A Season for Fasting?
Willing to endure some discomfort to achieve a more meaningful life? If so, consider fasting. In the midst of plenty, try deprivation. Fasting aids spirituality, but it can also benefit your health (more below).
What’s the longest you’ve ever fasted? For me it was three days (no food, plenty of water). After the first day I wasn’t really hungry, teaching me I often snacked out of boredom. I lost some weight but better I reset my taste and began to eat healthier.
I once met a philosopher, complete with sandals and long beard, as he finished a fast of 40 days. He was European, but we met in Granada, Nicaragua, where he lived on an island in the lake. His fast was to abstain from food but drink the juice of the local coconuts. Fasting was part of his search for meaning.
We’re in the fasting season. Lent-observing Christians give up something—perhaps a guilty pleasure—for the 40 days of Lent, which started Feb. 14. Other Laguna religions also practice fasting. Mormons observe a two-meal fast on the first Sunday of each month, giving the money saved to the needy.
Observant Jews begin Purim with the Fast of Esther. Purim, you may recall, memorializes Queen Esther and the sparing of Jews about to be hung by the evil Haman. Haman was the prime minister of the Persian kingdom. The lovely Esther, who unknown to the king is Jewish, arranges a dinner with Haman and the king. Over the king’s favorite treats, she coolly informs him that the subjects Haman intends to hang include one—her guardian Mordechai—who once saved the king’s life. Kings feel protective towards subjects who do this. Long story short, the king saves the Jews, hangs Haman instead, and promotes Mordechai to prime minister. Esther is honored by a fast in her name plus a book in the Bible.
Purim (this year Feb. 28 to March 1) is a time of celebration and will be observed at Laguna’s Chabad Jewish Center by a special meal with gifts and charity to the poor, and a reading of the Scroll of Esther. They will also bake the traditional hamantaschen cookies—apparently Haman got a cookie named for him.
We’re in the season of the Baha’i celebration Ayyam-i-Ha (translates “Days of Joy”), an informal celebration that runs Feb. 25 to March 1 this year. Ayyam-i-Ha leads to the Nineteen Day Fast (similar to the month-long Muslim Ramadan which begins May 15). Beginning March 1, the Baha’i faithful will fast from sunrise to sunset to become closer to God.
Fasting wouldn’t be such a persistent religious tradition if there weren’t spiritual benefits. A fast can also clear the mind—the little things that seemed important at the start will be replaced by deeper thoughts. Fasting before important decisions could improve the course of your life. Think of some disastrous decision you made in the past (we all have them, don’t we?). Would a little fasting and prayer beforehand have yielded a better outcome?
There are many claims of fasting health benefits, some proven, many anecdotal, others simply fads. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, in his book “Fasting and Eating for Health”, claims that regular fasting will help headaches, high blood sugar (and the pre-diabetes condition of “insulin resistance”), improve diabetes, heart disease (including atherosclerosis), oxidative stress, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases. Fasting seems to help everything, though Dr. Fuhrman’s claims are mostly from his own medical practice. There are few human studies due to lack of funding (no patented drug to sell), but we have learned a few things.
The fasting benefit for heart health is supported by a 2007 observational study by Dr. B. D. Horne, partly funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study found that Mormons who fasted monthly had about 40% less heart disease, after adjusting for other factors. NIH’s Dr. Mark Mattson found that at the cellular level, intermittent fasting delivered benefits similar to exercise. Study participants lost weight, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, plus enjoyed quality-of-life benefits.
You know those big pharma commercials that finish: “Ask your doctor if X drug would be right for you”? Try asking your doctor if fasting would improve your health. They likely haven’t heard that question before, but can help you decide if it’s safe for you.
Doesn’t giving up something now for a future benefit—as fasting does—make you think of those marshmallow experiments they did on 4-year-olds up at Stanford? Good topic for a future column.
Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip, and is the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” A student of local history, he and wife Clare dote on their many grandchildren. Email: [email protected]