Many cultures and societies consider fasting a sacred ritual. Now evidence suggests that the ancient practice of forgoing food for 24 hours may help you live longer.
A recent study of medical data on some 515 mostly Mormon men and women found that those who fasted an average of once a month for 24 hours—a common practice within the Mormon church—were 39 percent less likely to be diagnosed with coronary artery disease compared with those who did not. (Coronary artery disease was defined as at least 70 percent narrowing or blockage in at least one coronary artery.)
Scientists have long recognized that Utah Mormons are less likely to die from heart disease than other Americans, but have chalked up the difference to the church's stand against tobacco and alcohol. The new study—unveiled at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2007 in Orlando—shows fasting plays a role, too, according to lead researcher Benjamin D. Horne, Ph.D., director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
How long and how often you need to fast to see cardiovascular benefits is unclear. How fasting may battle heart disease is even murkier, but several theories abound. One idea is that a daylong fast breaks the body's constant exposure to food and glucose, which can help produce healthier arteries, says Horne. "Fasting may also be a marker for eating less in general, and low-calorie diets have been shown to extend longevity in several studies," he says. "Or fasting may be an indicator of a greater awareness of personal health and nutrition in general."
According to Ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing practice, fasting may improve heart health by removing ama, or toxic waste material, from the body, which if left unchecked can clog arteries and build up stress in the body, says Denise O'Dunn, an Ayurvedic practitioner and owner of Balance & Bliss, an Ayurveda and yoga center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Even without the heart health benefits, there are other advantages to going without solid foods for a day, she adds. "Fasting helps the digestive system rest," says O'Dunn. "It allows your digestive fire, angi, to rekindle itself or settle down from being inflamed. A fast can make you feel lighter, mentally clearer, and more energetic."
To start out, try a simple tea fast for a 24-hour period, preferably on a day when you have no work or social commitments, O'Dunn suggests. Make a cleansing tea mixture from ¼ cup each of basil, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and coriander seed. Bring water to a boil and steep 1 teaspoon of the mixture per cup of water for about 15 minutes.
Start in the evening (for instance, 6 p.m. on Saturday), and go to 6 p.m. on Sunday night. "Drink plenty of purified water and the cleansing tea throughout the day, as needed," says O'Dunn.
A complete fast, where you abstain from all food and water, should be done only under medical guidance, advises O'Dunn. You shouldn't fast at all if you're pregnant or lactating, diabetic, or suffer from cancer or an eating disorder. Also, teenagers and the elderly should avoid fasting.
After any fast, ease your way back into regular eating. Start with light soups, for example. "It's like you just cleaned your house," says O'Dunn. "You don't want to immediately fill it back up with clutter. You want to enjoy the feeling for awhile."