As you might know, the Muslim faith is currently observing Ramadan – the practice of partial fasting for 30 days during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. A friend was recently in a conversation with a Muslim colleague about fasting from dawn till dusk and was given an information flyer on the spiritual and physical health benefits of Ramadan. A lively discussion ensued and since I myself am not completely convinced, I bring the topic up here. It may seem odd to write about fasting on a food blog, but it is topical right now and I was curious to learn about fasting and felt compelled to write about it.
Research presented to the first International Congress on “Health and Ramadan” during 1994 noted many medical conditions were improved upon. The information my friend received said:
“The physiological effect of fasting includes lowering of blood sugar, lowering of cholesterol and lowering of the systolic blood pressure…Ramadan fasting would be an ideal recommendation for treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity and essential hypertension…(in addition), through changing routines Muslims have a chance to establish more healthy lifestyle habits – particularly with regards to diet and smoking.”
Despite this, concern remains in the medical industry about the management of Type 2 diabetes of those practicing Ramadan (PubMed search).
The Muslim faith isn’t the only religion to fast. Several denominations of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and other smaller faiths accept fasting on some level and a number of health models tout amazing health benefits. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates along with his peers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wrote of the many benefits to fasting. Thus fasting has been used for thousands of years medically as a way to detoxify, rejuvenate and gain mental and spiritual clarity. The theory goes that it gives the body time to heal. When you think about it, our digestive system is constantly working and a lot of energy is consumed as a result. We can temporarily divert this enormous amount of energy to utilise it to areas we need healing. In the words of Hippocrates “To eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.”
My bible, also known as Healing with Wholefoods (a esteemed resource based on the integrated medicine model of nutrition), has 10 information-dense pages on fasting. Did you know there are numerous fasts that you can do depending on the outcome you want? Fasting doesn’t just mean abstaining from food and liquid altogether. Raw fruit, water and juice fasts seem to be the most common for physiological healing and act as a platform to transition to a vegetarianism from a diet of abundant animal products. Religious fasts tend to lean towards partial fasting and omitting certain foods for spiritual benefits. Fasting on particular foods can fine-tune the outcome according to your physiology. For example whole-grain fasts can help those who want to improve their mental focus or a steamed vegetable fast can be for those who display cool and deficient signs (think of those people who are constantly cold with icy hands and feet and tending to be thinner and pale) or have a history of over consuming refined and dense foods.
Healing with Wholefoods’ tips for good fasting
(most of which can extend to daily practice)
- Use pure water and foods
- Opt for freshly squeezed rather than pre-bottled
- Chew food thoroughly – including liquids
- Never eat to the point of feeling full
- Try eating no more than twice daily unless very hungry
- Get sufficient mental and physical rest and keep warm. You can add freshly ground black peppercorn to ingredients or drink warming herb teas such as ginger, cinnamon bark, fennel or rosemary if feeling cold
- Apparently enemas are good for those who experience headaches during fasting since the headaches are due to sluggish intestines. Let me know how you get on with this one! Ugh! I’m a little too scared of what I’ll see coming out of me to have one of these, but it’s on my to-do list)
Considerations to fasting
Compulsory fasting, as in Ramadan, is not necessarily feasible for people working, especially those in physical jobs. The binge-type eating that occurs between sunset and sunrise isn’t especially health-building either. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Qi moves from organ to organ on a 24-hour cycle. With this in mind, there is a corresponding action. From 7pm to 9pm – roughly when the binge eating will start in the southern hemisphere – is when Qi is in the protective sheath of the heart called the Pericardium (strangely considered an organ in TCM) and is a time to come home, feel safe, nurture and have dinner. Don’t know about you, but I can kinda see the sense in that action with the function of the pericardium. 9pm to 11pm is a time to relax, be kind to yourself and go to sleep. If you prefer, you can liken these patterns to the circadian rhythms often spoken about in alopathic medicine. So to me, it is no surprise that there are reported increases in headache, irritability, sleep depravation, lassitude (lack of energy) and mild dehydration reported during participants of Ramadan (PubMed search). People are feasting (and overeating to boot) when they should be taking things gently and winding down. I think this is a good example of when partial fasting at inappropriate times is not necessarily health-building.
As it is a highly cleansing experience that directs your energy upwards and outwards, fasts should be undertaken in times when energy naturally moves in the same way as it does during spring and early summer. Fasting during cold weather can be harmful and worsen any cold or deficient signs. People who are weak or emaciated should refrain from fasting for the same reason.
Fasting during pregnancy or lactation should be avoided as this is a time when nourishment and a building diet is required.
If you intend to fast, the main point is to listen to your body and arm yourself with knowledge. There are numerous ways to achieve the outcome you want, and as with diet there isn’t a one-for-all approach. If you are interested in fasting, I highly recommend reading the chapter on fasting in Healing with Wholefoods which will provide an in-depth foundation to fasting. I found a lot of nonsense one-sided paraphernalia on the net about fasting which wont help an individual make educated choices.
As always, information contained here in this blog is merely musings and that of my own research and not intended for diagnostic purposes or to replace the advice given by a qualified medical practitioner.