Intermittent fasting has gained a lot of popularity in the past year. I only took it seriously when a friend told me she dropped 2 waist sizes after practicing intermittent fasting for 16 hours a day. At this point, I was naive to the health benefits associated with a fasting practice. I wasn’t even clear of the types of intermittent fasting that existed. As a chiropractor, this sparked my interest beyond the simple result of weight loss. I am constantly curious about biohacking methods (ways to holistically manipulate your gene expression and overall health) and fasting quickly became my topic of interest. What benefits can I gain from intermittent fasting? What’s the appropriate amount of time to fast? Where did fasting come from? Each of these questions led me to develop my own fasting practice, something that has served as a spiritual sort of practice since the “shelter-in-place” mandate and the new COVID-19 norms.
My research led me down various rabbit holes, starting with my favorite functional medicine doctors I follow on Instagram (@fastingMD, @drmarkhyman, @dr.jess.md). Resources from their websites then led me to blogs, Ted Talks, and articles on PubMed. I could give you an entire lecture on why you should be intermittent fasting along with the associated benefits (and I do on my own Instagram), but I’ll keep it simple up for you. As a whole, we eat too much sugar (glucose). When we fast, our body runs through its sugar supply and then relies on fats to break down energy (ketone bodies). This is what we call a fuel switch; switching the source of fuel (changing from sugar to fat) from which we derive our energy. So think: switching from coffee to tea every few weeks as another example of a fuel switch. Simply, inputting different information into our body and hacking how it functions. We can all use a good fuel switch to shake things up and enhance the adaptability of our bodies. *Disclaimer: our bodies do not NEED sugar (glucose) to function (yes, we can function on fats alone), so this fuel switching isn’t just for ha-ha’s. It’s actually a form of detoxing for the body. The toxicity of sugar is another conversation entirely; but what is important here is your understanding that fuel switching is beneficial for the body, as it serves as a detoxifying method from sugar. The second positive side effect of intermittent fasting that I want to highlight for you is the beauty of autophagy. Autophagy is the process of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells- especially in the brain. So think: gunk in the brain that builds up and leads to neurocognitive diseases (Alzheimer’s) getting flushed out while new healthy neurons form. Ummm sounds like that’s something I want happening in my body. Autophagy then serves as an additional form of detoxification. So to summarize this, intermittent fasting provides fuel switching and autophagy as detox methods for your insides. Additional benefits of these usually include: increased mental clarity, improved bowel movements, increased energy levels, and weight loss. Obviously, this is not intended as medical advice (and please consult a doctor if you want to seriously consider intermittent fasting); but, this is what the research says.
Ok, so now I knew the benefits of fasting and was eager to get into my own rhythm. I began to play around with the “magic number” of 16 hours; that is, fasting for 16 hours (black tea, coffee, and water) and eating for a window of 8 hours (typically noon to 8 pm). Overall, I felt better, but my results were subtle. Of course, the proper fasting protocol varies on the individual, as do all medicinal protocols. So I looked a bit more into different fasting schedules. I found information on circadian fasting (fasting for 12 hours, stopping eating 2–3 hours before bed), an 18 hour fast, and a 24 hour fast. The 24 hour fast raised my eyebrows. How did people do this? I even heard Dave Asbury, the founder of bulletproof who lost over 100lbs with intermittent fasting, say that everyone should fast for 24 hours once a week! What?! The devil on my shoulder said *challenge accepted*. So for weeks, I would train myself a few times a week to push to an 18 or 20 hour fast. For a while, it didn’t feel right to push to 24. I listened to my body, and if I needed to eat, I ate. And when I ate, I ate a healthy amount of nutritious foods.
During these few weeks, I got to thinking, of how this goal, and sort of *sacrifice* of mine, became very sacred to me. It gave me a sense of discipline, structure, and routine. It was something I could weave into my daily schedule as a sort of personal ritual between my body and me. There was a part of the ritual when I felt empowered and apart from when I felt challenged. Mental fortitude was at play. Donuts in the kitchen at work, trail mix while I wrote my patient notes, and even my addiction to gum (yes, gum breaks your fast) would offer temptation at times. Not because I was hungry and starving myself, but because snacking on autopilot was a force of habit.
Over time, I began to liken my ritual to spiritual practice, like meditation. Some days I did not want to do it, but I knew it was beneficial in the long run. Not only for myself but for my engagement with the world around me. So here I am, joking with myself about my new monastic practice, willing my behavior in the name of the greater good. And it hit me: fasting rituals actually did exist in a spiritual/religious context. Raised Catholic, during Lent we fasted on Fridays from meat (I was loving this at the time because it meant pizza). However, Lent also meant giving up something of your fancy for 40 days, to mimic Jesus’s withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. My parents always gave up something sugar-related- is this ringing any bells?! As a child, my observance of Lent was lost, but my awareness of the subliminal energy of sacrifice stayed with me. Flash forward, my fasting practice was becoming more comprehensive, the ritualistic nature of my practice was serving me in ways beyond the benefits of fuel switching and autophagy. This practice had me feeling connected to a different sort of power, perhaps something divine. Now, I am not a practicing Catholic anymore, or even Christian for that matter. But I do identify as spiritual, recognizing the infinite intelligence of the universe (yes, I went there, call me “woo-woo” and for more introductory info please read, The Alchemist).; and, my fasting practice was, on some level, serving my spiritual self.
As an adult experimenting with fasting; at this point for both health and spiritual purposes, my curiosity about fasting’s representation in religious literature began increasing. I began researching what I am most familiar with- Christianity. As previously mentioned, fasting is emphasized in Jesus’s retreat to the desert. Here, he was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread; to which he refused. Jesus resisted temptation, and at the completion of the 40 days, he began his ministry (Mathew 4:1–11). This parable is what Catholics base their rendition of fasting off of, during the contemporary observance of Lent. Further, The Bible twice mentions Moses fasting for 40 days, which is where Yom Kippur comes from in Jewish tradition. Once, in preparation to receive the 10 commandments (Deuteronomy 9:9–11) and another time to repent for the sins of his people (Deuteronomy 9:14). Each of these instances represents fasting as a form of ritual to serve a higher power. The individual endures a temporary phase of suffering, ultimately resulting in some type of reward (the Word of God, the 10 Commandments, forgiveness). There is an undertone of discipline as well as perseverance in these stories; a tone of hardship and reward as oscillating energies over time. Now, I am not saying I am suffering necessarily during my fasts; but, it does require dedication; and, as previously mentioned, mental fortitude. It’s not always a walk in the park. Neither is meditating. Sometimes it’s hard, blocks (temptations) come up. But moving through these and showing up as best you can is what makes this a spiritual practice. Inspired action is always a component of achieving any goal. I am not preaching to you here and telling you to fast. I am not suggesting you force yourself to suffer or else you won’t reap a reward in the end (although this Judeo-Christian ideology is at play in any Capitalistic society, especially America, think: work hard = achieving = salvation). However, I am telling you that pushing yourself past your comfort zone is essential for any type of growth, and goal setting is typically associated with growth. For me, I wanted to tinker with my body’s ability to stay energized, digest food, and eliminate stubborn fat. So, in order to do this, I played with fasting as my medium. Yes, I had to resist desires I was used to succumbing to, but I wasn’t in dire agony or fearing for my life. I enjoyed the challenge, resisting the temptation: the PROCESS. Can’t you hear it now? “Fall in love with the process”, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”. So annoying when said out of context, honestly. But in this case, these clichés fit the bill. My fasting journey was a process, a ritual, a challenge. It pushed my limits while serving my physical and spiritual body at the same time, and I enjoyed it.
The fasting process is thus, multifaceted. It serves as a testing but fulfilling endeavor. Fasting in Jewish and Muslim literature supports this further. Ramadan and Yom Kippur are two holidays that also emphasize fasting. As mentioned, Yom Kippur represents Moses’s 40 day fast before he received the 10 commandments. On this holiday, Jews are told (by the Torah) to abstain from eating or drinking between sundown on the night prior to Yom Kippur, and nightfall the next day (~25 hours). The fast is believed to cleanse the body and spirit, not to serve as punishment (remember fuel switch and autophagy?!). In Islam, Ramadan is the month Muhammad was meditating on Mt. Hira, when he had a vision where he was told that he was the messenger of Allah and born to be a prophet of his people; he was then given the teachings of the Qur’an. During this month, Muslims fast every day from sunup to sundown, with the intention of spiritual discipline: cultivating a sense of compassion for the hungry, internalizing human frailty, and reducing distractions to focus on God. Jesus’s fast preceded his ministry, Moses’s fast came before he received the 10 commandments, and Mohammad’s fast came prior to receiving the word of the Qur’an. Lent, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan serve as modern-day observances to these Holy experiences; all of which involve fasting.
As we can see, every major monotheistic religion incorporates a component of fasting as a form of ritual. Fasting is consistently highlighted as taxing for the individual, temporary in time, and advantageous in the long run. Fasting has its roots in spiritual theory. Contemporary holistic physicians emphasize fasting as a reasonable and manageable strategy to improve health benefits for their patients. The practice of fasting is validated in its antiquity as well as the latest research. My journey with intermittent fasting has brought me a practice that serves my overall well-being. I regularly test my mind, body, and spirit through this ritual. I even fast for 24 hours once a week now (thanks Dave Asbury). Fasting has become an expression of my spiritual practice throughout the “shelter-in-place” mandate, as many of my usual spiritual outlets have been taken away. It is something I look forward to and fall back on when I lose my routine. I have shamelessly, fallen in love with the process.