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.