Voluntary fasting is not just a religious practice common to most faiths and serious yogis, but it is a natural tool for improving your health.
Not eating or consuming very low amount of calories was much more common prior to industrialisation, when we, like the animals that do not know how to use a fridge or salting food for preservation still do, fasted during periods of scarcity during the winter. Amazingly, penguins fast in -40C°despite exerting lots of energy to keep their body warm. Conservation of food did not reach yet the enormous possibilities after refrigeration and freezing were accessible to a wider population, so we were naturally dieting without needing prescriptions of magazines and best selling diet books.
Giving your body what it needs, but not more
However, nutrients depletion can have a very negative impact on our health. Taking advantage of scientific progress and it is generally wiser today in our more broadly affluent world, that an individual approach (read lower down for more) supported by medical data like blood tests, regularly measuring essential functions like pulse and blood pressure, will assist so the full health benefits kick in. Unsupervised renouncing of food can have serious consequences – from fainting, stimulation of a gout to kidney, liver and heart problems.
Buchinger-Wilhelmi scientific approach
If you fast for the first time as well as when you suffer from serious health problems, the process should ideally be medically supervised. Three generations of German descendants of the self-healed invalid rheumatism sufferer Dr. Otto Buchinger, whose disability was cured by fasting, have long enough expertise in guiding through fasting. The original clinic was founded by the Lake Constance in Germany, later in 1973 his daughter set up a second location in Marbella, Spain, and today they both attract young and old, healthy and seriously ill, famous and rich or those who can afford their luxurious lodgings. Their holistic approach includes Eastern and Western medicine, diagnostics, physical and psychological therapy, spiritual support, coaching, group activities and exercises, lectures, soul nourishment through cultural and artistic pursuits, beauty treatments and wide range of pampering at their spa.
It is a five star experience rather than just a period of paucity. You can even choose your pillow (from six types!) and the nurses are like butlers, available 24 hours a day upon a ring on the red bell, yet delivering what is good for you, not anything you want. The facility is impeccably equipped with the newest technology, medical equipment, and much more than you might need during your stay.
Getting healthier in sunny Andalusia
At Buchinger Wilhelmi clinic in Marbella, the Mediterranean coast and painting-worthy dramatic rocky background meet, creating a calm and relaxed atmosphere supporting the effects of fasting. Since one can become more irritated and sensitive to smell, noise and other outer elements, it is easier to fast in their environment than at home.
Avoiding oxidative as well as hormonal stress is key to healing of our cells. Nature calms, and Andalusia with its abundant beauty eases you into a slower pace of letting go. You will be feeding your soul and not your stomach. The approach is not based in a total absence of calories as in the case of a pure water fast, although they are kept to a dire minimum, while important minerals and vitamins will be supplied to your system. Liquids like soups in the evenings, supportive herbal infusions, substantially diluted juices and two to three liters of water (three types of water are surrounding you wherever you walk around the clinic so you will not escape hydrating yourself) are all that comes into your mouth during this fast.
The reasons to fast:
- Fasting heals – as the body cells adjust to the fasting mode many chronic and inflammatory diseases improve
- Preventing illnesses related to the lifestyle of our consumer society (diet high sugar and fat, pollution)
- Balancing high blood pressure and glucose in II type diabetics (insulin-dependent may not need administering of insulin for some time, but also are not allowed to fast in some cases and instead put on a special diet improving their condition)
- Loss of 200-300g of fat per day
- Overcoming the hunger instinct brings spiritual clarity & better self-control
- Improving abstract thinking and mindfulness
- Detox from unsustainable highly processed food consumed regularly that is high in fat and sugars
- Desire to quit smoking (stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes are forbidden or not provided and their taste is less appealing during a fast so it is easier to renounce them)
Fasting has to be voluntary, hungry people in poor countries, in war zones or places with a bad hygiene are too stressed which causes lots of harm in their bodies by taxing the cells and slowing down or blocking their renewal.
Minimum side-effects in drug-free treatment
The accumulative negative effects of chemical drugs are avoided when resorting to this curative method, but it is possible to experience some discomfort such as:
- dizziness and inability to concentrate for long time – during the first week of the fast, driving a car is discouraged and indeed particularly in the afternoon when the fasting body needs rest it should be avoided
- headaches – the changes in your body may trigger them
- heartburn in acid-sensitive individuals
- sleep disruption – lighter sleep as your body will not need as much rest, bad dreams, yet waking up feeling fresher
- lower body temperature can cause shivering – warm liquids, blankets and keeping your room warm helps
- skin sensitivity – breakouts, dryness, higher susceptibility to sunburn so avoid the rays
- staying at the clinic requires you switching into its pace an rules – challenge for certain personalities
At any time of the day, an assistance of a nurse can be called by pressing an emergency button in your room, if anything abnormal happens. As a further assurance, your blood pressure, pulse and weight will be measured daily by the nurse. An evening yoga class, meditation or relaxing through the vibration and deep sound of Tibetan bowls can assist with evoking of sleep.
Each of us has a different medical history and the doctors at the clinic are trained to check and inquire about your personal physical as well as psychological background. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, unwell, psychologically volatile and with ‘spent’ suffering individuals, and people on certain medications should avoid fasting. The in-house doctors at the clinic will determine, based on your medical records that you provide and what they find during the initial check up, whether fasting is beneficial for you or whether you should just go on a calorie-restricted mostly vegetarian diet (includes fish) prepared by the experienced chef’s team daily. The later will improve your sense of well-being and can be a sufficient detox for your organism. Supplements in forms of deficient vitamins and probiotics can accompany you during your fast if the doctor sees any reason for that from your essentials measuring blood tests.
I have not undergone the fasting, but my husband did, therefore I was able to evaluate the promises of the clinic through his experience as I interviewed him during and after his fast was over. I’ve been eating the calories-restricted healthy diet during the week of my supportive stay at the clinic, and can only praise the delicious food. Eating five times a day, mostly vegetarian plates with an occasional local portion of fish, not drinking alcohol and renouncing caffeine felt balancing and refreshing, both for my body and mind. My low blood pressure, low pulse, and minor heart issues, would most likely discriminate me from undergoing the long fast, but I saw many quite healthy people, young or elderly present at the clinic seeking the preventative or spiritual benefits of the fast.
As our daily stimulation from food, alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, strenuous work and technology is renounced we embark on “a journey towards your inner self”. Perhaps once it will become an option for me as well. I am particularly interested in the psychological impact of fasting, how my ability to think changes and how I could possibly improve my own mindfulness and concentration through this experience.
How medical fasting works
Upon an arrival you are set for a low-calorie diet based on fruits and/or rice. This “digestive rest day” prepares you for the fast during which solids are removed. The first morning of your fast a laxative in the form of Glauber’s salt will clean up quite vigorously your system (be prepared to spend a morning near your bathroom). This so called “drum roll” empties your intestines and decreases your sensation of hunger. Following this, every second day an enema (in many holistic approaches a common cleaning of your lower intestine) is administered by a nurse to support the cleaning process. An optional (extra charge) colonic irrigation, done by a specialist doctor in his office is the most effective inner cleaning since it reaches further into the cobra-shaped obliques of your intestines. Water streams gently into your bowels and the toxins are washed out. It is slightly uncomfortable, yet not painful.
The transitional period between the second and fourth day is the most challenging for your mind and body as they adjust to a different mode of functioning, eventually leading to cell renewal and overall regeneration of our organs and tissues. This is a profound change in your system and the repairing reaction has been scientifically proven to work. Not any more distracted by metabolizing the remaining food in your body, the therapeutic effect starts to arrive after a series of fasting days around the day nine. You live on your body’s fat reserves for a couple of days (endogenous nutrition). Muscle tissue is not reduced substantially, but proteins in the body do. Getting energy from your body’s fat and protein reserves exercise supports the muscles.
Your liver and other detox organs need support during a fast. A warm and damp compress every afternoon is administered by the nurse on your chest and belly in the area of the liver for about 45minutes to one hour to simulate its metabolic function. It’s an ideal time for a siesta in your bed. Since skin is the largest detox “organ”, so improving blood circulation through dry body brushing a massage, hot and cold showers as well sauna promote the cleaning process. At the clinic the the separate saunas for men and women are set on a lower than usual temperatures, and still have to be approved by your doctor as in some individual cases their use is not as beneficial as their strain on the body.
Naturally, the body’s healthy cells enter a protective mode as if they were shielded from harm like chrysalis before coming out as a vigorously flipping butterfly. The sick cells starve since they do not have enough sugar to feed on.
As your sense of smell increases using perfumes, deodorants and aromatic cosmetic products is not suggested. Other fasters may find the perfume unpleasant and adding chemical substances from creams into your system through skin diminishes the benefits of cleaning. Deodorants block the pores, and you want them to be releasing toxins out.
Psychological changes occur in this period of change and your mindfulness increases. Ability to focus and think clearly about abstract and broad topics improves as the fast proceeds. However, my husband felt that mathematical and detailed intense thinking was much more strenuous during the fast, therefore he reserved more time for these activities in order to manage them properly. People with depression are generally not advised to fast.
There are many rules that you sign up to follow at the clinic like not smoking, not using your mobile phone outside your room, and keeping calm environment during the times reserved for resting like early afternoon and late in the evening. These are set up to make the experience for you and everyone else around more pleasant and healthful.
Techniques to overcome cravings
The most important is your mindset. This can be easier for some highly organised and strong-willed individuals, but more difficult for emotionally-driven people. For my husband it was easy, because of his exceptional inner strength he acquired throughout his life. He simply decided that food is not interesting for him for a couple of days, and despite being a huge food lover himself (often the naughty stuff like steaks, fries, cheese and multi-course gastronomic meals), did not wish to eat my deliciously looking meals, that he volunteered to join me for. I am not sure, if I would be able to resist if I were in his place, so I would probably fall into the group that gathered in a separate room for their liquid “meals”. There, privileged with a terrace offering spectacular views towards the sea, it made them feel less deprived.
Your appetite changes during a fast. A higher sensitivity to taste and smell may make fried food less attractive, so even when you pass a beach stand with deep-fried sugary churros or catch a whiff of fried fish, you may found it unappealing like my husband did.
Drinking lots of fluids like water, herbal infusions and green tea fill you up. Green tea is the only caffeinated beverage allowed, since its effect is more balancing rather than acidifying and quickly stimulating the body. All, available either in your room as well as in a cupboard in the lounge area, are within an easy reach. Temptations are minimised.
Since renouncing food allows for more free time that can be allocated to other activities, you can read the pile of books you have been cluttering next to your bed for years, join a creative painting or pottery making session, socially interact with others as loneliness can lead to sadness (a psychologist is available for consultation), take long walks along the nearby beach, learn about and observe the flow of your body’s energy through qi-gong, guided meditation or yoga breathing (prananyama). There is a quiet meditation room in the building, where just the light of a candle, lush plants peaking behind the windows and a mandala painting hanging on the wall accompany you on a journey to the inner space of your self. The ‘Activity and Relaxation Programme’ is daily screened on the ground level to inspire you. Trips to nearby Andalusian white villages, ancient Ronda, Picasso’s Malaga, as well as shopping are organised to keep you entertained rather than just busy. All great distractions, but do not forget to benefit from the mind-clearing effects of the cleanse.
Gentle exercise is recommended to anyone. Just listen to your body, use the increased ability to be mindful and do only as much as you feel so it gives you more energy, not exhaustion. Gentle yoga class aids the detoxification process as well as walking that can feel almost meditative during a fast. The gym is excellent, a coach is available for personal training and pilates room for one-to-one core workouts that will improve your posture and lessen a backpain.
The spa has plenty of treatments to distract you: massages, scrubs, wraps, facials, there is even a hair salon, a mani-pedi room, physiotherapist, osteopath, TCM doctor, acupuncturist, and more esoteric ‘healers’ such as kinesiotherapist (pulling your arms supposedly ‘talks’ to the therapist about your emotional blockages and possible allergies).
Eat in your mind, but try not to be fixated on loosing weight since this increases the negative side effects of fasting and is psychologically taxing. Although you will be measured (waist) and weighed daily, do not focus on the numbers on the scale since your body water fluctuations will be like a swing up and down during the first couple of days as well as the first days after ending the fast.
Ending the fast
It is as important to end your fast properly. In a gradual pace introduce more solid food, otherwise you may harm yourself almost as much as eating solid foods during the fast (causing gastrointestinal problems like vomiting, pain, diarrhoea) and drinking alcohol that disrupts function of the liver. It requires discipline, but at the clinic you will be given more food every day for a couple of days prior to your departure. During this period of re-adaptation you can acquire beneficial habits for your lifestyle back home. Meat and alcohol are the latest additions to your diet after more than 10 days since ending the fast. At the clinic you will be provided with detailed guides and iPad videos that will almost daily accompany and answer any remaining questions. The nurses and doctors are also within a reach.
Fasting may look like the opposite of what we are frequently told by conventional medicine doctors, nutritionists and most Western health advisories, yet it is not an anti-pole. Healing through administering nutritious food is more sustainable in the long term, yet it does not offer immediate and as profound improvements in vital health functions. Well done fasting regime is in sync with providing the necessary nutrients for the individual, while letting the body to do more work where it is needed the most – healing from the inside through its own energy.