By Liila Hass, Registered Naturopath and Counsellor
Three times a day, day after day, many people around the planet participate in an important activity: Eating! Of course, sadly, in many corners of the world, people are without food, however for those lucky enough to be reading this, likely you have had your fill already this morning. But what happens to the body when we eat day after day, without giving our organs a rest? And how good is it for our health to continue on this schedule without a break?
The body is designed to efficiently break down the food we eat, first through the secretion of saliva and the act of chewing, which transforms our food into a liquid mass called a “bolus”, then through peristalsis and the movement of the bolus through the esophagus, then with more secretion of acids and further breakdown in the stomach and then the movement into the small intestine, from where macronutrients can be absorbed into the bloodstream. And while all that is going on, our waste products get transferred to the large intestine from where they can be efficiently eliminated. What an amazing process! But think of all the organs, enzymes, body fluids, microbiomes and functions involved, and it goes on day after day, week after week, for years. No wonder our bodies sometimes need a break.
Besides the continuous work of our organs, some of the food we eat these days, with our capacity to process food and import it from all over the world, mean that often our body cannot eliminate all the waste particles we ingest and toxins build up in our tissues and cells. These toxins can create feelings of fatigue, stiffness, difficulties getting out of bed, headaches, inflammation, angry skin and more.
Nature has a fantastic solution in store for us. By going off food completely for short periods of time, the body has a chance to rest and reboot, and the organs can eliminate their toxic load. For example, the liver, pancreas and gallbladder, finding themselves “off duty” with no new food coming in, have the chance to expel remaining noxious substances without distress and find themselves becoming cleaner, clearer and more restored. The stomach and intestines have a chance to rebuild their supply of digestive juices and all our tubes, from the esophagus to our long and winding intestinal tract, can finally cleanse themselves, like a car getting its parts cleaned during a service.
So, what is the harm of doing a fast? Really, there is none, unless the person is under the age of 15, when there is rapid growth and the need for regular eating, pregnant, breast-feeding, is physically unwell or is otherwise medically at risk; in those cases, fasting is never recommended. But for the average, healthy person between the ages of 15 and 60, fasting is a wonderful process, designed to help us live a long and fruitful life, to reduce our dependence on food, become more conscious of those who have no food on the table and to develop good internal discipline. In addition, fasting on a regular basis helps us achieve higher states of consciousness, because we can access those layers of mind that are otherwise unavailable when the body’s energy is focused on digestion. Remember that Buddha, Jesus and many other seekers used the practice of fasting regularly to answer to their most compelling questions and in many indigenous cultures, fasting has been used for centuries for rites of passage, to achieve spiritual heights or to be able to conjure forth a message from the great unknown.
There are many systems of fasting, but one that works well and has a profound positive result is Ekadashi, meaning “the eleventh day” in the ancient Samskrta language. This is a system that aligns us deeply with the phases of the moon, which, as you know, have a profound gravitational effect on the earth’s water tables. Since human beings are made up of 60 percent water, when the water levels are at their highest, usually around full and new moon, a subtle pressure is put on the brain and the changes are notable enough that researchers have been studying them for years. Known as “the lunar effect” (“lunar” being Latin for moon), humans birth more babies, sleep more poorly, commit more crimes and for the women among us, the moon plays a tremendous role in our cycles: It is no accident that the average length of the female cycle is 28 days, or a complete lunar month. Therefore, choosing to fast on the days of the month when the water levels are at their peak may help ease both our fasting experience—we will likely be less thirsty or hungry when our internal ‘tides’ are high–and also our mood: We may find relief, clarity and insight without really trying.
According to the science of fasting, the best days to fast are on the 11th day after the new moon and again on the 11th day after the full moon. That is because these two days allow us to fast as the water levels are just starting to reach their crescendo, and by fasting then, we will have balanced our own internal water tables by the time the full or new moon comes around and will be able to easily manage the tidal effect on mind and body.
The easiest way to have a successful fast is to eat normally during the days leading up to the fast, then to have a pleasant and nutritious meal the night before fasting. In the morning, wake up and have a glass of water or two (and for those who are more particular, you could do this before the sun rises), and then see if you can go without eating for the entire day. The first time you try it, you may wish to have a snack in the evening, but if you think you can make it till the following morning, then by all means go for it.
To ease the mental shift from eating thrice a day to not eating at all, try to keep busy (but without doing too much strenuous activity). Know that you can always break your fast if things start to feel uncomfortable for you in any way. Typically, you may feel tired by the afternoon; this is quite common! So make sure to plan less strenuous activities for the afternoon and evening. For example, you can engage in spiritual-type practices like yoga and meditation, to get a sense of the lightness of your being, read something inspiring and enjoy being out in nature if at all possible.
It is important to break the fast with the right foods and drink. As the sun starts to rise, start your day with a tall glass of lemon water. This can be made by putting a small pinch of salt (sea salt or Himalayan rock salt are best) in a glass of water and then adding some fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The salt kills germs and neutralizes the acid of the lemon and the lemon juice gently stimulates digestion and flushes out toxins (besides providing us with a healthy dose of Vitamin C). Wait a few minutes and then have a ripe banana. You can follow that a few minutes later with some yogurt (vegan or dairy, depending on your preferences) and then ideally eat a breakfast of fresh fruit, cucumbers, perhaps some nuts, granola or other light but nutritious choices. For lunch, err on the side of fresh vegetables such as salad, a protein source and healthy fats, such as natural oils, nuts, seeds and the like. This will help keep the body clean and happy after it comes off the cleanse. By dinnertime, you can resume your normal routine and should you notice that your energy levels feel really good and your body feels light and toxin-free, you will know why!
We wish you a happy, healthy and joyful fasting experience and if you have questions or comments, please get in touch through our contact page.