Fast Way to Health

Donald NorfolkFasts have been undertaken for many reasons, most of which are not related to health issues. Mystics have taken them to induce a state of physic euphoria; political activists have endured them in prison as a dramatic form of social protest and control. Primitive man went without food as an act of penitence, hoping that this would propitiate angry gods. Even as recently as the seventeenth century, the British government ordered days of national fasting when the people were enjoined to ‘pray for more seasonable weather.’ Fasting has also played an important part in the religious lives of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims, although this practise is now declining. The six annual fast days, once observed by the Jews are now, for all but the most orthodox, reduced to a one-day fast on the Day of Atonement. Among Christians, fasting is generally limited to a mere token abstention from certain luxury foods during the period of lent, but all good Muslims are still required to abstain from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset throughout the forty days of Ramadan, the exact length of the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Christ.

At present youngsters at American colleges are being urged to join a campaign of fasting and prayer. According to the leaders of the Campus Crusade for Christ: ‘Through fasting and prayer the Holy Spirit can transform your life … Fasting and prayer can bring about revival – a change in the direction of our nation, the nations of the earth and the fulfilment of the Great Commission.’ I’m not in a position to comment on these lofty claims, but am fascinated by the centuries old belief that fasting offers outstanding health benefits. Sages like Hippocrates, Plato and Socrates have all recommended fasting for its therapeutic benefits. The argument has generally been that it provides a period of concentrated physiological rest during which the body can focus its energies on the repair of damaged body tissues and the routine process of self-repair.

Today fasting is recommended for three main medical reasons: detoxification, weight reduction, and as a general, non-specific pick-me-up. Nature cure practitioners have long believed that fasting is ‘The body-cleanser supreme.’ They regard the symptoms of malaise which often accompanies a period of fasting – headache, nausea, coated tongue and bad breath – as a sure signs that the body is engaged is the process of eliminating waste products. In fact these symptoms are due to the release of the breakdown-products of fat metabolism, and are similar to those experienced after over-indulgence in rich, fatty foods. In the old days it was recommended that an ‘eliminative’ fast should be continued until the tongue was clear and the breath pure. Dr Henry Lindlahr, one of the pioneers of the nature cure movement, recognised the dangers entailed in this advice. If followed to

its logical conclusion, he said, it was doubtful ‘whether breath and tongue would clear up before the patient was ready for the undertaker.’ Unfortunately, this advice is still being given, one internet ‘doctor’ currently suggesting that people who want to recover from an acute illness should fast until they ‘feel well enough to eat again.’ How many deaths have occurred from following this ridiculous advice? The same applies to the many commercial detox products which, according to the UK based charity ‘Sense about Science’ are unsupported my medical evidence of their benefit and can be considered a total waste of money.

We’re on far safer grounds when advocating fasting as a means of weight reduction. Fasts are carried out under medical supervision in many hospitals and health resorts. Generally they’re limited to seven to ten days, during which time the average person loses somewhere in the region of sixteen pounds. Little hunger is felt after the first couple of days, probably because appetites are permanently reduced as a result of a few day’s abstinence from food. A lot has been written about the ‘Yo-yo syndrome’ when people shed a number of pounds and then succumb to a period of binge eating. There’s obviously little point in shedding weight if the fasting leads to feasting immediately afterwards. But in truth this is a relatively rare occurrence, for a follow-up study made at a Scottish hospital showed that one third of obese patients who had lost weight through fasting had maintained their entire weight loss after an interval of three years. If you want to follow this route it’s sensible to limit your fast to a single day, during which time you should avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water and fruit juices. This should only be done with the approval of your doctor if you’re suffering from medical conditions like diabetes, coronary disease and certain kidney ailments. You can expect to lose about a pound as a result of a one-day fast. Do that every month and you’ll soon see your waistline shrinking.

Finally there’s the suggestion that people feel better for taking an occasional, one-day fast. Sir Francis Chichester, who set the world speed record for a solo, round-the-world navigation at the incredible age of sixty-six, went to great lengths throughout his life to keep fit. In his book ‘How to Keep Fit’ he gives details of his breathing techniques, yoga exercises and careful dietary regime, but then he adds that for him ‘fasting is the most beneficial treatment I have ever received.’ Whenever he felt below par and in need of a boost he took a two day fast. At the end he always felt stronger, happier, and brimming with energy. So take a day’s fast for its restorative benefits, or to lose weight, but don’t imagine that it will offer any detox benefits. Fortunately I’m writing this after a very enjoyable lunch, which makes it easier to contemplate the thought of going without food for twenty-four hours, for as St. Jerome wrote: ‘When the stomach is full, it is easy to talk of fasting.’

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