Fasting, Abstinence & Lifestyle
The beneficial claims of fasting are supported by experimental research, which has found fasting to be associated with increased brain availability of serotonin, endogenous opioids, and endocannabinoids. Fasting-induced neuroendocrine activation and mild cellular stress response with increased production of neurotrophic factors may also contribute to the mood enhancement of fasting. [Andreas Michalsen, Prolonged fasting as a method of mood enhancement in chronic pain syndromes: a review of clinical evidence and mechanisms].
We are subject to complex systems of hormonal and neurological responses to danger. These “fight or flight” responses functions best when activated by natural phenomena. In our modern lifestyles, however, are often activated by stress, anxiety and other psychological stimuli instead of by actual physical danger.
Many activities that we consider entertainment, amusement and recreation may actually be the source of anxieties and worrisome thoughts. Sitting entranced before an electronic gadget exposes us to emotional assaults that can cause serious harm.
Ohio State University researchers found that stress from engaging in a memory task activated the immune system, whereas the stress from passively watching a violent video weakened immunity (as measured by salivary concentration of SIgA, a major immune factor) [Psychophysiology, September-October 2001, in Ohio St.’s OnCampus].
We can be frightened, shocked, thrilled and sexually aroused twenty to thirty times in a couple of hours of media “entertainment.” These stimuli are comparable to false alarms calling into action internal fire departments, often when we are eating.
And when the body is subjected to multiple stresses . . . it experiences what is called an “allostatic load,” a compounding of effects leading to a breakdown of the immune system. In all these cases, . . . the brain’s normal hormonal stress response can be blunted. The phenomenon can eventually lead to the body’s inability to respond to any stress – the state popularly known as burnout. [Vital Connections, Science of Mind-Body Interactions. A report on the interdisciplinary conference held at NIH March 26-28, 2001].
With work, family and social stressors added, the daily barrage we experience can become overwhelming. Such a continuing flow of emotions and stress can accumulate. Eventually, it envelops our mind and produces suffering and despair, leaving us feeling that we “can’t take anymore.”
Fasting at such times may be the last thing we might consider, but it offers relief supported by both science and religion.
Clinical studies have shown that fasting is effective in lowering blood pressure and treating chronic pain like migraine or arthritis. Neurobiologists at Gottingen University have shown that when patients fast, stress hormones levels go down and serotonin levels rise (which may explain the “fasting high” many patients report). [Stefan Theil, Newsweek. (International ed.). New York: Oct 30, 2006].
Fasting as Catharsis
Generally, catharsis refers to a purifying elimination, an emotional release that relieves and refreshes our spirit. Catharsis can result from the purging of toxins within us, and from preventing new toxins from entering.
Stressful psychological pollutants can stain our sanctity. Our mind easily wanders into toxic thoughts that distress our soul.
O God. Give me the power to be strengthened inwardly and to empty my heart of all vain care and anxiety, so that I may not be drawn away by many desires, whether for precious things or mean ones. Let me look upon everything as passing, and upon myself as soon to pass away with them, because there is nothing lasting under the sun, where all is vanity and affliction of spirit. How wise is he who thinks thus! [Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 27].
Fasting gives our body time to discharge, naturally, the accumulated debris of prodigal existence. In addition, it “seals” our mind from new intrusions. It can be a purgation that expels secular impurities within us to purify our soul and reunite us with the Divine.
Cellular decline may be caused by the accumulation of waste products in various tissues, which interferes with nourishment, and oxygenation of the cell … As toxins build up in tissues, a toxic environment is created. It is not uncommon for the symptoms of headache, diarrhea, or depression to occur as the body deals with autotoxicity (self-poisoning). During fasting, the concentration of toxins removed from the body and appearing in the urine can increase ten-fold. [Life Extension].
The catharsis provided by fasting offers relief from self-reproach and guilt feelings. It administers penance, chastisement and punishment in a single spiritual dose. This leads to a sense of purification and reconciliation with your own self.
… a person with a depressed heart and spirit experiences such stress, anxiety, and anguish that no possessions in the world can provide a cure for it. Those who are not awakened to the truth in their souls can never be saved from the spiritual darkness even if they manufacture thousands of yachts and luxurious cars every day. True serenity and happiness is in the God-granted peacefulness of the heart. [Fethullah Gülen].
Fasting sees temptations from an uncommon perspective that helps restore our emotional equilibrium. An unrestrained mind can become a source of anxiety when it craves what it knows is wrong. Likewise, the rational intellect can desert the soul by rejecting what is spiritually healing.
Fasting exercises our willpower over our material and lower nature. It unshackles our higher impulses, releasing them to soar beyond transient reality.
And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves – if you but knew it. [Quran 2:184].