The Physician Within
“Everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.”
“Instead of using medicine, rather, fast a day.”
When an animal, such as a dog or cat, is sick, its natural instinct is to refuse food. When the crisis is over, and the internal healing work has been accomplished, the appetite will return naturally, of its own accord.
The human organism also has a fasting instinct, just like that of other animals. Evolutionary adaptation has made our bodies very efficient at storing energy reserves, and drawing upon them when food supplies are scarce.
Fasting is as old as mankind, perhaps even older. As far back as historians can see, men have been fasting for one reason or another. It seems to be a universal practice.
The ancient Greeks were great believers in fasting. Hippocrates advacated it, as is shown in the above quotation. Plato said that he fasted for greater physical and mental efficiency. Aristotle, his pupil, also fasted. Both Galen and Avicenna also prescribed fasts for their patients.
Purposes and Benefits of Fasting
Basically, there are two kinds of purposes or objectives for fasting. Men fast for either spiritual or physical reasons, and both are equally valid.
Spiritually, fasting helps us transcend our addiction and attachment to food, and to realize that man doesn’t live by bread alone. The mind gets clearer, and spiritual awareness deepens. Freed from having to satisfy physical hunger, one can then turn one’s attention to feeding the mind and spirit. Spiritual masters like Pythagoras wouldn’t admit any disciple into their higher teachings unless they had first purified themselves through fasting.
Physically, fasting enables the organism to detoxify and clean house. Because the vast majority of diseases are caused by autointoxication, fasting has wide-ranging therapeutic benefits. It also gives the digestive organs a much needed rest.
For all fevers and diseases in the acute crisis stage, Hippocrates prescribed either a strict fast with nothing but water or medicinal teas, or a very slender liquid diet. Fasting is also recommended for colds and flu, arthritis and rheumatism, digestive complaints, and all humoral and metabolic disorders.
Scientific experiments conducted on laboratory mice have shown that severe restriction of caloric intake greatly extends their lifespan. Since this is basically what fasting is, fasting holds great promise for life extension.
The Physiology of Fasting
As long as we’re alive, the Innate Heat, or metabolic fire, is always active. And as long as this metabolic fire is burning, it must consume something for fuel.
Normally, this Innate Heat or metabolic fire is fed by nutrients from the food we eat. But when we fast, we cut off this outer supply of fuel, and the metabolic fire begins to feed on the body’s own inner reserves. The body’s own Inner Physician is awakened, and the human organism, in its infinite healing wisdom, starts to clean house and burn off the dross.
What is least essential to the life and health of the organism is consumed first, such as toxins, wastes, and superfluous morbid humors. The Inner Physician knows precisely where to go, what to metabolize and eliminate, and how to eliminate it. This is the process of autolysis. In this sense, fasting has been described as an operation without surgery.
Fasting gives your digestive organs a much needed rest. Instead of digesting food, their digestive secretions and enzymes can serve to digest, neutralize and eliminate toxic wastes from the body via the GI tract. Chief among these secretions is bile, which is secreted by the liver and gall bladder.
Depending on where the toxins and morbid humors have been held in the body, they will start to produce various signs and symptoms as this waste is eliminated and passed off:
Head / Brain: headaches, dizziness, vertigo, wooziness, lightheadedness.
Nose, Sinuses: sneezing, runny nose, itching, stinging, post nasal drip.
Throat: soreness or constriction, hoarseness, scratchiness
Lungs: chest congestion, wheezing, phlegm discharges, foul breath odors
Skin: rashes, acne, pustules; excessive or abnormal sweating; strange body odors
Stomach: sour or nervous stomach, stomach cramping, belching, bad breath
Liver: sore eyes, bitter taste in mouth, sallow complexion, pain or distension under
the ribs on the right side.
Gall Bladder: colic, spasm, tenderness or pain underneath the liver area.
Intestines: foul smelling gas, cramping, diarrhea, spastic colon or irritable bowel.
Kidneys: low back pain and weakness, fatigue; frequent urination, often urgent;
strongly colored or smelling urine.
Generally, the more recently acquired toxins and accumulations of morbid matter will be the first to be passed off, followed by older and more long-standing ones, backtracking in reverse order of acquisition. Also, the day’s detoxification tends to start in the morning with head symptoms, and generally works its way down the body.
The cleansing and detoxification symptoms, and the loss of weight and muscle mass, are the most severe and intense for the first three days. Within these first three days, energy levels also tend to be lowest and most problematic. After this initial three day period, a change happens in the body’s internal energy economy, called ketosis, in which the organism switches over to the more efficient burning of its fat reserves to satisfy its basic energy needs. Then, the energy levels get a lot better.
During a fast, the organism detoxifies itself during the night, leaving a thick, foul, bitter tasting residue on the tongue in the morning. Upon arising, it’s good to go to the bathroom with a spoon or tongue scraper and scrape this residue off.
Precautions for Fasting
Before embarking on a fast, it’s good to talk it over with someone who’s fasted before, hearing their story, so you have a better idea of what to expect. A short fast of three days or less is a fairly simple affair, and can be undertaken without too much care or concern.
But long fasts, for over three days, are a different matter. For these, it’s a good idea to check with your physician to assess whether or not you’re able to go through with it physically, especially if you have health conditions like asthma or type 2 diabetes that have compromised your basic health or metabolism. It’s also a good idea to have your fasting program designed and monitored by a holistic healthcare professional.
One thing that’s imperative while fasting is to drink plenty of fluids. These include water, herbal teas and, in the case of juice fasting, fruit and/or vegetable juices. And so, the Expulsive Virtue of the Water element is used to aid the cleansing and detoxification process.
Back in Hippocrates’ day, most of the fasting that was done was water fasting, in which noithing but water was consumed. This is not only the simplest form of fasting, but also the most severe, because it makes stringent demands on the organism to digest and metabolize superfluities and draw on its own internal energy reserves.
Nowadays, water fasting may be alright for short fasts of three days or less, but it’s generally not advised for fasts of longer duration. Various abuses prevalent in the modern world, such as environmental pollution; refined, devitalized, nutrient-depleted foods; junk foods and binge eating; and drug and substance abuse have made modern man constitutioanlly weaker and less resistant to the rigors of intense detoxification.
Before deciding to undertake a long fast, one should get a clean bill of basic health from a physician or holistic healthcare professional. The question is: After prolonged fasting has removed all that is toxic, morbid and superfluous, will you still have the basic constitutional strength and resistance left to sustain yourself through the recuperation and recovery process? Many whose general health condition is too delicate or rundown would be better able to handle an extended fast if they first went on a program of tonification and constitutional improvement beforehand.
Types of Fasts and Cleansing Diets
Fasts and cleansing diets are of many different types. They are undertaken for many different purposes and objectives.
A simple fast doesn’t exceed more than a day or two in length, and is undertaken when one feels indigestion, lack of appetite, being under the weather, or out of sorts. In its simplest form, it consists merely of skipping a meal, usually dinner. In addition to water, herb teas may be drunk that are specific to the condition you’re trying to overcome; with digestion of food no longer necessary, the organism is free to catch up on back healing work. Hippocrates prescribed simple fasts in all fevers and acute diseases in the crisis stage.
Juice fasting is the usual modern method for handling fasts of longer duration, where a deeper and more thorough cleansing and detoxification is desired. Fruit and vegetable juices, often diluted 50/50 with pure water, alkalinize the system and speed up detoxification while providing a base level of calories and nutrients to sustain energy; on the other hand, ketosis, or the body’s digging into its own fat and energy reserves, isn’t as intense. In addition, fruit and vegetable juices, properly chosen, can be therapeutic in many chronic and degenerative conditions, and aid the healing process. In the first two or three days of a juice fast, the bowels are cleansed with enemas or colonics; this greatly decreases the toxic load on the body, and keeps toxins from old fecal wastes retained in the colon from being reabsorbed into the body and the bloodstream.
Cleansing diets involve eating very lightly of food that is very pure, simple, balanced and easy to digest. This provides for the body’s basic energy and nutritional needs while allowing cleansing and detoxification to occur. Cleansing diets are very useful for those whose constitutions are too delicate or run down to withstand the quicker, more radical detoxification of a water or juice fast.
Many cleansing diets use various types of gruels or porridges. In Ayurvedic medicine, a gruel of mung beans or lentils with rice, called kitcharee, is used. Chinese medicine uses a rice gruel called congee. In Greek Medicine, the traditional preparation is ptisan, a kind of barley water or gruel.
By adjusting the ratio of barley to water, or by either straining the barley water or leaving the barley grains in the ptisan, it can be adjusted to virtually any desired consistency. The great value of barley is that it’s nourishing, easy to digest, and soothing and emollient to the GI tract, with no residual astringency that might aggravate colic or bloating.
In acute crises and fevers, only the liquid, strained ptisan is used. For ordinary detoxification purposes, a soupy gruel is used. If a broader nutritional base is desired, root or leafy vegetables, sea vegetables, herbs, or beans and pulses can also be cooked in to the ptisan; this also makes for a good transition back to an ordinary diet.
Enhancing the Cleansing and Detoxification
While fasting, there are a number of therapeutic measures that can be taken to enhance the cleansing and detoxification process. The most popular and common ones are as follows:
Anointing, oleation, oil massage: Massaging the whole body with fragrant medicated oils improves the circulation and detoxification of blood and lymph and enhances the dumping of waste matter into the GI tract for elimination.
Castor oil: A great detoxifier; draws out pus and toxins. Drink one to two tablespoons, flushed down with lemon water, to cleanse the bowels at night before retiring, or massage liberally into the abdomen and pelvis to loosen up and detoxify the bowels. Massage into the liver or gall bladder areas to ease purification crises in these organs.
Clay: Clay is a mineral whose negative ionic charge chelates with and draws out positively charged acidic toxins. Before using, clay needs some time, preferrably a couple of hours, in an aqueous environment to ionize properly. Mix anywhere from a few pinches to a quarter teaspoon of dry powdered clay into a cup of water and let stand for a couple of hours before drinking. Clay paste can be put on rashes, abcesses, boils and other skin eruptions to draw out toxins and hasten their resolution.
Herb teas: A variety of different herb teas can be taken to assist the organism in the cleaning and detoxification work it’s trying to accomplish during fasting. Since the body is already in a cleansing mode, strongly eliminative or purgative herbs aren’t needed; gentle detoxifiers work best.
Enemas and colonics: Cleansing the colon is a very good idea, especially for a longer fast, since it prevents toxins from old retained fecal matter from being reabsorbed into the body and the bloodstream. If this is your first fast, or your first colon cleanse, it’s a good idea to have it professionally done by a holistic healthcare professional, as the detoxification reactions can be dramatic. A series of two to three enemas to cleanse the colon at the beginning of an extended fast is very helpful. For more information about colon cleansing, see Hygienic Purification Therapies in the Therapies section.
Other hygienic purification therapies, like emesis, or therapeutic vomiting, or diaphoresis, or sweating, are also very helpful in conjunction with fasting and purification regimes where indicated. These are best done under the guidance and supervision of a holistic healthcare professional who’s skilled and experienced in such work, to properly assess the risks, indications and potential benefits.
Breaking a Fast
The most critically important part of a fast is how you end it, or break it. Any fool can fast, but breaking it properly is an art, and not so easy. The body must make a gradual, step-by-step transition back to a normal diet. If a prolonged fast isn’t broken properly, toxins and fecal matter can recongest the gut, and the bloodstream, and all the benefits of the fast are nullified.
For breaking a fast, ptisan is very useful. On the first day after a prolonged juice fast, drink only the strained barley water. On the second day, a thin, soupy gruel is best, and on the third day, a thicker gruel can be had. On the fourth day, you can cook in lentils and vegetables as well, and on the fifth day, you can go back to your normal diet.
If you can spare the time to do so, spend as much time trasitioning back to your normal diet as you did fasting. Remember: The wheels of Nature grind slowly, but very well. If your bowel movements don’t return right away, just wait a few days; it takes time for them to be reestablished. Cholerics may have to temper their impatience when it comes to breaking a fast if they’re not going to nullify all the benefits gained.
The Optimum Timing of Fasting
The first rule in timing a fast is that of necessity, and of listening to your body. A fast is indicated whenever toxicity in the body is heading towards a crisis. If symptoms like a cold, poor appetite, or indigestion appear, a short, remedial fast is indicated.
When planning a more extensive or prolonged fast, one should pay heed to the season of the year and the phase of the Moon. A prolonged fast should be undertaken in a season in which the weather is neither too hot nor too cold: in the spring, after the last cold snaps of winter have ended; or in the early fall, before the first cold snaps of approaching winter.
Regarding the lunar phases, the waning hemicycle of the Moon favors cleansing and purification, whereas the waxing hemicycle favors recovery and rebuilding after the fast. If you can break the fast around the time of the New Moon, you can utilize the waxing Moon’s energy to rebuild.
Fasting and Life Stage
Although a simple remedial fast of skipping a meal or two until your appetite returns is advisable at any age or life stage, the different stages of life differ significantly in their ability to tolerate or handle longer fasts.
Children and youths handle fasting the most poorly, because their growing bodies require a richer supply of nutrients. Children and infants tolerate fasting the least, because their bodies are growing the most rapidly. Pregnant mothers should not fast, because they must eat not just for themselves, but also for the embryo/foetus, which grows the fastest of all.
Young adults may safely undertake short fasts of up to three days, but not much more, unless indicated. That’s because their energy and nutritional needs are still considerable.
Those in old age can safely undertake short fasts of up to three days. That’s because their constitutions are more delicate, and unable to withstand the rigors of extended fasting.
Those in maturity or middle age are generally the best suited for extended fasting, and are also those who can derive the most benefit from it. After age 40, the metabolism tends to slow down, and doesn’t demand or consume as much energy as before. Because the metabolism is slower, toxic residues and morbid humors build up in the system much more quickly, and can be much more problematic. Periodic, judicious fasting during maturity can burn off these toxic residues and morbid humors, thus preventing many degenerative diseases of old age.