To fast or to feast, that is the question. Food sustains us, yet it is important that we practice fasting every once in a while. There are multiple traditional records, scientific research, and independent studies on the practice of fasting and how it is an effective way of healing and regenerating the body. Modern-day research has highlighted that regular practice of fasting can offer potential benefits, including delayed aging, a healthier gut, and enhanced immunity. Different cultures have evolved different methods of fasting, and here we are going to talk about it in the Ayurvedic way.
Ayurveda sees fasting as a remedy for multiple illnesses and as a way to promote good health and well-being. In traditional records, the Sanskrit word that describes fasting is upavasa where 'Upa' means "near" and 'Vasa' means "to stay". So, fasting means "to sit or stay near (the Lord)" or to keep the Lord close to our hearts/minds. Thus the very word fasting highlights an inbuilt orientation toward the divine in the form of therapy. In Ayurveda, upavasa (fasting) is one of multiple daivavyapashraya (divine therapies).
Fasting in Ayurveda refers to abstinence from chewing, licking, and swallowing food but also refraining from all pleasures that kindle the senses. According to Charak Samhita, fasting is a complete dissociation from sinful acts and an association of virtuousness. It must not be regarded as the emaciation of the body.
According to Ayurveda, the digestive system and the digestive fire (agni) impact an individual's health. The digestive organs act as a furnace that burns the digestive fire. Any waste accumulation can weaken the digestive system and sabotage the digestive fire. With weak digestion, metabolic toxins, and waste accumulate in our digestive tract, disrupt cellular metabolism, and lead to illnesses.
Upavasa (fasting) leads to the removal of these accumulated toxins and fats, clears the blocked channels, and restores and maintains digestive power. According to Ayurveda, ama is a result of poor digestion, which is the root cause of all diseases. If we continue to indulge in poor dietary habits, we are creating more ama, which will eventually enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. In addition to this, disruption of the doshas can also result in different toxicities1. Therefore, we need to make our digestive fire and boost our digestive process. This can be achieved through fasting, which adds a vital halt to the digestive process, strengthens agni, and helps eliminate ama before it causes more profound problems.
Fasting allows rest to the digestive system, and the system gets an opportunity to heal naturally. Research has also highlighted that fasting helps enhance the production and activity of certain enzymes involved in detoxification2.
What really fasting and detoxing do? Are they interchangeable, and do they perform the same job?
Fasting can be seen as voluntary abstinence from some or all foods, drinks, or both for a specific period. It can be of different types. An absolute fast is defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period. In contrast, other fasts may be partially restrictive. A person can be assumed to have been fasting once a period of 8–12 hours has passed since their last meal.
Detoxing, on the other hand, is generally considered a short-term dietary change to eliminate toxins from your body. A common detox diet may typically involve regulated fasting followed by a strict diet. Sometimes detox may also include consuming only herbs and teas. Detox therapies are most commonly used to treat potential exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment or diet. Thus, even though fasting and detoxing help with various health problems, they are not the same.
As discussed above, in Ayurveda, upavasa is one of the daivavyapashraya therapies. In Ayurveda, upavasa (fasting) is regarded as a treatment therapy for various diseases, including vamana (vomiting), atisara (diarrhea), hridroga (cardiac disorders), visuchika (cholera), alasaka (paresis of the bowel), jwara (fever), etc. According to Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana, if these ailments of less severity are experienced by someone, then they should be treated by fasting. In addition to these, fasting has been shown to have many other additional health benefits:
Better digestion and a cleansed digestive system: The digestive organs form an integral part of our body. They require a tremendous amount of energy to perform their functions and may also need rest from time to time. Fasting allows for the resting of the digestive tract and frees up energy to be used for healing. This freed-up energy is also potentially used by the body to improve agni (digestive fire), burn away toxins, and support a strong digestive system3.
Rejuvenation of the body and mind: Fasting is believed to play a vital role in removing toxins from our bodies. As our bodies clear out unwanted toxins, we can connect with our minds more easily. With fasting, our body feels lighter, there is an increase in energy, and the mind becomes clearer and more focused. Some studies4 have shown that alternate-day fasting can enhance brain function and improve learning and memory, as indicated by improvements in performance on behavioral tests of sensory and motor function due to increased production of new neurons from neural stem cells.
Reduces inflammation: According to Ayurvedic wisdom, upavasa is an integral part of treatment for santarpanajanya vikara (diseases due to over-satiation including over-nutrition). Since over-satiation can cause disorders like inflammation, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, hypertension, joints, skeletal problems, etc., fasting may offer potential relief. Modern-day research has highlighted some potential benefits of fasting in this regard.
Acute inflammation is a normal immune process to help fight off infections. However, prolonged chronic inflammation can have serious impacts on our health. Research shows that inflammation may be involved in leading to chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. A review5 of 18 studies highlighted that fasting could significantly reduce levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation. Therefore, with a reduction in inflammation, a person is less likely to develop the serious health complications mentioned above.
According to research, alternate-day fasting has also resulted in significant reductions in serum TNFα and ceramides in asthma patients6. Furthermore, one study7 highlighted that following a very low-calorie diet to mimic the effects of fasting could potentially reduce levels of inflammation and could be beneficial in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (a chronic inflammatory condition).
Mindful eating habits and weight loss: Many people experiment with fasting to try to lose weight. Abstaining from certain foods and beverages does decrease the overall calorie intake, which could lead to weight loss over time. Some research8 has also found that short-term fasting may potentially boost metabolism by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which could improve weight loss. One review9 showed that whole-day fasting could reduce body weight by up to 9%. Research10 has also highlighted that alternate-day fasting was more effective in inducing weight loss compared to continuous calorie restriction.
Improves blood sugar control: There is a large area of research that connects fasting with improved blood sugar control. Several scientific studies have found that fasting may improve blood sugar control, which can be critical for those at risk of diabetes. In fact, a study11 highlighted that people with type 2 diabetes showed significantly decreased blood sugar levels with short-term intermittent fasting. Later, another 2014 review12 found that fasting was as effective as limiting calorie intake at reducing insulin resistance. Reduced insulin resistance coupled with the potential blood sugar-lowering could potentially help keep blood sugar steady and prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
Individuals with a Vata-dominant constitution or imbalanced Vata are recommended to limit themselves to an overnight fast. These individuals should consume a regular breakfast, healthy lunch, and light well-cooked dinner followed by a 14-hour fast until breakfast the next morning. Longer fasts are not recommended as they can make an individual experience dizziness, ungroundedness, pain, and degenerative changes due to excessive dryness triggered by fasting.
Individuals with a Pitta-dominant constitution or Pitta-imbalance have sharp and intense agni. Therefore, often they cannot tolerate fast very well. However, fasting can be done sparingly to help with the removal of toxins from the body. Just like Vata, these individuals should consume a regular breakfast, healthy lunch, and light well-cooked dinner followed by a 14-hour fast until breakfast the next morning. Longer fasts are not recommended as they may lead to acidity, burning pain in the stomach, reflux, loose stools, burning sensation in the lower abdomen, etc.
The individual with a Kapha-dominant constitution can try fasting due to damp agni. These individuals can tolerate fasting for up to 18 hours. However, this should only be done for a limited period of time to strengthen the agni. People with Kapha dominant constitutions can make the most from the regular practice of fasting. The lightness, dryness, and warming effect of fasting can help balance the heaviness, density, cloudiness, and sluggishness associated with Kapha. While fasting, individuals can consume herbs like black pepper, ginger, long pepper, etc., to impart warming qualities to balance the cold/dampness of Kapha dosha.
According to Ayurveda, spring is the best season for upavasa (fasting). Ayurvedic wisdom suggests that self-cleansing forces heighten in our body when the power of the sun begins to set in to boost our metabolism. That said, this does not mean that one cannot fast during other seasons. If you wake up in the morning feeling tired and dull and have a coating on your tongue, notice any type of indigestion, it is your body sending you signals that something is off. These are times when a person should fast and allow the body to clear up any ama. However, it is important to choose the length of your fast conservatively, and if you choose to fast one day a week, it is better to choose the same day every week as it helps build a routine and manage your schedule. Moreover, some people fast for astrological reasons; therefore, fasting on fixed days to support their charts, therefore fasting on fixed days can be beneficial for all.Once you finish your fast, it is important not to jump back into a regular diet as you may stress your digestive fire causing more harm than good. Therefore, it is better to eat fruits or lighter meals.
According to Ayurveda, the functioning of the digestive system impacts the health of an individual. So, if you plan on adding fasting to your routine, remember to honor and understand your own unique doshas and bodily requirements. Fasting is a practice that has been associated with many potential health benefits, and there are many different types of fasting that fit nearly every lifestyle. Thus, coupled with a healthy diet and good lifestyle, incorporating fasting into our routine could benefit our health and potentially bring us near the Lord!
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