Feeling sluggish? Not quite up to par? Maybe it’s time to give your body a spring cleanse.
Regardless of how conscientious we are about health and fitness, our bodies are under constant assault from pollutants in our air and water. If that isn’t enough, many toxins can be as close as our dinner tables. Food routinely harbors any number of an estimated 3,000 additives, preservatives and pesticides. The personal choices we make, including the use of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and even prescription drugs, can add to our toxic load.
While it’s true that our bodies are designed to eliminate toxins, the sheer volume of pollutants we are exposed to can overwhelm this natural detoxification system. The result is a buildup of wastes and poisons that can weaken our immune system and cause frequent headaches, fatigue, joint pain, PMS, skin problems, digestive symptoms, bad breath and a general feeling of malaise.
Fortunately, you can give your body’s natural detoxification system a helping hand through fasting.
The desire to clean and purge the body is age old. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, believed fasting enabled the body to heal itself. Indeed, fasting has been used in almost every culture throughout history to improve spiritual and physical well-being.
“Fasting is the quickest way to detoxify your body and promote healing,” Bruce Fife, N.D., author of The Detox Book (Piccadilly Books, 2001), says. In fact, he notes that “Eating nothing could be the healthiest thing you ever did for yourself.”
While purists like Fife prefer consuming only water during a fast, Elson Haas, M.D., director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, favors a juice fast. “Fresh juices are easily assimilated and require minimum digestion while they supply many nutrients and stimulate our body to clear its waste,” Haas says. “Juice fasting also is safer than water fasting because it supports the body nutritionally while cleansing and probably even produces a better detoxification and quicker recovery.”
Regardless of the method, fasting is a process of rest and regeneration. Proponents believe that when the body isn’t expending energy digesting and metabolizing food, it can harness its resources to fight off disease.
A number of studies show that fasting can have a positive impact on health. In one study, conducted at the Center for Conservative Therapy in Penngrove, California, 174 patients suffering from hypertension participated in an 11-day water-only fast. By the end of the study, about 90 percent of the participants achieved blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg, with the greatest decrease in those suffering from the most severe hypertension. In fact, the subjects whose systolic blood pressure was initially greater than 180 mm Hg reduced their systolic pressure by more than 60 points—enough to stop taking their blood pressure medication. Follow-ups with 42 of the patients suggested these effects were sustainable.
Norwegian researchers also have found that fasting may help alleviate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In this study, 27 patients adhered to a four-week fast, followed by a strict vegetarian diet. After one year, the patients reported significantly less pain, stiffness and swelling, as well as increased strength and overall better health.
Preliminary lab experiments suggest short-term fasting may even help you live longer. During one animal study, researchers at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, discovered mice that fasted for four consecutive days every two weeks had a significantly longer life span than the mice that ate a typical diet. How does this translate to humans? According to the National Institute on Aging, fasting increases a person’s life span as well or better than caloric restriction.
Research also has shown that periodically fasting for short periods of time lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, boosts insulin sensitivity, stimulates the release of growth hormones, reduces the rate of viral infections, helps protect the brain from excitotoxins and improves the quality of sleep, concentration, vigor and emotional balance.
When people unfamiliar with the basic physiology of fasting think of foregoing food, they think starvation. But most fasts fall far short of starvation. The difference is, during starvation, the body uses up its reserves of nonessential tissues and then begins to break down the vital organs to supply its energy needs.
Fat stores make up most nonessential tissue. During the first day or so, the body uses its glycogen reserves (the sugars that are the body’s basic energy supply). Once these reserves have been depleted, the body begins using fat. The problem is, the brain—which has high fuel requirements—still needs the sugars converted from glycogen. To obtain glucose for the brain, the body begins to break down muscle tissue during the second day of the fast. But since the brain would require the amount of energy equal to more than a pound of muscle a day, the body has developed another way to create energy that saves important muscle mass. This protein-sparing process is called ketosis.
During ketosis, the liver begins converting stored fat and other nonessential tissue into ketones, which can be used by the brain, muscles and heart as energy. Although many conventional doctors and dieticians maintain that ketosis can be dangerous and toxic to the body, proponents say that because many toxins are stored in adipose (or fatty) tissue, fasting has a detoxifying effect.
So who should fast? Most healthy people can safely go without food for a few days. But there are some people who should avoid fasting altogether. If you are undernourished or underweight, or if you’ve had surgery recently, fasting isn’t for you. Pregnant and lactating women also should steer clear of fasting. If you’re diabetic, you should fast only under your doctor’s supervision.
“I don’t recommend fasting for cancer patients, especially those with advanced problems,” Haas says. People with peptic ulcers, heart disease or a weak immune system also should forego fasting, Haas notes. If you’re uncertain about your health status or have an existing condition, treat fasting as you would any new diet or exercise program and consult your health-care provider before you begin
If you’ve never fasted, it’s important to have a plan of action before you embark on your fast. Fasting is a way to cleanse and detoxify the body, thus it’s wise to reduce the amount of animal protein you eat, as well as the amount of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine you consume, during the week leading up to your fast. It’s also a good idea to drink at least eight to 10 glasses of water daily.
While those who fast on a regular basis can do it during their regular work cycle, if you’re a novice, you may want to choose a weekend when demands are few. And, regardless of how long you intend to fast, Haas recommends setting aside time to meditate, exercise and take detoxifying baths.
Fife agrees. “A tendency some might have when fasting is to want to refrain from all activity and sleep most of the time,” he says. “Rest is good, but some degree of exercise is necessary to keep the muscles in shape and body fluids circulating. Cleansing will actually be quicker if you keep physically active.”
If you plan on a water-only fast, make sure you have access to plenty of distilled, purified water, as tap water can be a source of toxins, including pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs and heavy metals. For those who opt for a juice fast, you will need to have a juicer or blender and a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, preferably organic. Freshly made juice is best because the nutrients in the juice diminish the longer it sits.
As your body begins to rid itself of toxins, don’t be surprised if you experience headaches, fatigue, irritability or lightheadedness. Depending on your level of toxicity, you also may develop bad breath, body odor or skin eruptions as poisons are released. Haas also warns that your tongue will acquire a thick white or yellow coating that can be brushed or scraped off. These side effects are usually temporary and ultimately well worth the discomfort.
Herbs that help clear toxins from the body are a valuable addition to any fast. One of the most effective is milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Silymarin, the key compound in milk thistle, is a potent antioxidant and intermediate in cell metabolism, which specifically targets the liver. Silymarin also prevents the depletion of glutathione (a powerful protein that attaches itself to toxins and transforms them into a form that can be excreted in the urine or bile).
Three other herbs that protect glutathione are garlic (Allium sativum), artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus) and burdock (Arctium lappa). A potent antioxidant, garlic contains diallyl sulfide, a plant chemical that protects both liver cells and glutathione. In one study, animals fed fresh garlic had a 40 percent increase in glutathione activity within the liver. In other studies, artichoke leaves prevented liver toxins from causing oxidation, in turn preventing glutathione destruction. And, Taiwanese researchers have found that burdock can restore glutathione in the liver and reverse hepatoxicity.
Researchers at Purdue University have found that psyllium (Plantago spp.) also helps detoxify the body by increasing bile and trapping toxins. This fiber-rich herb also prevents disabled estrogens from being reactivated and absorbed. Although psyllium generally is considered safe, people with an obstruction of the bowel or diabetics who have difficulty regulating their blood sugar shouldn’t use this herb.
Once your fast is over, it’s important to make a gradual transition back to eating. “Breaking a fast must be planned and done slowly and carefully to prevent creating symptoms and sickness,” Haas says. He advises taking several days, or half of the total cleansing time, to move back into your diet, which is hopefully a newly planned, more healthful diet. “Our digestion has been at rest, so we need to go slowly and chew our food very well,” he says.
If you have fasted on water alone, prepare your digestive tract with diluted juices, especially diluted grape or orange juice. Then work your way up to simple vegetable meals, salads and soups. Finally, add in grains, nuts and legumes.
“It’s common to be continually hungry for a few days after a prolonged fast,” Fife says. “The tendency is to eat too much and undo much of the good you have accomplished.” To help control hunger as you break your fast, eat small, frequent meals throughout the day.
Whether you choose to fast on water alone or on fresh juices, fasting not only helps your body rid itself of toxins, it will leave you feeling lighter, cleaner and more alive. Once you’ve experienced the benefits of fasting, you might wonder how you ever survived without it.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.
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