One great way to keep your digestive system at optimum level is to practice weekly fasting for health benefits and weight loss (also called ‘intermittent fasting’) – either for one day, two days or two separate days each week.
Fasting is the abstinence of all or some food types (and often drink too) for a certain period; rather than dieting, which is the abstinence from certain food types consistently. We fast over each night as we sleep, in fact, until we have break-fast.
Diets and fasting are taken with the intention of losing unnecessary weight and improving health. Fasting also often has medical or religious implications as well. The benefit of fasting over dieting as a weight loss plan is that you can eat what you like (of course, healthy food is recommended at all times!) the rest of the week. No need to count calories, avoid carbohydrates or anything else.
A friend put me onto this idea of weekly 24 hour fasts recently, and I have been greatly impressed with the process, having not fasted for years as my five day fasts became a little too demanding. So I decided to do a little research.
Fat on our bodies is readily available energy, and what’s more, it is free! Breaking down this fat – which can be visceral (between and inside the vital organs) as well as subcutaneous (under the skin, what we normally think of as fat) – is healthy as it improves the capacity of many bodily functions. During the absence of food, the body will systematically cleanse itself of everything except vital tissue, and the overtaxation our digestive systems experience through processed foods (how much do you eat?) and constant eating often mean that our metabolism becomes impaired.
Research suggests there are major health benefits: “including reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, immune disorders, and more generally, the slowing of the aging process, and the potential to increase maximum life span“. Further research suggests a link between fasting and improved efficacy of chemotherapy, but if we maintain a regular fasting regimen before having developed cancer, yet more research shows that the lack of cell proliferation of cancerous cells during fasting inhibits the growth of tumours and helps the immune system deal with them better. So we can see it is preventive medicine as well as curative.
“Fasting poses a good kind of stress, much like exercise,” says Mark Mattso PhD, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Our cells respond by increasing their ability to cope with other, stronger stresses.”
Nutritionist Amanda Hamilton recently wrote of research that suggests how fasting extends life – through regeneration and rejuvenation by “giving the body a break to catch up on its inner ‘to do’ list”. Ultimately, fasting is shown more and more to de-stress the body and help with all round health, so we don’t get ill in the first place.
In Chinese medicine it is advised to eat “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, supper like a pauper”, with ideal times for breakfast between 7-9am (when the stomach is strongest) and supper eaten before 7pm (some say 6pm), so that the stomach is empty and the digestion complete before sleep. This allows the sleeping process to more fully operate without having to digest food simultaneously. Makes sense, no?
In fact, there appears to be no support for complete fasting at all in Chinese medicine, which sees cleansing the body of toxins as a function of vegetable consumption. The classics say, “Grains are for energy, meats for strength, and vegetables for keeping the body clean.” So if you want to cleanse yourself of toxins, prioritising on vegetables is sufficient.
For the food you eaten the rest of the week, try having your protein at breakfast or lunch, rice porridge (‘kanji’) is a breakfast favourite in China, and often they add meat, chilli and other spices, Chinese herbal medicines, nuts, vegetables or dried fruit; and for supper having a large plate of steamed or raw vegetables late afternoon. Including dark leafy green veg like kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage helps clean the bowels and nourish the blood, and root vegetables help you stay grounded, nourish the blood and offer a slow release of energy.
There is also a common emphasis on fasting for both brief and extended periods in all major religions, in order to rest the digestion, purify the will, become closer to the divine, and to rid yourself of what no longer serves you.
For those in involved in:
Christianity – there is particular emphasis on fasting at Easter for ‘penance’ (I read this to be for ridding the mind of obsessive eating);
Judaism – fasting is rigorously upheld on Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish calender, and again on Tisha B’Av;
Islam – as the fourth of the five “pillars of Islam”, fasting from dawn until dusk is upheld throughout the month of Ramadan, and is considered one of the fundamental practices of the Muslim faith;
Buddhism – various sects refrain from eating after noon each day, or on certain days, which has similarities to the Chinese medical approach;
Hinduism – fasting is hugely importance to the Hindu faith, with various sects practising weekly or monthly fasts and during religious festivals.
Fasting is not advised for pregnant women, children pre-puberty, the elderly and infirm.
Listen to your intuition, if it just doesn’t feel right, just stop.