It’s time to peel back the layers on fasting and take a look at what’s truly best for our bodies.
By: Anne van der Giessen
Holistic Health Coach
It’s time to peel back the layers on fasting and take a look at what’s truly best for our bodies. If you want to get out of bed each day feeling happier, healthier and stronger – fasting is certainly something that can benefit you.
BIO-INDIVIDUALITY AND BODY TYPE
With any health-based protocol, you must always begin with you. Bio-individuality is a concept which embraces and honours our own unique biology and adapts health and lifestyle practices accordingly. Some elements of our biology remain the same – such as our genetics, our bone structure, our body types. Others change, such as the presence of dis-ease within the body, metabolism, energy level and other transient factors. To help with this discussion, we’ll bring in some Ayurvedic principles which really help us to understand bio-individuality in a broader context.
Ayurveda is the oldest documented form of medicine which still exists today, originating
from India more than five thousand years ago.
One of the first considerations of bio-individuality, which is especially important in the context of fasting, is body type. If you’re an ectomorph body type (naturally leaner) you probably want to opt for a less intense fasting protocol compared so someone who is more of a mesomorph or endomorph body type, with naturally more muscle mass, bone mass and body fat.
In Ayurvedic medicine these body types are known as “doshas” and correspond to Vata, Pitta and Kapha respectively. The concept of the dosha is foundational in Ayurvedic medicine, and can be applied not just to body types but to foods, cycles and other elements.
BODY TYPES ACCORDING TO ARYUVEDA
Generally speaking, a Vata body type will do less well with a daily long fast of 16 hours or more. They are likely to suffer from blood sugar levels dropping too low, inducing a hormone-driven stress state, which, over time, can be detrimental to health. The main reason for this that the Vata dosha corresponds to a faster metabolism and an overall more delicately balanced system. A healthy Vata body type will do much better with a daily overnight fast of around 12 hours.
A Pitta body type may do well on a daily fast lasting 12-16 hours. The Pitta also typically has a strong metabolism which is somewhat more robust than the Vata dosha. Regardless, it’s still not generally recommended for a Pitta body type to do a structural daily 16-hour fast, though there may be short periods where this is supportive to health. It’s suggested to explore this range between 12-16 hours daily and see what feels best. Look for signs like higher energy, better concentration and potentially some weight loss.
A Kapha is going to see great benefit from fasting and may even be able to push out the time a little further or sustain a daily 16-hour fast for a longer period of time. Kapha corresponds to a slower, more sluggish metabolism which can be fired-up through fasting. Again – look for signs mentioned above and better regulation of weight and fluid in the body.
You should keep in mind that though there are three body types or doshas, you may have characteristics from more than one. That’s why it’s so important to look as your own physiology before adopting any approach. The doshas merely represent tendencies for our bodies to work in certain ways. In Ayurveda, balance is imperative, so it’s necessary to observe the current form and engage in practices which bring the body back into balance, or homeostasis as it’s known in the west.
Honouring the natural rhythm of life
Ayurvedic principles are also very useful in helping us design fasting protocols and to determine the best time of day is to eat. According to Ayurvedic medicine, we all cycle through six four-hour dosha-dominant phases each day, regardless of our own body type. During these phases, we are all more likely to exhibit the characteristics of the respective dosha for that phase. Consider the diagram below. There are some suggestions for what kind of activities function best in which of the six phases, but let’s focus on the digestion element for the purposes of this discussion.
The Kapha Phases
The Kapha phases represent slower more lethargic energy which will be mirrored by our digestive processes – slower and less efficient. For this reason, it’s best to avoid eating, especially heavier meals, in the hours of 6am-10am and 6pm to 10pm. Below the explanation of certain fasting protocols, you’ll see a recommendation for a “liquid before lunch” rule, which is based on honouring our natural digestive strength phases within a day. Likewise, the fiery traits of the Pitta dosha are more prevalent in the middle of the day, between 10am and 2pm, when our digestion really ramps up. This is the perfect time of the day to have your heaviest meals and also when we are better at digesting raw foods. Come the Vata phase in the evening, we do better with cooked and easily digestible meals which can be processed before it’s time to sleep.
In applying this theory to a protocol, an obvious solution for meal timing is eating only within the Pitta/Vata times of day and thus have two meals instead of three each day. It is possible to do this in a healthful way for some bodies, but actually most of us won’t do so well. We need to be able to get our required daily 7-9 serves of fruit and vegetables in just two meals, and without achieving this you’re missing out on the vital micronutrients to drive essential processes within your body. Your body doesn’t run on a purely macro equation. It’s much better to keep the three meals in and if you absolutely must cut one out – make that dinner. Your body will be able to work much more of its magic without having to digest a heavy meal overnight. Further, it’s best to aim for no snacking between meals, just water and herbal teas, so that your body can also rest during those 3-4 hours between meals. It takes around 90-120 minutes for blood sugar to normalise after a meal, so during the remainder of that time some energy can go to detoxification, repair and other essential cellular processes.
Moving to the west, there are some great studies which support the benefits of resetting our primal diurnal (two-phase) rhythm, one of which reports that participants experienced fewer feelings of stress and depression and improved cognitive function after realigning their body clocks through practical interventions (look in the references for the Facer-Childs et. al. study done in 2019). One of these was meal timing. This study points also to the importance of sleep – getting a good 7.5-9 hours of sleep each night, depending on our individual needs, is essential for optimising our health and well-being and making sure our bodies spend sufficient time in an anabolic (restorative) state rather than the catabolic (stress/breakdown) state. The closer we can align this to the natural circadian rhythm, the better.
Humans are diurnal beings. By restoring and honouring the evolution of our body and being guided by its internal clock, only then can we truly get the most out of our natural state. Without any kind of booster or stimulants (or suppressants)!
Stress and fasting
One of the most overlooked factors when it comes to fasting is how stress is layered on our bodies. Illness as well as lifestyle factors add stress. And actually, so does fasting itself. We all know when we are feeling stress mentally or emotionally, which in the right doses is actually okay. But we also need to understand the physiological stress response which occurs within our bodies.
For instance, if you’re someone who typically experiences a lot of stress through your morning – organising children for school, rushing for work, you’re likely to also have high cortisol levels. You’ll know that’s going on if this rush is accompanied by increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and a sense that your breath has moved up high into the chest and feels faster and lighter. If you experience this kind of stress in the mornings, fasting is likely to be counterproductive for you. This is because you’ve entered the fight-or-flight response, and the resulting spike in stress hormone cortisol will lead to the message being sent to your liver and muscle cells to begin breaking down energy stores of glycogen into glucose. This glucose will be released into the blood stream and increase blood sugar levels, enabling you to flight or flee. Of course, you don’t need that. However, the body’s physiological response does not factor in rational realities. This blood sugar surge is more than likely to kick you out of the autophagy-based state, so you’re no longer benefiting from the fast. If this is the case for you, you’re better off nourishing your body with something light and digestible so that your body doesn’t need to work so hard to produce glucose from stored sugars in order to react appropriately to the stress happening around you.
The explanation above is also true for coffee. It’s been a recent phenomenon that people like to extend their fast with a black coffee. It might be worth re-evaluating this ritual and swapping your coffee for an herbal tea instead. It’s not only calories that kick you out of an autophagy-based state – it’s also your own biochemistry and how you react to the stimulus in your environment. It’s a well-established understanding among holistic medical professionals that caffeine can cause a cortisol spike and thus a resulting blood sugar increase. For those more advanced fasters out there, you might refute this possibility and assert that given you follow a ketogenic diet you’ve already depleted your liver of glycogen. However, the body is a smart machine and it’s interesting to note that above the 90-120g of glucose that can be extracted from the liver, we also store an additional 200g-400g in our muscles, depending on the individual. It’s therefore unlikely that glucose won’t be available. In fact, we need it to be available at all times.
Pro tip: If you love your coffee and are not ready to give it up but also don’t want to compromise your fast, the best thing is buy an at-home glucometer to test whether the caffeine is triggering biochemical consequences which are moving you out of the desired autophagy-based state driven by increased blood sugar. Just test 30 minutes after your coffee and see where you’re at compared to your normal fasted levels.
If you want to get into some more detail, check out this podcast.
Moderate exercise enhances your body’s ability to enter autophagy as well as promoting the abundance of mitochondria, the energy production factories, within our cells. However, it’s important to keep fasted exercise moderate. Autophagy is a catabolic process and can result in the breakdown of muscle tissues. A particularly convincing study by Grumati et. al. in 2011 found that “…excessive autophagy is detrimental for muscle health and has a pathogenic role in several forms of muscle diseases.” To prevent excessive autophagy, we need to keep fasted exercise moderate.
So, what does ‘moderate’ mean then? How can you stay in the safe zone? Walking or light cardio (70% of max heart rate) is recommended, along with light weight training, which means not pushing to max effort or failure. Cap exercise time to 20-40 minutes when fasted for best results. Stay in touch with your body and how it feels and make sure you’re not depleting yourself too far. If you want to get into some more detail, a great podcast is linked-up below to give you some more direction on this point.
If you have a tendency to skip breakfast but add this back in to fuel for harder workout days, it might be a good idea to consider which day you’re going to add-back your breakfast. Rather than eating breakfast before your workout, there may be more benefit in eating breakfast the day following your hard workout in order to replenish what has been broken down during exercise. Breakfast then becomes part of the repair rather than the fuelling of the workout. Your body probably already has enough resources to fuel the workout and a good lunch beforehand will also help.
Biology meets environment
Along with your body-type, which is a pervasive aspect of your bio-individuality, we also need to take stock of transitory or changing elements. Firstly, we need to look to identify any dis-ease in the body which should be adjusted for. Consider whether you have any known issues with your thyroid, hypoglycaemia, perhaps viruses such as Epstein-Barr Virus which has been implicated in myalgic encephalomyelitis (“ME”) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (“CFS”) or anything else, regardless of whether or not you’re currently being medicated for said imbalance. Observe for yourself whether your digestion is strong or weak – perhaps you deal with bloating, constipation, reflux or any number of other digestion-based symptoms. Be honest with yourself – do these need to be addressed first? All such illnesses and imbalances contribute stress to the body, and it may be best for you to focus on winding back the stressors resulting from such conditions before starting a fasting protocol.
It’s also useful to know your usual biomarkers – fasted blood sugar and blood pressure in particular. These factors are an important point to take into account in determining where you should take your fasting approach.
Besides the measurable health-state factors, it’s also a good time to summarise other lifestyle factors which make up your external environment. When you design your fasting plan, think about how much and how intensively you exercise (and when). Look at your existing diet – perhaps that needs to be cleaned up a bit before you dive into head-on into fasting. Consider how stressful you perceive your life to be. Look at your daily schedule and to what extent you can adjust your meal times and their contents.
All the factors mentioned above will impact how you design your fasting protocol. For positive long-term results in any area of health, start with small changes and ramp up to your optimal program in a steady, graduated manner.
Now to the how
That was a lot of information to digest. Well done on getting this far! If you’re ready to dive into the world of intermittent fasting, here are some simple suggestions for how to begin. These suggestions are adapted from protocols recommended by Naturopathic Doctor and Integrative Health Practitioner Dr. Stephen Cabral. These are general suggestions only – all new health plans should be created in consultation with your licensed practitioner.
Optimise your overnight fasting opportunity by having your last evening meal between 6pm-7pm, and eliminate snacking or consumption of calorie containing beverages after this point. Herbal teas are fine. When you wake, start your day with a glass of water with the juice of half a lemon or lime and a pinch of high-quality natural sea salt. This will not only restore any minerals lost overnight but also strengthen your digestion in preparation for your morning meal. Delay your breakfast to at least 8am. This gives you a minimum 12-hour overnight fast and will allow your body to be in an autophagy-based state on a daily basis. Just starting with this one simple measure can already transform your health.
Added benefits can be obtained by applying a “liquids before lunch” rule and switching your solid breakfast out for a nutrient dense smoothie. This makes digestion less taxing on your body during that period where your body has not yet fully ramped-up for the day.
* If you are hypoglycaemic, have low sodium, or potassium absorption issues, you should consult your healthcare professional before starting a 12-hour daily fast regime.
The weekly fast is not for beginners. If you have been doing the daily fast for a while and feel you want to take it to the next level, you can begin incorporating a weekly 24-fast. The easiest way to do this is to stop eating between your evening meals one day to the next. This approach means that you don’t have a full day of not eating but your body gets a full 24-hour cycle where it can focus on cleaning up. So essentially, have dinner, stop eating, skip breakfast and lunch the following day and then enjoy your evening meal again – simple!
If you find it difficult to hold out over the 24-hour period, you can incorporate green vegetable juices, ginger tea (great to support liver detoxification!) or simply water in between. Vegetable juices will bring you out of the autophagy-based state for a short period of time due to the impact on your blood sugar levels, however this is unlikely to impact the efficacy of your fast as the level of sugar is low and juices require less digestive effort. Just make sure you’re only consuming them in replacement of your missed meals and not sipping on them throughout the day.
Following your 24-hour fast, be sure to keep your evening meal light – 1-2 cups of vegetables, half a cup of starch such as sweet potato, some lean protein and around a tablespoon of healthy fat such as olive oil or avocado. Cooked vegetables are best as they are easier to digest. For those not used to working in cups… a cup is a good fist full of veggies. 1 cup = 250ml of water – so imagine what that looks like in solid form.
This 24-hour fast practice is great for maintaining and promoting overall wellness and also to really give that liver a chance to process any accumulated toxicity in the body. Stay in tune with how you feel and if you don’t feel good going this long without food, adjust accordingly.
Carrying out a quarterly or seasonal detox is a great way to give your body a proper break – it’s like hitting the reset button. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain the right quarterly detox protocol for you, but here’s what you should look for. You want to have a period of fasting to allow for proper liver detoxification to take place, ideally with some prescribed herbs to support this process. This fasted part of your detox might last 2-3 days. You then want to follow that up with 4-5 days of completely clean eating – liquid breakfast, vegan lunch, animal protein at dinner if that’s part of how you choose to eat. Again, make sure each meal contains some starch, some protein and some healthy fat. You want to absolutely make sure you’re getting your 7-9 serves of vegetables per day. It’s also recommended to opt for cooked vegetables in the evening to support overnight digestion.
Water, water, water!
As a supplement to the regimes explained above – to support your body’s natural detoxification, healing and repairing processes – you simply MUST consume adequate water each day. Every person should be drinking around 2 litres per day, give or take depending on your body mass. Drink one glass 30 minutes before a meal (and none any closer to a meal; you want the water to leave your stomach as not to impact the Ph balance of your stomach acid) and 1-2 glasses 90-120 minutes after each meal. This practice supports optimal digestion and hydration. There is significant research available which asserts that many of our modern health concerns stem from our lack of water consumption and the resulting dehydration of our cells. Our bodies are around 70% water, the brain closer to 80%. If you’re drinking insufficient water then your body will have to prioritise the use of available water and therefore certain metabolic processes are likely to be down regulated to the essential processes can be sustained. Brain fog anyone? Drink up!
So there you have it…
The fasting story doesn’t stop at creating a leaner body and speeding up your metabolism to be a fat-burning machine. When looking for a fasting protocol, we ought to aim for overall wellness, with a side effect of a leaner, healthier body. Our health goals should always be long term ones. And our health goals must take into account bio-individuality and our own health, lifestyle and environment factors.
Your biology is unique and magnificent. Your experience of life is the same. It’s time to own and respect both of these and choose for rituals and routines which nourish and support life according to our needs, rather than getting too caught up in the dogma of the latest fads and trends being preached across the industry. Become the steward of your life. Invest in the support of someone with a sound holistic approach or be willing to go down the rabbit hole yourself on the true powers of fasting and how you should design protocol for you.
Hopefully you’ve received a good introduction here and feel inspired to begin (or adjust!).
ANNE VAN DER GIESSEN