, herbal teas, fruit and vegetables for juicing, and always, always drink plenty of water whatever type of fast you are doing
eat lightly in the 24 hours before starting your fast. Don't think you have to stock up before fasting. It's easier and gentler for your body to go from light eating to fasting rather than from feasting to fasting
consider a restricted hours fast (intermittent fasting) using the time you are asleep as part of your 24 hour fasting time as this will make it easier for you. For more information see Intermittent fasting later in this post
have some gentle pastimes to occupy you while you fast, a bit of pranyama (breathing techniques) or light yoga practice will be ideal, but remember to limit your physical activity
rest and relax as much as you can.
Possible side effects
Be alert to possible side effects and try to take it easy while you are fasting. Possible side effects include:
headache or nausea. If this happens, drink some peppermint tea, don't drink tea or coffee
feeling the cold more. You might feel more chilled as the process of digesting food helps to warm the body and you may be taking it easy and not as active as you usually are. Layer your clothing and use a blanket if you are resting
feeling weak and tired
feeling sensitive or emotional, mood swings. This is normal, be easy on yourself.
If your side effects feel severe, break you fast with a light meal of fruit or soup and try again on another day.
Breaking your fast
Breaking your fast is always done better in a gentle way. Don't be tempted to eat more than normal or to eat unhealthily. It's very tempting to overeat after a fast as you may be experiencing cravings.
Avoid highly processed food, very highly seasoned foods and alcohol.
Start with light food such as fresh peeled fruits which can be raw or cooked and eat slowly. Apples and grapes are great for getting your digestive system started again, but starchy fruits such as bananas can be more difficult to digest. You can make smoothies of fruit and vegetables as these will be easier to digest.
Follow with a light salad, steamed vegetables and soups. Don't drink too much tea and coffee, it's best if you can to avoid tea, coffee and other stimulants for a couple of days at least.
You might have heard of this type of fasting. It's becoming very popular and there is increasing evidence that it can be good for our overall health.
Most types of fasting are 'intermittent' as you only fast at certain times. With normal fasting you usually fast for a day or two starting on the morning of the first day and finishing by breaking your fast on the morning of the second day.
When I refer to intermittent fasting I'm talking about a restricted hours fast using the time you are asleep as part of your fasting time. You are not fasting for a full 24 hours but this type of fasting can be done for several days, or every day.
Basically you eat during a set number of hours each day, starting and ending at the same times. You can follow 16/8 where you eat during an eight hour period and don't eat for the remaining 16 hours. An example of 16/8 intermittent fasting is to eat between noon and 8pm then fast from 8pm until noon the next day. A good deal of your fast is overnight, you miss breakfast but still eat a balanced lunch and dinner; or try eating between 9am and 5pm as you can have a balanced breakfast at 9am, a good lunch at noon and a light early dinner at about 4.30pm before you start your fast.
The most important thing is to not overeat during your restricted hours of eating. It can be very tempting to think that you can eat whatever you like during your hours of eating. This isn't the case, try to eat a normal healthy amount during this time.
Again for the most benefit to your mind and body, you must fast this way for the good of your health and not merely as a way to loose weight.
This is a fascinating subject and there are many ways to fast. For more detailed information and to find out more about the many different ways of fasting, here are some links to further reading:
I also refer to my favourite yoga cookbook for great tips on fasting and how to break a fast with light recipes The yoga cookbook, - vegetarian food for body and mind.
I hope this post has been interesting and helpful. As always please get in touch if you want to discuss fasting and its many benefits.