Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Yun Niu looks at the pros and cons of this practice - could it help you?

When you look at the success many people have with therapeutic fasting, it’s certainly attractive: fasting has been proven to benefit a range of conditions including headaches, heart conditions, high blood pressure and skin problems. However, there can be associated risks and complications, and so people with existing medical conditions should be cautious.

By definition, fasting is abstinence from food, and can vary from days to weeks. There are two types: one is no food at all, just pure water, while the second also permits consumption of vegetable or fruit juice. The purpose of the first type is to detox: absence from food provides an opportunity to remove toxins from the body by flooding it with water. Even if you eat only the highest-quality food, there are times when you may not absorb or utilise it properly, so the food overloads the system. Fasting clears the system and helps avoid further contamination by those stagnations.

In theory, at birth our body and spirit are in the ultimate original condition, and the purpose of therapeutic fasting is to lead the body back into that original purity – surely a dream situation. Since the beginning of recorded history, fasting has been an important component of preserving health and wellbeing. It serves two purposes: one is simply survival, during extremely severe periods. The other relates to spiritual connection: the Tao practitioners especially believed that having a clear gut was fundamental to purifying the blood.

The missing link

What sets Chinese philosophical fasting practice apart from Western therapeutic fasting is that it’s always practised with some form of meditation; at the very least, it’s combined with breathing exercises. The intake of pure air is necessary to ensure internal organs and blood become pure. Additionally, your mind should be relaxed through regulated breathing so the chi can start circulating freely through the entire system, opening the path for the body to connect and become one with the pure energy of the universe. This is most important because meditation or breathing exercises will make the fasting much safer, easier, and more beneficial.

Most of us work every day in one way or another. During this time, the body needs adequate food for energy, so fasting at this time is not ideal. It’s preferable to undertake a fast at a time when you’re not consuming so much energy through everyday activities, such as during a holiday period. It’s also vital to prepare properly: planning the fast, deciding on the location - at home or at a spa - as well as the length and intensity of the fast, and identifying potential risks. Planning should also involve post-fast preparation so when you start eating again the foods are not too harsh for your body. As for limitations, people with certain medical conditions should be very careful about fasting: It should not be done after major surgery or any prolonged or heavy bleeding; diabetics must only do it under supervision; and people with mental illness and epilepsy also need to be proceed with extreme caution.

Addressing stagnation

The purpose of fasting in Chinese medicine is to address stagnation, as stagnation prevents energy and blood circulating in the body. It mainly starts from food, but can also come from mental blockage related to emotions and trauma. According to TCM theory, illness occurs because the body is out of balance, which generally arises from two possibilities: deficiency or excess. Excess requires reduction, deficiency needs reinforcement. Despite being opposite conditions, deficiency and excess are actually closely related. For example, a person’s symptoms can show deficiency of, say, spleen energy: weight gain, feeling sluggish, low appetite, a little depressed. However, the cause may in fact be stagnant as a result of the person eating too much over a long period, which suppresses spleen function and causes deficiency of spleen energy. This means an excess of food in the gut is the cause of the problem, and so this person needs reduction or withdrawal treatment.

When food is absent, there’s no opportunity for stagnation: that’s the theory. So, if stagnation is caused by a deficiency factor rather than food, then fasting may not be the answer – in fact, it’s likely to worsen the deficiency. This is why in general practice TCM practitioners don’t ask people to undertake fasting, even when the stagnation relates to food. We have other ways to treat it. If you wish to prevent stagnation, or if stagnation is creating problems weight, digestive, and skin disorders, consider similar, but gentler and safer options to fasting, such as skipping or reducing the size of a meal; ideally, it should be the evening meal. Another option is to eat just two meals each day on weekends, or avoid food for one day. If you choose to skip or reduce your evening meal, it’s essential to have a very good quality breakfast as this benefits your energy, gut and gallbladder. This may mean you can have a later lunch, which in turn allows you have little or no food in the evening so you go to bed without carrying all that food in your stomach, a situation that can cause poor sleep and bad breath in the morning, a sign of stagnation, and potentially trigger many illnesses.

Yun Niu PhD (Oriental Medicine) is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.