by Catherine Monahan
Cleansing fasts help eliminate the toxins that cause disease.
What would make you miss a meal? It might be a hectic workday that leaves no time for lunch. Or an empty refrigerator staring back at you midweek. But more likely, it takes a dose of the flu and a 101º fever to rob you of the desire to eat. That's because most of us equate skipping a meal with shortchanging our bodies. So why are some people giving up food to improve their health?
Many, like Edmund Wyson, a Los Angeles actor who has been juice fasting on a quarterly basis since 1998, are fasting to restore their energy and well-being by jump-starting the body's detoxification process. "I felt like my body was clean and working," says Wyson, recalling his first fasting experience. "I had clarity. It took away a lot of aches and pains. It made my skin glow. It felt almost euphoric." Wyson eats well and exercises regularly. He also lives in a city plagued with some of the worst air pollution in the country. And that's exactly why he should be fasting, says Peter Bennett, N.D., co-author with Stephen Barrie, N.D., of the 7-Day Detox Miracle (Prima).
Toxins, Toxins Everywhere
Most living things are unwittingly carting around foreign chemicals, or xenobiotics, in their tissues. A cursory glance at the medical literature since the late 1960s traces a trend that leaves no corner of the world and no species unaffected. From Northern Australia and Norway to California and South Dakota, pesticide residues are turning up in the adipose (fatty) tissues of starlings, clams, mackerel and moose. Trace pesticides have been detected in the breast milk of nursing mothers in locations as far flung as Australia, Alaska and Panama.
"Toxins are everywhere," says Bennett. "They're in our air, our water and our food." Many of the pollutants come from industry and automobiles while others are sprayed directly onto food crops and often leach into water supplies. Pesticides such as DDT are generally lipophilic — they like fat. If not metabolized by the liver or the kidneys, they're stored away in our fat cells indefinitely.
"It's well known that animals with higher levels of toxins in their fat are more susceptible to immune diseases and cancer," says Bennett. Numerous studies suggest that fat-loving, hormone-mimicking pesticides are also wreaking slow havoc with human reproduction. More common symptoms of toxicity include frequent colds, vertigo, hives and poor memory, says Bennett, who suspects, based on studies and clinical experience, that chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivity are one and the same condition brought on by toxic exposures. Whether we can rid our bodies of toxins once we've acquired them remains a largely unanswered question.
Give Your Body A Break
Fasting, defined as taking in nothing by mouth except water, is an ancient therapy originally practiced by ayurvedic physicians. It's the cornerstone of detoxification, which itself is the foundation of natural healing. "Detoxification is a generic term used in different ways," explains Bennett. "All it really means is that you're amplifying mechanisms in the body to release substances that it normally doesn't remove." By fasting, he says, we give our bodies a break from digestion and allow it to concentrate its energies elsewhere — specifically on waste removal through the skin, kidneys and intestines.
"When you stop eating, your immune system and detoxification system go into overdrive ... white blood cells do a much more effective job of cleaning up bacteria and viruses," Bennett continues. "Shifting the body's metabolism gives it the chance to rid itself of metabolic flotsam and jetsam in the blood."
Art Campfield, Ph.D., from the Center for Human Nutrition, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, explains that during a fast, the body recruits stored energy from three sources: muscle glycogen (the body's stored carbohydrates), fat and muscle protein. In the first two to four days of a fast the body draws upon its small glycogen stores. Next it calls on fat, by far the largest energy cache in the body. During a five- to seven-day fast, both reserves are tapped to some extent. Muscle and organ protein are used only as a last resort, when fasting lasts a month or more.
"If you fast, you theoretically mobilize pollutants [trapped in fat]," Campfield says, but points out that no one knows for sure if toxins such as DDT are released from fat; they may be the last to be let go.
"The subject of human toxicology is very new — barely 40 years old," Bennett says. "We just don't have the medical literature to know for sure what's happening." Although studies do indicate that fasting helps treat a number of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, only a handful demonstrate that fasting works by releasing toxins stored in fat.
One recent study conducted at the Indiana University School of Medicine demonstrated that a two-day fast released enough pesticide residues from fat stores to trigger estrogenic effects in mice uteri (Cancer Research, March 1, 1997).
Another tangible effect of fasting is that those who forgo food drop a few pounds. If they manage to keep them off, they're ahead of the game. "Fasting is a springboard to better health," Campfield says. "Losing as little as five to 10 percent of body weight has far-ranging benefits including lowered total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), blood pressure, blood glucose and triglycerides, and slightly increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL)."
That's the beauty of detoxification, according to Bennett. "Whether it's for diabetes, weight loss or heart disease, a healthy diet optimizes cellular function by limiting sugar, toxins and fat, and ensuring proper protein and carbohydrate intake." He also knows that people who experience the health benefits of fasting are more likely to make positive lifestyle changes.
"You start realizing that there is a cause and effect to everything you eat," says Wyson. "It seems that after every fast, I add a new healthy habit to my regular diet.
So who should fast? "Most healthy people can go without eating," responds Bennett. Campfield agrees. "Humans evolved when food was infrequent; they had to go without," he says. "We're optimized to store every calorie that we eat."
But what if you're a small person who normally snacks every two hours? It doesn't matter, says Campfield. Male or female, large or small, a person's metabolic rate is determined by muscle mass and slows down accordingly. When metabolism slows, it's harder to burn fat, the body's energy stores last longer, and the body is spared any harm.
The exception is if you're diabetic and don't know it. In that case, fasting could drop blood sugar levels low enough to trigger a diabetic coma. If you're uncertain about your health status or have an existing condition, treat fasting as you would any new diet or exercise regime, and consult a doctor first.
Bennett also suggests arranging your life so you can be "sick" for a weekend. "You'll feel like you have the flu," he says, complete with headache and fatigue, so don't expect to meet any deadlines. Help it along and be patient. You'll be glad you did. Says Campfield, "Fasting is a radical change with a big reward."
Catherine Monahan is a health writer and managing editor of Nutrition Science News.