Spring Cleaning – The Health Effects of Fasting

Historically, fasting has been around for thousands of years. Many of the world’s religions have fasting as a component of a spiritual life. [17] While many have just finished their religious period of fasting, many others think of spring as the time to do a cleanse or fast for the benefit of their health, while still others think that fasting/cleansing is bad for your health.

Opinions about fasting and cleansing seem to fall mostly under these categories.

  • “Fasting is the cure for all disease”
  • “Fasting is bad for your health”
  • “Fasting is good for some illnesses”
  • “Fasting is good for the spirit”

What a fast means is also different for many people

  • Some believe a fast is drinking only water, period, for a period of time
  • Some believe a fast is going on a fluid diet, of fruit and vegetable juices
  • Some believe a fast is going on a broth diet
  • Some believe a fast is going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset for a specified period of time
  • Some believe that a cleanse can be done by just taking a bunch of cleansing herbs that include purgatives, etc.

Let’s take a closer look at the opinions mentioned above:

“Fasting/Cleansing is the cure for all disease”

In my opinion this is an oversimplification, there are many conditions that are made worse by fasting. Cancer and diabetes are two examples of conditions adversely affected by fasting. It is also not recommended for people with delicate health such as the elderly or the very young, and fasting while pregnant or nursing is definitely not recommended. Furthermore the idea that people are sick because they are “dirty” and need “cleansing” is counter-productive when you factor in the mind-body-connection and it’s affect on health outcomes.

This group does have a point though, in that we are exposed to more varieties of toxins in our modern times than any time previously in human history, and these need to be addressed if we are to be healthy.

It is in this category that I have most often seen the use of purgative herbs. While these herbs are very useful I often feel that they are misused in “cleansing”, or at least over used. Many of these herbs are irritating to the digestive system, and if a cleanse were approached differently, probably not needed. The human body makes it’s own laxative in the form of bile (formed in the liver). This not only aids evacuation but also contains elements that the liver is trying to get rid of. In other words, these products of the liver are yet another way the body can use to eliminate toxins. Herbs are very useful during a fast, but I would suggest that working on getting the liver to function more optimally, through the use of herbs, is a much healthier approach. This is especially important when you consider the vast number of metabolic processes that the liver is responsible for.

“Fasting is bad for your health”

As written above there are certainly times when this is true. Prolonged water fasts are especially hard on the body. Toxins are released too fast for the body’s eliminative organs to cope properly, and necessary things such as hepatic Glutathione (GSH), a free radical scavenger, are significantly depleted. Glutathione drops by 42% after 24 hours and by 59% after 48 hours of fasting according to animal studies [18] Because the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs it has to catabolize it’s own tissues in order to get the required nutrients. This can lead to a depletion of bone tissue for a source of calcium, as an example.

“Fasting/Cleansing is good for some illnesses”.

Ah, the “middle road”. In my opinion the place for fasting and cleansing is here. A fast can have positive effects when done carefully, being conscious of the quality and quantity of what you put in your body. Juice or broth fasts, along with herbal teas and plenty of water, can supply needed nutrients to the body, while at the same time making the absorption easier, and giving the digestive system a bit of a rest. This allows the energies of the body to be put to use in detoxification, with a mini- mum of effort required for digestion. In this form of fasting and cleansing we protect the body from damaging itself and we aid it in flushing out the toxins, whether from chemicals, heavy metals or cellular metabolism, more effectively.

This way of fasting can be very good for that “spring cleaning” but is also useful in various ailments such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It is recommended that if you are fasting for a therapeutic reason (such as IBS) that you do so under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. A practitioner can guide you through the best method for you as an individual and help you if you encounter any pitfalls. A practitioner can also guide you through the best way to ease into a fast and back out into a healthier diet and lifestyle.

Fasting is “good for the spirit”

It is not inconceivable that fasting could be good for your spiritual life, since such practices usually involve some form of prayer, meditation, and, of course, fasting is an exercise in self control. From an holistic perspective, looking after other aspects of ones life – body, mind, spirit – is important in maintaining good health, and emphasizes the importance of the mind body connection.


For whatever reason you fast, or if you are considering fasting for the first time, it is important to be  conscious of what is put in the body – such as clean, chemical free water, wholesome food that is free of pesticides and herbicides, and unprocessed foods. All things that would be great in the daily diet, but for those of us who aren’t perfect these fasts are a good chance to remind us to be aware of what we do with our mind, spirit, and body.

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