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By Nadia Marshall
This is a copy of Nadia’s Nutrition Column for Nova Magazine, published in Jan 2015
Intermittent Fasting & AyurvedaEvery day of every week we tend to put our digestion and metabolism under strain. We eat when we're stressed, we eat on the run, we overeat, we skip meals, we eat at irregular times, we eat bad food combinations, we eat heavy foods that are difficult to digest, we eat our next meal before our previous meal has been digested and we eat too much, too late at night. Basically, unless we live a very peaceful, contained, strict or physically active life, caring for our digestion every day, at every meal is a challenge.
As a result, it is somewhat inevitable that our digestive fire (referred to as Agni, pronounced ugg-knee in sanskrit) will become imbalanced, in one of three ways. It can get too hot and overcook our food, it can get too low and undercook our food, or, it can become like a fire blowing in the wind – sometimes big, sometimes tiny – sometimes overcooking, sometimes undercooking.
When our food is undercooked or overcooked, it creates undigested food waste or toxins known as Ama in sanskrit. Ayurveda teaches that this heavy, sticky, toxic waste accumulates in our digestive tract and can eventually overflow into our channels and tissues, hampering cellular nutrition and waste disposal. It is here, in the tissues and channels, that it can precipitate the manifestation of disease. Since imbalanced Agni and accumulating, overflowing Ama is considered the root physical cause of ALL disease in Ayurveda, we really need a simple way of keeping a lid on this constant accumulation of toxins.
Regular cleanses or fasts are the perfect antidote to this problem, but long-term cleanses can be very difficult. We have to muster a fair bit of motivation to make them happen as regularly as they should... and getting your partner, family or friends to support you can be even harder! There's got to be an easier way.
Well, there is… intermittent fasting in the form of a liquid diet day. Liquid diet days are like an Agni-reset button, a clean slate for your digestion and metabolism. They provide a lovely day of rest to help the fire in your belly burn bright and digest all that pesky Ama lying around. And, unlike the longer cleanses, they are really easy to do and incorporate into life. So easy in fact, they can be done every week.
Ayurveda has espoused the benefits of fasting for thousands of years... and now Western science is demonstrating many benefits too. You may have heard of the 5:2 Diet popularized by Dr Michael Mosley following his BBC documentary 'Eat, Fast and Live Longer'? In that documentary and the proceeding book, 'The Fast Diet', he outlines current research on the benefits of intermittent fasting. In a nutshell, they include:
• improved blood-pressure
• improved insulin resistance
• reduced total cholesterol - a marker of imbalanced metabolism
• reduced Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF) levels - a marker of cell growth and potential for cancer; and
• increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels - shown to stimulate nerve growth in the brain, related to memory and learning and reduced anxiety and depression (1).
It may help you to live longer too. At this stage, longevity experiments related to fasting have only been carried out with fruit fly, rodents and monkeys but in these, fasting has shown to increase lifespan by up to 20% (2)! Evidence suggests that dietary restriction can have health benefits for humans, too, though it is unclear whether it can increase longevity.
One piece of research not mentioned in Dr Mosley's book is the work of Dr Matt Piper from the University College of London's Institute of Healthy Ageing. His team has discovered that fasting from protein, particularly one essential amino acid called methionine (found in meat, fish, brazil nuts, sesame seeds and wheat germ) is the most important factor for replicating this 20% increased longevity (2). Therefore, carrying out fasts that are rich in animal protein (like the approach recommended in the 5:2 Fast Diet) may actually be counter-productive. If your aim is to live longer, plant-based fasts may be more likely to do the trick.
So, western science agrees. Intermittent fasting can help us to live longer and has been shown to decrease our risk of developing some of our biggest health concerns - depression, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia. Ayurveda would add ALL other diseases to that list too!
This is great news but is it really enough to motivate us to do our one-day fast week in, week out, for the rest of our lives? In my experience there are some direct benefits of regular fasting that are more likely to keep us inspired for the long-haul. They include:
• improved digestion
• better elimination
• reduced cravings (especially for processed sugar, bread, pasta, meat, alcohol and eating out)
• stablised blood sugar
• feeling lighter and brighter with more energy
• improved complexion
• a greater appreciation of food generally
• an increased awareness of the difference between true hunger and boredom
• and yes… slow, steady weight-loss or easy weight-maintenance.
What does an Ayurvedic liquid diet day entail? Basically preparing a cleansing vegetarian soup and eating it all day long, along with some herbal teas like fresh ginger tea or a tea made from equal parts ground cumin, coriander and fennel (I also allow myself a couple of cups of normal tea). And that is it! You can have the soup as three distinct meals or just drink it throughout the day every 1-2 hours. If (like me) you are prone to low blood sugar then eating regularly is best. You can also have a little basmati rice at dinner if you feel you need it. The first couple of liquid diet days can be difficult but after that it gets easier and easier because the fast itself helps to stabilise your blood sugar.
It is also important for your Agni to not launch straight back into heavy foods the next day. Have stewed fruit or a light Ayurvedic porridge for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs… and maybe kicharee for lunch. Build your fire back up slowly with small pieces of wood before adding the big logs.
If you're going to fast regularly, choose a day that will fit in with your lifestyle - when you are unlikely to be doing too much physical activity, socialising or super-demanding mental work. I've been really getting into my liquid diet days for the past four months and they have become a pleasant ritual; a day of deeply caring for myself and my digestive fire. And it is actually a sweet relief not having to think about food or cooking for the day – once your fasting soup is made in the morning, you're sorted.
So there you have it folks, Ayurvedic intermittent fasting or liquid diet days are an easy, effective and wonderful thing to do for your ongoing preventative health regime. Not only do they reduce toxins and support a strong digestive fire, they also calm your cravings so you tend to make better decisions. But, even if you make a few unhealthy choices in-between, it is okay because you are constantly pressing the re-set button; constantly making a fresh start! So, they also eliminate the accumulation of food-guilt…perhaps the worst toxin of all!
Ayurvedic Cleansing Soup Recipe
Here is the simple Ayurvedic cleansing soup I make on my liquid diet days. It is cooks in no time so is by far the easiest approach. It is also a perfectly balanced meal for your body - it will strengthen Agni, cleanse Ama and will also stabilize your blood sugar because it is low GI. But, don't expect it to be the most delicious soup in the world – it is a very simple soup designed to give your digestion a break. If you get sick of this one, simply prepare a vegetable broth, split or whole mung soup or other light veggie soup for your fasts (you can find a few different soup recipes on our Ayurvedic Cooking Video page).
The amounts below are per person. If cooking for two, double the recipe.
1/3 cup basmati rice
1/3 cup split yellow mung daal
½ carrot, chopped
½ zucchini, chopped
8 cups boiling water
1 tsp ghee
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 pinch asafoetida/hing
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp garam masala (make your own - equal parts cumin, fennel & coriander seed ground in a spice grinder)
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon to taste
Coriander leaves to sprinkle on top (optional)
Soak your rice and mung daal overnight in water (it's a good idea to set an alarm the night before your designated liquid diet day so you remember this step). In the morning, drain it, rinse it and put it in a large pot. Add the veggies and all of the spices then the boiling water. Bring to the boil then turn down to a low heat and simmer until the mung is cooked. When the mung has completely disintegrated, blend the soup with a stick blender. Serve hot with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon. Cooking time is approximately 15-20 mins.
When heading off to work, simply pop your hot soup in a food thermos or if you have a stove at work, take a pot into work so you can warm it up and help yourself throughout the day.
**Please note: If you are underweight or suffering from depletion of any kind it is far better to have a light diet day rather than a liquid diet day. So simply eat kicharee all day instead of the cleansing soup – see our website for recipes **
1) 'The Fast Diet” by Dr Michael Mosley
Intermittent Fasting and Ayurveda
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue