Spring is a great time for clearing out the old so that new growth can flourish. There’s a reason for the time-worn adage of “spring cleaning.” Everywhere you turn life is coming through in new buds and sprouts, and even though no obstacle can truly stifle the energy of life, it can be helpful to clear away the winter debris, especially as the weather warms. Even many of the plants that come up at this time are slightly bitter tasting and can be used for clearing the system of inflammation and relieve stagnation, including dandelion, burdock, cleavers, nettles and all the edible weeds.
For this reason, spring is a great time to fast. As someone who was socialized female in a society built on (among other things) mysogyny and racism, rejecting diet culture has been a key part of my personal process of self-love and acceptance. I learned early on that deprivation cloaked in the guise of health and beauty was dangerous to my body, psyche and spirit. For this reason, fasting has often felt too close to diet culture for my comfort.
But this spring, for the first time, I felt the urge to consider the practice. The time seemed right to care for my gut in a different way, to do a little internal spring cleaning. This experience invited me to consider fasting anew, with a little more flexibility and respect for this old practice.
What is Fasting?
Generally speaking, fasting refers to the practice of abstention. This means giving up a certain practice for a period of time. We often think of this in terms of food and drink, but can also mean activities such as sex, watching TV or scrolling social media. Master Jeffrey Yuen has suggested that from a personal cultivation and healing perspective, fasting is simply giving up what is usual for us as an activity of self-awareness. Noticing and altering what we take in through all our senses, not just our mouths, can be a deep practice that leads to clarity and discernment about what we want to bring into our world.
Fasting allows for both nourishment and release.
Often, when we think of fasting we think of deprivation, but simplifying what we take into ourselves can be profoundly nourishing. Not only can we better process what we consume, but we also become better attuned to what resonates with us. In Chinese and East Asian medicine, our digestion doesn’t just process food and drink, but everything we imbibe, from the daily news to a new professional skill and beyond. Trying to process too much over time depletes our digestion and leads to the accumulation of what we call “Damp.” Too much Damp makes us feel sluggish, tired, bloated, phlegmy, and foggy. When we fast we have an opportunity to work on any backlog of Damp and either clear or assimilate it. In our fast-paced world, fasting can provide a respite for processing the firehose of information that comes our way.
Fasting is also a natural part of seasonal change. Food supplies change throughout the year as different flora and fauna cycle in and out. Before farming as we know it today, many human communities would change locations from winter to summer to seek out different foods. In colder places there might be times of the year when there was little to forage or hunt and food stores would run low, creating a precarious time of forced fasting until the sap started running¹ or spring buds showed.
As modern humans in a wealthy society we don’t cycle with the seasons in the same way. We are blessed with an historically unprecedented affluence, eating tropical fruit in the dead of winter and other delights from the other side of the world. Even just a few decades ago some of the things available to us would be unheard of. In this abundance we no longer eat with the seasonal ebb and flow, but our body still gives us messages and cues, ones we can still perceive even in the constant noise of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” of wellness, diet, and consumerist culture. Fasting allows us the opportunity to sink into that awareness.
In addition to being a natural part of seasonal rhythms, fasting holds a significant place in both spiritual and healing traditions. Fasting has long been understood as a way to purify ourselves and be in communication with the Divine. This year the Muslim observation of Ramadan and Christian observation of Lent overlapped, both celebrations that incorporate fasting for self-reflection, as well as penance and gratitude. This practice is also used in rituals the world over to receive spiritual guidance or pursue spiritual attainment. Fasting reminds us of our mortality and the blessing of being alive and well-fed, as well as allows us to shed those corporeal needs to contemplate the mysteries beyond this physical body.
Even though modern religiosity has incorporated shame into many rituals of fasting, on the level of healing, working with our cravings can be incredibly rewarding. So many of us are constantly working beyond our internal resources, having learned to tie our worth or our guilt to our productivity, either through family coping skills or consumerist socialization. Our appetite for success is insatiable and we never feel fulfilled or content. Like a blazing star, we burn bright only to crash with myriad of strange fatigues and ailments like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, auto-immune disorders and all manner of gut issues.
In healing, fasting can help us check in both physically and psychologically, giving us space and time to take stock of ourselves, our life, and gain insight. Changing our daily routines with fasting, and consciously slowing down to let our gut and our bodies rest has a surprisingly profound impact on us. Perfectionism, internalized fatphobia, body shame, addiction, and food triggers can all arise with fasting. Within the bounds of psychological safety, we get the opportunity to have compassion and presence with ourselves through the process.
Because the gut is central to so many aspects of health, fasting can also shift many different ailments and symptoms. As inflammation decreases, allergies, sinusitis, skin issues, and pain can also lessen. As digestion improves so does bowel motility, stool density, nutrient assimilation, immunity, energy, mental clarity and mood. Finding more regular eating habits can also help improve sleep. And because hormone and sugar metabolism impacts menstruation, pain, emotional swings, and issues with ovulation can also shift with a fast. Of course, any effect will be short-lived if it is only enacted as part of a short change in eating. The bigger gift of fasting is to find clarity in what works for our body, and be a bridge to longer-term shifts in habit.
How to Fast
Fasting is not for everyone at anytime. Americans specifically have a tendency to take every good thing to the extreme, which often causes harm. When considering a fast there are some things to keep in mind.
I appreciate Paul Pitchford’s chapter on fasting in Healing with Whole Foods². He comes with nuanced recommendations on fasting by constitution and reminds us that it’s best to avoid fasting if you are either in need of a lot of nourishment, like during pregnancy or a degenerative disease, or already malnourished. You also don’t want to fast when it’s very cold out. This is why spring is an optimal time to fast as we come into warmer weather. Fasting in winter is a big no, as this is a time of hibernation and conservation. Fasting asks too much from our system at this time of year, especially in temperate geographies. Doing a fast, especially a juice or similar fast that is very restrictive, can actually harm our gut in the longterm if we do it during winter or without proper consideration. It’s best to work with seasonal and body rhythms, rather than imposing our own agenda on the process.
Fasting can range from no food or water at all, to making small changes in our current diet. In between these two ends are myriad variations that include juice, raw or cooked vegetables, and cooked grains. It’s important to understand that the more restrictive the fast (i.e a water or juice fast) the more clearing it is and the more it demands of your body. In my opinion, these fasts are best reserved for serious medical reasons or cloistered spiritual pursuit, and always under the supervision of an experienced guide or professional.
I know juice fasts are very popular, but most people I see in clinic do not have the digestion to tolerate so much raw and cooling food (raw fruits and vegetables are generally cooling in nature according to traditional Chinese dietetics). The digestion is like a compost. It wants to be warm and not too dry or wet. Most people, especially in a climate like Portland that is damp and cool most of the year, struggle with a digestion that tends to be cool. This results in stool that tends to be loose, indigestion, food intolerances, a pale and swollen tongue, and an inability to assimilate nutrients. Juices contain a lot of incredible vitamins and antioxidants, but is also high in sugar. This is not helpful for anyone with metabolic imbalances like PCOS, or a tendency to type II diabetes or other pre-diabetic picture.
Highly restrictive diets are generally not meant for busy modern people who continue business as usual while fasting and already have a hard time assimilating food.
What I recommend is less extreme: a version of a whole grain, cooked vegetable and legume fast. Even people who cannot take time off from life could try this fast for a short period of time. It is simple and will keep cravings and fatigue at bay, while giving the gut a break and letting the body reset in a gentle way. It is generally safe for most people.
The following is adapted from Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods², and is the fast I tried this spring and recommend for my clients. It is one that could easily be done over a weekend:
Choose your food:
- Grains – choose one of: brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, or other whole grain
- Steamed vegetables – choose 3-4 of any of the more complex carbohydrate options such as beets, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli or greens (avoid potatoes)
- Legumes – choose 1-2 of: mung, adzuki, lentil or other legume
- Teas – choose nourishing herbs like nettle, calming herbs like chamomile, and/or warming/digestive-supporting herbs like fennel or dried ginger for herbal teas instead of plain water for hydration
On a Friday, or the day before starting, cook up the grain and legume(s) and steam the veggies. The legumes can be made into a simple soup by adding enough water for them to be runny. Simple is best. Ideally, no spices are added. The exception to this is if you tend to be on the cool side. That is, physically tend to be cold, or have loose stools. Then you can add warming spices like black pepper, dried ginger, fennel and cumin to the legumes. You can also add kombu seaweed to the mung beans to improve digestibility. Brew herbal teas as needed.
Eat the foods separately. That is, eat the grains, cooked veggies, and each type of legume by itself. This adds to the clearing nature of the fast by simplifying what your gut is asked to process.
Chew thoroughly, as in 30-60 times for each bite. This aids digestion and also gives you an opportunity to savor the food. Have you ever really tasted the complexity of a steamed beet? Brown rice? Lentils? Sauces and flavorings make cooking an art, but food has so much flavor that we fail to appreciate because of our bias toward complexity.
Stop before full. Part of a fast is to let ourselves experience “less-than-full.” Eating to capacity or beyond capacity runs counter to the clearing intention of fasting.
Use high quality ingredients for your fast, such as organic produce (pesticide residue is real) and purified water.
Rest and savor. It is amazing how much time goes into thinking, finding, and preparing food. What happens for you when all that is already taken care of? Give yourself time to reflect. You may find your intuition heightened or develop other kinds of mental clarity. Salt baths, easeful walks and other kinds of fasting like turning off your phone or avoiding screens can be a great compliment to a food fast.
At the end of the weekend, or after a couple days of this regimen, start to incorporate more foods back into your diet. You may find that you want to continue eating simply for awhile. Feel free to food combine again. Be sure to taper off the fast slowly to carry the benefits forward.
Things to consider: weather, geography, intention, current health status
Watch out for: fat phobia, perfectionism, overly-restrictive tendencies
Cultivate: compassion, flexibility, love, mindfulness, self-knowing
Fasting is an invitation to practice awareness around what we take into the sacred space that is our body and mind. It is not a purity test, or an extreme sport. It should lead to being able to digest better—not just food, but everything we bring in. If after fasting you have a reduced ability to eat different kinds of foods, then I suggest finding some professional support for gut health. Our own Dr. James Ho works with clients around digestive health from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective and would be happy to work with you.
Happy spring fasting!
¹Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013) 68
²Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1993) 274-281
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