If 2021 is your year to finally get serious about your health, Sonal Kulkarni says fasting is the way forward
Fasting isn’t just a dramatic weight loss strategy or a hack that bodybuilders use to lose fat quickly while maintaining lean muscle mass. It is the world’s most ancient and natural healing mechanism; at its best it triggers a truly wonderful cleansing process that reaches right down to each and every cell and tissue in the body.
Fasting, if you do it for long enough, triggers autophagy – from the Ancient Greek meaning self-devouring. And that’s a good thing. Autophagy is the natural, regulated mechanism of the cell that removes unnecessary or dysfunctional components. It allows the orderly degradation and recycling of cellular components. It’s something our bodies do naturally but arguably not often enough.
By fasting we are asking our bodies to be much more efficient and self-protective than they are accustomed to being. Fasting helps every system in the body to function smoothly and it provides an opportunity for the body to heal and repair itself. Fasting is done to store energy utilised in the digestion process, as well as to remove toxins from the body.
Types of fasting
Fasting can mean total or partial abstinence from food. Medical advice generally suggests anywhere from 24 hours to three days as the maximum time to fast. When you fast, you’re allowed to drink as much water as you like.
If you’re thinking about fasting for the first time, it’s advisable to seek expert guidance and supervision from your doctor. Fasting isn’t for everyone – you certainly can’t fast if you’re pregnant, insulin-dependent or an alcoholic, or if you have diabetes or anaemia. Be sure to check with your doctor first.
For beginners, the easiest option is to fast for between four and eight hours during the day and then in the evening for 12 to 16 hours until morning. As a way in, you might decide to fast in the mornings from 6am to 1pm, and again in the evenings from 4pm to 10pm.
Popular ‘intermittent fasting’ regimens range from ingesting few if any calories all day every other day or several times a week, to fasting for 16 hours or more every day. Many people will experience hunger, irritability and a reduced ability to concentrate during periods of food restrictions. However, these side effects usually disappear within a month.
Less hardcore fasts include the ‘one item fast’ – eating only one type of food, such as rice, for much of the day; the ‘liquid fast’ – drinking fruit juice and milk as you fast; and the ‘fruit fast,’ which allows you to eat fruit during your fast.
The fasting process
From the onset, it’s important to recognise that the lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. But a fast can help cleanse your body, and allow you to jump-start a healthier lifestyle.
Before you fast, you need to make sure that you are prepared both physically and mentally. In the fortnight preceding your fast, try to relax and get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of liquid and take some moderate exercise. Reduce your intake of all addictive substances and start to exclude certain foods, like red meat, dairy and refined carbohydrates.
Committing to fasting helps you reassess your diet, and become better informed about healthful eating. Many people find that their tastes change for the good and their old cravings disappear after a fast. Going forward, you may find that you do not need to eat as much, and that you feel more satisfied with healthy choices.
When you break your fast, start with raw foods – fruit and vegetable juices and salads – before switching to ‘normal’ cooked meals. Your diet after fasting should include 40% carbohydrates, 30% fruit vegetables and 30% pulses, plus plenty of leafy greens.
Post-fast, you will find that you have a clean taste in your mouth, sweet breath and a clear tongue. Your urine will be clear. You’ll feel fresh, your eyes will sparkle and you’ll be full of energy.
Fasting and autophagy
When talking about fasting, it’s important to focus on autophagy – the natural ‘self-devouring’ process mentioned earlier that fasting triggers.
The human body contains trillions of cells, and over time, as they age, unwanted molecules build up inside them. When we fast, the body does not have its usual access to glucose, forcing the cells to resort to other means and materials to produce energy. During a long fast, insulin drops and this raises glucagon, which in turn stimulates autophagy – cells start to heal themselves, removing and recycling any unwanted molecules and dysfunctional parts. This process of cellular housekeeping is crucial for cellular quality control – not only does it rejuvenate cells it enables them to absorb nutrients more easily.
Defects in autophagy have been linked to various diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer, and interest in modulating autophagy as a potential treatment for these diseases is growing rapidly. Recent studies of intermittent fasting have found that it improves such disease indicators as insulin resistance, blood fat abnormalities, high blood pressure and inflammation, even independently of weight loss. In patients with multiple sclerosis, intermittent fasting reduced symptoms in just two months, a research team in Baltimore reported in 2018.
Consider that in nature, when animals get sick, they stop eating. This results in better functioning at a cellular level, which in turn helps their bodies to heal.
The benefits of fasting
Fasting has numerous additional benefits. Importantly, it gives the digestive system a rest, while at the same time allowing the body to metabolise food and burn fats more efficiently.
Increased metabolism can, of course, help with weight loss. Just as importantly, fasting helps to regulate the hormones
in your body so that you can experience true hunger. This can be particularly beneficial to people who find it difficult to establish a correct eating pattern due to work and other priorities, and to people with eating disorders.
Medicine practitioners and naturopaths, from Phuket to Sri Lanka, Denpasar to DB, will tell you that fasting is an essential part of any detox. Even a short fast eliminates toxins from your body, and you’ll benefit from flushing them out – regularly.
Fasting results in increased immunity. It reduces free radical damage, regulates inflammatory conditions and staves off cancer cell formation.
Fasting boosts the body’s production of pro-proteins, which activate neural stem cells to generate new neurons – this results in improved mental clarity, focus and memory. People who fast also experience improved sleep quality. This is because fasting regulates the body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters that regulate countless functions and processes in the body, from sleep to metabolism.
Last but not least, fasting feeds the soul, making us feel peaceful and content. With a lighter body and clearer mind, we become more aware of and grateful for the things around us.