By Elson M. Haas, M.D.
Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, Published by Celestial Arts, 2006.
Fasting is the single greatest natural healing therapy. It is nature’s ancient, universal "remedy" for many problems. Animals instinctively fast when ill. When I first discovered fasting, 15 years ago, I felt as if it had saved my life and transformed my illnesses into health. My stagnant energies began flowing, and I became more creative and vitally alive. I still find fasting both a useful personal tool and an important therapy for many medical and life problems.
Of course, most of the problems for which I recommend fasting as treatment are ones that result from overnutrition rather than malnutrition. Dietary abuse problems, more common in the Western world than in Third World countries, generate many of the chronic degenerative diseases that I have written so much about; these include atherosclerosis, hypertension and heart disease, allergies, diabetes, and cancer. I believe that fasting is therapeutic and, more importantly, preventive for many of these conditions and more.
As I use the term here, fasting is the avoidance of solid food and the intake of liquids only (true fasting would be the total avoidance of anything by mouth). The most stringent form of fasting is taking only water; more liberally, fasting includes the use of fresh juices made from fruits and vegetables as well as herbal teas. All of these limited diets generate varying degrees of detoxification—that is, elimination of toxins from the body. Individual experiences with fasting depend on the condition of the body (also mind and attitude). Detoxification might be intense and temporarily increase sickness or might be immediately helpful and uplifting.
Juice fasting is commonly used (rather than water alone) as a mild and effective cleansing plan; this is suggested by myself and other doctors and authors and by many of the European fasting clinics. Fresh juices are easily assimilated and require minimum digestion, while they supply many nutrients and stimulate our body to clear its wastes. Juice fasting is also safer than water fasting, because it supports the body nutritionally while cleansing and probably even produces a better detoxification and quicker recovery.
Fasting (cleansing, detoxification) is one part of the triology of nutrition; balancing and building (toning) are the others. I believe that fasting is the "missing link" in the Western diet. Most people overeat, eat too often, and eat a high-protein, high-fat, rich-food, building and congesting diet more consistently than they need. If we regularly eat a more balanced and well-combined diet, such as my Ideal Diet, we will have less need for fasting and toning plans, although both would still be required at certain intervals throughout the year.
In a sense, detoxification is an important corrective and rejuvenative process in our cycle of nutrition. It is a time when we allow our cells and organs to breathe out, become current, and restore themselves. We do not necessarily need to fast to experience some cleansing, however. Minor shifts in the diet such as including more fluids, more raw foods, and fewer congesting foods will allow for better detoxification; for a carnivore, for example, a vegetarian or macrobiotic diet will be cleansing and purifying. The general process of detoxification is discussed thoroughly in the General Detoxification program; here we focus on fluid fasting—its history, therapeutic use, benefits, contraindications, and, of course, how to do it, along with other aspects of lifestyle that support fasting.
Fasting is a time-proven remedy. Its use goes back many thousands of years, really to the beginning of life forms. As a healing process and spiritual-religious process, it has continued to be more intelligently applied, we hope, in the last several thousand years.
Voluntary abstinence from food has been a tradition in most religions and is clearly a spiritual purification rite. Many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and the Eastern religions, have encouraged fasting for a variety of reasons, such as penitence, preparation for ceremony, purification, mourning, sacrifice and union with God, and the enhancement of knowledge and powers. From Moses, Elijah, and Daniel to Christ, the Bible is filled with fasters, who employed it to assist their purification and communion with God. Fasts as long as 40 days were employed to cleanse people of sins and the "devil."
The Essenes, authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, also advocated fasting to purify themselves and commune with God. This was one of their primary healing methods. The Essene Gospel of Peace, transcribed by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely from the third-century Aramaic manuscript, suggests that Satan, his evil spirits, and his plagues will be cast out of our being by fasting and prayer. The Essenes believed that disease came from Satan (they claimed that it took three days without food to starve Satan) and from sins upon our body—the temple, which must be purified for God to reside there. To bring God into our life more completely, we would fast on water and "go to the waters (stream, lake) and find a hollow reed, insert it in our rear ends and flush the evils from our bowels."
For many philosophers, scientists, and physicians, fasting was an essential part of life, health, and the healing process needed to recreate health where there was sickness. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, and Hippocrates all used and believed in fasting therapy. Most spiritual teachers also recommend fasting as a useful tool. In a booklet from the 1947 lecture entitled Healing by God’s Unlimited Power, Paramahansa Yogananda suggested that fasting is a way to increase our natural resistance to disease, stating that "Fasting is a natural method of healing. When animals or savages are sick, they fast." He continued, "Most diseases can be cured by judicious fasting. Unless one has a weak heart, regular short fasts have been recommended by the yogis as an excellent health measure." Yogananda referred to an Armenian doctor, Grant Sarkisyan, who had treated many patients successfully with fasting therapy for such disorders as asthma, skin diseases, digestive problems, and early stages of atherosclerosis and hypertension.
Throughout the centuries, many doctors have treated a variety of patients and maladies with fasting, acknowledging that ignorance (of how to live in accordance with nature) may be our greatest disease. Knowledge, not necessarily from books, but our inherent and experienced knowing of how to live according to the natural laws and spiritual truth, leads to the sacred wisdom of life and subsequent good health. Knowing when and how long to fast is part of this knowledge. Through fasting, we can turn our energies inward, where we can use them for healing, clarity, and change.
Physicians with a spiritual orientation tend to be more inclined than others to employ fasting, both personally and medically. Many of my life transitions were acknowledged, stimulated, and supported through fasting; and when I felt blocked or needed creative juice in my writing, fasting would be very useful. In Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, Gabriel Cousens, M.D., a California physician and spiritual teacher, includes an excellent chapter on fasting in which he describes his concepts of fasting and his own 40-day fast. According to Dr. Cousens,
From a medical point of view, I believe that fasting is not utilized often enough. We go on vacations from work to relax, recharge, and to gain new perspectives on our life; why not take occasional breaks from food? Or, for that matter, we might consider fasts from phones, cars, computers, talking, or from whatever activity/consumption we feel is excessive. Most people cannot break out of the conditioned pattern of eating three meals daily. Eating is a habit, an addiction. Most of us do not need nearly the amounts (and types) of food we consume. I have discussed allergy-addiction in many sections of this book; in a sense, eating itself is an allergy-addiction. When we stop and let our stomach remain empty, our body goes into an elimination cycle, and most people, especially when toxicity exists, will experience some "withdrawal" symptoms, such as headaches, irritability, or fatigue (only pure hunger is a clear sign of need for food). When they eat again, their withdrawal symptoms subside, and they feel better. This situation is worse when it involves allergic people eating allergenic foods.
I believe that fasting is one of the best overall healing methods because it can be applied to so many conditions and people. Those who are acid, sympathetic, or yang types, who tend to develop congestive symptoms and diseases rather than those of deficiency, do better on fasting than do other types. Some acid conditions, including colds, flus, bronchitis, mucus congestion, and constipation, can lead to headaches, other intestinal problems, skin conditions, and many other ailments. Those who follow a basic, wholesome, and balanced diet such as outlined in this book have less need to fast or detoxify, although on occasion it is a good idea for anyone, provided that they are not undernourished. Most of us living in Western, industrialized nations are mixed types, with both overnutrition and undernutrition. We may take in excessive amounts of potentially toxic nutrients, such as fats and chemicals, and inadequate amounts of many essential vitamins and minerals. Juice fasting supplies some of these needed nutrients and allows the elimination of toxins. Excess mucus and clogging of the eliminative systems constitute the basic process of congestive diseases; deficiency problems result from poor nourishment or ineffective digestion/assimilation.
In the General Detoxification program, a number of symptoms and diseases of toxicity that can be alleviated by detoxification are discussed. Juice fasting is mentioned as part of the treatment plans in many other sections as well. It can be used to detoxify from drugs or whenever we want to embark on a new plan or life transition, provided that there are no contraindications to fasting (discussed later in this section). Fasting is very versatile and generally fairly safe; however, when it is used in the treatment of medical conditions, proper supervision should be employed, including monitoring of physical changes and biochemistry values. Many doctors, clinics, acupuncturists, nutritionists, and chiropractors feel comfortable overseeing people during fasting.
The use of fasting to treat fevers is controversial. Eastern medicine thinks of fasting as increasing body fire, so that it might worsen fever. In actuality, when we consume liquids, we generate less heat, so this really helps to cool the body. With fever, we need more liquids than usual; with high temperatures and sweating, we need even more.
Some cases of fatigue will respond well to fasting, particularly when the fatigue results from congested organs and energy. With fatigue that results from chronic infection, nutritional deficiency, or serious disease, more nourishment is probably needed, rather than fasting.
Back pains that are due to muscular tightness and stress rather than from bone disease or osteoporosis are usually alleviated with a lighter diet or juice fasting. Many tight muscles and sore areas along the back may result from referred pain from colon or other organ congestion. In my experience, poor bowel function and constipation are fairly commonly associated with back pains.
Many patients with mental illness, from anxiety to schizophrenia, may be helped by fasting. The purpose of fasting in this case, however, is not to cure these problems but to help understand the relationship of foods, chemicals, or drugs to the mental difficulties. Allergies and hypersensitive environmental reactions are not at all uncommon in people with mental illness. Care must be exercised with the use of fasting in mental patients as the toxicity or lack of nourishment may worsen their problems. If, however, the patient is strong and congested, fasting may be indicated.
Obesity can be remedied by fasting. Obesity is the problem for which fasting is currently most often used (mainly protein drinks) in the traditional medical system, although it is not the best use of this healing technique. Fasting is not even a good treatment for those who are overweight; it is too temporary and may generate feasting reactions in people coming off the fast. Better would be a change of diet and a longer-term weight-release plan; something that will allow new dietary habits and food choices to replace the old ones. A short fast, perhaps of five to ten days, can be useful as a motivator and catalyst for making these necessary dietary changes and new commitments and to help release a pound or two daily.
Some very obese patients have been monitored by doctors while on water fasts done in hospitals for months at a time to shed weights of a hundred pounds or more. With other patients, the jaws have been wired shut so that they can take in only fluids drunk through straws. Newer fasting programs substitute a variety of protein-rich powders for meals. These are usually medically supervised programs for people who are at least 30-50 pounds overweight and make use of a prepackaged, low-calorie powder, such as Optifast or Medifast. This high-protein, low-calorie diet allows patients to burn more fat. These programs are not nearly as healthful as vital juice fasts, but they are nutritionally supportive over a longer time period and can be used on a outpatient basis fairly safely if people are monitored regularly. They provide all the needed vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to sustain life and help many obese people to lower their weight, blood fats, blood pressures, and blood sugars. However, as with any weight-loss program, if it does not motivate the participants to change their diets and habits, they then may stay in the "yo-yo" syndrome (weight going up and down and up), which may actually be more harmful than just remaining overweight.
A balanced, low-calorie diet with lots of exercise is still the best way to reduce and maintain a good weight and figure. Many obese people are also deficient in nutrients because they eat a highly refined, fatty, sweet diet. Often, these obese people are fatigued, and they need to be nourished first before they will do well on any fast.
Fasting to treat cancer is also a controversial topic. Many alternative clinics outside the United States use fasting in the treatment of cancers. Since cancer can be a devitalizing, debilitating disease, this may not be wise. Possibly with early cancer, and definitely as a cancer preventive to reduce toxicity, juice fasting may be helpful. Anyone with cancer needs adequate nourishment, and adding fresh juices to an already wholesome diet can help induce a mild detoxification and enhance vitality.
The Process and Benefits of Fasting
Although the process of fasting may generate various results, depending on the individual condition of the faster, there are clearly a number of common metabolic changes and experiences. First, fasting is a catalyst for change and an essential part of transformational medicine. It promotes relaxation and energization of the body, mind and emotions, and supports a greater spiritual awareness. Many fasters feel a letting go of past actions and experiences and develop a positive attitude toward the present. Having energy to get things done and clean up old areas, both personal and environmental, without the usual procrastination is also a common experience. Fasting clearly improves motivation and creative energy; it also enhances health and vitality and lets many of the body systems rest.
In other words, fasting is a multidimensional experience. Physiologically, refraining from eating minimizes the work done by the digestive organs, including the stomach, intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. Most important here is that our liver, our body’s large production and metabolic factory, can spend more time during fasting cleaning up and creating its many new substances for our use. Breakdown of stored or circulating chemicals is the basic process of detoxification. The blood and lymph also have the opportunity to be cleaned of toxins as all the eliminative functions are enhanced with fasting. Each cell has the opportunity to catch up on its work; with fewer new demands, it can repair itself and dump its waste for the garbage pickup. Most fasters also experience a new vibrancy of their skin and clarity of mind and body.
Initially, the reduction of calories allows the liver to convert glycogen stores to glucose and energy. Body fat can be used for energy (ATP) but it cannot generate or reform glucose; although many cells can metabolize fatty acids for energy, the brain and central nervous system need direct glucose. Proteins can be broken down into amino acids; of these, alanine and serine can be used to produce glucose. With fasting, some protein breakdown occurs, less if calories are provided by juices. When there is no stored glycogen left, our body will convert protein to amino acids and to energy. Fatty acids can also be a fair source of energy, usually after being converted to ketones. With total fasting, ketosis occurs as an adaptation by the body to prevent protein loss by burning fats. Still, protein and fats can be used to provide energy for brain cell function. With juice fasting, there is less ketosis, and the simple carbohydrates in the juices are easily used for energy and cellular function. The high-protein diets and fasts do burn fat and generate ketosis and weight loss, but they also add more toxin buildup in the body from the foods or powders used. Also, they do not rest and cleanse the digestive tract and other organs as well.
Fasting increases the process of elimination and the release of toxins from the colon, kidneys and bladder, lungs and sinuses, and skin. This process can generate discharge such as mucus from the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, sinuses, or in the urine. This is helpful to clear out the problems that have arisen from overeating and a sedentary lifestyle. Much of aging and disease, I believe, results from "biochemical suffocation," where our cells do not get enough oxygen and nutrients or cannot adequately eliminate their wastes. Fasting helps us decrease this suffocation by allowing the cells to eliminate and clear the old products.
This physiological rest and concentration on cleanup can also generate a number of toxicity symptoms. Hunger is usually present for two or three days and then departs, leaving many people with a surprising feeling of deep abdominal peace; yet, others may feel really hungry. It is good to ask ourselves, "What are we hungry for?" Fasting is an excellent time to work on our psychological connections to consumption.
As far as fasting symptoms, headache is not at all uncommon during the first day or two. Fatigue or irritability may arise at times, as may dizziness or lightheadedness. Our sensitivity is usually increased. Common sounds like television, music, refrigerators may irritate us more now. The sense of smell is also exaggerated, both positively and negatively; I have had whole meals of smells while fasting. The tongues of most people will develop a thick white or yellow fur coating, which can be scraped or brushed off. Bad breath and displeasing tastes in the mouth or foul-smelling urine or stools may occur. Skin odor or skin eruptions such as small spots or painful boils, may also appear, depending on the state of toxicity. Digestive upset, mucusy stools, flatulence, or even nausea and vomiting may occur during fasting. Some people experience insomnia or bad dreams as their body releases poisons during the night. The mind may put up resistance, with doubt or lack of faith or a fear that the fasting is not right. (This can be influenced even more by listening to other people’s fears.) Most of these symptoms, however, will occur early if they do appear and are usually transient. The general energy level is usually good during fastings, although there can be ups and downs. Every two or three days, as the body goes into a deeper level of dumping wastes, the energy may go down, and resistance and fears as well as symptoms may arise. Between these times, we usually feel cleaner, better, and more alive.
The natural therapy term for periods of cleansing and symptoms is "crisis," or "healing crisis." During these times, old symptoms or patterns from the past may arise, usually transiently, or new symptoms of detoxification may appear. This "crisis" is not predictable and is thus often accompanied with some question by the fasters as well as their practitioners—is this some new problem arising or is it part of the healing process? Usually only time will tell, yet if it is associated with the fasting and one or more of the common symptoms, it is likely a positive part of detoxification. We should use the maxim of healing, Hering’s Law of Cure, to guide us—it states that healing happens from the inside out, the top down, from more important organs to less important ones, and from the most recent to the oldest symptoms. Most healing crises pass within a day or two, although some cleansers experience several days of "cold" symptoms or sinus congestion. If any symptom lasts longer than two or three days, it should be considered as a side effect or a new problem possibly unrelated to cleansing. If there is a problem that worsens or is severe and causes concern, such as fainting, heart arrhythmias, or bleeding, the fast should be stopped and a doctor consulted.
A doctor or knowledgeable practitioner should supervise anyone for whom fasting is questionable—that is, anyone in poor health or without fasting experience. If the fast is extended for more than three to five days, regular monitoring, including physical examination and blood work should be done, probably about weekly. Fasting may reduce blood protein levels and will definitely lower blood fats. Uric acid levels may rise secondary to protein breakdown, while levels of some minerals, such as potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium, may drop. Iron levels are usually lower, and the red blood count may also drop during this time.
Nutritionally, fasting helps us appreciate the more subtle aspects of diet, since less food and simple flavors become more satisfying. My early fasts definitely reawakened my taste buds and allowed me to appreciate and desire more natural foods. Mentally, fasting improves clarity and attentiveness; emotionally, it may make us more sensitive and aware of feelings. I have seen on several occasions individuals making decisions based on new clarities brought out during fasts. Fasting clearly supports the transformational evolutionary process. For example, when we really "get" that our spouse is not going to change his or her habits of eating, watching TV, or being too busy to really relate to us—that the priority of the relationship is very low and the love is clearly not there—it may be time to make a change. With fasting, we can feel empowered to do things we only thought about before. Fasting can precipitate emotional cleansing as well. Attitude and general motivation are usually uplifted with cleansing. Spiritually, juice fasting offers a lesson in self-restraint and control of passions, which help us in many avenues of life.
Fasting is a simple process of self-cleansing. We do not need any special medicines to do it; our body knows how. Provided that we are basically well-nourished, systematic undereating and fasting are likely the most important contributors to health and longevity. Fasting is even more important to balance the autointoxication that results from common dietary and drug indiscretions.
I look at fasting as "taking a week off work" to handle the other aspects of life for which there is often little time. With fasting we can take time to nurture ourselves and rest. Fasting is also like turning off and cleaning a complex and valuable machine so that it will function better and longer. Resting the gastrointestinal tract, letting the cells and tissues repair themselves, and allowing the lymph, blood, and organs to clear out old, defective, or diseased cells and unneeded chemicals all lead to less degeneration and sickness. As healthy cell growth is stimulated, so is our level of vitality, immune function and disease resistance, and our potential for greater longevity.
J.R. did a 67-day fast on juices at age 20 when he joined a fasting and health-food-oriented community in 1975. He describes feeling great and very light. In fact, he lost a lot of weight. His only problems were skin sores that would not heal. These were of course, seen as a detox process. Medically, they could be attributed to protein/nutrient deficiency as well. This long fast on juice nutrients was a major transitional period for J.R. to change his diet to raw foods and strict vegetarianism. It also helped change his beliefs and motivation for life.
S.R. was very overweight and in a family relationship that was not supporting her growth. She clearly grasped for spiritual unfoldment. She was very strong, had loads of energy and various congestive symptoms—a prime candidate for fasting. After she began her fast, she decided to go 30 days on Master Cleanser with my support. She did wonderfully, lost 24 pounds, and wasn’t through yet. For the next 30 days, she did my seven-food diet (apples, lemons, alfalfa sprouts, brown rice, carrots, almonds, and broccoli), picking seven primary foods to make up her diet, thus continuing her willpower and diet focus. After that, S.R. did another 30-day fast on Master Cleanser and other juices. She did well. During these months she moved from bookkeeping and typing into the healing arts. She left her husband and moved to the Midwest to take a job assisting a well-known physician in her healing research.
B.D. and C.D.—This father (B.D., age 46) and son (C.D., age 15) attended a recent fasting group. B.D. was 50 pounds overweight (231, 5’9") and had high blood pressure. On exam B.D.’s cholesterol was 214. He had in the past followed a low- fat, Pritikin-like diet and felt better. He was really ready for a change and wanted to fast. He wanted me to see his son to evaluate whether he also could join the fasting group. C.D. was an overweight (181, 5’9") teenager on a typical teenage diet but inspired toward health.
B.D. did incredibly well on the Master Cleanser for 10 days, feeling fine and energetic and dropping his weight to 213. His new diet plan became more vegetarian, wholesome, and low fat, and included one- to two-day fasts weekly, plus a week-long fast every few months. A follow-up four months later found him well and busy in a new job. His weight had gotten to a low of 195 and he stabilized at about 202 with his diet. The positive value he received was that he realized that he could be in control of his diet. He was in much better shape and his self-esteem was much higher; of course he could see his feet and the earth again as his pant size dropped from 42" to 36".
C.D. dropped his weight from 182 to 171 with the fast and was an inspiration to the fasting group. His body and face changed dramatically. New activities and exercise were added to his regimen, and he now is a more serious bicyclist. C.D.’s diet also changed dramatically to enjoying salads and fruits, some grains, and fish and poultry. He got away from the sweets, sodas, salt snacks, and fried foods he was eating before. Now at 165, he feels great!
Hazards of Fasting
If fasting is overused, it may create depletion and weakness, lower resistance, and allow diseases to begin. Certain people are not good candidates for fasting or cleansing. Others may enjoy fasting so much that they overindulge in it and take it beyond the limits of normal elimination, resulting in protein and other nutritional deficits, reduced immunity, and loss of energy. While fasting allows the organs, tissues, and cells to rest, clean house, and handle excesses, the body needs the nourishment provided by food to function after it has used its stores.
Many people of the world are involuntary fasters, while those of the Western nations are more likely to be feasters. In Third World countries, many starvation deaths result from the disease of protein deficiency, termed kwashiorkor, and protein-calorie malnutrition, known as marasmus. What happens to these people is what happens with chronic fasting—loss of muscle mass, weight, and energy, and finally swelling and death.
Malnourished people should definitely not fast, nor should some overweight people who are undernourished. Others who should not fast include people with fatigue resulting from nutrient deficiency, those with chronic degenerative disease of the muscles or bones, or those who are underweight. Diseases associated with clogged or toxic organs respond better to fasting. Sluggish men or women who retain water or whose weight is concentrated in their hips and legs often do poorly with fasting. Those with low daytime energy and more vitality at night (more yin or alkaline types) may not enjoy fasting, either.
I do not suggest fasting for pregnant or lactating women. People who have weak hearts, such as those with congestive heart failure, or who have weakened immunity usually are not good candidates for fasting. Before or after surgery is not a good time to fast, as the body then needs its nourishment to handle the stress and healing demands of surgery. Although some of the nutritional therapies for cancer include fasting, I do not recommend fasting for cancer patients, especially those with advanced problems. Ulcer disease is not something for which I usually suggest fasting, either, although fasting may be beneficial for other conditions present in a patient whose ulcer is under control. Many clinics and fasting practitioners do believe in fasting for ulcers, however. In the first test case of the Master Cleanser (lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and water), Stanley Burroughs claims to have cured a patient with an intractable ulcer. Mr. Burroughs used the two main ingredients that all doctors suggested that this patient avoid, citrus and spice, which he figured were the only things left that might heal the ulcer. The fasting process itself probably is helpful for ulcers, since it reduces stomach acid and aids in tissue healing. And cayenne pepper, even though it is hot, has a healing effect on mucous membranes, and in herbal medicine, it is commonly recommended for ulcers. So, even though peptic ulcers are on the contraindication list, some ulcer people may do very well with fasting, especially with cabbage/vegetable juices.
As with any therapy that has some physiological effect and benefit, fasting also may have some hazards. The potential for the development of these problems is maximized with lengthy, noncaloric or water fasts and minimized with juice fasting of reasonable length, such as one to two weeks. Clearly, excessive weight loss and nutritional deficiencies may occur, again more marked with water fasts (juices provide calories and nutrients, although they do not provide complete nutrition). Weakness may occur, or muscle cramps may result from mineral deficits. Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus losses occur initially but diminish after a week. Blood pressure drops, and this can lead to episodes of dizziness, especially when changing position from lying to sitting or sitting to standing. Uric acid levels may rise, which may result in acute gout attacks or a uric acid kidney stone, although this is rare. This problem is minimized with adequate fluid intake.
Some research reports have described hormone level changes with fasting. Initially, the level of thyroid hormone falls, but it rises again in association with protein-sparing ketosis. Female hormone levels fall, possibly as a result of protein malnutrition, and this can lead to loss of menstrual flow; that is, secondary amenorrhea. This cessation of the periods in women is also seen in longtime vegetarians, especially those who engage in extensive exercise programs.
Cardiac problems, such as abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias), can occur more easily with prolonged fasting and/or with subclinical preexisting problems. Extra beats, both ventricular and atrial, have been seen, and there have been deaths from serious ventricular arrhythmias, such as ventricular tachycardia, most often occurring during long water fasts. Similar problems have occurred recently in people using the nutrient-deficient protein powders that have been freely sold; many unhealthy weight reducers have been put at risk by using these powders over extended periods on unmonitored fasts. This risk is minimized with juice fasting (up to two weeks) or when basic minerals, mainly potassium, calcium, and magnesium, are supplemented during water fasts. Having our progress followed medically through physical exams, blood tests, and even electrocardiograms is a way to protect ourselves from the potential hazards of fasting.
Another side effect of fasting involves its transformative aspects and how they relate to personal life changes. Often we maintain certain relationships and attitudes toward other people or our careers by resisting inner guidance, feelings, and desires to do something new. Divorce, job changes, and moves are all more likely after fasts, because fasting often stimulates self-realization and change, enhances our potential, and leads us to focus on where we are going, rather than where we have been. During fasting transitions, many people question all aspects of their lives and make new plans for the future. They also have new sensitivity to and awareness of their job, mate, home, and so on. I warn fasters before they begin that these experiences may arise and their lives may change, especially when I sense that they are not really committed to or believe in what they are doing. Even though these insights and changes may be traumatic, my belief is that they are ultimately positive, as they support the evolutionary purpose of the human being. In this way, fasting helps us follow our true nature.
How to Fast
In the thousands of people I have observed during fasting and detox programs, the complications have been negligible, provided that proper procedures have been followed and attention paid to the ongoing body changes. Usually, people feel fine, even euphoric after a few days, although there may be ups and downs or various symptoms; yet, overall, in my experience, changes are positive.
The general plan for fasting works progressively, from a moderate approach for new fasters and unhealthy subjects to a stricter program for the more experienced. It is important to take the proper time with this potentially powerful process and not jump into a water fast from an average American carnivorous diet. Although many people do fine even if they make such extreme changes, it clearly maximizes the risks of fasting.
A sensible daily plan is one where fasting is mixed with eating. Each day can include a 12-14 hour period of fasting in the evening and during sleep before awakening and getting ready for the day. (Breakfast was given that name to denote the time where we break the fast of the night.) Many people eat very lightly or not at all in the early morning to extend their daily fast. This is more important if dinner or snacking tends to be extended into the later evening, though this is not ideal. On the other hand, if we eat a decent, not excessive, meal in the early evening and awaken hungry, a good breakfast can be consumed after water intake and some exercise.
In preparation for our first day of fasting, we may want to take a few days to eliminate some foods or habits from our diet. When many self-indulgent habits exist, longer preparations may be indicated. Eliminating alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and sugar if possible is very helpful, although some people choose to wait until their actual fast days to clear these. Red meats and other animal foods, including milk products and eggs, could be avoided for a day or two before fasting. Intake of most nutritional supplements can also be curtailed the day before fasting; these are usually not recommended during a fast. Many people do well by preparing for their fasts with three or four days of consuming only fruit and vegetable foods. These nourish and slowly detoxify the body so that the actual fasting will be less intense.
The first one-day fast (actually 36 hours, including the nights—from 8 p.m. one night until 8 a.m. the following day) gives us a chance to see what a short fast can be like, to see that it is not so very difficult and does not cause any major distress. Most people will feel a little hungry at times and may experience a few mild symptoms (such as a headache or irritability) by the end of the day, usually around late afternoon or dinnertime, but this depends on the individual and the state of toxicity. In actuality, the first two days are the hardest for most people. Feeling great usually begins around day three, so longer juice fasts are really needed for the grand experience.
One of the problems with fasting is that it can be the most difficult for those who need it the most, such as the regular three-square-meals-plus-snacks consumers who eat whatever and whenever they want. Often such people must start with more subtle diet changes and prepare even more slowly for fasting. A transition plan that can be used before even going on the one-day fast is the one-meal-a-day plan. The one daily meal is usually eaten around 3 p.m. Water, juices, and teas and even some fresh fruit or vegetable snacks can be eaten at other times. The one wholesome meal is not excessive or rich. It can be a protein-vegetable meal, such as fish and salad or steamed vegetables, or a starch-vegetable meal, such as brown rice and mixed steamed greens, carrots, celery, and zucchini. People on this plan start to detox slowly, lose some weight, and after a few days feel pretty sound. The chance of any strong symptoms developing, as might occur with fasting, is minimal with this type of transition, and the actual fast, when begun, will be handled more easily, also.
The goal, then, is to move into a one-day fast and then a few two- and three-day fasts with one or two days between them when light foods and more raw fruits and vegetables are consumed, and also provide fluids, juices, soups, and a generally alkaline cleansing diet. This way, we can build up to a five- to ten-day fast. When the transition is made this slowly, even a water fast can be less intense and more profound for those wishing a powerful personal and spiritual experience. With a water fast, however, I strongly suggest medical monitoring and retreating from usual daily life.
A juice fast, which I usually recommend, can be longer and is much easier for most people. The fresh juices of raw fruits and vegetables are what most fasting clinics and practitioners recommend. They provide calories and nutrients on which to function and build new cells, and also provide the inherent enzymes contained in these vital foods. (Food enzyme theories, discussed throughout this century, have recently been described in books such as Enzyme Nutrition by Dr. Edward Howell.) Raw foods are considered the healing force in our diet because they contain active enzymes, which are broken down when foods are cooked. Many health enthusiasts consider a raw-food diet the most healing and most nutritious diet.
For the inexperienced faster, it is best to go slowly through the various steps and to avoid being excessive or impatient so that we learn about ourselves in the process. To do this, we need to make a plan and put it into effect, observing or "listening" to our body and even keeping notes in a journal. Get to really know yourself. Then, once we have fasted successfully, we could continue to do one-day fasts weekly or a three-day fast every month if we need them. This helps to reconnect us with a better diet and to remotivate us toward our goal of optimum health.
In a more adventurous mode, many people, even some who have never fasted, begin with a seven- to ten-day or even longer fast on fresh juices. I recommend this for most people who have any of the indications and none of the contraindications discussed in this program (also see General Detoxification). People planning these longer fasts, especially inexperienced fasters who have been eating a random diet, should spend a period about equal in length to the planned fast preparing for it. During this preparatory period we can follow some of the previous suggestions, such as eliminating sugar and refined foods, fatty foods, chemicals, and drugs from the diet and reducing consumption of meats and other acid-forming foods, and then moving into several days of consuming primarily fruits and vegetables and more fluids. This will lead into an easier and more energizing fast.
For any cleansing period, it is essential to plan times to meditate, exercise, get fresh air and sunshine, clear our intestines, get massages, take baths, clean our house, brush our skin, and more. Maybe you thought you were going to sit back and relax and have juice delivered to your room? With less shopping, food preparation, and eating time, we have more hours in the day to take care of ourselves in other ways. These supportive aspects of cleansing are discussed further below.
Timing of Fasts
The two key times for natural cleansing are the times of transition into spring and autumn. (This is discussed in other sections of this book, such as in Chapter 9 on Diets and the General Detoxification program earlier in this chapter, and emphasized in my first book, Staying Healthy With the Seasons.) In Chinese medicine, the transition time between the seasons is considered to be about ten days before and after the equinox or solstice. For spring, this period is about March 10 through April 1; for autumn, it is from about September 11 through October 2. In cooler climates, where spring weather begins later and autumn earlier, the fasting can be scheduled appropriately, as it is easier to do in warmer weather. With fasting, the body tends to cool down. In the General Detoxification program, there is also a complete yearly cycle for cleansing with a variety of ideas and options. For spring, I usually suggest lemon and/or greens as the focus of the cleansing. Diluted lemon water, lemon and honey, or, my favorite, the Master Cleanser, could be used.
Fresh fruit or vegetable juices diluted with an equal amount of water will also provide a good cleansing. Some vegetable choices are carrots, celery, beets, and lots of greens. Soup broths can also be used. Juices with blue-green algae, such as spirulina or chlorella, mixed in can provide more energy, as these are high-protein plants and easily assimilable.
Autumn is the second most important cleansing time, when we prepare for a new health program, focus on our career or school year, and let go of the fun and games of summer. At this time, a fast of at least three to five days can be done, using water or a variety of juices, including the Master Cleanser, apples and/or grapes (usually mixed with a little lemon and water to reduce sweetness), vegetable juices, and warm broths.
How do we know how long to fast? We may use a certain time plan, such as discussed above. Ideally, though, we should follow our own individual cycles and our body’s needs. As we gain some fasting experience, we should become attuned to when we need to strengthen or lighten our diet and when we need to cleanse. Usually, if we are under stress or have been overindulging or develop some congestive symptoms, we want to lighten our diet to balance this. If more changes are needed, a more cleansing, raw-food diet or a fast can be begun.
Breaking a Fast
When to stop fasting and make a transition back into eating also takes some inner attunement. Things to watch for include energy level, weight, detox symptoms, tongue coating, and degree of hunger. If our energy is up and then falls for more than a day or if our weight gets too low, these may be signs that we should come off the fast. If symptoms are intense or if any suddenly appear, it is possible that we need food. Generally, the tongue is a good indicator of our state of toxicity or cleansing and clarity. With fasting, the tongue usually becomes coated with a white, yellow, or gray film. This represents the body’s cleansing, and it will usually clear when the detox cycle is complete. Tongue observation is not a foolproof indicator, however. Some people’s tongues may coat very little, while others will remain coated. In this case, if we were to wait until it totally cleared, we may overextend our cleanse. If in doubt, it is better to make the transition back to foods and then cleanse again later. Hunger is another sign of readiness to move back into eating. Often during cleansing times, hunger is minimal. Occasionally, people are very hungry throughout a fast, but most lose interest in food from day three to day seven or ten and then experience real, deep-seated hunger again. This is a sign to eat (carefully!).
It is important to make a gradual transition into a regular diet, rather than just going out to dinner after a week-long fast. Breaking a fast must be planned and done slowly and carefully to prevent creating symptoms and sickness. It is suggested that we take several days, or half of our total cleansing time, to move back into our diet, which is hopefully a newly planned, more healthful diet. Our digestion has been at rest, so we need to go slowly and chew our foods very well. If we have fasted on water alone, we need to prepare our digestive tract with diluted juices, perhaps beginning with a few teaspoons of fresh orange juice in a glass of water and progressing to stronger mixtures throughout the day. Diluted grape or orange juice will stimulate the digestion. Arnold Ehret, a European fasting expert and proponent of the "mucusless" diet, suggests that fruits and fruit juices should not be used right after a meat eater’s first fast because they may coagulate intestinal mucus and cause problems. More likely, a meat eater’s colon bacteria are different than a vegetarian’s; with fruit sugars, the active gram-positive anaerobic bacteria in the meat eater will produce more toxins. Initially, a transition from meats to more vegetable foods will then allow a smoother fast, mainly with vegetable juices and broths. They could also take extra acidophilus to begin to shift their colon ecology.
With juice fasting, it is easier to make the transition back into foods. A raw or cooked low-starch vegetable, such as spinach or other greens, can be used. A little sauerkraut, a fermented cabbage, helps to stimulate the digestive function. A laxative-type meal, such as grapes, cherries, or soaked or stewed prunes, can also be used to initiate eating, as it is important to keep the bowels moving. Some experts say that the bowels should move within an hour or two after the first meal. If not, take an enema. Some people may do a saltwater flush (drinking a quart of water with 2 teaspoons of sea salt dissolved in it) before their first day of food.
However you make the transition, go slowly, chew well, and do not overeat or mix too many foods at a meal. Simple vegetable meals, salads, or soups can be used to start. Fruit should be eaten alone. Soaked prunes or figs are helpful. Well-cooked brown rice or millet is handled well by most people by the second day. From there, progress slowly through grains and vegetables. Some nuts, seeds, or legumes can be added, and then richer protein foods if these are desired. Coming back into foods is a crucial time for learning individual responses or reactions to them. You may even wish to keep notes, following such areas as energy level, intestinal function, sleep patterns, and food desires. If you respond poorly to a food, avoid it for a while, perhaps a week, and then eat it alone to see how it feels.
Some juices work better for certain people or conditions. In general, diluted fresh juices of raw organic fruits and vegetables are best. Canned and frozen juices should be avoided. Some bottled juice may be used, but fresh squeezed is best, as long as it is used soon after squeezing.
Water and other liquids are what primarily cleanse our system, increasing waste elimination—rather like squeezing out a dirty sponge in clean water. Lemon tends to loosen and bring out mucus and is useful for liver cleansing. Diluted lemon juice, with or without a little honey, or the Master Cleanser can loosen mucus fast, so if this is used, we need to cleanse the bowels regularly to prevent getting sick. Most vegetable juices are a little milder than lemon juice.
Each juice has a certain nutritional composition and probably certain physiological actions, although these have not been studied extensively. We can think of fresh juices as natural vitamin pills with a very high assimilation percentage, and we do not need to do the work of digesting them.
In general, some juices are more caloric than others and might be used less if more weight loss is desired. The juices of apples, grapes, oranges, and carrots are good cleansing juices but might be minimized for weight loss. More grapefruit, lemon, cucumber, and greens, such as lettuce, spinach, or parsley, may be more helpful in this situation. Also, a variety of juices can be used in a fast with different ones squeezed daily.
These juices may be helpful for particular organs or illnesses, based on my experience as well as information contained in Paavo Airola’s How to Get Well. To prepare juices, we obviously want to start with the freshest and most chemical-free fruits and vegetables possible. They should be cleaned or soaked and stored properly. If there is a question of toxicity, sprays, or parasites, a chlorine bleach bath can be used (see Chapter 11). If not organic, they should be peeled, especially if they are waxed. With root vegetables such as carrots or beets, the above-ground ends should be trimmed. Some people like to drop their vegetables into a pot of boiling water for a minute or so for cleansing as well.
The best juicers are the compressors, such as the Norwalk brand, but these are very expensive. The rotary-blade juicers, such as the Champion, are good at squeezing the juice with minimum molecular irritation. The centrifuge juicers are also fine, but they waste juice left in the pulp. Blenders are not really juicers; what they make is more like liquid salads. These are high in fiber. I once did a energizing week-long fast with two blender drinks a day, fruits in the morning and vegetables in the late afternoon, with teas and water in between.
Other Aspects of Healthy Fasting
Fasting can easily become a way of life and an effective dietary practice. Over a period of time (different for each of us), through newly gained clarity, we can go from symptom cleansing to prevention fasting. Ideally, we should fast at specific times to treat symptoms and/or to enhance our vitality and spiritual practice. (See the cleansing schedule in the General Detoxification program.) Otherwise, we should support ourselves regularly with a balanced, wholesome diet. This diet may change somewhat through the year as we experience different needs, and occasional fasting or feasting may be valuable. We also must maintain good digestion and elimination.
Fasting is needed more frequently by those who have abused themselves with foods or other agents so readily available these days. We all need to return to the cycle of a daily fast of 12-14 hours overnight until our morning "break-fast," and then find our own natural pattern of food consumption. This usually means one main meal and two lighter ones. For low-weight, high-metabolism people, two larger or three moderately sized meals are probably needed. If we eat a heavier evening meal, we need only a light breakfast, and vice versa. Through awareness and experience, we can find our individual nutritional needs and listen to that inner nutritionist, our body.
Choosing healthful foods, chewing well, and maintaining good colon function minimize our need for fasting. However, if we do get out of balance, we can employ the oldest treatment known to us, the instinctive therapy for many illnesses, nature’s doctor and knifeless surgeon, the great therapist and tool for preventing disease—fasting!
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