Why Fasting is Good for You (and How to Do it Right)

Fasting is an integral part of many different religions around the globe, the most well known probably being Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact, the end of this week marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for an entire thirty days.

The Health Benefits of Fasting

Fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within” - Philippus Paracelsus

You don't have to be religious to try fasting and reap the many health benefits. Some people think that it's dangerous not to eat and drink for a prolonged period of time. However, fasting has been scientifically proven to be good for the body.

A person is said to be fasting when they haven't eaten for at least 8 hours. You actually fast every night while you're asleep. That's where the word breakfast comes from - breaking the fast.

Humans are not designed to be in a constantly fed state. Our ancestors often went for days without eating when there was no food available. Fasting gives the digestive system a much needed rest, allowing the body to detoxify itself. The liver, kidneys and colon are able to be cleansed and the body's own healing mechanisms are triggered. Fasting may therefore improve any medical ailment, the most common being allergies, arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders and skin conditions. You will also notice better mental function and clarity.

The faculties become refined when you starve them. Why, surely, as a doctor, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider” - Sherlock Holmes

When you fast, your body will try to conserve as much energy as possible. One of the ways it does this is by cell regeneration – it kills old immune cells that are no longer needed or even damaged. In particular, prolonged fasting (at least two to four days at a time) has been shown to reduce both the enzyme PKA, helping to increase longevity, and the hormone IGF-1, therefore slowing down the ageing process, tumour progression and cancer. When you start eating again, healthy new cells are formed.

Fasting can therefore boost your immune system and increase your life expectancy.

If you're a religious or spiritual person, fasting serves a higher purpose than just the physical benefits. It can make you feel at one with nature and the universe and help to bring you closer to God. By practicing self-restraint and depriving ourselves of physical desires, we can disconnect from the material world and focus our energies inward.

Prayer brings us halfway to God, fasting takes us to the gateway of Heaven” - Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Finally, fasting teaches us to be grateful for our food, more compassionate for the starving people in the world and teaches us not to take anything for granted.

People who are generally advised not to fast include pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with long-term illnesses such as diabetes and the elderly and frail. If you have never fasted before, it may be sensible to consult your doctor first to rule out any ailments that could prevent you from doing so safely.

How to Do it Right

Fasting is not common in Western culture and for many people, the idea of not eating can be a scary thought. The first day of fasting is always the hardest and you may experience tiredness, low energy and even headaches. You will definitely experience hunger. However, we humans are extremely adaptable and if you push through, your body will soon get used to it and these feelings will subside. Here are some tips to make your fast bearable and to keep you as healthy as possible throughout your fasting period.

1. Eat something substantial before you start fasting that will give you prolonged energy – a mixture of good quality protein and slow-release carbohydrate, such as scrambled eggs on wholemeal toast.

2. It's extremely important to stay hydrated. If you will be fasting for Ramadan you won't be able to drink anything for approximately 18 hours a day this year. Therefore you need to ensure you drink plenty of fluids once the sun has gone down. Try to ignore fizzy drinks that are bad for you and drink as much water as possible.

3. Don't break your fast with fried, greasy foods. These will make you feel sluggish and will negate any health benefits. I know that after having not eaten for so long you will want food that you enjoy, but think about what your body needs. You will have to get your blood sugar back up so eating fruit first, especially something sugar-dense like dates, is the best option.

Every fool can fast, but only the wise man knows how to break a fast” - George Bernard Shaw

4. You will also need to eat plenty of protein for muscle growth and regeneration and lots of vegetables to replenish the body's stores of vitamins and minerals you might have missed out on during the day. Add a small amount of slow-release carbs such as brown rice to fill you up. And don't go crazy with the portion sizes! Be aware that your stomach will shrink when you fast and too much food will put a strain on it – so don't fill yourself to bursting!

5. Finally, make sure to get sufficient sleep. This controls appetite so you won't feel so hungry. It will also make you better equipped to take on the day. Everyone feels better after a good night's sleep.

Have you ever fasted for religious, health or medical reasons? Do you have any tips for people interested in fasting? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments!

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