The skinny on fasting

Lent starts every year on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 13, 2013, and Holy Saturday falls on March 30, 2013. While many of us will be participating in this Holy sacrifice, some of us have questions about the safety and efficacy of fasting.

Dr. Stacie Smith and her mother asked me to address the risks and benefits of fasting, and I know they are not alone with their questions.

Well Mrs. Smith, as far as the history is concerned, there isn’t really a time that we can pinpoint as the start of fasting because there is no reason to think that early man did not fast in the normal course of his existence; every other animal, even today, will fast during times of stress or illness, and sometimes even at the slightest anxiety. It is a natural tendency for a living organism, whether human or not, to seek rest, balance, and to conserve energy at critical times. Personally, I prefer to use the word Detoxification instead of Fasting. Detoxing, by definition, is the process of removing toxic substances or free radicals that create an imbalance or inability to think clearly. It is here that those undergoing detoxification (i.e., fasting) show their appreciation for the body-mind connection and are willing to work with that powerful influence, attempting to not interfere with, but rather to foster the body’s own healing authorities. As modern-day medicine matures, it will undoubtedly begin to rediscover fasting as the invaluable method of self-healing that it is.

 There is no argument that there are obvious benefits to fasting:

1. Fasting = detoxification

Processed foods, perfumes/colognes, lotions, many drinks, hair products, etc. contain lots of additives. These additives often become toxins in the body. These toxins are usually stored in fat tissue. Fat is burned during fasting, allowing the body to get rid of the toxins. The longer the fast, the higher the concentration of toxins released from the body. Healthy organs are required and fasting improves the health of the organs needed in detoxification (e.g., liver, kidneys, colon, lungs, lymph glands, and skin).

2. Fasting strengthens your Immune System

When an individual is on an Eat To Live Longer diet in between fasts, this will boost immunity. Elimination and the reduction of toxin intake along with a reduction in fat stores also help the body’s immunity. For example, when individuals consume fruits to break a fast (i.e., at breakfast), they increase the body’s store of essential vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A, C & E, along with the B vitamins are good antioxidants readily available in fruit, vegetables and supplements that also fight off free radicals and help to boost immunity.

3. Fasting reduces blood sugar (glucose) levels

Fasting increases the breakdown of glucose so that the body can get the energy it needs. It also reduces production of insulin from the pancreas. This allows the pancreas to rest. Glucagon is produced to facilitate the breakdown of stored glucose. It is important for diabetics to understand this phenomenon before they decide to fast. Anyone with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes should not fast without the permission and supervision of their physician.

4. Fasting promotes Eating To Live Longer

Fasting shrinks the size of the stomach cavity while reducing cravings for processed and high sugary foods. It in turn promotes one’s desire for natural foods, especially water, fruits and vegetables.

5. Fasting causes weight loss

Fasting promotes rapid weight loss by reducing the store of fats in the body. Please keep in mind however that fasting is not a good weight loss strategy. Reducing fat and sugar intake, and increasing fruit and vegetable intake are safer ways to accomplish weight reduction.

6. Fasting allows your digestive system to take a rest

During fasting, the digestive organs rest. The normal physiologic functions continue especially production of digestive secretions, but at reduced rates. This abstinence helps to maintain balance of fluids in the body. Also, the release of fat energy follows a gradual pattern.

Dr. Smith, I’m sure you recall from medical school that fasting does not stop production of acids in the stomach. Because of this, your patients diagnosed with peptic ulcer disease are advised to approach fasting with caution and under your strict direction. Some physicians believe they should not fast at all.

7. Fasting weakens inflammatory reactions

Because of the decrease in free radical consumption (i.e., toxins), fasting promotes resolution of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and skin diseases such as psoriasis. Studies also suggest that fasting may promote healing of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis.

8. Rejuvenation

The most scientifically proven advantage to fasting is the feeling of rejuvenation. Part of this marvel is caused by a number of the benefits mentioned above. A slower metabolic rate, more efficient protein production and an improved immune system are only a few of the reasons why your mind and body will feel new and improved. 

It is important to keep in mind that fasting actually starts within the first twenty-four hours of your change in diet. Scientifically, a fast does not begin until your carbohydrate stores begin to be used as an energy source. The fast will continue as long as fat and carbohydrate stores are used for energy, as opposed to protein stores. Once protein stores begin to be tapped into to provide energy (resulting in loss of muscle mass), a person is technically starving. Therefore, when fasting we must all make sure that we take in our recommended amount of daily protein.

In conclusion, there are many great reasons to consider fasting as a benefit to your health. Your body rids itself of the toxins that have built up in our fat stores throughout the years or during the last time you fasted. The body repairs all damaged tissue and organs during the fasting period as well. And finally there is good evidence to show that regulated fasting contributes to the feeling of rejuvenation. However, many doctors warn against fasting for extended periods of time without clinical supervision. The idea of depriving a body of what society has come to view as so essential to our survival in order to heal continues to be a topic of controversy so always err on the side of safety and consult your physician before beginning a fast.

Dr. Smith, please thank your mother for her inquiry on fasting, its benefits and risks.

Dr. Reginald Eadie
DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital

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Please note that the views expressed by Dr. Eadie through are that of the individual only and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Detroit Medical Center.

2 thoughts on “The skinny on fasting

  1. Dr. Eadie,
    Thank you for helping us figure it out. I was raised in the Lutheran faith and have participated in spiritual fasting or Lent for most of my life. I’ve always felt personally that the balanced and gradual approach to heathful dietary changes, spirituality and the discipline I learned from Lent is a very positive thing.

    As a Physician I have been concerned with patients embracing detoxing or fasting that may not be done in a healthy way. Perhaps to offset binge drinking or binge eating for example, people may drink teas or use colon cleansers, or starvation-based diets to purge themselves of those excesses. That concerns me and you addressed the reasons why in this blog. Ultimately we all want to Eat to Live to Live Longer and this blog helped me to learn more about how to do just that!

    Thank you for helping my Mother and I to learn more about detoxing! We are glad we could help you to spread the word on good health!

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