Is fasting helpful or harmful to our health? As with most things- it depends on your specific situation! Fasting is a powerful tool, but can also be over used or used in the wrong context and cause harm. Here’s how to know if fasting could be helpful or harmful to you.

The primary benefits of fasting are from autophagy. Autophagy is the “clean out” mode that the body goes into when it is not busy trying to digest food, break down and assimilate nutrients. The body takes that extra energy and starts scavenging for dead and damage cells to “eat” as a way of “cleaning house”. Fasting is a very cleansing state for the body to be in for this reason. I can supercharge our ability to detoxify on a cellular level. It boosts mitochondrial health and helps release toxic accumulation. It is a potent intervention for any conditions related to high toxicity, even something as serious as cancer, but nearly any chronic illness could benefit from an intervention like this. When we fast, we start burning fat which helps reduce insulin resistance and release excess adipose tissue, it gives our digestive organs a rest and allows the tissues to repair, and it can help rebalance the gut microbiome in a beneficial way.

Looking at it this way, it might seem like fasting should always be a part of a therapeutic protocol. But this may not be the case. There are many situations where fasting would be contraindicated, or only types of fasting should be done.

Severe metabolic dysfunction such as reactive hypoglycemia or severe blood sugar dysregulation would not be appropriate to intervene with using fasting, at least in the beginning. I see a lot of people struggle even with intermittent fasting, making their hormonal or mental health issues worse, because they are jumping too fast into fasting without addressing imbalanced macronutrient ratios in their diet. Lowering carbohydrates, increasing fat and protein intake is key for getting blood sugar balanced initially before you start doing any fasting. Some people would do best being keto-adapted, meaning having gotten into a state where your body is already efficient at burning fat for fuel- before you start trying to fast.

If someone is coming to me with severe nutrient deficiencies or a very high toxic load, which comes with most conditions such as mast cell activation, POTS, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, etc., I would not use fasting in the beginning. We need to refeed nutrients more than restrict them in these cases generally.

Dry fasting, where you fast without drinking water, is also not something I recommend except in extreme circumstances. Electrolytes and water should be drunk by most people while fasting.

Once you have gotten your blood sugar balanced, we have refed key nutrients, and we aren’t dealing with extreme weakness or fatigue, fasting becomes an appropriate intervention. Short fasts, 24-48 hours, can be used to help give the gut time to rest and repair, heal nervous tissue, improve insulin resistance, and give gallbladder, pancreas and liver a rest if struggling with digestive symptoms.

Longer fasts I would categorize as 48 hours or longer. This can be excellent as an intervention for increased mitochondrial health and autophagy, and for cancer prevention if you have a personal or family history. I personally try to do longer fasts, around 72 hours, once or twice a year to help optimize my overall health. Longer fasts would also be medicinally appropriate for severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, cancer, severe metabolic dysfunction such as extreme obesity, PCOS or Type 2 Diabetes. If you are going to fast over 5 days, I would only do it under medical supervision. Some people fast 21-28 days in medicinal facilities while being monitored by physicians, and often see significant improvements in health.

The bottom line? Move into fasting slowly- don’t jump straight into it as your first intervention for your health. Eat nutrient dense, balance your blood sugar, make some initial improvements in your symptoms- and then fasting may be appropriate.

About the Author
Jen Donovan completely rebuilt her life and career as a result of her experience with severe chronic illness. After finding no answers from conventional medical approaches, she took matters into her own hands and with the help of key mentors, found a path to healing.
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