Fasting was part of my 2nd year naturopathy syllabus. I devoured every line and every lecture I attended. Studies done, it was time to put things in practice. So this year, I have tried many short fasts lasting from 18-36 hours and feel ready to share some of these experiences. When I say fast, I mean water only with occasional lemon or sweet lime juice added. It does not mean any kind of restrictive diet: like living only on fruits or buttermilk.
But first, some theory.
Naturopathy and fasting
Firstly, fasting is considered ‘king of all treatments’ in nature cure. Why? Because it restores and increases ‘the space’ element in our body. Of the 5 elements that the human body is made of: space or ether, air, fire, water and earth, space is the most powerful.
Let us try and understand this from an everyday example: your basic kitchen grinder. For it to grind, the blades inside need to move at a certain speed. What happens when the jar is filled upto the brim? If the material is liquid, it will force its way out of the cover and create space. If it is solid, the blades will struggle to rotate. Leaving enough space in the jar is important for the grinder to do its job.
Similarly having enough space inside our body, ensures that the natural movement of all organs happens smoothly.
Secondly is the principal of vital force or vital energy. The innate ability of the body to self- heal is dependent on this vital force. It is like an electric current flowing inside our bodies. The more blocks it encounters (remember in naturopathy, the reason for all disease is the accumulation of toxins or waste in the body), the lower its output or lower the vitality. A decrease in energy is often the first thing we experience before we get sick or when we are sick.
The space element controls this vital force which is why fasting, mental relaxation and sleep help to restore and strengthen this force.
Three big guzzlers of this energy are: physical, emotional and mental stress; excessive physical activity and over-eating or continuous eating.
Everytime we eat, we activate our digestive system: the stomach needs to digest and the intestines absorb. All this needs energy. What fasting primarily does is ‘rest’ our digestive system, therby freeing up a large portion of the vital energy which would otherwise be needed for digestion. This freed up energy is naturally tuned to clean, so it starts the process of pushing the accumulated toxins inside our body towards the eliminating organs (skin, kidney, lungs, colon). Aid these organs by drinking a fair amount of water, taking an enema and sun bathing, and the toxins are out of your body.
All of nature fasts. Man, beast alike, the one thing that happens to us when we get sick is a ‘loss of appetite’. All free roaming animals and birds listen to their bodies and don’t consume food when they are injured or sick. Man however, has been fed on a philosophy that if you are sick you should still eat!
All religions across the world practice fasting. From the 40 day lent of the Christians to the twice a year ‘Navratras’ of the Hindus, religious fasting was and continues to be a big draw. Sadly, fasts have now become more about feasting than fasting. The addition of fried foods in a Navratra thali (a collection of food items put together that people eat while breaking a fast), contradict every health benefit that one would have derived from such fasts.
Fasting and Me: Why am I fasting?
My journey is all about self- experimentation and about being able to live the things that I believe have merit. I needed to experience for myself the health benefits of fasting. My studies were teaching me that if you don’t suffer from chronic (asthma) or degenerative diseases (cancer), all of which require long term supervised fasts, fasting for short durations regularly (2* 36 hour fasts per month, one per forth night) is enough to get rid of toxic accumulations inside your body. So that was what I was going to do.
I also fasted on days when I felt an onset of acute disease. In naturopathy, acute disease is nothing but the body’s own effort to throw out toxins. So fasting during a fever, cold, diarrhea, is a great way of helping your already working vital force to throw out the toxins. It is recommended to fast from the onset till the end of an acute disease. Experience tells me most get cured within 12-18 hours, if you fast right at the onset.
Preparing the body, learning how to break the fast and what to do during a fast are very important aspects of fasting.
- Preparing the body: A fast is not a test of your endurance and if approached as such it will make you eat in excess while breaking it. So we must ease our bodies into it to derive maximum benefit. One initially starts by giving up 1 meal, for about a month. For me it was the breakfast. I would drink a glass of fresh juice vegetable or citrus before having lunch. Lunch time was pushed to around noon, since hunger would kick in. It is OK if on certain days you can’t do this, keep trying, so that you have atleast done this for 15-20 days over a 30-40 day period.
Interestingly a friend pointed out that the literal meaning of breakfast is to ‘break a fast’. Hence it should follow the same rules as fasting, i.e. drink a juice or eating a fruit. Sadly we have never been taught to pay attention to this.
You might ask, how this is different from intermittent fasting. Since I have tried both:
a) What made intermittent fasting almost harmful for me was that I did not follow any guidelines on how you break it, which is very different from fasts in naturopathy. So during my intermittent fasting days, I would eat a heavy breakfast at around 10 am, having not eaten for 16 hours before. Would most definitely have a cup of tea with it. Breaking a fast with tea/coffee is an absolute NO in regular fasting, something that I notice some people on intermittent fasting do.
b) Also, I have till date not been able to find the concept of intermittent fasting in Naturopathy. The idea that you eat as much as you want in a certain time window is alien to a naturopath. What is not alien is a lifestyle where dinner should end by 7 pm, there should be a gap of 5-6 hours between two meals and raw foods must be eaten each day.
2. During a fast it is important to conserve energy both physical and mental since the purpose of fasting is to ‘free up the vital energy’ for cleaning work. So rest, relaxation and no strenuous exercise are important to fasting. Ideally your body will feel a bit depleted initially so just listen to it. Sometimes, even during a short fast, you may feel a surge of energy. This is your vital force getting restored. Don’t dissipate it by going for a run or doing heavy mental work.
3. Breaking a fast the right way is most important, especially if the fast is of a longer duration (more than 72 hours). The digestive system has been put to sleep and you need to gradually wake it up with some gentle retraining. In naturopathy lingo, your digestive fire is very weak after a fast, hence you start by feeding it easily digestible things: juice and then fruits.
The schedule and results
- Finished dinner by 7:30 pm, kept it light.
- Started the next day with some lemon water, keep sipping this till about noon. After noon, I switched to just plain water.
- I felt a bit lethargic and had a mild headache, so made sure to nap whenever I felt like (headaches, low energy, irregular heartbeat, sweating are to be expected and will differ from person to person)
- I added a glass of sweet lime juice (about 200ml) after 24 hours, because my energy was really waning. You can wait on this if you don’t feel the need. Sweet lime is an energy booster as well as cleanser and will help get you through the next 8-10 hours. Sweet lime turns bitter within 20-30 minutes of exposure to the atmosphere, so drink it immediately and also don’t keep the peeled fruit out in the open for juicing later.
- For those who are fairly regular coffee/tea drinkers, headaches will be a common withdrawal symptom. It gets better with time. But if you also feel light headed and dizzy, have fast heartbeat then maybe your blood sugar is falling. In such a situation drink the sweet lime juice without waiting. A little honey and lemon water can also be taken in this case, but I personally found sweet lime more effective.
- During the day I took an enema. The enema works to cleanse the intestines, which have also been put to rest with no eating. Best to take this end of first day or morning of day you are breaking your fast. It aids the elimination.
- Did a sun bath, just lay under the morning (can also be evening) sun with minimum clothes. This activated sweating, which again helped with elimination and also keeps the body temperature warm.
- Next morning, i.e after 36 hours I had a glass of sweet lime juice (can also be any other citrus). After 2-3 hours ate a few pears. This can be any one seasonal fruit.
- The rest of the day was two small meals, no overloading the stomach. The most recommended first meal is any mildly spiced seasonal vegetable with some salads. I had a small cup of tea later in the day.
- Have done this a couple of times now and have always come out of my fasts feeling much lighter and energised, except this one time when I had coffee within 2 hours of breaking my fast. Not only could I not sleep that night but also had a splitting headache. I would lose about 1 kg of weight, quarter of which stayed off post eating. This is bound to vary depending on the inner state of one’s body. My next day yoga sessions always felt amazing, the body stretched more and my breath was able to travel to many more body parts.
Please don’t do unsupervised fasts if you are on any kind of regular medication, have a chronic condition or prone to anorexia. Also not recommended in any kind of deficiency condition like anemia or vitamin and calcium deficiencies.