Fasting has become popular in the mainstream in the last few years, and with good reason to. I’ve fasted in my life for various reasons, because I felt it helped me in different ways. But now, with so much science backing fasting, it makes sense to make it a part of our regular routines.
Taking a break from food and digestion sounds too simple to be of any use – but it is in fact extremely beneficial. Longer fasts promote cell repair and boosts brain function. These are the two most encouraging benefits for me. When we eat constantly without a break, and especially foods that are high in protein, we encourage our cells to replicate. But with each repetition, the cells become a weaker copy of their predecessors. It is far better for the body to keep the cells it has already in good condition. When we fast, we turn off the ‘make more’ mode, and turn on repair mode. This means we keep our younger, less damaged cells.
The brain function increase is not only good in the short term, but can help protect our brains in the long term too. It’s the same story as with the cells of our body, our brain can keep hold of the ones it’s already got, rather than making new, but impaired cells. That’s thanks to BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Low levels of BDNF has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s, so keeping our levels high is vital.
We have evolved to fast. Hunger is a natural part of the human body’s expected experience. It’s the ying to its yang. An empty stomach is super important to the health of our whole body. Often good health starts in the gut. By giving the digestive system a break, we give it a chance to clear out gunk, repair damage and have a breather!
But there are many ways to fast. One of the most popular ones, as promoted by Dr Michael Mosely after his documentary, “Eat, Fast, Live Longer” is the 5:2 diet. 5:2 promotes eating regularly for 5 days, but doing a modified fast on two days. The two days can be consecutive or not. And the modified part means that you can, in fact, eat, but just a few hundred calories. Now that’s the part that bothers me. I’m not a fan of calorie counting at all. Calories are not created equally, so having a health programme based on counting calories is not a healthy practice if you ask me. And personally, I find eating a bit of something, is far harder than eating nothing at all. Afterall, this is about experiencing hunger and giving the body a break from food. Some people who do 5:2 eat crisps and snack bars. These chemical additive-ful foods won’t give the gut the break it needs.
Psychologically I find counting calories too obsessive. But if having a bit of vegetable soup sounds more pleasant to you than complete starvation (especially on a work day) then go for it.
I tried 5:2 and I couldn’t get on with it at all. And so I found a way that suits me much better. I call it skipping supper. But really it is an 18 hour fast.
I eat normally all day, and then I can skip supper quite easily. I go to bed early anyways and then on waking, I’m not that hungry. It isn’t too hard to wait til about midday to eat my next meal, meaning that usually I can fast for 18 hours and it’s not painful at all. And the best part of this for me, is that I do it when I really feel like it. If I don’t feel hungry when evening comes, I skip supper! And voila, an easy fast.
But if I feel sluggish, tired, a bit toxic, ill or rundown, then 18 hour fasts are a great way to give the body the respite it needs.
A lot of people who fast say that they don’t feel hungry the next day. Which goes to show that a lot of hunger has to do with stomach stretching. I often feel what I call, 8am hunger – but I know it’s not true hunger. It doesn’t last very long and goes away with no bother. This is actually a shrinking of the stomach from the meal the night before. Try it for yourself. See whether a big meal in the night makes you hungry, or a very small meal. My money is on the big meal making you feel hungry. (Or in fact, stretching your stomach – so that the shrinking part of it in the morning feels like hunger).
Skipping breakfast isn’t the big deal that a lot of people say it is. I’ve always thought that if you don’t feel like eating breakfast, don’t eat it! It’s just another way to let our systems recuperate.
Many people fast for 18 hours every day. Which I find could be a bit much, but it’s not that crazy on the whole, and sometimes I think I’d actually quite like to do it myself. But when food is such a social thing, sometimes you have to eat with people in the evenings! What the 18 hour fasters do, is they eat within a 6 – 8 hour window everyday. So they eat from 12pm – 6pm and don’t eat outside of that time. That appeals to me, and I think I could do that quite easily. But see what works for you.
Because fasting is so beneficial, I truly believe it can become a part of our weekly routines. At least one fast a week will see you feeling lighter, more energetic and clear-headed. That’s how I often feel when I do fasts. On longer fasts I feel more connected to everything around me (you can see how fasting has always been part of spiritual practices), I feel calmer, more gentle, more alive, and I feel that I hum with energy.
A secret of fasting is to expect it. I never like coming home from work hungry, and I go through the cupboards looking for something to sate me. But if I know I’m fasting, my mindset changes, and I embrace hunger rather than look to quell it.
Fasting is great for clearing the mind. So if you have a stressful situation coming up, maybe an exam, interview, or an important meeting – fasting can help calm you down. The body does not want to be digesting in that tense state. Fasting is fantastic if you have been feeling under the weather for a while. Immunity suppression can result in styes, colds, headaches, and body pains. Give your immunity a boost by fasting. So often we think we need external stuff to make us feel better. Teas, tablets, soup, medication. But our bodies are the best healers we have. Step out of the way and let them do their clearing work.
If you want to fast, but fear hunger – then relax about it. You can eat anytime you want. This is where the power of choice is so vital. Feel that you are choosing it, and it takes on a different tone. Once you’ve fasted for a few times, and experienced how good you feel, you can remind yourself in the midst of a hunger pang that it won’t last forever and tomorrow you’ll feel sooo good. And hunger does go away. It’s a bit annoying, and doesn’t feel great sometimes, but it’s not as scary as you think. And that’s huge. Feeling hunger let’s you know that it’s okay! You can handle it. Which is a great lesson to come out of fasting. This means that in the future you may be able to not eat when you’re about to go somewhere “in case you feel hungry”, or you won’t pack your back with snacks – “just in case”. Hunger isn’t scary. It’s okay!
But it’s important to say – that we should take care of our minds. Kindness is the way through fasting. Love, acceptance and patience. Don’t make fasting painful or difficult. Take it easy. Take it slowly. And eat if you want to break your fast. It’s not the end of the world. Or do what I do, and don’t call it fasting! Language is vital. When I say ‘skipping supper’, it sounds fine. No big deal. But calling it an 18 hour fast is a bit much for me!
And finally – sometimes we need to fast from stuff other than food. I haven’t done this for a while, but I really am craving a fast from technology! A phone fast sounds just about right for me right now. Information, pictures, stories and memes – it all gets a bit much! Our brains deserve a break too. It’s a hard habit to break, but like fasting, you don’t have to do it all the time. One day put aside to not eating, or not being glued to your phone makes a world of difference to your general wellbeing and makes you more resilient to stressors in your life. It makes me feel more relaxed just thinking about it!
Do you fast? How do you do it, and do you feel any different?