Navratri thali is the best example of how Indians avoid fasting. Since fasting is connected with divinity, no one wants to mess up the way to heaven. But still we Indians love food. Anyone who abstains from food pleasures is considered a taboo and spoil sport.
In this article we shall discuss the benefits of fasting, scientifically and technical definition of a fast.
Fast is going without food for a certain period of time. So crazy people exclude even water and that is called a dry fast. Fasting has to be followed up by feasting to provide adequate nutrition for the body to recover and finish off with full benefits.
Benefits of fasting – as per duration
We do not realise but many of us actually do some kind of fasting. Native or traditional lifestyles incorporate fasting in one form or the other. Western lifestyle encourages everyone to keep eating or siping something. That is partly due to influence of the processed food industry and the people who believe their advertisements.
A basic 5 hour fast
The gap between lunch and dinner is about 5 hours. If you are new to fasting, this is where you should be begin with. Here is what happens during the 5 hour period.
Your food digestion completes in 3 hours. Carbs in the food is broken down into glucose and released in the blood. This increases your blood sugar level. Insulin is released by the pancreas so that glucose can be pushed into your body cells to be used as fuel for energy.
If you eating a carb and sugar rich diet, your food will digest faster, but that will spike your blood sugar and it will take longer time for all that blood glucose to enter the cells. Rest of the glucose will be converted to body fat by the liver.
But if you are having a low carb diet, then your food will take more time to digest, but your blood sugar level will not spike.
The benefit of that is that as soon as the blood sugar level comes to normal, say after four hours, your body will start burning fat for energy.
12 hour fast – fat burning at night
Indians love to eat late. Home dinners, wedding dinners, party dinners, mostly are post 11 pm. Coupled that with an early breakfast does not give a 12 hour fasting windows.
Some farming comunities wake up early morning to work the fields on an empty stomach. Breakfast arrives a 10 am. So if you finish dinner by 7 pm you will easily get a 12 hour fasting window. There are two straight benefits of doing this.
Four hours after sunset the body starts producing melatonin which puts different organs to sleep finally ending up with catching the first deep sleep pattern which is somewhere around 11 pm. Melatonin first puts the pancreas to sleep, the same organ which produces insulin which lowers the blood sugar level. So imagine four hours after sunset is 10 pm and any food consumed after that will just be excess blood sugar floating around in your blood the whole night!
12 hours also gives enough time for the food to digest and the blood sugar levels to get sufficiently low so that fat burning begins while you sleep. Four hours of fat burning is enough to keep your weight in check. Further if you are a morning exercise person, this added fat burning will really keep your weight stable for life. However there are certain conditions and situations where you should want to move beyond 12 hours.
18 hour fast – the unbeatable secret for good health
An 18 hour fasting is your first window to miracles happening in your body. 8 hours after the last meal, the body starts fat burning. Depending on the amount of glucose in your blood, this might begin after 12 hours. But by 15th hour fat burning is guaranteed in any case even if your last meal was carb and sugar heavy. For those on a low carb or keto diet, fat burning begins much earlier.
Long duration fasting has been proved to increase insulin sensitivity. A total fast means that you are eating nothing that triggers the release of insulin.
18 hour fast also introduces you to the three main benefits of fasting, Growth hormone, Autogphagy & BDNF. Not to forget the stem cells which are released when you break the fast. These three get released only in the last couple of hours of the 18 hours fast. To really maximise these three aspects you need to shift to the 24 hours fast or the Ekadashi Fasting followed in India.
24 hour fast – Ekadashi
After 22 hours of fasting, there isn’t really anything in the gut. This gives a chance for the inner lining of the gut to heal. Bad bacteria in your gut start dying off, because there is nothing for them to feed on. Similarly the cells in our body really get to desperate measures. They start eating themselves from inside. There is a cleanup crew which start clearing off the junk from both within the cell and outside too. This is called autophagy and it gives an extra boost of energy and you will feel like going for a run. It also results in a bit of bad breath because of the release of junk protein in the blood.
Similarly after 22 hours, you will have a spike of growth hormones. Combined that with the low sugar levels in your blood, your body literally starts healing itself. All the oxidative stress caused by energy production by using glucose as fuel, starts to repair. Growth hormone starts repairing your skin, hair, organs and nails too. People who fast regularly start to look younger.
Oxidative damage mostly occurs in the brain because it has to fully depend on glucose for energy. After 20 hours of fast, there is a production of BDNF which starts repairing the damage caused by oxidative stress. This repair crew starts reconnecting the neurons giving us better mental clarity. We all are familiar with ketosis and ketones. They are the alternative source of energy and cleaner source of fuel for the brain.
With all this cleanup and pruning, what does the body do as soon as it gets food, there is a release of stem cells from the bone marrow. This helps with the healing and rebuilding. Hence it is very important to follow the right steps of breaking a fast after 24 hours.
However it is very important that it has to be a total fast for your body to have all these benefits. The moment you eat or drink any of the vrat foods, technically your fast is broken.
36 hour fast – How Indian monks do it
This crucial difference of 12 hours gives you a 2000% spike in BDNF and Growth hormone. So while the regular people do a 24 hours Ekadashi fasting, ISKON sadhus go for a 36 hour fast to get that extra spike in BDNF and growth hormone. So if you have begun your fast at sunrise, instead of breaking it the next morning, you delay it till evening. People who go for longer fasts do not break their fast with solid food. Instead they go on a liquid diet for the next 8 to 12 hours. It could be vegetable juices or curd. Some people even have taken to bone broth or vegetable broth to get that extra dosage of nutrition.
Important instructions for first time fasters
- If you are feeling discomfort at any moment, just break the fast. There is always another time.
- Be careful about dehydration. Salt, water and electrolytes are a must. Choose your electrolytes carefully and avoid the ones which has added sugar.
- Try to avoid carbs and sugars one day prior to fast. Fat and fibre with light food is how you should prepare for a 24 hour fast and beyond
- A lifetime of eating food for pleasure cannot be reversed in a single day. So give time for your body to adjust. Spirituality is a good motivator.