If you take interest in health and wellness, you have probably noticed the industry’s increasing emphasis on the benefits of fasting. Even though fasting has just recently become a health trend, people have engaged in the practice for thousands of years. During Ramadan, an Islamic holiday, Muslims fast from sun up until sun down for an entire month, holding ceremonial feasts in the dark hours. Buddhist monks have engaged in fasting as a spiritual practice for millennia. Today, science has uncovered that fasting, in addition to nurturing spiritual vitality, yields a myriad of health benefits. But is foregoing food really necessary for those of us eating off of an organic Hawaii farm?
At Gingerhill Farm, we look to the principles of Ayurveda to guide practices pertaining to diet and lifestyle. Ayurveda, a holistic wellness philosophy that emphasizes the healing powers of digestion, prescribes regular fasting for detoxifying and rejuvenating the system. Thus, many members of our community engage in monthly fasts. We find there is no better place to detoxify through fasting than in the tranquil cabins and lush gardens on our organic Hawaii farm.
Medical professionals discourage highly restrictive diets because they force the body into “starvation mode,” a state in which the body is compelled to break down stored proteins for energy. Interestingly, fasting for short periods does not put the body into starvation mode. Instead, it facilitates a host of bodily processes that promote longevity and rejuvenation.
After the initial eight hours of a fast, the body begins to utilize glucose stores from the liver and muscles. Once the body depletes its glucose stores, it moves on to break down fats. Because our bodies store non-excretable toxic compounds in fat cells, the breakdown of fat prompts the release and elimination of these toxins. This fat burning state, called “ketosis,” therefore promotes cleansing and detoxification.
Fasting yields a host of other benefits as well. It increases insulin sensitivity, improving the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels. This improved regulation, in turn, stabilizes energy levels and prevents mood swings. Brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, is responsible for blood glucose regulation and cardiovascular function. Fasting is beneficial for blood sugar regulation because it drives the production of BDNF. After a few days of fasting, the body also produces more endorphins, compounding the effects on blood sugar to promote more positive, stable moods.
By improving insulin sensitivity, fasting reduces oxidative stress, thereby decreasing inflammation and promoting longevity. It also reduces a compound called insulin-like growth factor 1, which can promote the proliferation of cancer cells. It reduces the production of inflammatory cytokines that can cause brain damage. Finally, fasting releases growth and anti-aging hormones, promotes rapid healing, and strengthens collagen structure. In short, fasting promotes healing and prevents aging in a plethora of ways.
Short and Long Fasts
Short fasts of 12 to 24 hours promote sound sleep, sharp concentration, and energy restoration. Longer fasts of 2-4 days begin to yield additional benefits. According to Dr. Longo of the University of Southern California, fasting for longer periods allows the body to prioritize certain bodily processes over digestion. During long fasts, the body will begin to discard old, ineffectual immune cells and replace them with new ones, protecting against cellular damage.
Fasting for longer periods also improves leptin levels. Leptin is a compound produced by fat cells that promotes feelings of satiety. Although leptin levels initially decrease during fasting, they begin to exceed pre-fasting levels as time goes on, decreasing leptin resistance.
According Ayurveda, health begins with proper digestion. If our “agni,” or digestive fire, is too strong or too weak, the body cannot detoxify and absorb nutrients properly. Because our digestion determines our levels of toxicity and our ability to absorb nutrients, it is the foundation of our health. In Ayurvedic philosophy, poor digestion is the root cause of all ailments and disease.
In Ayurveda, the objective of fasting is to remove digestive stressors and balance agni. Eating processed, heavy foods and eating irregularly or when stressed strain our digestive capacities. When our digestive system cannot break down, assimilate, and eliminate properly, undigested food toxins accumulate in the body. These toxins, or “ama,” promote disease. Fasting allows the body to excrete built up ama, balancing agni and healing bodily ailments.
Fasting for Your Dosha
In Ayurveda, there is no one-size-fits-all method of fasting. Ayurvedic philosophy holds that there are three different bodily energies, or doshas. Each one of us has a balance of the three doshas, with one tending to present more strongly than the other two. Your dosha will determine the appropriate method of fasting for you.
For example: vatas tend to experience coldness, constipation, nutrient deficiency, and anxiety. A vata fast should therefore incorporate warm, nourishing foods like soups, broths, and stews. Because vatas tend to have difficulty maintaining their weight, it is best that they limit their fasting period to no longer than two days.
Pittas, on the other hand, possess a stronger agni and can therefore fast on cooling foods like vegetables and smoothies. Pittas have a stronger constitution and maintain a healthy weight easily, and should therefore fast for two or three days.
Those of Kapha constitution are the most tolerant to fasting because they tend to store more weight than the other dosas. Ayurvedic experts recommend that kaphas engage in abstention fasts, consuming only water and herbal tea, for up to five days.
Fasting on Our Hawaii Farm
The first few days of a fast are often characterized by fatigue, irritability, and flu-like symptoms. Our organic Hawaii farm, with its gorgeous greenery and elegant scenery, is the perfect environment for soothing the side effects of fasting and facilitating healing.
At Gingerhill Farm, we have experimented with various forms of fasting. Some members of our community choose water or juice fasts to give their digestive systems an extended period of rest. Others practice mono-fasts, or fasts where you eat one food only (typically fruit) for a given period. Mono-fasts give the body a chance to detoxify while still providing calories and nutrients. An organic Hawaii Farm is an excellent place to practice mono-fasting with its abundance of organic fruit. During the cooler winter months, we often detoxify with kitchari, a warm, nourishing Ayurvedic dish of beans, rice, spices, and ghee.
If you are inspired to fast, remember to consult with a medical practitioner beforehand. Certain types of fasting may not be appropriate for individuals with certain health conditions, or for highly active individuals. Honor the integrity of your body by fasting in a way that enhances your unique physical constitution.