Dr Mickey Mehta, global fitness and wellness expert, cues us into the art and science of fasting, and tells us why it works wonders for us!
The Art Of Fasting, Defined
Upavasa – fasting – is one among all daivavyapashraya (spiritual) therapies and one among 10 langhana (that which produces lightness of the body) therapies.
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 your heart and mind. Fasting is defined as ‘complete voluntary abstinence from taking any kind of food for a particular time, in order to give rest to the digestive system’.
Fasting is a break from ingestion. The main source of energy is glucose. It is used by various organs for different bodily functions. However, the excess glucose gets stored in the adipose tissues and liver. It is this unused excessive glucose that gives rise to metabolic diseases like diabetes, thyroid and obesity. When we fast and stop eating, our body uses up all the glycogen that is in the liver and the muscles, and when this excess glucose is used up, your level of glucose will be maintained and therefore, it brings a balance to the functioning of various organs.
Fasting & Its Healing Touch
Fasting is common to just about every major religious tradition. Besides religious practice, fasting is good for a number of health reasons too. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates believed that fasting helped the body heal itself. It is a very ancient wisdom-based approach towards the reversal of ailments and age. Fasting creates a lot of space in your system and allows your body’s coping mechanism to get unburdened from the day-to-day handling of food – digestion, absorption, assimilation and elimination. Generally, the lag between ingestion and digestion which builds up gradually creates the burden of toxins (called amavish), which is then harboured in the organs and creates cellular inflammation. This cellular inflammation becomes the root cause of every ailment. Ailments emanate from the stomach.
However, during fasting, while the body is not digesting food, miracles are taking place in the body. So when you allow your stomach a break, you allow a system reboot, a digestive system reboot, an organ system reboot, but most importantly, an endocrine system reboot. Typically, an 8-hour gap between meals is very good; it allows the body to recover, digest absolutely well and eliminate everything unwanted. Technically, it keeps you disease-free.
Some benefits of fasting are better insulin control, detoxification of the body, stimulation of the digestive fires, removal of toxins, anti-aging effect, improved metabolism, cell rejuvenation, feeling light and healthy, feeling more energetic, better weight management, better concentration and focus. It also increases our mental energy and makes us disciplined.
Fasting is actually slowing down. It means a gap and space from consumption of food and drink. You can choose to have a moderate approach towards it by going with fasting raw – so only fruits and salads. Or you can choose to do fasting of fluids – vegetable juices, fruit juices, herbal tea and soups. You can choose to have a combination – choosing light grains like samak and buckwheat khichdi with ghee. Or you can choose to do just a warm water fast. Or you can choose to do a complete fast without any water or anything else. Consult your doctor to decide what kind of fast will suit you best.
When you eat only once a day, you go a few notches higher in excellence of health. And health means healing; and healing means allowing your body to come back to wholeness again. Just allow it space, so that the balance of ether takes place. This balancing of ether typically allows your body to reorient itself in terms of the elements – because we are made of 5 elements and ether is the universal, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient element of all. Ether is present in every other element and it is the pacifier, the equalizer and the regulator.
The Science Of Fasting, Unplugged
Macrophagy is typically the first defense mechanism of the human body where the body immediately responds when under attack by bacteria, germs and viruses. Autophagy (cellular “self-eating”), on the other hand, is a recycling and cleanup process that rids your body of damaged and misfolded proteins. The well-fed cell isn’t worried about being efficient and recycling its components – it’s too busy growing and dividing. This macrophagy to become autophagy is normally what people attain with intermittent fasting. Fasting is the most effective way to trigger autophagy. When the body is low on sugar through fasting, it brings the positive stress that wakes up the survival repairing mode. Autophagy starts from 18 hours. However, its max level is achieved at 3 days fasting.
That becomes a larger coping mechanism or rather a potent coping mechanism to heal the body, eliminating the impurities within because the body has the mechanism to consume all the toxic waste generated within.
So autophagy is the biggest healer because it makes the body wholesome, clean and gets our system integrated, our bodily functions well-orchestrated and working at optimal capacity. Fasting should also be done keeping in mind the circadian rhythm of the body. It is not that any 16 hours for autophagy dependent intermittent fasting is good enough. Yes, any 16 hours will do, but for excellence, the last meal should be in the evening before sunset. That makes a huge difference because our energies rise with the sun and end with sunset. So when the energies are ending, then to burden the body with meals has its own contraindications and thus, ideally, the last meal should be before sunset.
The Spiritual Significance Of Fasting
Since fasting is a cleansing process, the system becomes vibrant. This helps the meditator sit up with eyes closed and still be fully alert. To create this vibrancy, it is important to observe how we eat, what we eat, how much we eat. Fasting purifies the mind and the body, allowing it to divert itself and think beyond. It strengthens one’s conviction and teaches you self-control. That’s when you can meditate, focus and concentrate.
Fasting helps in the development of the body, mind and soul. It helps to destroy the tridosha (phlegm, bile and wind) of the body. I recommend supplementing the fasting ritual with some deep self-reflection, meditation and swadhyaya (study of self) to unravel different layers of our being. Also exposing yourself to sunlight, fresh air and water will help the process of fasting better.
We live in a society of abundance and fasting is self-imposed scarcity, but it brings about so many health and well-being benefits. Fasting is not starvation. It is a beautiful system to heal yourself and enjoy life when done the right way.