I recently spent some time answering questions regarding fasting. I thought you might enjoy the reflections! If you are not familiar with fasting, come back and learn more soon! It might just change your life!
1. What do you recommend in terms of foods to eat the day before? Best category of foods — meat, carbs, fish, beans (if someone is vegetarian)?
SE: Great question. During a fast the body begins a process of metabolization and detoxification. After it uses up sugars in the blood stream (glucose) and stored sugars in the muscle and liver (glycogen) it begins to break down stored fats or adipose tissue. As the fat reserves are metabolized many of the stored fat-soluble (lipophilic) toxins, heavy metals etc are mobilized and enter the blood stream and intestinal tract. As you might guess it is preferable to eat foods which help facilitate the excretion of these wastes from the body. Plant foods are ideal for this purpose as the insoluble fiber in plants binds up fats and toxins and the body is able to excrete them quickly and efficiently even during the fast. Animal foods will increase the risk of constipation and recirculation/reabsorption of the toxins and fats the body is attempting to excrete. So large vegetable salads and fruits, whole grains and beans along with plenty of water throughout the day are ideal pre-fast meals. The simpler the foods, with a nice quantity of insoluble fiber the better.
2. What about beverages — better to drink a lot right near the end of the day before? Water only, something like Gatorade — what’s the best thing to drink?
SE: Good “normal” levels of hydration are preferred. I advise drinking purified water the day before and during the fast if allowed. Also the avoidance of caffeinated beverages and heavily processed drinks with artificial colors and sweeteners.
3. On fasting in general — I know some people who occasionally do a “cleanse” and fast. Is this a good idea? Pros and cons?
SE: Intermittent therapeutic fasting can be excellent for the appropriately selected individuals. When we speak of fasting of course we mean complete “physiologic rest.” This means rest of mind and body. If one can not take complete rest, and must continue to work or study etc, then some of the healing potential of the fast is not engaged. You see we want the nervous system uncluttered and untroubled, able to focus on healing and detoxification. The pros are that intermittent “caloric restriction” gives the body and the digestive system a break and is in fact the only thing proven to independently extend life in vertebrates. From a spiritual perspective it can also be of value to assist the individual in self-mastery and in discipline, while helping to detach from the things of “this world.” A new sense of ability and potential is often experienced by the faster. The cons exist only when the fast is misused. For example, using a fast to yo-yo from poor eating or living habits is not a health promoting lifestyle. Likewise, “fasting” while on artificial drinks or caffeinated beverages is not wise.
4. Any recommendations for making the fast easier?
SE: Individuals who are on medications, or have severe, chronic diseases should always be evaluated prior to making a fast. For the average, healthy individual with minimal disease burden, a short 1-2 day fast, appropriately organized is reasonable. Anything beyond that number of days should be medically supervised until the individual has demonstrated good tolerance of fasting.
To make a fast easier, individuals should be in a comfortable, warm but not hot, safe, low stimulus environment where they have the freedom to sleep and rest when needed. They should avoid excessive stress, emotional turmoil and work/family obligations when possible and engage fully in the fast experience. One can have a collection of articles, books, magazines, music etc available related to the particular reason for fasting. If for spiritual reasons, then some good readings on the spiritual significance and the value of fasting. If for health, then perhaps a book or two on the particular malady the person is hoping to improve.
5. Some people say fasting is easy for them, while others have more difficulties. Any conditions that could contribute to that?
SE: Individual responses to fasting frequently reflect internal health and at times reflect emotional states. This is not always the case, however some individuals have developed strong attachments to food for various reasons and limiting food for a brief period is overwhelming, During more prolonged periods of fasting or in specific cases of illness, some people may experience a “fasting crisis” or significant unpleasant symptoms which reflect their poor underlying health and the detoxification the body is undergoing.
6. How safe is it for kids to fast? Is there a minimum recommended age? What about older people? Recommendations for college students away for the first time?
SE: Short periods of fasting, such as 1-2 days are generally safe for otherwise healthy individuals older then 3 or 4 years of age who are not on medications. However they must be able to take in water ad-libitum( based on thirst) to maintain the bodies stores of fluid and facilitate good kidney function. If they can not do this they should not be considered for fasting. However if they can, fasting can be an excellent and powerful treatment for colds, coughs, sniffles and other childhood illnesses frequently felt to be of “viral” origin. A brief fast increases the concentration of white blood cells in the blood stream and improves their ability to fight off infection often resulting in much shorter periods of illness. Older individuals may be limited in their fasting potential by medication use or other chronic illnesses, that would require closer medical supervision to allow a fast. As per college students, a brief 1-2 day fast over an otherwise quiet period with limited physical activity can be of value. If done for spiritual reasons, bringing together friends to share in the experience can build collegiality and support and encourage spiritual growth and dialogue in the post-fast period.
7. Any physical conditions where people should NOT fast — I know pregnancy — could you say why — but any others?
SE: During Pregnancy the developing fetus is dependent on the mother for all his/her nutrient needs. Halting nutrition to the mother for an extended period of time, may leave her body searching for nutrition and eliminating non-essential components of her body. In this case it is plausible that her body might eliminate or terminate the pregnancy in the form of a miscarriage. The length of time that may be risky is unclear. However it is prudent to avoid fasting during all periods of pregnancy. Otherwise the precautions as listed in the areas above apply./……regarding medication use, chronic illness etc.
Stephan Esser MD Dr Esser is a Specialist in Lifestyle Medicine and Sports Medicine, a collaborator with Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, founder of www.esserhealth,com and a frequent presenter and author on topics related to lifestyle and disease. His family ran Esser’s Ranch a fasting facility for over 65 years with over 30,000 patients fasting.