Christmas preparations are now beginning in earnest, and advent calendars are being opened on daily basis. However, the four weeks prior to Christmas are also associated with fasting, which may be a good precursor to the indulgent practices of the feast itself.
We have come a long way from the Middle Ages when a forty day fast beginning on November 12 was obligatory. During this period, only one meal a day was eaten on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of each week. This single meal consisted of fish or vegetables. Pregnant women, children, the old, infirm, or those who were doing physical labour were exempt from fasting. As well as the strict fast on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Christians were also expected to refrain from meat, dairy products, wine, fat, ale, and honeyed beer but eggs were permitted. This may not have been as onerous as we think since the vast majority of people did not have a surplus of food anyhow. However, since fasting was, and is, both a historical and religious tradition in many cultures and religions it may be an opportune time to examine its role in health.
Fasting may be defined as the abstinence from all, or some, foods, or drinks for a set period of time. In general, there are many different ways of fasting and most types of fasts are performed over 24 to 72 hours. There is also Intermittent fasting, and this involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting, ranging from a few hours to a few days at a time.
These are a few of the benefits of fasting:
1. Fasting promotes blood sugar control by reducing insulin resistance and this may be useful for people who are at risk, or have a family history, of diabetes type 2. Coupled with the potential blood sugar-lowering effects of fasting, this could help keep blood sugar steady, preventing spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
Long fasts may not be necessary to achieve the benefits of fasting, as intermittent fasting and alternate day fasting are also effective at reducing insulin resistance. What is interesting about this is that intermittent fasting mimics the traditional Advent fast of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday which combines both the intermittent fast and a longer fast.
Unfortunately for men, some studies have found that fasting may impact blood sugar levels differently for men and women, as one small three-week study showed that practicing alternate-day fasting impaired blood sugar control in women but had no effect in men. As this was such a small study, it would be foolish to abstain from the possible benefits of fasting on the basis of it.
2. Fasting reduces inflammation. Acute inflammation is normal when fighting infection, but chronic inflammation is damaging to health. Chronic inflammation is involved in the development of heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Fasting helps reduce this chronic inflammation. In one study, the participants practised intermittent fasting for one month and subsequent blood analysis showed a significant reduction in inflammatory markers.
3. Fasting may improve blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels.
Some research has found that incorporating fasting into your routine may be especially beneficial when it comes to heart health. One study, albeit another small one, showed that LDL cholesterol and triglycerides were reduced by 25 and 32 per cent for participants who undertook eight weeks of alternate-day fasting. A more significant study of 110 obese adults showed that fasting for three weeks, under medical supervision, significantly decreased blood pressure, as well as levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Another study, this time involving a large cohort of patients (over 4000), concluded that they were deemed to have a lower risk of coronary artery disease, as well as reduced risk of diabetes type 2 due to fasting.
So, overall, our forebears benefitted from fasting and it may be a good idea to introduce it into our own lives. But how do we fast in a sensible way, without going for a complete marathon of bread and water, which will be of no use to anyone. It is important to find a method of fasting that fits in with lifestyle. Examples of different types of fasting are:
• Water fasting involves drinking only water for a certain amount of time.
• Juice fasting is similar to water fasting but involves juice instead of water. The level of sugar in some juices may make this type of fasting a waste of time and effort.
• Intermittent fasting restricts food intake for a few hours up to few days. The 8/16 fast is an example of this.
• Partial fasting means cutting out certain foods i.e., chocolate for a time
• Finally, there is the good old-fashioned way of just reducing the amount we eat. Using a smaller plate than usual is one way of achieving this, as the plate still looks as if it is full.
Overall, fasting undertaken sensibly, and with due account taken for any underlying health conditions, offers innumerable benefits. During December, it has the added benefit of the Christmas repast being even more enjoyable.