5/30/2012 4:46:39 PM
The Science of Fasting
I have always had a fascination for fasting. Fasting has different connotations for different people. For me, I like the way it breaks the monotony of daily routine; my vote goes for anything that breaks a routine. I like the way fasting takes our mind away from the most compulsory and cumbersome daily routine – food, & leaves it empty to think about other things.
Sometimes, food can embroil us in its complexity. Most households in India build a lifetime of routine around food and kitchen. Mine becomes one such household when elders are with me. It becomes the centre-point of existence; not so much in terms of variety or gourmet cooking but more in terms of role-play.
Those are the moments I wonder – that if intelligent minds can divert themselves into thinking about things other than food – then perhaps such intelligent minds can come up path breaking ideas, views and thoughts that can prove more useful to humanity.
Those are the moments when I appreciate the concept of fasting even more. Break the monotony. Stop thinking about the obvious. Drive the mind to think about other things.
Is it possible to fast scientifically?
Yes, I think there is a scientific way to fast. But before that, my usual deviation…
For many long years I have observed my ma-in-law fast religiously every Tuesday and Saturday. Her fast would last from morning to evening; evenings, she would break her fast with prasadam (a simple meal). Ma-in-law’s Tuesday/Saturday fasts would drain the energy out of the whole house. Every hour would be spent enquiring about her well-being – is she ok, is she tired, is she giddy etc. and by evening, there would be rush to help her break her fast because by then she would be writhing with nausea & migrane; then it would be a quick pooja, followed by a quick intake of prasadam, the ritual of popping of 2 aspirin tabs & off to sleep in a darkened room. It was also understood that Tuesdays & Saturdays had be home bound and devoid of any outside social/personal activity.
For me, fasting is a silent inner ritual. Do it because it makes you happy. Do it for an inner connect. Do it to discipline your mind and body. And never fast in anger. For ma-in-law (as I saw it from my limited perspective) fasting was a way to vent her pent-up anger, and that did her more harm than good.
In my teens, owing to the culture in Gujarat, I would fast every Monday. This again would be a sunrise to sunset fast where I would break my fast in the evening with a simple meal. But back then, I would find it arduous, tedious and somewhat of an achievement to have lasted till evening; pretty much the same way I have observed my mother-in-law over the years.
But in 2011 when I decided upon an ambitious 9 day fast, I approached it scientifically – and I sailed through. I replicated it for another 9 days in March 2012 and same results. So I’m guessing I did something right.
Is there a scientific way to fast? – What happens to the body during a fast?
I think so, yes. The question that interested me was: what exactly happens to the human body during a fast, and how do those physiological changes affect your mood and behavior? This is what I found:-
- The composure of the body is maintained by electrolytes. When electrolytes are in correct proportion, then body is in comfort & so is the mind.
- Electrolytes are a combination of vital body salts i.e. sugar, sodium, potassium.
- Any variation or disturbance (rise or drop) in the ideal proportion sugar, sodium and potassium will result in uneasiness of body and irritation of mind.
- Fasting disrupts the ratio of electrolytes in the body; also the required % of electrolytes (minerals) drops drastically during a fast; and especially through a sustained fast over many days.
- So simply put, during any fast, the ideal body ratio of sugar, sodium and potassium is disturbed; as also a drastic drop in the levels of sugar, sodium and potassium in the body.
- Low sugar is known as Hypoglycemia. When blood glucose levels in body drop below normal, the body experiences trembling, cold sweat, numbness, nausea, headaches, tingling of nerves, food craving, giddiness, fatigue and lack of concentration.
- Low sodium is known as Hyponatremia. When essential sodium salts in body drop, body experiences headaches, confusion, seizures, weakness and irritability. Also, body in defense mechanism produces an excess of anti-diuretic hormones leading water retention in a bid to conserve body’s sodium levels.
- Low potassium is known as Hypokalemia. When potassium salts in the body drop, it disrupts cellular processes, causes bodily weakness because muscles need potassium to contract; heart muscle becomes temporarily sluggish, heart beat gets disturbed leading to palpitations & variations in blood pressure can occur causing uneasiness. Excess potassium is flushed out by kidneys through urine; so when potassium levels drop, urine outflow is impaired leading to further body uneasiness.
My scientific approach to fasting:-
- I avoid too much plain water intake. It is a mistake to presume that plain water will nullify stomach acids. On the contrary, on a/c of disrupted electrolytes, the water is retained in body & stomach leading to a feeling a bloating, followed by nausea and vomiting to evict the excess fluid. Plain water by itself is no good.
- I avoid too many juices, in fact not more than few sips; juices have a high natural brix-acidity ratio which can lead to either excess glucose levels or excess acidity levels in body, depending on the fruit.
- I avoid sweets, as also glucose drinks; sweets & glucose drinks shoot up the sugar levels in body disproportionately to other electrolytes which is not advisable for longer fasts; the butter component in sweets creates excess thirst and craving for more sweets; and when sugar in glucose drinks is used up, sugar levels will drop as rapidly as they rose leading to total disruption in body functions.
- I avoid snacks cooked in oil. There are many snacks that are allowed during a fast but these are made either in oil or clarified butter. Oil/butter promotes acidity, builds thirst and leads to a further craving to eat.
- I choose fruits carefully; I avoid fruits that are high in acidity ratio eg. apples, oranges etc. my favorite is banana as it is designed to offer most benefit during a fast. Bananas are high in potassium and can quickly replace lost potassium salts bringing the body back in balance. Bananas also have the ideal sugar levels needed by the body in a single consumption.
- I avoid all vegetables except potatoes & sweet potatoes. Here again, sweet potatoes score over normal potatoes because like bananas they have the ideal sugar-potassium ratio needed by the body in a single consumption; the starch component gives the required energy boost. Plain potato by itself falls short in sugar levels.
- My fasting diet comprises a medium bowl of boiled diced sweet potato + diced banana, sprinkled with salt & black pepper to give me my ideal shot of energy + sugar + sodium + potassium in a single serving. Black pepper neutralizes stomach acids thus keeping acidity at bay for a longer time. I have this power-bowl 2 times a day & it always more than suffices my nutrition for an entire day. In fact as the days progress, I have this just once a day in the evening.
- Keeping in mind my sensitive stomach issues, I keep the all-time Gujarati fasting favorite “farali chivda” handy at all times. Farali chivda is quite scientific. It is a mix of potato, salt, sugar, curry leaves and dry fruits – an ideal mixture to give the body what it needs during a fast. A couple of teaspoons with every tea always seem to suffice my requirements. Farali chivda has a knack of killing hunger instantly, something that I have not experienced with any other fasting snack.
- That pretty much sums it up.
- Coming to water intake – like I said, I avoid plain water. I stock up on sachets of “Electral” powder (which is the medically approved combination of sugar, sodium and potassium also known as ORS or oral rehydrating salts). 1 sachet mixed with 1 litre of chilled water is my substitute for plain water throughout the duration of my fast. I drink as much as I feel the need to; sometimes just in sips, sometimes half a bottle at one go; I let my body decide on the intake. I keep water temperature on the cooler side because the body is prone to heat during a fast, so cold water keeps body temperature under control. About 3 sachets of Electral has been my average consumption; that translates into about 3 litres of water in a day.
- Last but not the least – I periodically chew on ayurvedic ant-acidity tablets to prevent the onset of acidity. My favorite remains Alarsin pharma’s Sooktyn tabs. Sometimes I substitute it with Alarsin’s Bangshil tabs because these also regulate urine flow. As with all ayurvedic formulations in tablet form, sucking on a tab gives better/faster results than swallowing.
- So far, my fasting experience of 9 days twice over, has been completely devoid of any body symptoms usually associated with a fast. That gives me the confidence to stretch my horizons to 30 days coming Shravan. Let’s see. So far, it’s just a thought & an ambitious one at that.