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10 Reasons to Fast

By Steve Edwards
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YogaFasting isn't a trend. It's one of the oldest therapies in medicine and its recorded practice dates back thousands of years. But these days, it's hard to peruse the magazines at your local market without being provided a myriad of "trendy" fasting options promising greater health, spiritual enlightenment, and most of all, weight loss. It's also pretty easy to find literature warning of the dangers of fasting. So let's have a look at fasting, its history, benefits, and whether or not you might want to make it part of your lifestyle.

If you've read any historical literature, you know that fasting has been around a long time. Many of the oldest healing systems have recommended it as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, believed fasting enabled the body to heal itself. Paracelsus, another famous healer, wrote "Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within." Sounds good. So just exactly what is fasting?

ShakeBy definition, anytime that you don't eat, you are fasting; hence the word "breakfast." But most therapeutic fasts last longer than one night, usually from one day to a few weeks. Juice or liquid fasts, while not traditional, are quite common because many of the desired results are achieved without as much stress on the body. It's also common to begin a fast with a period of cleansing foods, such as veggies or soups. A modern fast is often synonymous with a cleanse; or a very restricted diet designed to reprogram your body. The majority of fasts only last a few days. Provided that you stay hydrated, the body can function without food for this long with little stress (though it may not feel like it to you, especially the first time). Those wanting to participate in the longer and more traditional fasts should have medical supervision, or at least be certain they are in condition to undertake such an adventure. While strict nutritionists rarely recommend such things, most alternative medicine practitioners, such as homeopaths, naturopathic doctors, and ayurvedic doctors are well versed at supervising and monitoring patients during fasts. Monitored fasts are almost always safe, but should be entered and exited with care.

We'll get to the different types of fasts in a moment. First, let's look at 10 reasons why you might want to try a fast or make them part of your lifestyle.

  1. Drinking WaterTo cleanse your system. Most of us eat more than we should, take in more toxins than we'd like, and are subjected to many other things, like pollutants, that we'd rather avoid. Furthermore, the majority of us carry around a lot of undigested food in our system that comes from eating more than we can process. A fast will, essentially, flush these things from your system. Yes, you'll lose weight. But more importantly, your body will run better than it did before.

  2. CoffeeTo change bad habits. When you don't eat, your body craves sustenance and becomes more sensitive to toxins. Most habits are based on cravings, but when you completely change how your system is running, those cravings change also. Coffee is the easiest example. During a fast, your body is too sensitive to tolerate highly acidic substances and caffeine very well. Things like coffee will often make you feel terrible, when it has the complete opposite effect normally.

  3. To change your health. Many chronic conditions have used fasting as an effective treatment, including allergies, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, depression, diabetes, headaches, heart disease, high cholesterol, low blood sugar, digestive disorders, mental illness, and obesity. It is thought to be beneficial as a preventative measure to increase overall health, vitality, and resistance to disease.

  4. SleepTo reset your body clock. Fasting gives you a clean slate. Without nutrients, you become more sensitive and sleep and other patterns change. It's an easy time to revamp your schedule and get your body clock working in your favor.

  5. To bring your body into homeostasis. This is the balance point your body prefers to be at but is rarely achieved with our hectic lives. When the intake of food is temporarily stopped, many systems of the body are given a break from the hard work of digestion. The extra energy gives the body the chance to heal and restore itself, plus burning stored calories gets rid of toxic substances stored in the body. Essentially, you force your body to work efficiently and, thus, bring everything into balance.

  6. ClarityFor increased mental clarity. Most of us probably first heard of fasting as a religious exercise. There are examples of it in most spiritual texts. It's a great tactic for mental and spiritual rejuvenation because it forces focus on important thoughts and frees the mind from everyday clutter. When you are deprived of nutrients, your body—in a survival mode—begins to focus on things of true importance.

  7. VegetablesTo make changing your diet easier. When you fast you become more sensitive to what you put into your body. It's easier to understand how nutrients affect you and, hence, how bad foods make you feel worse. Exiting a fast is the easiest time to change your diet for the better. Your body will crave healthy foods. All you need to do is give it what it wants.

  8. RunTo get a better feel for how exercise and diet make your body work. When you take away nutrients your body can't function as well as it did from a performance standpoint. When you add nutrients back, you'll feel your energy increase and how exercise affects you and utilizes nutrients. This understanding can be a great dietary aid. Most of us have a hard time understanding what fats, carbohydrates, and proteins do for us but coming off a fast you'll more easily understand their functions, especially if you are exercising.

  9. To improve fat mobilization and physical efficiency. Many physiological changes occur in the body during fasting. Your body turns to stored fat for energy, and this process becomes more efficient under the stress of a fast. Furthermore, the brain, which has high fuel requirements, still needs glucose (sugars converted from glycogen) to perform well. To obtain glucose for the brain, the body finds two sources of fuel, ketosis and muscle, so the body begins to break down muscle tissue during a fast. But to fuel the brain, however, the body would need to burn around a pound of muscle a day. So we've developed another survival mechanism to create energy that saves important muscle mass, a process called ketosis. In ketosis, the liver converts stored fat into ketones, which can be used by the brain, muscles, and heart as energy. Those of you versed in the Atkins diet my have a negative association with this process but Atkins-ers somewhat abused it. It's another survival mechanism the body has that can be developed and utilized. Where Atkins may have overdone it was promoting it as a way of life, not a phase towards improving the body's functionality.

  10. Yoga 2To get a forced rest phase. Our bodies do better when we train periodizationally. This is in phases of intensity, one of which is rest. Since we tend to skip this phase because we feel like we'll regress if we don't exercise (either that or over-embrace it to the point of not exercising), fasts force a recovery phase because you can't do hard exercise. The most exercise you should attempt is very—low intensity movements, like walking, hiking, or easy yoga or stretching. During this time, the body heals its cumulative microtrauma that has resulted from exercise. When you come off of a fast, your body will be slightly deconditioned. However, its capacity for conditioning will have increased. This means that once your catch up to the fitness level you were prior to fasting you will more easily exceed this level, instead of hitting a plateau.

What are the different types of fasts?
There are many fasts on the market, which sounds funny because if you're not eating, it begs the question why do you need the market? But most fasts contain some sort of strategy that includes some nutrients.

  • 2 Day Fast FormulaThe simplest are the "beginner" fasts, such as with Beachbody's 2-Day Fast Formula. These usually provide some liquid nutrients, like fruit and veggie juices or a shake, to make things less stressful. You still get most of the benefits of fasting and, well, you still get to look forward to some meals.

  • More complex are things like the Master Cleanse diet, in which you still get some nutrients - though very few - and you're supposed to continue this way for a longer period of time, usually at least 10 days. These fasts require that you have a lot of self-knowledge. It's always recommended to begin with a shorter fast to see how it affects you.

  • WaterReligious fasts are traditional and strict. They often mean going for long periods with no nutrients at all; just water. Since their aim is more spiritual than fitness oriented, they're rarely - if ever - recommended by the fitness and nutrition industry.

How often you fast depends a lot on what type of fast you do. Longer fasts should not be done often, but one-day fasts can be done regularly. An old common religious practice was to skip eating one day per week, which can be easily done without associated fitness loss. So it's fairly easy to make fasting a regular part of your "diet."

SoupTo enter a fast, no matter which type it is, it's best if your diet is gradually lightened over a few days. First, heavy foods such as meats and dairy products should be eliminated. Grains, nuts, and beans should then be reduced. The day before you begin, eat only easily digested foods like fruits, light salads, and soups. Likewise, you should break your fast gradually also, going from lighter to heavier foods progressively. The diet after a fast should emphasize fresh, wholesome foods, which is easier because junk and convenience foods will usually make you feel awful. It's also vital that before, during, and after a fast you drink a lot of plain water. This keeps you hydrated and helps flush your system.

It's also important to note that fasting is not appropriate for everyone—especially pregnant and nursing women—and, in some cases, could be harmful. Those with health conditions should always have medical support during fasting.

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