Ayurveda, the science of life, has much to discuss about diet and fasting. It is understood in Ayurveda that natural observances of time of day and time of year can support the intention of optimal health, combined with knowing ones own constitutional needs. In knowing this, we can understand the application of fasting and how it can be optimized for based on who, when, how/what, and why.
The questions around this, as per an Ayurvedic practitioner, is who is fasting?
Why are they fasting?
What or how will the fast look like?
When will they be doing it?
As with any focus on prevention of disease, or maintenance of health, or even the potential resolution of a disease or imbalance, three primary concepts are strongly considered according to Ayurveda. These three concepts are Agni, Ama, and Ojas. AGNI, pertains to fire and specifically jatharagni is the actual digestive fire which involves the digestive enzymes and other chemicals to assist with digestion. AMA, pertains to unprocessed foods and emotions in the body, otherwise known as toxins. OJAS, is the outcome of the digestive process that is a result of the quality of food intake and absorption. Ojas can be observed in the body as the benefits of health, vitality, energy, inspiration, clarity, and overall immunity. This tissue can be found for instance in the plasma of the body where the white blood cells roam.
In Ayurveda, when addressing health and balance, or even disease re-balancing, we observe what is happening between agni, ama, and ojas. We know that when agni is balanced, then ama is low, and immunity is balanced. Similarly, when agni is low, ama is high, and ojas is low. An important consideration is knowing when an individual is affected by disease that there is an indication that agni is compromised somehow and that ama has been and is produced, which means that the overall sense of well-being is not as readily available. Simply, when we are feeling really good in our digestive system, and toxins are not overwhelming the system, then there will be an overall sense of health in body and mind. We know that these toxins can make their way to the brain and so many other areas of the body and then cause havoc.
Within his we can best formulate the best protocols based on the above questions. First, it is important to note that in Ayurveda, that the basic understanding of disease pathology is rooted in a malfunction of the digestive system. The digestive process contains two aspects to it. One, is the actual physical process of digestion where food is converted to usable resources of the body through the mechanics of the digestive system. Secondly, the mind has its influence and is woven into digestion. The mere social saying “you are what we eat” is actually changed in Ayurveda to “you are what you digest.” If you are eating something that appears to be cooked healthily but the mind is not in a peaceful place, then automatically what food enters into the body will become indigestion. This has already been verified according to modern research as per understanding a psychosomatic relationship existing inherently as humans.
Regarding fasting, Ayurveda notes that there are basically four times of day that we are supported by this. These three times of day are as such: first, between breakfast and lunch; next, between lunch and dinner; lastly, after dinner and before the next meal known as breakfast. Breakfast, when the word is split up, is “breaking” a “fast.” When western medical doctors desire to examine a full generally comprehensive blood panel they suggest not having anything to eat usually after 7 pm and then going in for lab work in the morning on an empty stomach. This can show lab technicians and physicians what the general state of health can be according to ranges of numbers that are considered appropriate, high, or low based on the findings. Similarly, the longest stretch of the day is night, for most people, and breaking a fast involves not having anything to heat until at least morning time., which allows for the natural physiological processed to do their job. For instance, the liver takes over at night in order to detoxify and support assimilation of overall nutrients for all the bodily systems and tissues. In Ayurveda, we say “ you must love your liver!”
Also, there is a time of year that fasting can naturally occur.. This is understood to happen in the late winter and spring (which is considered the Kapha time of year.) How a natural fasts occurs this time of year is simple when you think about it. Think about how things were before modern technology. Food was scarce this time of year. We were hibernating more. Inward more. Aligned with the natural stillness this time year. Though we have evolved to some degree to match the times, this doesn’t mean that on a deep cellular and genetic level that we don’t remember what it was like pre-modern conventions. The sun still rises and sets as it has always. The moon becomes full and wanes, as it always has. There are certain aspects of our biology like the inherently designed circadian rhythm that connects us as part of nature.
Due to this, this time of year through qualities that are present in the current atmosphere, the body is also following to some degree. So, if you’re still eating as much as you were during the summer, think again? Is it seasonally appropriate?
LET’S GO A LITTLE DEEPER…
If we factor in what’s naturally happening this time of year, we measure it according to understanding what our constitution is which is a combination of Vata, Pitta, Kapha, and we factor in age, along with supply and demand, we can best understand how to increasingly support our health and well being.
In general, it is tricky to fast during the winter months because it’s not time, yet. Bears, deer, and other animals are experiencing scarcity. They are putting out less energy since it is cold and they are resting more. But, as the cold starts to warm up and thawing begins to occur, with the increase in sunlight we will notice a natural shedding that happens this time of year (unless food intake is excessive due to modern conventions and not being connected to nature’s guidance within.) There isn’t much food around this time of year but supermarkets are getting these shipped to us. Our cells know the difference even if our mind’s are trying to distract us and convince us that we can still eat mango’s and ice cream during this time of year when, not only is it not natural to our farming here but it’s also not natural to climate. Have you noticed how the mango from mexico doesn’t taste as good now in January/February as it does in July?
Fasting in the winter is like running into the middle of the woods with snow around and taking our coats off. It is common to put a few pounds during the winter, why? because we are supposed to store fat. We increase protein and fats this time of year to sustain us longer through the months since we don’t have as much access to the abundance of foods as you do in the warmer and summer months. See a correlation yet?
No, it’s not okay for Vata predominant individuals to start fasting during the winter months. Vata’s should hold on to as much kapha/healthy kapha (earth/water elements) as much in their body. Incidentally, ojas tissue is actually a kaphy tissue. FYI. Pitta’s don’t usually need to fast this time of year. Kapha’s should just be mindful of excess intake of foods that are heavy, such as pasta, cheesecake, ice cream (which is really a no-no for all three doshas and especially this time of year), cheese, dairy, and yogurt.
Why does this apply as such? This has partly to do with agni. As we mentioned before, Agni plays a key part in health and disease. According to Ayurveda, there are four states of agni: SAMA= balanced digestion (which consists of very little to almost no digestive disturbance), VISHAMA = vitiated, and this usually pertains to Vata having variable digestion and digestive symptoms such as gas, some bloating, indigestion, mild constipation or some diarrhea, TIKSHNA = sharp, and this applies mainly to Pitta having strong, hot, overly-accelerating digestion burning up nutrients before they can actually be absorbed, and, MANDA = sluggish, for the Kapha predominant type where their symptoms are exactly that which is slow. This means that food is processed slowly and stores more and more and more.
During the winter and colder months in general, between cold and dry qualities and wet and cold qualities, it takes more energy to fire up the digestive system. Imagine a house and how more energy has to go into the furnace to keep the temperature in the house at a certain level. The body is this way. Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons why taking in cold, icy, frozen foods and beverages is contraindicated year round because for healthy functioning the body holds itself at and around a specific temperature for a reason. Changes to this, affects the system negatively and is considered a stress and thus causing a compromise of sorts.
Since it is Kapha time of year, here are some important considerations to honor what is happening in this climate. As mentioned above, we know it is mainly Kapha season because Kapha’s primary qualities consist of Heavy, Cold, Moist, and Sluggish. Does this seem familiar? Does it seem harder to get out of bed? Do you feel like you want to take more naps? If you answer yes to the last two questions, then you have a general sense and connection with Kapha. Kapha predominant individuals will feel it more than Vata and Pitta predominant individuals. Kapha’s have to push themselves harder to keep things moving so that they don’t end up feeling heavier and inviting in conditions that are common this time of year due to their similar qualities as mentioned before. Some of these imbalances include overall heaviness, weight gain, depression, upper respiratory issues such as colds, bronchitis (of kapha cause), even pneumonia (of kapha qualities), and asthma (of kapha qualities.) Vata’s could also be affected but their colds are more about dry coughs, minimal and clear mucus like a post-nasal drip, and minimal congestion. Vata’s could have aggravated asthma as well. The reason for the change but similar affect for Vata predominant individuals is due to the fact that one of Vata’s primary qualities is cold, so cold increases cold and cold can either be wet or dry.
HERE ARE SOME BASIC CONSIDERATIONS AROUND FASTING RIGHT NOW
1) Know your constitution.
2) Know your state of agni, ama, and ojas.
3) Honor the cycles of the day where there is a break in between actual meals, such as the time between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, and then the long haul over night. Over night is the best time to let the body’s systems “do their thing” and support the body in homeostasis.
a) Consider the importance of breakfast being a light meal (if any) by 8, lunch being the main meal around noon(ish), and dinner being half of lunch, supplemental = supper time (noting that the later the meal, the lighter it should be due to lack of digestive availability)
b) Vata predominant individuals should eat smaller meals and possibly as part of small meals throughout the day, honoring the times of the average meal time. Pitta predominant individuals have a strong appetite and 3 meals is adequate, as long as they are also nutrient filled. Kapha predominant individuals should eat smaller meals, still with lunch being the main meal. In fact, Kapha predominant individuals could afford to lighten up and even skip breakfast and/or lunch depending on several factors.
c) It is important to note a recent rise in this new-ish diet called “Intermittent Fasting.” They are still pulling together the data and haven’t had long term studies validate their current findings but are amazingly speculative. With this, and a review of this type of diet, it isn’t far from what Ayurveda considers a “Kapha reducing diet regimen.” There is much overlap around what Ayurveda suggests for detoxification/fasting purposes. Following fasting times, eliminating certain components of the diet, and supporting an exercise regimen is essential to balance overall.
4) Know why you’re actually doing a fast.
5) Know how long you’re doing it for.
6) During the fasting periods during the day, do your best not to cave in to cravings. Have some sort of tea instead.
7) Regarding cravings, ask yourself these questions:
a) did I sleep well last night? Sleep affects digestion and energy levels. Poor sleep increases inflammation and increases the chances of craving sweets and energy boosting substances.
b) was my previous meal balanced? If there was adequate protein, carbs/legumes/grains, veggies, and oil intake, then there shouldn’t be much of an issue with cravings after the meal.
c) am I properly hydrated? The same mechanism in the brain that determines hunger also determines thirst. Test your level of hunger by having a cup of tea and waiting 15 minutes. If you’re still hungry, you’ll know it. But if you’re not, then you know you were dehydrated.
d) what is going on emotionally/mentally for me? If all the above are in check, then this will stand alone. There is emotional eating and the cravings are coming from a deeper need to satisfy/pacify some emotional experience you are having. You could either entertain it or not. Just know that giving in could cause you to gain weight, commonly.
e) can I wait? A craving will spark your interest. This happens naturally during the break times of the day, between meals. This is also a designed response of the body indicating glucose is needed somewhere, usually the brain. Once you allow your body to simply wait around 15-20 minutes, the craving will subsided because the body will take care of itself. For instance, the liver will become activated in a way to help transform the proper resources into usable fuel. This is where the body becomes fat-burning. This is great for the body! Versus giving into the craving and the body continues to store this instead.
8) Supply and Demand, Energy In and Energy Out. This is another pertinent factor to consider. If you aren’t very physically active, then food intake should be lower. The supply has to meet the demand. If it doesn’t, anything that isn’t used gets stored. Sometimes this is why a fatty liver develops, or fat in general. Sometimes, this is why constipation can happen, for instance. How much energy, physically, are you putting out that it requires the proper nutrient intake to match it? Remember, bears aren’t as active and are resting more but when it gets warmer out, they start to eat lightly to clear their lymphatic system and get things moving where they shed a few pounds and muscle increased again.
Lastly, fasting is about detoxification and allowing the body’s natural processes to do their job. The liver and kidney’s are primary organs of detoxification. If they are functioning optimally, then fasting during the natural fasting times of day is optimized. There isn’t too much of a need to do an extreme detox when the body is supported generally and fairly regularly. A regular practice of mindful eating, per constitution, with appropriate physical activities, and some herbal support as supplements (supplementation) can go a long way before the necessity of aggressively changing a diet or radically depriving the body. Where’s the mind in all this, and is it happy doing? Is the detox/fast meant to be a quick fix? (hint: the answer is no) Does the body need to detox? yes, but the how is key here.
Remember, that when we fast, it is a detox process. In Ayurveda, in order to detox we are practicing the “three R’s”: Regulate Agni, Remove Ama, Rebuild Ojas. Digestion is the key component for homeostasis. You can read more about supporting digestion in the article referenced below “Digestion and Disease Prevention.”
In Ayurveda, we strive to address both the body and mind simultaneously, with the least amount of stress. Meaning, Ayurveda is about the long-term, not just short-term and immediate gratification. We want something sustaining for many years to come with the least amount of casualty, while knowing that maybe those things you gave up were really for the best. How do you know? You’re body will thank you and your mind will feel more balanced. Win-win!
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DISCLAIMER: This information is meant for educational purposes only. Any changes in lifestyle should be reviewed with a qualified practitioner and primary care physician if you are currently under their care for specific conditions.