If we follow the liturgical calendar correctly, Orthodox Christians end up fasting between 180-200 days out of the year. That’s a lot of fasting! But fasting shouldn’t be something we dread. Instead, we should look at it as way of putting food in its proper context: we do not live to eat; we eat to live. And the Church instituted fasting as a spiritual discipline to help us remember this and to realize that fasting is good for our bodies, too! In this post, we’ll explore some of the amazing health benefits of fasting for our bodies.
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Fasting as a spiritual discipline
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we view fasting as a tool for spiritual growth. 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.
Benefit #1: Weight loss
Weight loss is one of the best benefits our bodies receive from fasting. When we fast, we limit our caloric intake and avoid certain foods, like red meat, poultry, and dairy products, 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. And this happens a lot in our world today, with so many of us working at a desk with frozen or fast food meals at our fingertips.
While fasting properly, our bodies have less food to convert into energy. So, they have to dip into our fat reserves for the energy they need. 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.
Benefit #2: Detoxification
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.
Benefit #3: Increased metabolism and brain function
Fasting also benefits our metabolism and brain function. When we fast, 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 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 (BDNF), a hormone that activates stem cells in the brain and converts them into neurons. Increased production of BDNF has been shown to protect brain cells from the degeneration we see in people with conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Moreover, fasting has 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.
Benefit #4: 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 according to the guidelines of the Church reduces levels of LDL cholesterol, which contributes to decreased insulin sensitivity and increased blood pressure, both risk factors for developing heart disease. It 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.
Benefit #5: 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 harms the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infection. 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 ends 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. This means your body can produce entirely new white blood cells, which have a stronger ability to fight disease. (Some Orthodox Christians choose to do this three-day fast just before the Resurrection.)
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 us. 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?
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