Psychological Benefits of Fasting

New Yorkers are surrounded a conveyor belt food culture.  I can easily walk into any deli, and choose from hundreds of foods in a minute, that my ancestors never had access to. Most of it is toxic for our organs. 

When we hit the brakes on eating, we free the digestive energy from working and place it on repairing the body. The ancients used fasting to heal physical diseases and mental illness.  Fasting is powerful tool, in our back pocket that can be used to form new habits, allow the body to heal itself (allergies, digestive disorders, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease, improve immune function, and asthma) and experience mental clarity.  A physician should be consulted before selecting the duration of your fast.  As with all matters of health, individuation is key.  Considering one’s body type, ancestral lineage, mental constitution, metabolic rate, muscle fiber type, and current fitness levels help to determine the length of one’s fast. Some folks will find it possible to fast for up to ten days or more, while others would collapse from practicing just five days.  The sweet-spot for me (I’m super fit, with a fast metabolism, and I normally eat a healthy diet, with very low sugar intake) is 3 days. I start fasting on a Thursday at 5pm, and eat again on a Sunday at 5pm. 72 hours is long enough for my body to experience a deep cleanse, balance my hormones, and provide a powerful mental challenge. I practice four times a year, at the turn of each season.  It’s a magical period where I shut out the world, turn off social media, stay home, read books, watch movies, sleep a ton, and take walks with my dog in our Brooklyn Neighborhood.  I intentionally avoid professional deadlines, and if I work, it’s strictly in the creative realm alone. I highly recommend fasting for anyone who feels exhausted, and mentally overrun.  

Fasting Cultivates Mental Fortitude  

Make a commitment to the duration of your fast. Once I lock in the 3 days, I finish enough of my work load to take a three day vacation from all duties and obligations.  I become mentally locked in to the finish line.  I know in advance that there will be bumps on the road, like the temptation to quit, a period of physical pain (as the body transitions to ketosis) and settling into the loneliness of the process.  It’s a chance to let the body know that it is not in charge, the mind is.  Our limbic system (also called the paleomammalian cortex,) is a set of brain structures below the cerebrum, that supports functions like emotion, behavior and motivation.  It includes our old reptile brain, which is geared for sensing danger and survival. It is used to rewarding the body and constantly fulfilling it’s needs, while avoiding danger. Our ancestors ate heartily when food was available, and got by when it was scarce, while avoiding becoming prey themselves.  In a society where food is plentiful, like now, this has become a health hazard, and most of us are overindulging.  By not giving in to the body’s need for food, we are strengthening our mind, and proving to ourselves that we possess mental toughness. It’s the same head space I was in during my first NYC Marathon, when I reached the 20th mile and felt totally exhausted. I wanted to drop out of the race, but chose to dig deep within and remember my reason for participating. I had trained hundreds of hours, so I could prepare for this one event. I had dedicated the race to my younger brother who passed away the year before. Reflecting on the nature of my investment, and the fact that I saw myself as a “finisher,” a man who completes what he sets out to do, I contacted a spiritual energy from the well of my being, that carried me, ever so slowly to the finish line in three hours and twenty one minutes.  While fasting, as nothing but water crosses the gate of your mouth for three days, one becomes intimately connected to discipline.  This “inner strength” can be applied to all future endeavors.  

Re-Connect to Your Purpose  

The pace of life is blinding.  It’s easy to get buried under deadlines, pressure to advance our status at work, and the constant comparison of your rank in relation to those in similar social circles.  Without hitting the brakes, the nervous system s exhausted. We can feel frazzled, as the hair on our head starts to thin, the skin dries out and we turn to excess coffee and sugar consumption to find the juice we need to get by.  A period of fasting, stops the madness. It’s a break in the cyclical pattern, and an opportunity for reflection.  Fasting provides a mental clarity that we ordinarily avoid. It can consciously invert our thoughts, to shine the light on the aspects of ourselves that we ordinarily cannot see in hyperactive states.  What were our childhood dreams? Why did we go to college? What is the nature & quality of our personal relationships? Do we have a positive network of friends? Are we getting enough sleep? Some folks will realize that they would like to paint again, take an acting class on the weekends, call home and speak with Mom and Dad more often, start a family, stop drinking alcohol, or be more charitable.  For others the realizations can be more radical, like a career change, going back to school, ending an unfulfilling relationship, or pursuing a new way of eating.  While fasting we are stripping away the unessential’s, and this clarity can make us feel the wick at the core of the candle.  We each have a purpose, a gift, and the mental clarity of fasting is an opportunity to come into alignment with ourselves.  

Change Your Habits

Fasting scrubs the taste buds clean.  The palate can become dull from too much caffeine, or over-stimulated from too many spices and sugar.  Scientists estimate that 65 percent of our energy is used for digestion and assimilation after a big meal. As we rest these processes during a fast, that freed up energy is used for cleaning up metabolic waste, chewing up weak/diseased cells in the body, and for dna repair.  Our ancestors evolved to survive periods of food scarcity, and that evolutionary adaptation is still with us. This is why catabolic states (period of tissue breakdown) can provide cleansing benefits.  This purification process can bring us to our basal level, where we feel the mind slowing down. We literally wipe the slate clean.  During a fast we are resisting the urge to eat, and letting go of our automatic tendencies. During this time we can resolve to let go of refined sugar in the future. We can commit to eating more whole foods and less processed foods.  One can decide to get 7 hours of sleep per night.  While fasting, we are breaking down old patterns  while being able to see things clearly. It is an excellent time to set new goals and establish new neuronal circuits from the brain/mind/will to the body/cells/actions.  With repetition, our new practices, will cause electricity to flow through new pathways, helping us to form positive habits.  This process consciously refines our character.  Fasting is the ultimate Re-Set button.  It’s a sieve, straining away that which is not working, while adding new resources.

Do a Digital Detox!  

Along with abstaining from food, I make a commitment to avoid looking at all social media. It’s a chance for the brain to rebalance the right chemistry between dopamine, norepenepherine and serotonin.  The constant checking and comparing the number of “likes” we have, is a process that down-regulates our brain’s dopamine levels. Dopamine gives us the feeling of earning a reward.  The normal bombarding of the senses by images, and our online status fluctuations, means it takes more and more dopamine (ie, likes) to feel good.  We can feel a lull in energy, and mentally fatigued by too much social media. Instagram analytics claim that the average person checks their account 34 times per day.  That colossal need for validation in the digital world is turning us into phone addicted zombies. While fasting, think of cleaning the body and clean the mind. It works together very well. Putting your phone down for 3 days, then returning to it with rules and regulations can protect your mental health.  I’ve leaned to ditch my phone for large parts of the weekends. I leave it at home when I go to my martial arts dojo in the evenings for practice. I turn it off 2 hours before my bedtime.  Explore possibilities that work for You.

When we practice fasting we are engaging in the energy of restriction. There is a deep spiritual vibe to this practice because it is like pulling back, coiling the spring inwards, and accumulating a tremendous amount of energy through self discipline. Where you place that coiled energy is up to you.  Fasting is not a practice for ordinary people, yet anyone can do it!  You will be transformed in the flames of your effort.  On the other side of the experience resides a closer-someone who starts with an idea, puts it in motion, stays the course, then reaps the rewards.  




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