Elson M. Haas M.D
Conditions for which Fasting May Be Beneficial
The Process of Fasting
Some Benefits of Fasting
Hazards of Fasting
Contraindications for Fasting
How to Fast
Timing of Fasts
Breaking a Fast
Other Aspects of Healthy Fasting
Fasting is the single greatest natural healing therapy. It is nature’s ancient, universal "remedy" for many problems. Animals instinctively fast when ill. When I first discovered fasting, 15 years ago, I felt as if it had saved my life and transformed my illnesses into health. My stagnant energies began flowing, and I became more creative and vitally alive. I still find fasting both a useful personal tool and an important therapy for many medical and life problems.
Of course, most of the problems for which I recommend fasting as treatment are ones that result from over nutrition rather than malnutrition. Dietary abuse problems, more common in the Western world than in Third World countries, generate many of the chronic degenerative diseases that I have written so much about; these include atherosclerosis, hypertension and heart disease, allergies, diabetes, and cancer. I believe that fasting is therapeutic and, more importantly, preventive for many of these conditions and more.
As I use the term here, fasting is the avoidance of solid food and the intake of liquids only (true fasting would be the total avoidance of anything by mouth). The most stringent form of fasting is taking only water; more liberally, fasting includes the use of fresh juices made from fruits and vegetables as well as herbal teas. All of these limited diets generate varying degrees of detoxification—that is, elimination of toxins from the body. Individual experiences with fasting depend on the condition of the body (also mind and attitude). Detoxification might be intense and temporarily increase sickness or might be immediately helpful and uplifting.
Juice fasting is commonly used (rather than water alone) as a mild and effective cleansing plan; this is suggested by myself and other doctors and authors and by many of the European fasting clinics. Fresh juices are easily assimilated and require minimum digestion, while they supply many nutrients and stimulate our body to clear its wastes. Juice fasting is also safer than water fasting, because it supports the body nutritionally while cleansing and probably even produces a better detoxification and quicker recovery.
Fasting (cleansing, detoxification) is one part of the trilogy of nutrition; balancing and building (toning) are the others. I believe that fasting is the "missing link" in the Western diet. Most people overeat, eat too often, and eat a high-protein, high-fat, rich-food, building and congesting diet more consistently than they need. If we regularly eat a more balanced and well-combined diet, we will have less need for fasting and toning plans, although both would still be required at certain intervals throughout the year.
In a sense, detoxification is an important corrective and rejuvenative process in our cycle of nutrition. It is a time when we allow our cells and organs to breathe out, become current, and restore themselves. We do not necessarily need to fast to experience some cleansing, however. Minor shifts in the diet such as including more fluids, more raw foods, and fewer congesting foods will allow for better detoxification; for a carnivore, for example, a vegetarian or macrobiotic diet will be cleansing and purifying.
Here we focus on fluid fasting—its history, therapeutic use, benefits, contraindications, and, of course, how to do it, along with other aspects of lifestyle that support fasting.
Fasting is a time-proven remedy. Its use goes back many thousands of years, really to the beginning of life forms. As a healing process and spiritual-religious process, it has continued to be more intelligently applied, we hope, in the last several thousand years.
Voluntary abstinence from food has been a tradition in most religions and is clearly a spiritual purification rite. Many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and the Eastern religions, have encouraged fasting for a variety of reasons, such as penitence, preparation for ceremony, purification, mourning, sacrifice and union with God, and the enhancement of knowledge and powers.
For many philosophers, scientists, and physicians, fasting was an essential part of life, health, and the healing process needed to recreate health where there was sickness. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, and Hippocrates all used and believed in fasting therapy. Most spiritual teachers also recommend fasting as a useful tool. In a booklet from the 1947 lecture entitled Healing by God’s Unlimited Power, Paramahansa Yogananda suggested that fasting is a way to increase our natural resistance to disease, stating that "Fasting is a natural method of healing. When animals or savages are sick, they fast." He continued, "Most diseases can be cured by judicious fasting. Unless one has a weak heart, regular short fasts have been recommended by the yogis as an excellent health measure." Yogananda referred to an Armenian doctor, Grant Sarkisyan, who had treated many patients successfully with fasting therapy for such disorders as asthma, skin diseases, digestive problems, and early stages of atherosclerosis and hypertension.
Throughout the centuries, many doctors have treated a variety of patients and maladies with fasting, acknowledging that ignorance (of how to live in accordance with nature) may be our greatest disease. Knowledge, not necessarily from books, but our inherent and experienced knowing of how to live according to the natural laws and spiritual truth, leads to the sacred wisdom of life and subsequent good health. Knowing when and how long to fast is part of this knowledge. Through fasting, we can turn our energies inward, where we can use them for healing, clarity, and change.
Physicians with a spiritual orientation tend to be more inclined than others to employ fasting, both personally and medically. Many of my life transitions were acknowledged, stimulated, and supported through fasting; and when I felt blocked or needed creative juice in my writing, fasting would be very useful.
In Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, Gabriel Cousens, M.D., a California physician and spiritual teacher, includes an excellent chapter on fasting in which he describes his concepts of fasting and his own 40-day fast. According to Dr. Cousens,
. . . fasting in a larger context, means to abstain from that which is toxic to mind, body, and soul. A way to understand this is that fasting is the elimination of physical, emotional, and mental toxins from our organism, rather than simply cutting down on or stopping food intake. Fasting for spiritual purposes usually involves some degree of removal of oneself from worldly responsibilities. It can mean complete silence and social isolation during the fast which can be a great revival to those of us who have been putting our energy outward.
From a medical point of view, I believe that fasting is not utilized often enough. We go on vacations from work to relax, recharge, and to gain new perspectives on our life; why not take occasional breaks from food? Or, for that matter, we might consider fasts from phones, cars, computers, talking, or from whatever activity/consumption we feel is excessive. Most people cannot break out of the conditioned pattern of eating three meals daily. Eating is a habit, an addiction. Most of us do not need nearly the amounts (and types) of food we consume. Eating itself is an allergy-addiction. When we stop and let our stomach remain empty, our body goes into an elimination cycle, and most people, especially when toxicity exists, will experience some "withdrawal" symptoms, such as headaches, irritability, or fatigue (only pure hunger is a clear sign of need for food). When they eat again, their withdrawal symptoms subside, and they feel better. This situation is worse when it involves allergic people eating allergenic foods.
I believe that fasting is one of the best overall healing methods because it can be applied to so many conditions and people. Those who are acid, sympathetic, or yang types, who tend to develop congestive symptoms and diseases rather than those of deficiency, do better on fasting than do other types. Some acid conditions, including colds, flus, bronchitis, mucus congestion, and constipation, can lead to headaches, other intestinal problems, skin conditions, and many other ailments. Those who follow a basic, wholesome, and balanced diet have less need to fast or detoxify, although on occasion it is a good idea for anyone, provided that they are not undernourished. Most of us living in Western, industrialized nations are mixed types, with both overnutrition and undernutrition. We may take in excessive amounts of potentially toxic nutrients, such as fats and chemicals, and inadequate amounts of many essential vitamins and minerals. Juice fasting supplies some of these needed nutrients and allows the elimination of toxins. Excess mucus and clogging of the eliminative systems constitute the basic process of congestive diseases; deficiency problems result from poor nourishment or ineffective digestion/assimilation.
Juice fasting can be used to detoxify from drugs or whenever we want to embark on a new plan or life transition, provided that there are no contraindications to fasting (discussed later). Fasting is very versatile and generally fairly safe; however, when it is used in the treatment of medical conditions, proper supervision should be employed, including monitoring of physical changes and biochemistry values. Many doctors, clinics, acupuncturists, nutritionists, and chiropractors feel comfortable overseeing people during fasting.
Conditions for which Fasting May Be Beneficial
Flu Coronary artery disease
Bronchitis Angina pectoris
Food allergies Back pains
Environmental allergies Mental illness
Skin conditions Epilepsy
The use of fasting to treat fevers is controversial. Eastern medicine thinks of fasting as increasing body fire, so that it might worsen fever. In actuality, when we consume liquids, we generate less heat, so this really helps to cool the body. With fever, we need more liquids than usual; with high temperatures and sweating, we need even more.
Some cases of fatigue will respond well to fasting, particularly when the fatigue results from congested organs and energy. With fatigue that results from chronic infection, nutritional deficiency, or serious disease, more nourishment is probably needed, rather than fasting.
Back pains that are due to muscular tightness and stress rather than from bone disease or osteoporosis are usually alleviated with a lighter diet or juice fasting. Many tight muscles and sore areas along the back may result from referred pain from colon or other organ congestion. In my experience, poor bowel function and constipation are fairly commonly associated with back pains.
Many patients with mental illness, from anxiety to schizophrenia, may be helped by fasting. The purpose of fasting in this case, however, is not to cure these problems but to help understand the relationship of foods, chemicals, or drugs to the mental difficulties. Allergies and hypersensitive environmental reactions are not at all uncommon in people with mental illness. Care must be exercised with the use of fasting in mental patients as the toxicity or lack of nourishment may worsen their problems. If, however, the patient is strong and congested, fasting may be indicated.
Obesity can be remedied by fasting. Obesity is the problem for which fasting is currently most often used (mainly protein drinks) in the traditional medical system, although it is not the best use of this healing technique. Fasting is not even a good treatment for those who are overweight; it is too temporary and may generate feasting reactions in people coming off the fast. Better would be a change of diet and a longer-term weight-release plan; something that will allow new dietary habits and food choices to replace the old ones. A short fast, perhaps of five to ten days, can be useful as a motivator and catalyst for making these necessary dietary changes and new commitments and to help release a pound or two daily.
Some very obese patients have been monitored by doctors while on water fasts done in hospitals for months at a time to shed weights of a hundred pounds or more. With other patients, the jaws have been wired shut so that they can take in only fluids drunk through straws. Newer fasting programs substitute a variety of protein-rich powders for meals. These are usually medically supervised programs for people who are at least 30-50 pounds overweight and make use of a pre-packaged, low-calorie powder, such as Optifast or Medifast. This high-protein, low-calorie diet allows patients to burn more fat. These programs are not nearly as healthful as vital juice fasts, but they are nutritionally supportive over a longer time period and can be used on a outpatient basis fairly safely if people are monitored regularly. They provide all the needed vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to sustain life and help many obese people to lower their weight, blood fats, blood pressures, and blood sugars. However, as with any weight-loss program, if it does not motivate the participants to change their diets and habits, they then may stay in the "yo-yo" syndrome (weight going up and down and up), which may actually be more harmful than just remaining overweight.
A balanced, low-calorie diet with lots of exercise is still the best way to reduce and maintain a good weight and figure. Many obese people are also deficient in nutrients because they eat a highly refined, fatty, sweet diet. Often, these obese people are fatigued, and they need to be nourished first before they will do well on any fast.
Fasting to treat cancer is also a controversial topic. Many alternative clinics outside the United States use fasting in the treatment of cancers. Since cancer can be a devitalizing, debilitating disease, this may not be wise. Possibly with early cancer, and definitely as a cancer preventive to reduce toxicity, juice fasting may be helpful. Anyone with cancer needs adequate nourishment, and adding fresh juices to an already wholesome diet can help induce a mild detoxification and enhance vitality.
The Process and Benefits of Fasting
Although the process of fasting may generate various results, depending on the individual condition of the faster, there are clearly a number of common metabolic changes and experiences. First, fasting is a catalyst for change and an essential part of transformational medicine. It promotes relaxation and energization of the body, mind and emotions, and supports a greater spiritual awareness. Many fasters feel a letting go of past actions and experiences and develop a positive attitude toward the present. Having energy to get things done and clean up old areas, both personal and environmental, without the usual procrastination is also a common experience. Fasting clearly improves motivation and creative energy; it also enhances health and vitality and lets many of the body systems rest.
In other words, fasting is a multidimensional experience. Physiologically, refraining from eating minimizes the work done by the digestive organs, including the stomach, intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. Most important here is that our liver, our body’s large production and metabolic factory, can spend more time during fasting cleaning up and creating its many new substances for our use. Breakdown of stored or circulating chemicals is the basic process of detoxification. The blood and lymph also have the opportunity to be cleaned of toxins as all the eliminative functions are enhanced with fasting. Each cell has the opportunity to catch up on its work; with fewer new demands, it can repair itself and dump its waste for the garbage pickup. Most fasters also experience a new vibrancy of their skin and clarity of mind and body.
Initially, the reduction of calories allows the liver to convert glycogen stores to glucose and energy. Body fat can be used for energy (ATP) but it cannot generate or reform glucose; although many cells can metabolize fatty acids for energy, the brain and central nervous system need direct glucose. Proteins can be broken down into amino acids; of these, alanine and serine can be used to produce glucose. With fasting, some protein breakdown occurs less if calories are provided by juices. When there is no stored glycogen left, our body will convert protein to amino acids and to energy. Fatty acids can also be a fair source of energy, usually after being converted to ketones. With total fasting, ketosis occurs as an adaptation by the body to prevent protein loss by burning fats. Still, protein and fats can be used to provide energy for brain cell function. With juice fasting, there is less ketosis, and the simple carbohydrates in the juices are easily used for energy and cellular function. The high-protein diets and fasts do burn fat and generate ketosis and weight loss, but they also add more toxin build-up in the body from the foods or powders used. Also, they do not rest and cleanse the digestive tract and other organs as well.
Fasting increases the process of elimination and the release of toxins from the colon, kidneys and bladder, lungs and sinuses, and skin. This process can generate discharge such as mucus from the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, sinuses, or in the urine. This is helpful to clear out the problems that have arisen from overeating and a sedentary lifestyle. Much of aging and disease, I believe, results from "biochemical suffocation," where our cells do not get enough oxygen and nutrients or cannot adequately eliminate their wastes. Fasting helps us decrease this suffocation by allowing the cells to eliminate and clear the old products.
Some Benefits of Fasting
Purification More energy
Rejuvenation Better sleep
Revitalization More relaxation
Rest for digestive organs Better attitude
Clearer skin More clarity, mentally and emotionally
Anti-aging effects Taste
Improved senses—vision, Inspiration
Reduction of allergies New ideas
Weight loss Clearer planning
Drug detoxification Change of habits
Resistance to disease Diet changes
Spiritual awareness Right use of will
This physiological rest and concentration on cleanup can also generate a number of toxicity symptoms. Hunger is usually present for two or three days and then departs, leaving many people with a surprising feeling of deep abdominal peace; yet, others may feel really hungry. It is good to ask ourselves, "What are we hungry for?" Fasting is an excellent time to work on our psychological connections to consumption.
As far as fasting symptoms, headache is not at all uncommon during the first day or two. Fatigue or irritability may arise at times, as may dizziness or light-headedness. Our sensitivity is usually increased. Common sounds like television, music, refrigerators may irritate us more now. The sense of smell is also exaggerated, both positively and negatively; I have had whole meals of smells while fasting. The tongues of most people will develop a thick white or yellow fur coating, which can be scraped or brushed off. Bad breath and displeasing tastes in the mouth or foul-smelling urine or stools may occur. Skin odor or skin eruptions such as small spots or painful boils, may also appear, depending on the state of toxicity. Digestive upset, mucusy stools, flatulence, or even nausea and vomiting may occur during fasting. Some people experience insomnia or bad dreams as their body releases poisons during the night. The mind may put up resistance, with doubt or lack of faith or a fear that the fasting is not right. (This can be influenced even more, by listening to other people’s fears.) Most of these symptoms, however, will occur early if they do appear and are usually transient. The general energy level is usually good during fastings, although there can be ups and downs. Every two or three days, as the body goes into a deeper level of dumping wastes, the energy may go down, and resistance and fears as well as symptoms may arise. Between these times, we usually feel cleaner,
better, and more alive.
The natural therapy term for periods of cleansing and symptoms is "crisis," or "healing crisis." During these times, old symptoms or patterns from the past may arise, usually transiently, or new symptoms of detoxification may appear. This "crisis" is not predictable and is thus often accompanied with some question by the fasters as well as their practitioners—is this some new problem arising or is it part of the healing process? Usually only time will tell, yet if it is associated with the fasting and one or more of the common symptoms, it is likely a positive part of detoxification. We should use the maxim of healing, Hering’s Law of Cure, to guide us—it states that healing happens from the inside out, the top down, from more important organs to less important ones, and from the most recent to the oldest symptoms. Most healing crises pass within a day or two, although some cleansers experience several days of "cold" symptoms or sinus congestion. If any symptom lasts longer than two or three days, it should be considered as a side effect or a new problem possibly unrelated to cleansing. If there is a problem that worsens or is severe and causes concern, such as fainting, heart arrhythmias, or bleeding, the fast should be stopped and a doctor consulted.
A doctor or knowledgeable practitioner should supervise anyone for whom fasting is questionable—that is, anyone in poor health or without fasting experience. If the fast is extended for more than three to five days, regular monitoring, including physical examination and blood work should be done, probably about weekly. Fasting may reduce blood protein levels and will definitely lower blood fats. Uric acid levels may rise secondary to protein breakdown, while levels of some minerals, such as potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium, may drop. Iron levels are usually lower, and the red blood count may also drop during this time.
Nutritionally, fasting helps us appreciate the more subtle aspects of diet, since less food and simple flavours become more satisfying. My early fasts definitely reawakened my taste buds and allowed me to appreciate and desire more natural foods. Mentally, fasting improves clarity and attentiveness; emotionally, it may make us more sensitive and aware of feelings. I have seen on several occasions individuals making decisions based on new clarities brought out during fasts. Fasting clearly supports the transformational evolutionary process. For example, when we really "get" that our spouse is not going to change his or her habits of eating, watching TV, or being too busy to really relate to us—that the priority of the relationship is very low and the love is clearly not there—it may be time to make a change. With fasting, we can feel empowered to do things we only thought about before. Fasting can precipitate emotional cleansing as well. Attitude and general motivation are usually uplifted with cleansing. Spiritually, juice fasting offers a lesson in self-restraint and control of passions, which help us in many avenues of life.
Fasting is a simple process of self-cleansing. We do not need any special medicines to do it; our body knows how. Provided that we are basically well-nourished, systematic undereating and fasting are likely the most important contributors to health and longevity. Fasting is even more important to balance the autointoxication that results from common dietary and drug indiscretions.
I look at fasting as "taking a week off work" to handle the other aspects of life for which there is often little time. With fasting we can take time to nurture ourselves and rest. Fasting is also like turning off and cleaning a complex and valuable machine so that it will function better and longer. Resting the gastrointestinal tract, letting the cells and tissues repair themselves, and allowing the lymph, blood, and organs to clear out old, defective, or diseased cells and unneeded chemicals all lead to less degeneration and sickness. As healthy cell growth is stimulated, so is our level of vitality, immune function and disease resistance, and our potential for greater longevity.
J.R. did a 67-day fast on juices at age 20 when he joined a fasting and health-food-oriented community in 1975. He describes feeling great and very light. In fact, he lost a lot of weight. His only problems were skin sores that would not heal. These were of course, seen as a detox process. Medically, they could be attributed to protein/nutrient deficiency as well. This long fast on juice nutrients was a major transitional period for J.R. to change his diet to raw foods and strict vegetarianism. It also helped change his beliefs and motivation for life.
S.R. was very overweight and in a family relationship that was not supporting her growth. She clearly grasped for spiritual un-foldment. She was very strong, had loads of energy and various congestive symptoms—a prime candidate for fasting. After she began her fast, she decided to go 30 days. She did wonderfully, lost 24 pounds, and wasn’t through yet. For the next 30 days, she did the seven-food diet (apples, lemons, alfalfa sprouts, brown rice, carrots, almonds, and broccoli), picking seven primary foods to make up her diet, thus continuing her willpower and diet focus. After that, S.R. did another 30-day fast. She did well. During these months she moved from bookkeeping and typing into the healing arts. She left her husband and moved to the Midwest to take a job assisting a well-known physician in her healing research.
Hazards of Fasting
If fasting is overused, it may create depletion and weakness, lower resistance, and allow diseases to begin. Certain people are not good candidates for fasting or cleansing. Others may enjoy fasting so much that they overindulge in it and take it beyond the limits of normal elimination, resulting in protein and other nutritional deficits, reduced immunity, and loss of energy. While fasting allows the organs, tissues, and cells to rest, clean house, and handle excesses, the body needs the nourishment provided by food to function after it has used its stores.
Many people of the world are involuntary fasters, while those of the Western nations are more likely to be feasters. In Third World countries, many starvation deaths result from the disease of protein deficiency, termed kwashiorkor, and protein-calorie malnutrition, known as marasmus. What happens to these people is what happens with chronic fasting—loss of muscle mass, weight, and energy, and finally swelling and death.
Malnourished people should definitely not fast, nor should some overweight people who are undernourished. Others who should not fast include people with fatigue resulting from nutrient deficiency, those with chronic degenerative disease of the muscles or bones, or those who are underweight. Diseases associated with clogged or toxic organs respond better to fasting. Sluggish men or women who retain water or whose weight is concentrated in their hips and legs often do poorly with fasting. Those with low daytime energy and more vitality at night (more yin or alkaline types) may not enjoy fasting, either.
I do not suggest fasting for pregnant or lactating women. People who have weak hearts, such as those with congestive heart failure, or who have weakened immunity usually are not good candidates for fasting. Before or after surgery is not a good time to fast, as the body then needs its nourishment to handle the stress and healing demands of surgery. Although some of the nutritional therapies for cancer include fasting, I do not recommend fasting for cancer patients, especially those with advanced problems. Ulcer disease is not something for which I usually suggest fasting, either, although fasting may be beneficial for other conditions present in a patient whose ulcer is under control. Many clinics and fasting practitioners do believe in fasting for ulcers, however. The fasting process itself probably is helpful for ulcers, since it reduces stomach acid and aids in tissue healing. And cayenne pepper, even though it is hot, has a healing effect on mucous membranes, and in herbal medicine, it is commonly recommended for ulcers. So, even though peptic ulcers are on the contraindication list, some ulcer people may do very well with fasting, especially with cabbage/vegetable juices.