Flowers Under the Snow-Some Thoughts on Fasting By Steven A. Bailey
This past winter, as snowflakes fell, I pictured daphne and daffodils, and the countless hidden beginnings of spring. Similarly my thoughts were drawn to the awakening of mind and body that happens during my annual spring ritual of fasting.
Having fasted every year for the past 35 years, I have the highest regard for this practice. While experiences vary from person to person, and from one fasting experience to the next, safety and proven benefits are consistent rewards reaped from a properly conducted fast.
Ancestral Environment In the ancestral environment, all food was organic. Fish and animals were wild or free-range; foods were in their whole form; few people ate significant amounts of sugar, fat or processed foods; there were no artificial preservatives or additives; hybridization of plants was minimal and genetic modification non-existent. In this ancestral environment, which remained essentially unchanged until just a few decades ago, human digestive systems were no doubt up to the task of nutrient digestion and elimination of toxins.
But times have changed.
Now the typical American diet is high in processed foods, simple sugars, meat and fat, and is chronically low in the fiber of fresh whole grains and vegetables, water and variation. With this “western diet” has come the “western diseases”: cancer, heart disease, diabetes and an array of digestive problems. Add the insults of pesticides and antibiotics in our foods and you begin to appreciate the abnormal state of our current digestive environment.
I marvel at the perfection of nature. Most whole foods contain enzymes that assist in their own breakdown within our digestive systems. Now consider the imperfection of human tampering. Not only do many of today’s processed foods lack such enzymes, but they have been denatured with unnatural additives that defend the foods from breaking down during long periods of storage. Meanwhile, the long-term effects of antibiotics and chemicals in food, medicine and the environment cause significant imbalances in the intestinal flora of many people. Stress, experienced through our adrenal response, reduces blood supply to the digestive system and can also maintain a chronic negative influence on digestion. All of these factors tend to assault the digestive system. Poor dietary choices, food allergies and sensitivities, infections and parasites are still other factors negatively affecting digestive function.
Fasting and detoxification (cleansing programs) can play an important role in responding to these common concerns. Beyond fasting, long-term improvement in the normal diet is critical to sustaining good health.
Reasons & Criticisms Though religious practice is the most common reason for fasting, medical fasting—once quite a common practice before the advent of the age of pharmaceuticals—is becoming more common in the American consciousness and experience. Medical fasts include therapeutic, preventive, weight loss and detoxification programs. Speaking holistically, I would say that medical fasts include spiritual benefits in the healing processes that derive from them. It is this intangible spiritual element that holds the mystery and the wonder of fasting.
Critics of fasting commonly raise the specter of starvation, maintaining that the human digestive system is made for 24-7 function and needs no rest or special attention. Such critics extol the virtues of modern “safe foods” and jeer at the absurdity of needing detoxification support. These critics misrepresent fasting and ignore a lot of what science has found out about digestion and detoxification.
To say that our digestive systems are made to work tirelessly, and that toxins are readily eliminated, ignores much of the truth. Are we not a nation of people who suffer from heartburn, acid reflux, ulcers, colitis, stomach and colon cancer, and an array of environmental and chemical illnesses? Rates and levels of obesity continue to rise while toxic man-made chemicals are found in all of our bodies regardless of diet. There is no doubt that we need to find ways to enhance digestion and elimination.
Modern Fasting The fasting diet that I recommend begins with a three-day pre-fast diet consisting predominately of raw fruits and vegetables. This is followed by the fasting, or non-food days, consisting of five or more days of organic vegetable and fruit juices followed by a gradual return to a healthy diet. Some choose to extend their fast for many weeks, often including water-only fasting or a master cleanser program.*
I have witnessed remarkable changes in people as a result of this simple fasting program. Chronic and acute problems of all kinds respond favorably to fasts of 5 to 10 days showing benefits in digestive, skin and respiratory problems as well as infections and inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Longer, or sequential programs may be needed for chronic conditions such as heart disease, hepatitis, toxic and hypersensitive conditions, chronic viral illnesses, and a wide array of other complaints. Such dependable and naturally derived benefits do not come with a long list of risky and unpleasant side effects, and the expense is minimal.
The last extended fast that I did was in the spring of 2003 at the time the US began military action in Iraq. This particular fast was not directed toward any health concern; rather it involved considerable meditation, study and mindfulness of what was happening to this planet and her people. In an effort to come to grips with the anguish and fear felt by myself and expressed by my patients, I found that fasting offered comfort and quiet in an otherwise sorrowful world. My spring fast included a preliminary juice fast, a 34-day water fast, and juices again before returning to normal eating. I experienced a profound change in my state of being which endured for months after and has continued to sustain me in the face of our ongoing human drama.
The spiritual aspects of fasting derive not only from the discipline and austerity required to do it, but also from the focus and clarity that it provides. This is a self-evident state. From a body, mind and spirit paradigm, fasting can integrate the healing process beyond our ability to quantify or intellectually express it.
People often report to me about their fasting experiences. I hear about physical changes, emotional crises, relationship breakthroughs and heightened spiritual experiences. Many people come to realize that their current careers or life situations are not satisfying their needs. Sometimes it is an unhealthy level of stress in the workplace, other times it is a realization that their heart is not in what they are doing. These people have been thankful for the clarification that fasting brings. A few have given immediate notice, while most have added “major changes” to their list of requirements to continue into their healthy future.
One common area of change experienced during a fast is the frequently reported “clearer mind” that eases emotional responses and supports the undisturbed quiet of meditation and prayer. Insight, intention and focus gained during a fast are powerful allies of spiritual practice.
With the lengthening days of spring, we emerge from winter’s sleep into the wide-awake days of summer. It’s the time to stretch and breathe in deeply while planning a summer of playing again in this beautiful world. Vegetables and fruits will soon return in abundance, and our diets will improve. Welcome spring, what a great time for cleaning, inside and out!
*You can read about these programs in Dr. Bailey’s book, The Fasting Diet, published in 2001 by Contemporary Press/McGraw-Hill.
Dr. Steven Bailey is a naturopathic physician who practices in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Bailey’s 22nd Annual Spring Cleanse is scheduled to begin on April 22, 2004. Join Dr. Bailey, Dr. Josie Schmidt and the staff of the Northwest Naturopathic Clinic for the occasion. Information and registration is available at the office in Portland, Oregon by calling 503-224-8083 or by visiting the clinic website at www.nwnclinic.com