In 2019, the #1 searched diet trend on Google was intermittent fasting.
Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants to learn more. In fact you probably know someone already doing it.
As a doctor and a Christian, I love how modern science is confirming what we spiritually recognized for generations.
Fasting is a part of every major religion in the world. In fact, it’s probably the only thing Buddha, Mohamed and Jesus ever agreed on. It is an ancient & universal practice, not specific to Christianity, but certainly an important aspect.
Growing up Catholic hearing the phrase "fasting and prayer", I never understood why the combination was so powerful. As I started to intermittent fast, I began to see why Scripture and Church fathers talk about the power of fasting joined with prayer. Genocides are thwarted, adulterers and murders are converted, enemies are defeated, and faith is renewed among believers.
If I could summarize what we read in Scriptures it'd go something like this:
FASTING IS THE SECRET SAUCE
If you have a problem, pray. If it’s a big problem or your prayer isn’t working, you pray AND fast.
Fasting allows us to practice exerting our will over our passions. To focus on what God has planned for us, and less on trying to fill the God shaped hole with something else. When we fast, we can ignore distractions (mostly my own voice) and better hear God’s plan for us.
During the season of Lent, the Church invites us to a greater awareness of our concupiscence (tendency to sin), our need for God, and love of neighbor. As I’ve continued to intermittent fast these past four years, these are some of the spiritual benefits I’ve noticed within myself, and the science that shows God created us to reflect Him in all things.
We live in a time of great abundance. If we want to eat blueberries in the middle of February, we can. If we want ice cream for dessert, it’s easy. But that is not how it has always been, and it is not what we see in nature either. We see a health crisis of overeating today, not under-eating.
St. Therese said “The world is thy ship, not thy home”, yet so often we reverse this idea. We seek comfort and pleasure from objects, especially food. Fasting isn’t about saying that food is bad, a sin, or unhealthy. It is about living the belief that a greater reward is still to come. It’s about being present in the moment and looking forward to the reward to come.
The science: "The Biology of Happiness" is what I like to call this. Dopamine & serotonin are two neurotransmitters (or brain hormones) that influence our mood. I refer to serotonin as the happiness hormone and dopamine as the pleasure hormone. Happiness is joy, contentment, or my favorite definition: becoming more of who you were created to be. Pleasure centers on reward.
The problem is they compete for the same neuro-pathway (or doorway into our brain). Neurologically, neither is better than the other. They are both necessary, however, it is like a seesaw. As we seek more pleasurable (or rewarding) experiences, our lasting happiness will decrease. This is why most of the things that make us truly happy, don't always feel good.
As happiness (serotonin) goes down, depression goes up, and as pleasure (dopamine) increases, you see more addiction. I think we can agree that addiction and depression are two widely spread problems in our society.
One of my favorite quotes is by St. Paul when he says "I do no do the things I want to do, but that which I do not want to do". Dopamine & serotonin are a biological reason we struggle with the same sins, or bad habits over and over.
When we fast, and delay the gratification of food, we are promoting serotonin reception in the brain, helping us to become more of who we were created to be both biologically and in virtue.
Historically, before there were refrigerators, people had to prepare their food and eat it right away so that it wouldn’t go bad. It was normal to go long periods of time without food simply because it wasn’t available.
In nature animals, bugs and plants eat when they get food, but that isn’t all the time. All life goes through feast and famine cycles. In fact, our bodies long for this cycle and when they don’t get it, our bodies get overwhelmed and health conditions develop.
When I first started fasting, it felt like a mini-Lent….in January. It honestly was a struggle, but as I pushed myself and prayed through the struggle, I found by giving up food for a period, I was more able to say no to things I wasn’t able to before. When we can practice controlling our passions and desires in small ways, then, when we are facing big obstacles, we will be better prepared.
The science: Go back to serotonin & dopamine. We know they are responsible for our happiness and contentment. But perhaps you didn't know, they are predominantly made in the gut. In fact 90% of serotonin & 70% of dopamine are made in the gut.
When we fast, our gut restores the balance of good and bad bacteria. The bad bacteria is starved off as it feeds off sugar, and the good bacteria is allowed to gain strength. What does this have to do with dopamine & serotonin? If our gut bacteria is overrun by the bad guys, our body cannot make an adequate amount of these necessary neurotransmitters.
When we fast, those bad bugs are going to scream loudly for fuel, and it is hard to push past, but as we exert self-control, we are restoring our body to it's natural state and helping it become the way it was created to be.
Connecting with our God:
Jesus fasted. He didn’t have to. He’s God. He did it to show us the way. To show us how to connect with God the Father in a deeper, more personal way, in preparation for the work He has planned for us. The more we humble ourselves; the more God works in and through our lives.
Now that I am a business owner, husband, father and living the modern busy lifestyle, it has become more difficult to hear God’s voice in my life.
The problem is, God doesn’t yell at us. He whispers. And it’s hard to hear a whisper, especially when there are so many things distracting our senses.
Most people would agree that when faced with a choice between something good and something bad, it’s relatively easy to choose the good. Unfortunately, our choices usually are between a good thing and a better thing. The struggle is in figuring out which good choice is meant for us.
The science: When we fast, we put our body into a state of ketosis - meaning we train our body to use fat as fuel, instead of sugar. Decades of studies show that the brain prefers (and needs) ketones as fuel. Just like you would feel the effects of running on a diet of potato chips and soda, your brain functions optimally running on the "right food". Excess of glucose as the fuel source leads to neuro-degenerative diseases, like Alzheimers.
Ketones balance two neurotransmitters, glutamate & GABA. Too much glutamate (this is the "G" in MSG) and your brain gets over stimulate and causes nerve cell damage. GABA prevents cell damage, and improves brain function, even opening up new neuropathways.
What if one of the reasons we're more able to hear God when we add fasting to our prayer, is because our brain actually quiets down (GABA) and stops being over-stimulated (glutamate)!
During Lent we are called to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are also called to abstain (or fast) from meat on Fridays. These days of fasting, we are called to do the bare minimum which is: eat 2 small meals which don’t equal 1 big meal. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to connect with our tradition, our faith and our God in a deeper way?
This Lent I want to challenge my fellow Christians to enter the wilderness with Christ and begin intermittent fasting. Fasting is a pillar of Lent and I believe, an untapped resource of spiritual renewal and strength within our modern Church.
Join me and the other members of the Metabolic Reboot facebook community as we prepare for a 5 day water fast during Holy Week. Fasting can seem difficult and scary, but it doesn’t have to be. The resources which I offer in the community will help prepare your body to begin intermittent fasting and moving into a period of extended fasting.
Let’s reclaim fasting as a Christian practice of health, healing, and spiritual renewal. Do not be afraid. Your body (and soul) was made for this.