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Fasting 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Cleansing

Spring is a time for renewal inside and out. Winter can make us overeat (holidays!), gain weight (ugh!), and be more sedentary. But spring invites us to start moving again. We pack away winter gear, clean out our house, and prepare our garden for the warmer weather ahead. Our body also benefits from clearing out the old with a spring cleanse. Not only can cleansing help shake off the winter blues, research shows that cleansing has a wide range of health benefits. You may be wondering what exactly is meant by a “cleanse.” How do you know if cleansing is right for you? What exactly are the health benefits? And what’s the best and safest way to do a cleanse? Read on!

What Does Cleansing Really Mean?

The body cleanses itself every day through its eliminative systems, which expel wastes (stool, urine, sweat, exhaled breath). The liver, which does a lot of detoxification, releases its end products through these same channels of elimination. The body is always trying to get rid of what it doesn’t need, or what is burdensome to it. These substances can be simply the indigestible fiber from eating vegetables, or chemicals that we take in via food additives, pesticides, or other pollutants. When we intentionally do a cleanse, we are purposefully supporting and strengthening our body’s intrinsic cleansing systems. This intentional cleansing is what we’ll explore here, with a focus on fasting.

Benefits of Fasting

Fasting is often part of cleansing. Fasting simply means that we eat less than we normally would. While many think of fasting as eating nothing, modified fasts are much more common and safe. Modified fasts limit what you can consume but don’t create starvation. Research shows that modified fasting can have far-reaching positive effects on our health. Recent data show, for example, that intermittent fasting (IF) has a wide range of benefits: weight loss, lower cholesterol, better blood sugar management, and generally lower levels of inflammation. Because fasting works to reduce inflammation (a root cause of many diseases and pain), it has the potential to improve arthritis and asthma, as well as help prevent cancer and heart disease. Let’s look at some of the different fasting methods.

Modified fasting can have far-reaching positive effects on our health.
Intermittent Fast, Juice Fast, or Water Fast?

Types of fasts vary widely, from modified fasts that might limit dairy or gluten, to more stringent, liquid fasts using juice, broth, or water.

Adopting a cleansing diet is a form of modified fasting: A cleansing diet means a diet that is more “clean” than the one you are currently eating. For example, if you typically eat a diet with processed foods and meat, then cutting those out and eating a vegetarian diet for a length of time would be considered a cleansing diet. Or, an ovo-lacto vegetarian might choose a pure vegan diet as a way of cleansing. Giving up sugar, refined flour, wheat, and dairy is often recommended for better health (wheat and dairy are dense foods that burden the body if not well digested). All of these shifts are technically forms of modified fasting.

Intermittent fasting (IF): This popular fasting method focuses on eating less and/or less often. There are a variety of ways to do it: You can eat 500 calories two days per week and eat normally the rest of the time (hence the term intermittent). Or you can restrict the window of eating to a limited number of hours per day. This is called time-restricted eating (TRE). Perhaps you have heard that not eating for 3 hours prior to going to sleep at night is health-promoting (and it is); this is an example of TRE. So is the idea of a daily fast—not eating for 12–14 hours before breakfast (so you literally “break fast”).

More stringent protocols include limiting the window of eating to 8–10 hours, so you could eat between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (or 6:00 p.m.), or between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. (or 8:00 p.m.). The narrower the window, the more time our body is actually fasting. And it’s the fasting part that helps to clear the dross and support our body’s rejuvenation. Intermittent fasting is safe for most people, except those who are pregnant, weak, or frail, or who have blood sugar issues (diabetes or low blood sugar).

Juice or broth fasts: These fasts are more calorie restrictive, but are still accessible to most people. They provide easily absorbable nutrients and calories, which frees up more energy for essential cleansing and repair processes in the body. Research has shown this to be broadly helpful and well tolerated. Please note that a juice or broth fast is a time-limited form of cleansing and is never a permanent substitute for eating whole fresh fruits and vegetables. For a walk-through on juice cleansing, please see “How to Do a Juice Fast” below.

Avoid fasting on water only: This type of fasting is generally too harsh. The body can feel threatened and stressed by starvation, which shifts us into survival mode. In this contractive state, we are less apt to clear out toxins and more likely to end up simply weakened and depleted. This is the exact opposite of what we want: we want to support and strengthen the body, not starve it.

Know when NOT to fast: Anyone who is weak, run-down, or recovering from significant illness, surgery, or chemotherapy should NOT fast. In these situations, fasting is too depleting for the body and causes undue stress, while hindering the healing process. Even vegan or macrobiotic diets can be too stripping. A whole-foods diet, with ample protein and oil, is important for this group. Diabetics and those who have hypoglycemia (blood sugar regulation issues) should also not fast.

A Few More Tips on How to Cleanse Your Body

Here are a few gentle ways to cleanse the body that do not involve fasting:

Drink more water: Hydration really matters! “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Simply drinking 2–4 cups of room-temperature or warm water in the morning on rising can stimulate the body’s natural cleansing inclinations for a bowel movement, urination, and/or nasal discharge. After drinking the initial few cups in the morning, drink 8 more glasses of water throughout the day to stay hydrated.

Psyllium works wonders: Try 1–3 teaspoons of psyllium husks with lots of water each day for 2–4 weeks (or longer). Psyllium husks provide soluble fiber to clear out any old debris in the colon. Other benefits are lower cholesterol levels and better diabetes management.

Say yes to triphala: Triphala, a classic ayurvedic formula, can be used to strengthen the bowels to ensure they do their job well and facilitate cleansing. Take 2 tablets daily with water, on an empty stomach, for 6–8 weeks every spring for good health maintenance.

How to Do a Juice Fast

When and how much to drink: Drink 8–12 ounces of fresh vegetable and fruit juice every 3 hours throughout the day. (You can also substitute vegetable broth—a good idea if the weather is cooler.)

  • Twice in the morning: 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
  • Twice in the afternoon/evening: 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
  • If you are still hungry at 8:00 p.m. you can have some then, too.
  • Drink water or herbal teas in between. Aim for 2–3 liters (8–12 cups) of fluids daily.

Try this for 1–3 days— but STOP if at any time you feel woozy, weak, or spacy. These symptoms mean you have had enough (for this time), and you need to eat some simple, solid food. If you make it through day 3, still stop (even if you feel great), and let the body recover from the cleanse.

Recovering from your juice fast: A general rule for recovering from a juice fast is to modify your diet for the same number of days that you did your fast. So for 1–3 days eat lightly: emphasize grains, cooked veggies, and fruits. Gradually add back in more protein, such as beans, eggs, nuts, fish, or poultry. Heavier foods (like dairy products, red meat, and fried food) and sweets can be added in small quantities once you feel comfortable eating a wider variety of food. Also remember to take it slow for a day or two after your cleanse: get plenty of rest and drink lots of water.

Fasting helps our body utilize its own cleansing and healing capacities to restore health and vitality.

Repeating a juice fast: You can repeat a juice fast once a month or so, as long as you are attentive to your physical response. If you are energized and strengthened by the cleanse—great! If you feel depleted or weakened from it, then you need to modify it (fewer days, more substance) or do it less often.

Boosting Our Health, Vitality, and Enthusiasm

In our over-consuming world, it is easy for our bodies to get gunked up (medical term!); that is, overburdened by excess food, chemicals, and stress. Fasting helps our body utilize its own cleansing and healing capacities to restore health and vitality. However, there is no need to be extreme: simply omitting sugar, wheat, or dairy for a few weeks, or hydrating more, or stopping eating by 6:00 p.m. can be enough of a change for you to see a shift in your health. If you can organize yourself for a more significant cleanse, then do it! I recently did a broth fast for a few days, and feel physically lighter and mentally more calm. I also feel more conscious of what, when, and how I eat, and of the impact my choices have on my well-being. I wish the same for you! May your spring cleanse give you more energy, clarity, and enthusiasm for life.

About the Teacher

Carrie Demers, MD

Board-certified in both internal medicine and integrative medicine, Carrie Demers, MD, is a holistic physician who blends modern medicine with traditional approaches to health. After receiving her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Demers went on to study massage, homeopathy, nutrition, herbal medicine, yoga, and ayurveda. She has been the medical director of the Himalayan Institute PureRejuv Wellness Center (formerly Total Health Center) for the last 20 years. Widely recognized for her expertise, Dr. Demers has been interviewed by numerous magazines and newspapers, and lectures nationally on holistic health and ayurveda. She is a frequent contributor to yogainternational.com and the Himalayan Institute online Wisdom Library.

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