to fast or not to fast
I don’t know what it is, maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon. Maybe it’s just a resistance to falsities after what has been two years running of an endless stream. Maybe it’s just being fed up with our glorified cult of personality. I don’t know, but I’m increasingly frustrated with the way we share information in this world. Everything is a soundbite by the newest, shiniest human repeating what they have just learned from the other shiny human. See? I’m fully entering curmudgeon-dom.
It’s a challenging thing to navigate because it is, by definition, most of what is available to us. The internet has become a place of quippy sentences to draw someone in with no real interaction. I think that’s why my DMs are filling up more than ever. People want real people to talk to and ask things of and yet, we feed the beast. In some ways my large (“large” is relative here) following on Instagram is both a blessing and a curse. I’m so grateful for those of you that thought what I share worthy of coming over here. Years since beginning on that platform, the only social media I have ever used, I continue to look for ways to untangle from it.
That’s quite the lead up to say that I thought I’d dive into the topic of fasting today because, well, I’m fasting. Fasting and intermittent fasting were all de rigeur last year, not so much now. It’s hot, hot, hot and then we all silently move on. But it’s when the saturation of trends wane that we can start looking at how these things actually affect us as individuals on a more meaningful level of introspection. We can spend time experimenting outside of the “you have to” regimens and play around with what works for us as individuals. The real, gritty stuff when the slogans fade.
I first came to fasting a few years ago when I was still dealing with a lot of the Lyme symptoms I had been struggling with for years. I was feeling okay at that time, but there was lingering inflammation and a handful of other weird things I couldn’t shake no matter what I did. I was quite motivated to try fasting after reading everything I could get my hands. I read book after book and then, convinced that the accelerated autophagy that longer duration fasting brings (see “suggested reading” at bottom of essay), I started my first fast. Make it five days, if you please. I am nothing if not determined.
That first fast was rough, but I committed to a five day fast and anything less just wasn’t going to cut it for my purposes. If I was going to see if the results were helpful, I wanted to give it a full effort. I was cold, really, really cold all the time. I slept terribly. I was weak. I was grumpy. Then I was high as a kite and loved life and everyone in it! It was miserable and it was so constructive in my learning.
But it was after the fast, when I started eating and exercising again that I noticed profound changes. I had energy! I felt good! My brain felt clear and sharp. I wanted to keep it going. So, after my five day fast, I began regularly fasting for a day or two throughout the month. I was stunned to suddenly be in a body without pain. I remember waking up one morning, rolling out of bed and stopping suddenly. Where was the pain in my body? What was happening? After years of being chronically inflamed, I had to readjust to this foreign feeling. That’s both joyous and discombobulating.
I fasted more.
Over the next couple of years, I stuck with my quarterly five day fasting regime interspersed with a day or two fast every week or two. But my body started to revolt. Yes, I was still free of pain, but could that be attributed to my diet, the longer fasting, or the intermittent fasting? Hard to tell when there’s so many variables. But there were definitely some unwelcome issues cropping up, too. While my metabolism became more flexible, (I was able to shift to burning fat over glucose which meant sustained energy and diminished hunger) my muscles were clearly also moving into the business of feeding me and that’s not good.
Fasting proponents will assure you that you will not lose muscle. I’m not sure who they’re talking about there, but that was definitely not my story. Muscle is integral for all of life’s functions and in my time of life, that being menopause bound, it’s important to not only preserve what I have but to continue to grow it with weight bearing exercise. Any loss of muscle is significant and should be avoided. Over-fasting, for this reason alone, is detrimental.
From what I now see in hindsight as over-fasting, to now still incorporating it although much more judiciously, I have come to learn much about how my body responds and how I can best take advantage of its benefits without ending up two steps back. I thought I might share some of those with you with the caveat that this is me. You might be different. In fact, let’s just go with you are different. Take what resonates, blow away the rest:
More isn’t better. In fact, I would now say, fast as little as possible to experience the benefits. That’s the sweet spot. Instead of quarterly long duration fasts, I now do one - in spring. Might I do a three day fast or something in the fall or winter? Who knows, I might. If I felt like something was up, if I was experiencing a lot of inflammation and couldn’t pin it to other sources I could play around with, then, yeah, I might. But this seems to work well for me. Spring. With the shorter duration fasts, 24 or 48 hours, I might do one every couple of months. After this five day fast, I wouldn’t do one for a few months.
Salt water is your friend when fasting. I don’t know how people fast without it. That’s all I consume. Salt water - hot or room temperature. When I go into the sauna, I add a bamboo carbonized charcoal into the water.
Movement. It’s still important to move. I make sure I get outside every day when I’m fasting for a walk in nature. We need to be careful and gentle with ourselves at this time. Spending time grounding by walking barefoot, sitting on the earth, or even hugging a tree, is very comforting and orienting in a time when our bodies are being called on to cleanse and renew over digest and grow. Some light bodyweight exercises, to prevent the aforementioned muscle wasting, can also be helpful.
Hunger is not an emergency. One of the gifts of fasting is the realization that hunger is a wave not a long duration storm. Hunger will come, we can acknowledge it and move on. We do not have to panic. We do not have to get something down our gullets asap. There is a peace to that calmness around hunger. It means when we’re out and about or we’re making a meal and that grumbly tummy comes we are able to just be witness to it without feeling like we need to eat NOW AT THIS VERY MOMENT!!
Fasting as healer. I know there’s a lot of people espousing fasting for performance or body composition and that’s fine. But I believe that the real gift in fasting is in freeing up our bodies to do what they are meant to do. And the more I understand that there is no physical without the spiritual and emotional, the more I have come to deepen my relationship with fasting.
I have so many books that speak to the mechanics of fasting, but few that write of the spiritual development that fasting used to be practiced for. That’s what calls me now. In his wise book, “The Transformational Power of Fasting”, Stephen Harrod Buhner wrote,
“There is an old Native American observation that when the white man took tobacco back to the Old World he merely took its body - its spirit was left in North America, lying on the ground. Tobacco, for ancient peoples, was considered a holy plant, a plant with great spiritual powers, whose purpose was to facilitate communication between human beings and the sacred powers of the Earth and Universe. This same dynamic, the splitting apart of the body and the spirit of a thing, has occurred with a great many other things that have always been considered intrinsically spiritual in nature. Fasting is one of them.
For the past five hundred years, the trend has been, increasingly to view matter as devoid of spirit, intelligence, soul or purpose. A lump of rock - merely inanimate matter, a resource or something on which to stub your toe, certainly not something filled with soul. But throughout human history, human cultural perspectives about such things have been very different. In earlier times, it was commonly understood, irrespective of culture or historical period, that the world was alive, that all things possessed souls, that human beings are only one of a multitude of ensouled beings, and that there was a constant soul energy going out of and into our bodies as we traveled though the world. Beyond any health aspects it was know to possess, fasting, like tobacco, was one way, an important way, to deepen communication with the sacred. Fasting, it was recognized, increased human sensitivity to the nonmaterial world, enhanced personal experience of the sacredness of both self and Universe, and helped the fasting person regain a sense of orientation and purpose.”
Yes, that. That is where I find myself now, today. The sacred illuminated by the deepening connection to go within. Thats what is lost when we talk about autophagy and metabolism and 16:8s. We lose the truth of what actually brings authentic healing, our connection to the invisible threads of the sacred. Threads that are woven to create the whole. It’s there, in that stream of love and truth, that focus comes. My body and mind slow down. I can receive the soft and quiet. Once fasting felt like punishment (and therefore it was punishment) - ‘out with the bad, in with the good’! Now, it is pure love. Fasting as union with our Creator, with all of creation, with self. “Why hello there, what do you have to say? Tell me, because I can hear you so clearly now.”
I suppose, that’s why my patience for the soundbites and glossy images has me feeling so uninspired as of late. I’m getting older now. I can see how many times I chased one thing over another. And I can see how far so many of those things took me from self and the wisdom of my Creator. Like a greyhound chasing the rabbit, around and around, hoping the magic will appear at the next lap.
And that’s what we do with everything. ‘Eat this food because it’s loaded with this nutrient that you are deficient in. Wait, eat it every day with every meal! Take this, drink that, no, wait, do this instead, more of this, none of that.’ It’s exhausting. Here’s an idea, what if we eat the food that God gave us, as God gave it to us before man got his paws mucking about in it. What if we move to eating foods without an ingredient label at all and then maybe taking a break from eating every now and then when our bodies think that might be the thing to do?
And there it is, buried deep in my frustration, the lesson I am being handed in this time. In my exasperation with the shallows, I can choose the depths. I can welcome layered nuance and be uncomfortable with unknowing most of what there is. I can accept with humility my humanness and share honest vulnerability over an armour of ego. I don’t want to pretend.
Thank you, with all of my grateful heart, for allowing me to share these things here, where pretending is not the name of the game.
So fasting, should you do it? Yes. No. Don’t ask me. Be suspect of anyone that says different.
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