In the Eastern Orthodoxy, we view fasting as a tool. We voluntarily limit food, drink, and pleasure to lighten our bodies and make them obedient to our souls. Not only do we limit the kinds of things we consume, but also their amounts. Why? Because this helps us fight the passions. By emptying ourselves of our worldly attachments, we open ourselves up to receiving the grace of God and enjoying greater communion with Him.
Orthodox Christians have been fasting since the time of the early Church. In fact, we can trace its use as a spiritual tool back to Jesus Christ Himself. If we follow the liturgical calendar correctly, we end up fasting between 180-200 days out of the year. This includes the four major fasting periods (Advent, Great Lent, the Apostles’ Fast, and the Dormition Fast), the traditional fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and strict fast days like the Exaltation of the Cross. That’s a lot of fasting!
As a spiritual tool, fasting helps us deepen our communion with God. We empty ourselves of worldly things so we can be filled with Christ. Instead of focusing on things we want, we give more attention and time to God and His will. This isn’t an act of miserable self-deprivation, but one of agape love and joyful giving. And to top it off, we get to enjoy numerous health benefits from it, too!
Perhaps the most obvious benefit to our health from fasting is weight loss. When we engage in intermittent fasting, we limit our caloric intake and avoid certain foods for short periods. The inevitable side effect to this is losing weight!
When we eat, our bodies burn whatever we ate to provide our bodies with fuel and energy. Anything extra we consume gets converted into fats and is stored in the body for future use. When we consume more than we burn, we end up gaining weight. While fasting, our bodies have less food to convert into energy. So, they have to dip into our fat reserves for energy.
Additionally, fasting burns through fat cells without affecting your muscle tissue. This is why many athletes sometimes use fasting as a means of achieving low body fat percentages prior to competitions.
Another health benefit of fasting is that it promotes detoxification of the body. Many of the foods we eat today contain additives, GMOs, and other toxic chemicals and synthetic compounds. As we digest our food, our bodies absorb those toxins and store them in our fat deposits.
When we fast and dedicate ourselves to God, our brains detect the nutritional deprivation from our limited calories. Our brains then respond by converting stored glycogen into energy. (However, this energy source only lasts for about 12 hours.) Once the glycogen stores run out, our body turns once again to our fat deposits. When the fat deposits empty, toxins are released and filtered out of the body through the liver, kidneys, and skin.
Increased metabolism and brain function
Fasting also helps boost our metabolism and brain function. When we fast intermittently, we give our digestive system time to rest. This, in turn, boosts metabolism the next time we eat, so that we get more energy from our food and burn those calories more efficiently.
A study from the Department of Internal Medicine IV (University of Vienna) found that fasting can increase metabolism by up to 14%. Additional research showed that fasting may lead to increased levels of norepinephrine in your bloodstream, which also contributes to a quicker metabolism.
Intermittent fasting also boosts the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), a hormone that activates stem cells within the brain and converts them into neurons. Increased production of BNDF has been shown to protect brain cells from the degenerative changes associated with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Fasting has also been associated with enhanced memory performance and cognitive function, a reduction in oxidative stress, reduced insulin resistance, decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, and reduced inflammation, all of which are good for the body and the brain.
Reduced risk of disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, followed closely by cancer. By the grace of God, we reduce our risk of developing these diseases as a health benefit of fasting for our Lord.
Fasting has been shown to reduce levels of LSD cholesterol, which contributes to decreased insulin sensitivity and increased blood pressure, both risk factors for developing heart disease. Fasting also reduces several other risk factors associated with heart diseases, including blood sugar levels, inflammatory markers and blood triglycerides.
Additionally, a growing body of evidence supports the role of fasting in both cancer treatment and prevention. Research suggests that fasting helps fight cancer by lowering insulin resistance and levels of inflammation. Other studies show that fasting may make cancer cells more responsive to chemotherapy while protecting healthy cells. Fasting may also boost the immune system to help fight disease that is already present.
Stronger immune system
Lastly, our immune system’s health benefits from fasting. White blood cells in your immune system fight infection and destroy cells that may cause illness. When white blood cell levels drop, it negatively affects the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infections. Fasting helps replenish white blood cells and replace damaged ones. The number of white blood cells in the body decreases during fasting. However, when the fasting cycle concludes and the body receives food, white blood cell levels increase again.
Research suggests a three-day fast can lead to the regeneration of the entire immune system and the production of new white blood cells which have a stronger ability to fight disease. (Some Orthodox choose to do this three-day fast just before the Resurrection, and perhaps just before the Nativity of Our Lord as well.)
Periodically, breaking your fast with fruits and nuts strengthens your immune system even further by providing a source of essential vitamins and minerals.
Our Lord has given us a wonderful spiritual tool through practicing the fast. Not only does it benefit our souls through self-discipline and increased communion with God. But it also benefits our minds and our bodies. When we really take the time to analyze all of this information, it baffles our minds. That such a simple thing as fasting could have such profound effects for our entire being. But should we honestly expect anything less miraculous from the Creator of our universe?