The True Value of Restraint: Fasting for Self-Healing

August 27, 2020

As Virginia Woolf once wrote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Few things in life are as satisfying and comforting as a delicious meal. But hunger can (and should) be your best friend. Especially when it comes to self-healing and optimal health.

If you’ve been part of the 3 Sources community for a while, you’ll know my philosophy on nutrition and the significant impact I believe food has on the prevention and management of the major chronic illnesses we suffer from in the Western world. Conditions such as autoimmune disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular issues, as well as cancer.

Whilst a nutrient dense diet is immensely important, it’s not always easy to encourage people to commit to eating healthily. Some experts put this down to the problem known as “delayed gratification,” meaning it’s hard to say no to someone offering you a cupcake right now, even if you know that it might contribute to ill health in fifty years’ time. But believe me; the way you eat now determines whether you’re going to spend the latter half of your life healthy or sick. This may seem like tough love, but we all need to wise up to this truth.

What Harms the Body Most is Excess Food

The search for food has been the most important driving force in the history of evolution. But still, fasting has long been a natural part of life. Many animals refrain from eating when they are sick and by doing so, they intuitively contribute to their recovery. What’s more, there are literally millions of people on the planet who regularly practice the art of fasting as a religious practice; the Buddha, Moses, and Jesus were said to have each fasted for forty days.

Common sense prevails that humankind would have long since ceased to exist if going without food for periods of time caused severe health issues. Up until the mid-twentieth century, it was more or less accepted that food was not available 24/7. Harsh winters and unpredictable circumstances could lead to poor crop harvests. However, our bodies coped with this regular deficit well and our genes, our protein synthesis, and our hormones became well-adapted to this ever-changing program.

But as exceptional as the body is at handling hunger, it has not yet adapted to an excess supply of food. Every year, the rate of obesity grows, and along with it, increasing cases of severe chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, a raft of inflammatory diseases, as well as cancer. Despite all the strides that have been made in the fields of cardiology and oncology, we have failed at preventative care. To put this into context, 80 percent of the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases could be eliminated if we nourished ourselves correctly, moved frequently, and avoided stress overload.

Fasting Strengthens Immune Defence

Scientific studies have shown that fasting during sickness doesn’t weaken us, but instead stimulates our immune defences. In 2016, immunologists at Yale University were able to prove that the immune system fights bacteria more efficiently during periods of fasting. The saying “feed a cold and starve a fever,” is an old wives tale that bears truth – in short, fasting helps against feverish, viral infections and inflammation.

Fasting Supports the Body to Cleanse and Detoxify Itself

When we fast, our metabolism adapts and slows itself down – it uses less energy. In order to maintain important body functions, the body draws upon its own “storage” system. When this happens, our body releases ketones, which are essentially a second fuel source for cells and the brain.

A prolonged ketogenic diet, so popular right now, in which one eats very few carbohydrates, can feel joyless and most people cannot imagine a life completely devoid of bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. But ultimately, we need to focus on moderate protein and healthy fats to meet our energy requirements.

The Timing of Meals is Key

The times at which we eat are crucial. In the fast-paced society we live in, we all too often dismiss when we take our meals. For our bodies to function optimally it is important to not eat uncontrolled all day long, but to pay attention to the times you eat, in particular your last meal.

The reason for this is that the bowel needs breaks to repair itself. The digestive tract moves in a succession of muscle contractions and after eating it becomes inactive so that the food can be macerated. Afterwards, the contractions begin again at regular intervals that move like brushstrokes, which literally sweep the entire digestive tract to cleanse it of any food residue. The entire process lasts for up to two and half hours and is repeated as long as nothing is eaten. This process is interrupted every time we eat. If we are mindlessly putting food in regularly during the day, it goes without saying that the digestive system becomes overstressed.

Weight Reduction as a Side Effect of Fasting

Calorie restrictive diets pose a number of problems. If you become deficient and malnourished for a prolonged period of time, you pay the price in mood swings, sensitivity to the cold, fatigue, and hormonal issues including low fertility, to name just a few. Plus, the constant reduction of calories is hardly appealing to most of us.

Fasting is not about reducing calories – if you simply eat less, the effect is not the same as fasting. Fasting is about using food deprivation to expose the body to small doses of stress, which leads to a stimulus reaction that cleanses the body and regulates it.

Studies show time and again that weight-loss diets, no matter what logic they follow, lead to weight gain over a prolonged period of time. But when it comes to therapeutic fasting, this seems to be different; the observational studies currently available do not detect a yo-yo effect often seen in weight-loss regimens. Through correctly guided therapeutic fasting, nutritional awareness changes, which is why we don’t see any indications of yo-yo effects in the ongoing data.

Fasting Regulates Metabolism

Hippocrates once said: “When you notice that you have eaten, you have already eaten too much.” One of the most important effects of fasting, is it changes the way hormones are directed in the body. During fasting, a pronounced decrease of leptin, the hormone responsible for regulating fat stores, can occur. Leptin is a hormone that regulates our appetite and our metabolism. When the body is flooded with the wrong types of food too often, the cells protect themselves from this excess energy by developing a resistance to leptin, closing themselves off to this hormone. Without this hormone signalling when we’ve eaten enough, many people lose the sensation of satiety, which can lead to over-eating.

Many of us have heard the saying: “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper.” Scientific evidence for the glory of breakfast, however, is scarce. When practicing fasting, instead of breakfast, we should eat lunch like kings. A recently published study compared a lavish lunch to an opulent dinner. It showed that the participants who consumed the majority of their daily calories at lunch lost more weight more easily than those who ate a rich dinner. This makes sense, as it’s around lunch time that the body requires the greatest amount of energy for keeping its body temperature up, therefore less energy passes into the fat reserves.

Healing Through Restraint

The scientific data shows us that the positive effects of fasting begin after a period of fourteen to sixteen hours. You can get these positive effects whether you practice intermittent fasting consistently every night, or maybe one entire day a week, or longer with medical supervision – as long as you do it right.

I’ve witnessed the positive effects of fasting time and again, both in my own healing journey and in my ongoing research work with colleagues in the field of functional and biological medicine. As an example, I’ve experienced an immediate effect during an RA (rheumatoid arthritis) flare. Instead of using pharmaceutical drugs to relieve the pain caused by inflammation, I’ve used short and extending times of fasting as a supplementary therapy for its anti-inflammatory effect.

To illustrate further, a Scandinavian study in 2002 randomly assigned patients with rheumatoid arthritis into two groups: one group was conventionally treated with drugs, while the second group underwent a fasting cure, followed by a plant-based diet. After one year, the second group showed a significant decline in pain, and the swelling of their joints receded, as did joint stiffness. Studies like these led me to integrate intermittent fasting as a central therapeutic strategy to my daily regimen.

The Body’s Self-Repair Mechanism: The Right Way to Fast

Prolonged fasting programs should always be carried out under medical supervision. However, intermittent fasting can be practiced easily and safely in everyday life for most people, but if you are dealing with chronic health issues, I would still recommend that you consult your health professional before embarking on a regular fasting regimen. Intermittent fasting practiced in everyday life is also suitable for healthy people as a method of prevention.

Fasting in Your Sleep

Personally, I like to maintain a period of fourteen to sixteen hours without any food consumption. In practice, it’s not that hard because I sleep for the majority of that time. Some people omit their dinner; but for me it’s important to sit down at the table with my husband in the evenings to share our day over a light meal. So instead, I don’t eat breakfast and take my first meal late morning or at lunch, depending on when I ate my last meal. Until then, I avoid all food and drink a matcha tea at most along with plenty of filtered water.

My Approach to Intermittent Fasting

My advice when starting out is to make use of the night. If you sleep from 10pm to 6am for example, you’ve already not eaten for eight hours; now you only need another six hours to get to the green zone of fourteen hours.

As it’s not a good idea to eat too late in the evening, preferably at 7pm the latest, that’s another four hours between your last meal and bedtime. If you take your next meal at 9am or 11am you will have reached the minimum fourteen hours, or better still, sixteen hours. The important thing to remember is there should be “no unhappy fasting” – find what works best for you. Intermittent fasting is counterproductive if it causes too much stress. What’s important is to test different options so you know which one is right for you.

Fasting requires practice, just like exercise and meditation. Your body also needs to adjust – you need to be tenacious and keep going for two weeks before you draw any conclusions. Only then has the body’s metabolism had enough time to adjust. You should be patient but keep listening to your body. If it still doesn’t feel good and right after a certain amount of time, then stop.

Fasting Promotes a Healthier And Happier Life

Therapeutic fasting is much more than the absence of food. When you fast for the first time, you begin to become mindful about what you are eating once the fast is broken. Eating an apple suddenly becomes incredibly delicious and stimulating. These sensations are important motivating factors for eating healthily and moderately later on when all senses, particularly the taste receptors, are especially alert and sensitive.

Those Who Prevail Reap Success

When we look at the numerous mechanisms that contribute to the protective and healing effects of fasting, and in my own personal experience, it becomes clear that fasting can be a wholesome and sometimes spiritual experience. Fasting becomes a controlled and self-determined experience that can motivate us to change our lifestyle successfully. Hermann Hesse sums this up wonderfully: “Anyone can perform magic. Anyone can reach his goals if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.”

Do you already practice intermittent fasting? I’d love to know. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to add a comment or email rachel@3sources.com.

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comments +

  1. Mélanie says:

    Hi Rachel
    Thank you for this. I have tried IF however I am not sure I have consciously done it for a solid 2 weeks.
    I have not seen a difference, so that may be why. I have done a window of fasting from 6 pm – 10 am or sometimes 7 pm – 11am
    Most of the time.
    I am going to try it a solid 2 weeks, & see how that goes.
    Should I not deviate the times? As long as I do 16 hours? Or does it not matter; 6pm -10 am OR 7pm – 11am?
    Thank you
    Mélanie

    • Rachel Baker says:

      Hi Melanie
      I would recommend that you try it for at least two weeks before making any concrete conclusions. For sure, it will be benefitting your health on many levels. The time frame is less important, but 14-16 hours is the window of time. I also encourage people not to eat late in the evening because it’s better for overall digestive health and allows your body to fully rest overnight and focus on repairing and regenerating, which is what we want. x

  2. Leslie says:

    I enjoyed your article on fasting. Do you find fasting daily works best? Or do you follow a different fasting plan? I am not new to fasting and I’ve enjoyed many benefits from it. But I am looking to readjust given I am now in my mid-50s. I’m thinking from a standpoint of helping to balance hormones I need more education on what may work best. Thank you.

    • Rachel Baker says:

      Hi Leslie. I intermittent fast most days, but you need to find what works best for your body. I would start slow – just one day a week and see how you get on, checking how you feel, etc. If you have any health issues, please check with your health professional before starting. x

  3. Cayetana Torres Ulloa says:

    Hi, thanks a lot for this post, it is a gamechanger. Besides water and matcha, which other beverages can I take during fasting? Ex. Water with lemon?

  4. Lynne says:

    I began intermittent fasting a little over two weeks ago! I am loving the feeling and the results.

    Thank you for this post! I am so grateful to learn additional insight to this healthy practice.

  5. Elaine says:

    Rachel, I really appreciated this really informative post.
    I would like to learn more about the movement of food through the digestive tract.. After eating does the peristaltic movement stop while the food macerates in the stomach?, Is there a resource you could recommend where I could learn more about this.
    I am so grateful for your wonderful postes and I am slowly working my way through your marvellous 15 sauces., with the Medicinal Miso – tahini my favourite so far. Many thanks Elaine

    • Rachel Baker says:

      Hi Elaine. There’s a great little book called ‘Gut’ by Giulia Enders, which is an easy and informative examination on how much our digestion system has to offer. I’m so glad you are enjoying the sauces – the Medicinal Miso is one of my favourites 😉

  6. Janae Crawford says:

    I have been loving your journals and this one is no exception. I look forward to getting the every week.
    I am going to be adding some fasting into my routine now. I am excited to see the results!

  7. Agnès says:

    Very interesting article, thank you ! I have been considering fasting for a while now but haven’t decided to do it yet because I highly enjoy breakfast time before a long day at work ; it is really a special moment for me, with tea, lovely china, some fruits and a small piece of whole grain bread, and it is a time bubble for me before work, which is so frequently high paced and stressful . So giving it up would be very difficult for me.BUT…as I feel uncomfortable with my body since all the months spent in lockdown, during which I gained weight that I can’t get rid off (even though I never eat processed food and have less and less meat), I am looking for ways of getting in better shape and health , so I considered fasting but I wonder if I do it ,say , three days a week, if it will be useful and efficient for my system ?

    • Rachel Baker says:

      Hi Agnes. Oh, absolutely. Even one day a week would be beneficial for your health. I don’t like to promote fasting for weight loss, but it is a secondary benefit to intermittent fasting. You’d need to practice it for more than once a week though to see any weight loss benefits. x

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