Fasting, Religion & Health
Artwork by Daniel Spoerri
An excursion into the world of fasting
Detox and body cleansing are concepts which you can read about all over the place these days. Fasting it seems, is coming more in fashion especially in the West. Even the alleviation of chronic diseases is said to be part of fastings positive energy. Many doctors and alternative practitioners are therefore very positive towards therapeutic fasting. To cleanse your body and to get rid of old eating habits is however not a new concept. Fasting is a very old ritual practiced by many religions throughout the world and an alternative method of therapy at the same time. But what does fasting has to do with the big religions of the world? And how is fasting seen from a medical viewpoint? Does it have consequences on the psyche? A little excursion into the world of fasting should bring some clarity into this.
Fasting in the various religions
Fasting is indeed an integral part of most religions. Through fasting the believer is meant to concentrate more on his faith again and through this get closer to god. All big founders of religion went through a phase of abdiction. Mohammed has been fasting before the Koran was revealed to him, Moses climbed up mount Sinai and fasted for 40 days before he received the word of God and Jesus retreated into the desert for 40 days to fast before his official appearance in public. In all major religions there are times of fasting up until today .
For the Christians the periods of fasting or Passiontide lasts from Ash Wednesday until Good Friday. During those 40 days the person is meant to reflect upon himself through abstinence, do penance and to find the connection to God. During fasting Christians reflect mainly upon their believe and their way of living. They deliberate about what they could do better in the future and how they could help others who are worse off than themselves. Today there aren’t any firm rules anymore or they differ quite a bit from region to region. Everyone can decide for himself if or how he wants to go about the fasting period. For many years now e.g. the Evangelical Church is calling up to take part in their initiative “ 7 weeks without”. No matter if one decides to go seven weeks without meat, alcohol, nicotine, sweets or TV, the people are encouraged to use the time to reflect upon their way of living and to find new perspectives.
Gernot, one of the co-founders of Conflictfood fasted for 7 weeks. We asked him about his experience:
How did you fast?
The plan was to quit alcohol and sugar.
Did you succeed?
To quit alcohol was easy for me. In regards to the sugar I was very strict initially. I even avoided hidden sugars in yoghurts and things like that. Unfortunately I gave up after just a few days and sugar was quickly on my list of foods.
Why did you fast?
In my childhood it was common before Eastern to quit meat and alcohol. But I wanted to try and see if I could stick to a goal which I decided for myself and to work towards it. This year I only succeeded in parts but I will try it again for sure.
In Islam fasting is a divine precept and one of the five pillars of the religion. Fasting takes place during Ramadan, the ninth month of the islamic lunar year. Here fasting has the character of a penance. The soul is meant to be chastened and purified as well as the connection to God and the people around you should be consolidated. 30 days Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink or smoke during the time between sunrise and sunset. Also intercourse is not permitted. The fast-breaking in the evenings takes place in larger groups so that Ramadan has a strong character of bringing families together and fostering community ties. Also hospitality and generous donations to the poor are an important part of Ramadan. These 30 days also serve as a time for reflection: you reflect upon the past 11 months, as well as having a try at living with more mindfulness.
Salem, the co-founder of Conflictfood is fasting since many years during the month of Ramadan. We asked him about it:
How do you fast?
I fast every year for 30 days. From sunrise to sunset I don’t eat or drink.
When exactly is Ramadan?
Because the islamic calendar orientates itself to the moon, the month of Ramadan moves through all seasons. Since a few years it’s a particular challenge because the summer days are so long.
Why do you do that?
To not eat and drink are only the external characteristics of fasting. Ramadan has a far deeper, spiritual dimension to it. Self- control and the abdication of consumerism are also very fundamental aspects of it. Material things take a back seat. Not only is it a part of my believes it also strengthens my character and my willpower and benefits my body and soul.
Artwork by Daniel Spoerri
Looking at Buddhism, Buddha was teaching somewhat of a middle path. Self-chastisement he refused. Neither overindulgence nor hunger are therefore recommendable. To eat less however helps in meditation and to reach inner peace and enlightenment. Because of that buddhist monks and nuns quit eating altogether every day after 12 o’clock lunch time. Besides that there are other monthly days of fasting.
In Judaism Jom Kippur is the biggest day of fasting and reconciliation. On that day it is neither permitted to eat, drink or smoke. You also don’t wash, have intercourse or go to work. All sins committed prior to that date should be atoned on this day. Besides that there are another five general days of fasting on which Jews are commemorating tragic events in Jewish history. On those days it is also not permitted to eat or drink.
Fasting as a healing method
Looking at fasting from a medical point of view you will find many studies and guide books which attribute fasting a positive impact on the entire human body. Therapeutic fasting influence significantly the processes in our body. One of the most important impacts is the strengthening of our immune system. Whereas during our normal eating habits our immune system is deeply involved in digestive processes, during fasting it can concentrate on eradicating disease causing intruders. Therapeutic fasting is therefore also called as your own, inner doctor. Due to this it is also perfectly healthy if you don’t feel like eating when you are sick. Another nice side effect of fasting is the sensitisation of your taste buds. Even the slightest smell of certain unhealthy foods can in some cases already repulse you during the fasting period.
Purification of the mind
On top of all of this, therapeutic fasting does also have a not to be underestimated impact on our psyche. After the first, sometimes difficult days of fasting are over, an enormous energy momentum is kicking in. That not only increases the mental and physical performance it also shoots up the good mood. Many times fasting as a healing method allows us to be more aware of ourselves and to step back from everyday stress. In that way long held thinking barriers can be resolved or entirely new ideas pop up in one’s head. Even though these positive effects are proven by many studies you shouldn’t just start fasting without any prior arrangements. Healthy people can in general fast at home without any problems but there are some rules you should consider beforehand, whilst you are fasting and afterwards.
If you are curious now and want to convince yourself of the healing powers of fasting, what are you waiting for? Go and inform yourself through some reliable sources and try it out yourself.Artwork by Daniel Spoerri