Fast Facts

Benefits of fasting

Words: Dr Ambika P NAYAK

The good, old, wise sages in India formulated a code for healthy living, apart from their emphasis on spiritual development. This is also one of the first tenets of Ayurveda, meaning life.

Ayurveda represents optimal preventative aspects for a healthy life, but this, in the frenzied times that we live in, is a somewhat less explored sphere. One concept that highlights healthy living, in Ayurveda, is the practice of upavasa [fast].

We often connect fasts with religious and spiritual beliefs, but upavasa, or fasting, carries with it several hidden health benefits. This is one reason why it was and is used as a form of holistic treatment. The cell biologist and Nobel laureate Yoshinori Ohsumi’s monumental work on the mechanisms for autophagy — the process that cells use to destroy and recycle cellular components — says it all and more.

Opposite Effect

A notable tenet, or principle, in Ayurveda is also — just do the opposite. When obesity, for example, is due to overeating, you ought to cut on the portion size — as a result, you begin to lose weight. When obesity is due to a sedentary lifestyle, the opposite foray holds good — you should lead an active lifestyle and perform the right kind exercises that suit your individual needs. You will quickly get into shape. You’d call this a kind of reduction therapy too in Ayurveda — apatarpana.

Well, you may also have come across elders eulogising langhanam paramaushadham — meaning fasting is the foremost medicine.

Upavasa, according to Ayurveda, is a part of the ten modalities through which body, or weight, reduction therapy can be achieved.

The word, upavasa, has different meanings to it; it relates too to different spheres of life, viz., spiritual-physical-emotional. The simplest definition of upavasa is found in the Sanskrit dictionary. It is called shabda kalpa druma — to go without food, or water, for one full day and one full night [24 hours]. However, one need not be too rigid. You may sculpt a few modifications that align with your capacity, or individual requirements. 

Who Can. Who Can’t

When a fast is planned, it is essential to know who can and can’t do fasting. Healthy individuals are allowed to fast, including folks who are experiencing generalised heaviness in the body, certain disease conditions, sedentary, or lifestyle-induced diseases, obesity, mild fever and gut-related complaints, like nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite [anorexia], constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, etc. Pregnant women, children, having a pitta dominant body type, people with uncontrolled type-2 diabetes and individuals who are physically weak by nature, age, or due to chronic illnesses, should refrain from complete fasting.

Doing upavasa, from time to time, helps in maintaining and improving the digestive system, as also the gut microbiome. This, in turn, influences various metabolic and immune responses in the body. It also, in the process, leads to healthy longevity — in other words, it will add active years to your lifespan. 

The caveat is one should know until when they can cope with fasting without harming oneself. So long as the normal functioning of your body is not hampered, that is, when you are capable of performing all routine activities, have no complaints in the functioning of gut, are able to stay alert and cheerful, and have the stamina to withstand fasting, there is no problem to keep up with it.

Remember — that long-standing, or frequent, practices of upavasa, is a religious custom in certain communities. This could be detrimental to health, as food is the primary source of energy, or fuel, to the body. If the period of starvation is prolonged, it may reduce the quality of life [QoL] and affect one’s lifespan. If done excessively — upavasa may reduce the proficiency of the digestive processes and this, in turn, could vitiate all the three doshasvata, pitta and kapha — and, gradually trigger certain health issues.

Two Sides Of Fasting

On the upside, the benefits of fasting, in précis, are — a vibrant, overall feeling of lightness, clear belches indicating a cleansed gut, realisation of hunger, enthusiasm, feel-good mood, alertness, easing of the vitiated dosha — along with reduced symptoms of disease, or illness.

On the downside, there are certain risks of unorganised and unplanned fasting, like dehydration, hypotension, electrolyte imbalance, nutritional deficiencies, gastric disturbances, viz., lack of appetite, excessive thirst, acidic belches, or eructation, nausea and/or vomiting, coughs, hyperacidity, fatigue, dull voice, sleeplessness [insomnia], difficulty in passing urine and stool, nervous system disorders, giddiness [vertigo], delirium, confusion, vague pains, fever, or feverish feeling, emaciation and sometimes death.

Once you’ve observed a beneficial fast, the next step is ‘how-to’ break it. The most common question is: can one eat a normal meal after a complete 24 hours fast? Well, it is not ideal to do it that way. The digestive system should be given the time to slowly adjust to a normal meal, starting with a liquid diet of simple carbohydrates, viz., rice gruel, or pulses soup, or broth, and one should eat a full thali at the subsequent meal time.

The bottom line is equally important. Remember to plan fasts in a way that isn’t against nature, or prana, while giving due consideration to the seasons, your age, strength and stability — viz., physical, mental, emotional and other underlying factors.

It is also imperative to follow certain useful rules of fasting best suited to your ‘bespoke’ needs — in consultation with your Ayurveda physician for safe, effective therapeutic outcomes.

Dr AMBIKA P NAYAK, MD [Ayurveda], is Founder & Managing Director of Ayurvedeeyam, a speciality Ayurveda Clinic in Bengaluru. Her passion for the ancient, yet ‘completest’ natural medical system, and professional clinical skills are keyed to raising awareness for Ayurveda as a first choice of treatment for illness and healthy living, just as much as her axiom, Svasthasya svāsthya rakṣaṇaṃ — the age-old, fundamental principle of Ayurveda. Dr Nayak, who has presented papers and participated in national and international symposia, is also a strong advocate of panchakarma, thanks to its fully holistic and proven therapeutic efficacy in the treatment and prevention of illness, or disease.

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