Human beings have been fasting since we were fur-wearing, club-wielding cave dwellers. Of course, back in those times not eating was more likely due to food scarcity in harsh winters or competition with other animals but regardless, our bodies have evolved to function for prolonged periods without food and even water. Tens of thousands of years later, fasting remains common practice in cultures around the world. For Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, pagans and Hindus alike it’s a sacred act, a kind of spiritual cleansing, but there are also benefits to physical health, which may be the reason for its growing popularity.
The idea of fasting can be daunting (or madness according to some friends) but it’s what our bodies are designed to do. In a nutshell, while carbohydrates are our main energy source, when the body is deprived of sugars it starts to use fat stores in a process called ‘ketosis’. In this state, energy that would normally be used for digestion can instead help the body detoxify and heal, and clinical trials have shown fasting to be beneficial for conditions including type II diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, arthritis, IBS, allergies and depression.
If you’re living in 2013 it’s wise to detox regularly. Byproducts of stress and toxins in our air, food, water and even beauty products can overload the body and lead to disease. So you don’t need a specific condition to have a reason to fast. The duration of the fast is up to you. Some experts recommend fasting one day a week, others for longer periods a couple of times a year. In the UK, the spring and autumn equinoxes were traditionally times for detoxification – to purify and prepare the body for the coming season.
If you haven’t fasted before, ‘juice fasting’ is an ideal way to cleanse, and still allows you to consume herbal teas, and vegetables and fruits juiced in a masticating or centrifugal juicer. Water fasting is when you drink just water and is only advised once you’ve experienced juice fasting. In his book The Transformational Power of Fasting, Stephen Buhner suggests fasting for at least three days, as it can take this long for ketosis to begin. Experienced fasters can go for 30 days but any longer and starvation can occur, which is of course extremely dangerous and detrimental to health.
Before You Start Fasting
Think about why you want to fast and set your intention. We all have different relationships with food, so take time to think about what food means to you, why and when you eat. Are there any specific emotions that influence your eating habits? How does the thought of not eating make you feel? Decide whether to do a juice or water fast, how long you want to fast and when. Ideally choose a quiet time when you can do as little as possible!
Before starting my own three-day juice fast, I sought the advice of Sarra Moore: a healthy eating coach trained in naturopathic nutrition. She stressed the importance of easing into a fast, which means no wheat, meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine or alcohol. While this was a depressing conversation for an espresso-quaffing cheese worshipper, experimenting with vegetable curries and salads was satisfying and tasty, and made the transition to juice fasting less difficult.
Sarra also recommended that I buy all ingredients for juicing (preferably organic) before the fast so to avoid chaotic supermarkets and the tempting aromas of food. My intention was to detox, so I stocked up on celery, cucumber, beetroot, carrots and apples for juicing, and fresh ginger to drink with hot water. This would support my immune system while boosting circulation.
During Your Fast
Take it easy. View your fast as a gift to yourself and relish this time to relax. Put your phone on silent, out-of-office on email and focus on you and you only. I started each day with a large glass of filtered water and the juice of half a lemon, followed by a pint of juiced apple, several carrots, a few sticks of celery, half a cucumber and a knob of ginger. Juicing isn’t a precise science so don’t worry too much about quantities. Vegetables contain less sugar than fruit, so try adding more if you can, especially the green leafy kind like spinach, kale and parsley.
Dandelion and burdock tea is fantastic for helping the body detox. Epsom bath salts also draw out toxins from muscle tissue, a great reason to add a cupful and several drops of lavender essential oil to a hot bath… bliss! Brushing your skin with a soft bristle brush in an upward direction towards your lymph nodes helps the flow of lymph fluid, the body’s waste disposal system. If you want to exercise, do some gentle yoga, go for a walk outside or simply sit and meditate. Keep a diary and make note of how you feel. While your body is processing and eliminating toxins, you may experience unexpected emotions, so it helps to write these down and also choose a place you won’t be disturbed.
After You Finish Fasting
‘Walking out’ of the fast is just as important as easing in. Don’t arrange dinner at the local steakhouse the day you break your fast. It’ll be hard to digest and uncomfortable! Start with fresh organic vegetables, raw or steamed, and plain brown rice. You may find you crave healthy foods anyway and your body will tell you what it wants. I didn’t expect spinach and cucumber to trump a cheese baguette as my first post-fast meal but it was the most flavoursome plate of greens I’d ever eaten, and I savoured every mouthful.
Each person’s experience of fasting is different, and it will differ every time you fast too. I was surprised how three pints of juice a day with plenty of water and tea was enough to keep me full. I got tired in the evenings but for the most part, I felt alert and sharper in my mind. Post-fast I’ve been craving kale and my cheese addiction appears to have vanished! I’m not ready for a full-on water fast yet but plan to juice fast in early spring, as the perfect antidote to the excesses of the festive season.
Please be aware that fasting isn’t suitable for everyone, especially children. If you have a serious disease, type I diabetes, kidney problems, anorexia or bulimia, or are pregnant, you should consult your doctor before fasting.