There are few health-related subjects more misunderstood than fasting. Today, fasting is little known by most cultures, though it was not always that way.
Hippocrates, the famous “first (western) physician” is well-known, and claimed by alternative health practitioners for having said, “Let your food by your medicine, and your medicine thy food.” But few people remember the words that he uttered next: ”But to feed yourself when you’re already sick is to feed your sickness.” Hippocrates was clearly recommending that people fast when unwell. And his words, “to feed yourself…” suggest that he was indeed suggesting what is often today called a water-fast, or more correctly, a water-only fast (since “water fast” actually means that one is fasting from water, rather than on water.)
Let’s investigate this “radical” practice and see why Hippocrates might have been so in favor of it. I’ll discuss the most common myths that I’ve heard over the last 15 years of leading more than 2000 people through water-only fasts of one to nine weeks. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the term “fasting” to refer to water-only fasting from here on.
Myth #1: Fasting is starving. Many people have equated fasting with starving but there is an important difference; when we are fasting, the body is consuming its reserves. When we are starving, all reserves have already been depleted and the body is living on vital tissue, primarily muscle.
What many people may not realize is that the primary reason we have fat cells is to store fuel for times when food is not available. There are floods, fires, droughts, and other severe conditions which sometimes make finding food nearly impossible in nature. Animals in the wild are often forced to go long periods of time without eating. Those that survive, survive because they have the reserves that they need to ensure an adequate intake of calories during this time.
While animals in nature still depend on keeping fat reserves to get through those occasional lean times, with access to food 24 hours a day, most people no longer need them. In fact, the average person has 6-8 weeks of reserves, if resting as completely as possible. And those who are wealthy in nutrient reserves can often go much longer. Very lean people go through their reserves more slowly and can almost always fast for at least 6 weeks too.
We do need some fat, but only roughly 3% body fat is essential, or necessary for survival. Today, most people have between 7 and 10 times that much fat, and the body is burdened by excess fat. Equally importantly, we store most of the toxins in the body in our adipose tissue – long-term fat stores – and need to break this fat down to eliminate them.
Myth #2: We need to consume nutrients to support the healing process. As we break down fat, tiny amounts of muscle, and anything that doesn’t belong in the body (tumors, cysts, lipomas, etc.) via fasting, nutrients are released into the bloodstream and become available for the body to reuse. Coupled with the fact that many nutrients constantly circulate through the blood stream, we virtually always get everything we need while fasting. Nutrient deficiencies or imbalances while fasting are so unlikely that I’ve seen it happen once in over 2000 fasts and it was in a client who had had her thyroid gland removed and had stopped taking thyroid hormone, meaning her body had no way to manage its potassium/sodium balance. In fact, we often see existing deficiencies and imbalances corrected while a client is consuming only water, including b12 deficiencies and iron-deficient anemia. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that many deficiencies result from the inability to assimilate properly, rather than from an absence of the substance in question. The best way to correct assimilation issues? Cleanse the body via fasting.
Myth #3: Our bodies are not really that toxic. Though we may wish this were the case, it’s simply not true. As the body becomes burdened over time by less than optimal lifestyle choices, it becomes less and less able to eliminate its own cellular wastes on an ongoing basis. The result is that the cells are often surrounded by these wastes, negatively impacting their ability to function correctly. Up until around 1970, Herbert Shelton ND, and other experts were still writing that these endogenous (from inside the body) toxins were the primary source of toxicity.
As the world has continued to become a more and more toxic place, it seems increasingly likely that exogenous sources of toxicity might now be the larger issue. Two EPA studies in 1984 and 1987 showed that 100% of North Americans have styrene, dioxin, xylene and dichlorobenzene as well as many other toxins in their bodies, many of these from plastic food packaging. Another study which looked for 75 persistent environmental pollutants including PCB’s and dioxin found that the average person had more than 50% of the substances they looked for in their bodies in measurable quantities.
Myth #4: Fasting is only appropriate for those who are already strong and healthy. Though it may seem intuitive that people who are sick or debilitated are in no position to fast, almost the opposite is actually true; though everyone will benefit from fasting long enough and properly, the sicker one is, the more beneficial the process will be. Our culture has moved far from some very basic truths that are important to remember if you want to create an amazing level of health and vitality. The first one is that every organism is both self-healing and self-cleansing. The best we can do is to get out of the way and allow the body to shunt as much of its energy towards these two activities as possible.
Because processing food is the single most energy-expensive process the body normally undertakes, resting as much as possible requires both that we don’t eat, and that we discontinue any and all unnecessary activities, conserving energy so that it can be used to cleanse and heal the body. This means that while fasting, we need to rest as completely as possible, preferably spending as much time as we can lying down with eyes closed, thereby shutting off the huge amount of visual stimulation we are constantly exposed to (the visual cortex in the brain requires an inordinate amount of space because of the vast amount of information we are constantly taking in through the eyes,) and reducing and normalizing heart rate, respiratory rate, and brain waves.
Myth #5: Fasting can make well people sick. I hear this one from time to time when I give lectures; someone will approach me after my talk and say, “I tried fasting once, but it made me sick.” In other words, they began fasting feeling ok, and developed symptoms as a result. This happens all the time – but it’s not a problem. It does require another critical paradigm shift: the understanding that all symptoms are evidence that the body is cleansing or healing.
So when we conserve energy by resting and the body is able to dramatically speed up its cleansing and healing processes, we can expect to see symptoms arise. These symptoms can span the entire range of what’s possible, from fevers, headaches, aches and pains, to swelling of a previously-injured joint, vomiting… and anything else. The key is to understand what is and isn’t ok, so that we can relax and allow the body to do what it needs to do.
Though this may seem alarming at first, consider that as we fast, the body is dumping toxins into the bloodstream so that they can then be eliminated from the body via any of the body’s normal channels of elimination. As you may have previously experienced, when you have something toxic in your blood stream, you don’t feel well. And though nobody relishes the potential discomfort which may accompany fasting, people willingly go through it understanding that there are tremendous benefits to giving the body a chance to cleanse and heal itself, and that unfortunately…there truly is no other way to eliminate the garbage and quickly return the body to a high state of health and functioning.
Myth #6: Fasting forces the body to detoxify too quickly. We often forget that the intelligence of the human body is amazingly vast with regard to its own processes. Neither in my own experience nor in reviewing all of the literature, I’ve never once seen or heard of someone who was injured because the body detoxified too quickly. The reason that this does not happen is simply that the body is managing the process of detoxification as it sees fit, and never moves faster than it can handle.
Sometimes, as I’ve alluded to above, we will detoxify faster than may be comfortable. This is why I coach every client to first consider what it is that they are truly committed to creating. If the answer is “an amazing level of health and vitality,” or something similar then I would encourage them to fast…and to remember that cleansing and healing may involve, even require, some discomfort.
Many people though, if truly honest, are only committed to feeling good right now, and if that’s what someone wants, then they would be better served by taking drugs, getting drunk, or distracting themselves through any of the myriad ways our culture has become expert at doing this. Unfortunately, a high level of health and healing is very unlikely to result from this behavior, and in this culture where 80% die of cancer, heart disease or stroke, and over 60% are now overweight or obese, one only needs to look around to find ample proof of this assertion.
Myth #7: We need to use colon hydrotherapy while fasting to avoid auto-intoxication. The belief behind this myth is that as “stuff” is dumped into the colon, it will be reabsorbed into the blood stream if we don’t flush it out with enemas or colonics. What’s true however is that most people seem to carry between 5 and 10 pounds of old wastes in their digestive tract at any given time, and it often sits there for months or years. Certainly having material sitting in the digestive tract for a few weeks or more can’t create much of a problem compared to this more typical scenario.
Furthermore, because hydrotherapy is enervating to the body (ie, uses nervous system energy) and will flush out beneficial bacteria, change the pH of the colon, and, if used repeatedly, weaken the muscles of the colon, it tends to have a negative impact on fasting clients. Herbert Shelton, Doctor of Naturopathy who supervised more than 40,000 fasts during his roughly 50 year career found early on by experimenting with his fasting clients that clients who did not get hydrotherapy always had better bowel function after fasting.
Here at Tanglewood, we certainly see that the majority of clients never need hydrotherapy to eliminate well and completely, and that we get amazing results without resorting to it.
Myth #8: Many conditions contraindicate fasting. Though you are likely to hear this from many doctors and most people with no experience with fasting, the truth is that there are very few people who cannot fast safely as long as they are resting completely and have experienced supervision.
There are a few conditions that bear discussing however. First of all, women who are either pregnant or breast-feeding should not fast more than 4 or 5 days, because fasting longer will negatively impact the fetus or breast-feeding baby.
Those with type 1 diabetes must be very careful, and should never fast without supervision experienced with this specific condition, as it can be very challenging to fast with.
Anorexics, and other people who may be emaciated due to advanced cases of cancer or other conditions cannot fast. And I truly mean that they cannot. Remember that fasting is living on reserve tissue. If we don’t have reserves, we are not fasting, we are starving, and while fasting always leads to a higher level of health and vitality, starving is never beneficial.
Type 2 diabetes and hypoglycemia are frequently mentioned as conditions that one should not fast with. Not only is this not true, but in fact, fasting is an extremely effective way to allow the body to heal these conditions. Here at Tanglewood, we have 100% success with type 2 diabetes, (as well as with hypertension, lower GI tract issues, candidiasis, and many other conditions.) The key with any of them is to fast long enough to allow the body to cleanse and heal, rest as completely as possible, and then make long-term beneficial changes.
Myth #9: Juice-fasting is more gentle and more effective than water fasting. This is one of those myths that has a root of truth to it that confuses people; certainly it’s true that drinking juices is more gentle than drinking water for a period of time. The key is to understand why this is so: When we (water-only) fast, the body moves through a series of beneficial physiological changes that ensure that cleansing and healing happen as efficiently and effectively as possible. But these beneficial changes only happen in the complete absence of all nutrients. (Remember, like every other species, our bodies are designed to fast safely, and that on average we have 6-8 weeks of reserves if resting.)
So juice fasting is far more gentle because it is far less powerful. In fact, juices are foods, containing both calories and nutrients, and when we are consuming any foods, the body is putting an inordinate amount of energy into processing those foods through the system, and so has far less energy available for cleansing and healing.
Before I learned about water fasting, I tried juice fasting. 120 days on only juices. (I do not recommend doing this!) A short while later, I learned about water-only fasting, and when I did my first one-week fast, was amazed at how much more powerful the process was. I’ve since had many dozens of clients who tried juice fasting and didn’t get the results they wanted… and then water fasted their way to health.
So juice fasting is definitely more gentle, but only because it is far less effective.
Myth #10: Fasting alone can restore my health. OK…this is not really a myth. But Ten Myths sounded much better than Nine.
And though it is true that fasting can restore your health, allow you to become younger (the body pumps out mega-doses of human growth hormone while fasting, and so we literally reverse aging,) is the only thing which seems to allow people to become properly hydrated, and can provide life-altering benefits in every area of our being, fasting is just the first step.
We can’t expect the body to work as well as possible without cleansing and healing first. But after we have cleansed and healed, it is critically important that we make optimal lifestyle choices if we want to maintain the many benefits which will have accrued from the fast. Learning how to meet all of your body’s needs is critical to long-term success, and though the way is not always easy, it is always simple.
In Hippocrates time, people looked to nature for their answers, and though probably misinterpreted many things, were probably also much better off in many ways by doing their best to follow the dictates of nature. Nature really does have the answers, and when we learn to understand and apply them, we can create amazing levels of health and vitality, and can maintain those benefits indefinitely by learning how to live in accordance with the laws of nature.