Intermittent Fasting – India’s Ancient Custom is a Rage Today

Intermittent fasting has become a mainstream trend among thousands of individuals around the globe. It is commonly practiced by those who have a high insulin resistance, hormone imbalances and among those who want to lose weight. Intermittent fasting is where one has food within a particular window of 6-8 hours and fasting for 14-16 hours. As much as food is important, not eating is also important. 

The science of intermittent fasting lies in the insulin response. When one consumes carbohydrates, the insulin response is very high, with proteins it is medium and with fat it is low. When one begins to fast, the insulin response slows down and the secretion of growth hormones rises. When growth hormone rises, fat burns and muscles develop. This is the natural way to build muscle rather than injecting the growth hormones. During the first few hours of the fast, the food consumed is broken down to provide energy. Once this energy source is depleted, the stored energy in the body in the form of fat is used to provide energy. 

The concept of fasting is not new and has been mentioned as a therapy in Ayurveda known as Langhana. Maharishi Charaka has explained about six basic principles of therapy known as the Shat Upakrama. They are Langhana (reduction), Brhmana (nourishing), Rukshana (drying), Stambhana (styptic), snehana (oleation) and svedana (perspiration). According to Acharya Vagbhatta, treatment protocols in Ayurveda is classified into two types- Santarpana and Apartarpana. In this article, we are focusing on Langhana.

Langhana is derived from the root word Langha to which lyut is affixed.
यत् किन्चिल्लाघवकरं देहे तल्लङ्घनं स्मृतम्| (Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana 22/9)

The therapy that brings about lightness in the body is Langhana. It is also known as DE nourishing treatment.

Langhana is usually adopted when Kapha is associated with Pitta Dosha. Heaviness in the body is due to Kapha dosha and lightness is a quality of Vata Dosha. Langhana is advised in diseases that heaviness as a striking quality such as diabetes, sinusitis, indigestion, obesity. When there is obstruction to a pathway such as in asthma, cholesterol, langhana is advised. These conditions fall under Santarpanotha Vyadhi.  

An integral part of pathogenesis of every disease is the abnormal status of the Agni or the digestive fire. No transformation in the body can happen without it. Having said that, when one overeats, the Agni can be put out. During Upavasa or fasting, Agni in the absence of food as its fuel, digests the Dosha. In this manner, it decreases the dosha and increases Agni. 

Maharishi Charaka states that there are 6 different properties of Langhana: Laghu (light), Teekshana (sharp), Vishada (clear channels), Ushana (hot substances are usually light), Rooksha (dryness brings lightness) and Khara  (rough ) and Sara (mobility) ensuring there is relief from obstruction. 

There are many methods of Langhana: Vamana (emesis therapy), Virechana (purgation), Niruhbasti (enema), Nasya (nasal drug administration), Pipasa (control of thirst), Maruta (exposure to wind), Aastapa (exposure to sunlight), Panchana (application to digestive measure), Upavasa (fasting) and Vyayama (exercise). 

Fasting is used in Ayurveda as a preparatory measure for Panchakarma and is an essential technique for detoxification. Intermittent fasting is not only an eating regimen but it follows a pattern of consumption where you plan your meals to get the most advantageous health impact. It does not mean you abstain from food completely but you consume lighter food items because in Ayurveda Aahara is an important medicine in itself. Ayurveda also states that the best time for fasting is during spring when self-cleansing happens in the body with a higher impact from the sun. Early spring is the best time to burn the fat that is used to insulate one during winter. Each person follows a different type of fasting technique based on their doshas. 

अहो रात्रि भोजन अभावः| meaning condition of withdrawal of food for a night. This is also considered one type of fast. सर्व भोग विवर्जिताः| This means to abstain from every type of common delight. 

According the traditional Indian Calendar, every 15 days one observes Ekadashi. Ekadashi means eleventh and it falls on the 11th day of the Lunar cycle. Hence Ekadashi is observed twice a month. In Ayurveda it is said that what you eat today will have an effect on your mind and body in 3-4 days. So when the Ekadashi fast is observed, whether it is milk or a fruit will reveal its effect on the 14th or 15th day which is either Poornima (full moon day) or Amavasya (new moon day).

The food we eat not only has an effect on our doshas but also on our Gunas- Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It is important to maintain Sattva (purity) in our life. When we consume Sattvik food on Ekadashi, its effect on the 14th or 15th day will also be Sattvik. This will make you feel energetic and happy. There are different types of Ekadashi’s which include Jaya Ekadashi, Vijaya Ekadashi, Parama Ekadashi, Nirjala Ekadashi and many more. 

Since food consumed on the days of fast must be light and easy to digest, it is usually recommended to have dishes such as fruits, sabudana (sago), makhana and milk. Items such as rice, whole wheat flour, pulses, cereal grains, onion and garlic are avoided. Rice is strictly avoided because rice tends to retain more water and this can cause unsteadiness. The moon attracts water and the rays of the moon are said to have more cosmic energy on this day. Since water retention is more with rice, it can lead to conditions such as cold, sinusitis. It is also mentioned that rishis observed the Ekadashi fast to relinquish their desire to sleep. 

In 2016, Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content via a process called autophagy. There are four stages of IF: the fed state that occurs within the first few hours after eating. This is when your insulin levels and blood sugar rise. This is followed by the early fasting state where your other sources of energy such as glycogen, amino acids and fatty acids are converted to energy. During the fasting state, the body enters into ketosis where fats are broken down. This is then followed by starvation state where insulin levels decrease and protein breakdown is reduced to conserve muscle tissue. 

Prof Yoshinori’s work states that during fasting there is an additional process that occurs along with fat burning which is autophagy. During this phase, the cells destroy viruses and bacteria and get rid of damaged structures. Ayurveda works in a manner similar to autophagy with the process of Shodhana Karma (purification and detoxification). This literally means to ‘throw away’ and this process of cleansing removes the aggravated doshas, ama (toxins) and malas (wastes) thus removing the root of diseases. This also has the added benefit of Rasayana which is the nourishing aspect of cleansing thereby increasing our lifespan. 

Ayurveda not only gave rise to the concept of fasting but also provided it the utmost importance to better health and a pure mind. Most of the texts on Ayurveda from the Charaka and Sushrutha Samhita to Ashtanga Hrudaya have spoken about fasting, its importance to detoxify the body and its necessity to be adopted for a quality life.