Things we talk about at yoga. Fasting came up last night. “Intermittent Fasting” to be precise and as usual the response from an Ayurvedic perspective is: it depends.
What kind of fasting are you doing? For how long? What time of year is it? What is your constitution? What is your strength (are you ill or stressed or have chronic issues)? What stage of life are you in (are you crazy busy or calm; is your body young or old; are you active or sedentary)?
The doshas rule all of the above. Knowing your dosha, the doshic season, the doshic stage of life, etc. helps us to determine what kind of fasting would be healthy to our body (and minds).
I’ll give you an example: if you’re eighty years old, with a chronic condition, in the middle of winter, and your spouse just died…that’s a terrible time to think about limiting food and nourishment of any kind. Eat food. Eat good food. Easy to digest food. But don’t restrict. That’s an extreme example, but it begins to explain what we are talking about when we look at dosha and lifestyle and diet.
All things being equal: Kapha can withstand longer times without food and may actually need a break from eating to maintain balance. On the opposite end, Vata should never restrict food, as Vata is “delicate” and needs nourishment. Vata rules the nervous system (fight or flight) and any sort of meal skipping sends the primal response of the body into “fear” mode (be really careful of meal skipping if there are any anxiety and fear concerns present). The physical body doesn’t understand a cabinet full of food, it responds to actual stimulus, so no food means scarcity and that can be scary for a Vata. Digestion will shut down quickly to hold onto all the resources in the body for as long as possible, just in case there is a famine. Pitta is somewhere in between, but lack of food can make a Pitta very angry, very quickly. Pittas have a high fire naturally and it’s important to feed the fire.
When we eat properly, we naturally fall into a cycle of eating and rest/digest. If we give ourselves proper space between meals, we set the system up to be fueled, digest, and then become appropriately hungry again. Grazing is a therapeutic diet. Fasting is a therapeutic diet. A healthy diet for most everyone is breakfast (sometimes high Kapha can skip or eat lightly), a big lunch when digestion is at its optimum (we should never skip lunch), and dinner (which may be light and should be early). Eating between meals can be balancing for Vata, imbalance, or high stress (active lifestyle too). Lighter meals can be balancing for Kapha as opposed to meal skipping.
In general, spring could be an OK time to fast with appropriate entry phase, peak phase, and exit phases. Most other times of the year are not conducive to fasting. Our active, stressful American lifestyle is often not conducive to fasting. We often need more, not less, nourishment (that means real, digestible food).
A balanced intermittent fasting is the natural rhythm of the day. We do, after all, call breakfast…break fast. Ideally, we are not digesting overnight when the body is using that nighttime “fire” to digest the more subtle gunk of the liver and channels and gunk in the mind. If we’re digesting a big late meal or not asleep during optimal digestion time (10pm to 2am), we don’t optimally cleanse the subtle system and that can begin to back up and clog the whole system. Ideally, our last meal of the day is no later than 6pm to give plenty of time for this rest and digest overnight phase that the “new” intermittent fasting idea is bouncing off of.
All things being equal (not taking into consideration personal dosha, time of year, lifestyle stresses or imbalance, etc.): Kapha should have a longer nighttime “fast” of 16 hours (not much more). Pitta may be able to handle 10 – 12 hours of nighttime “fasting”. Vata needs to eat, so no more than 10 – 12 hour overnight breaks.
All of these food breaks should be done overnight, when it’s appropriate in the natural cycle of the body to not be eating. The benefits of “intermittent fasting” are lost when done at the wrong time. Done at the wrong time or in the wrong way, it can be do more harm than good. On the flip side, that “almost there” is sometimes the perfect baby step. It depends.
We also really like extremes. We really get caught up in more is better vs. what’s right for me in this phase of my life. We begin something and it feels great because we might have needed some lightning up. But then we take it further and further until we cross over into the dark side (just kidding, sort of). We also can change phases of life and not change our diet to reflect that (not eating in your eighties is probably not great–it’s a depleting stage of life naturally).
If you’re planning more than an 18 hour overnight fast, consider the why’s and goals and your “exit strategy”. This would be a therapeutic diet and should be done under guidance. Once we don’t eat for more than 18 hours (especially if not done in the overnight period), our digestive system can begin to shut down. If we don’t properly re-start our digestive fire, we can do more harm than good. We fasted, but we’re unable to optimally digest what we take in after the break because our digestive fire has been weakened. A general rule is that for as long as you cleanse/fast, is the time frame used to ease out of the fast with easy to digest food and digestive boosting spices. It’s not quite so easy as just don’t eat for this long. There’s much, much more to it.
Choose wisely. Time wisely; there’s an Ayurvedic saying: “right thing, wrong time”. Know your constitution and stress level. You might do better to consider giving up hard to digest, clogging foods vs. giving up all foods for a certain time period. If you choose to fast, keep that time period to the natural overnight period.
We need food to function well, including lubricating fats (fats help dislodged stuck Ama/gunk and keeps the channels from micro tears in the cleansing process), building foods (these are the foods that make up tissue for an optimally functioning body), and energy sustaining foods (these are the foods that help us get stuff done). Fats and carbs and protein…it’s a reason they are called macronutrients…we can’t actually live without them. They keep our body, mind, and senses balanced and functioning properly.
That all being said, Spring is a lovely time to cleanse and perhaps even partake of a fast. It is Kapha season, after all. Practice with care and mindfulness. Always: Be Kind to Your Body.
Movement, Nourishment, & Stillness