Spiritual & Religious Fasts
The Big Idea
Spiritual and religious fasts have been part of almost every culture and religion throughout recorded history. This is partly because fasting has long been known to induce mental clarity, as modern science shows us. But the practice of fasting is also found universally in the founding of each religion:
- Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before he began his ministry
- Buddha was an ardent faster for six years before enlightenment
- The prophet Muhammad fasted in seclusion before the Quran was first revealed to him.
- Holy Men and Women of Indigenous cultures have long fasted as part of the holy ceremony.
One of the driving concepts behind spiritual and religious fasts is creating a ‘hunger for God’. It’s thought that by consciously neglecting physical needs, like hunger, one can more easily tune in to the metaphysical reality that lies outside of our five senses. The sensation of hunger is also used as a reminder to pray, like an internal mantra.
Fasting for spiritual and religious reasons is usually done to cultivate a closer relationship to one’s God, spirit, or universe as defined by the individual, but also to increase spiritual awareness and to strengthen one’s prayer life. Health benefits are tertiary.
What it is
Spiritual and religious fasts encompass every kind of fast:
- they can be intermittent, as in the Christian practice of fasting once per week
- they can be periodic, like Lent and Ramadan
- they can also be prolonged, especially when praying for a specific cause or outcome
Religious fasts can involve total abstinence from solids and liquids, as when Paul fasted after first meeting Christ. (Certain saints and yogis and Shamans are said to have gone for months or years without any food and water at all.) But more often these fasts allow water and even some quantity of food.
Aside from a closer relationship to God, or The Universe, religious and spiritual fasts have a tangible benefit to both the mind and body.
Fasting experts say that cognitive abilities increase when fasting. The evolutionary argument most often cited for this is that, were it the opposite, we would have become mentally dull when hungry, which would have resulted in us not catching food and then promptly dying out. We know this didn’t happen, and in fact we have historically been able to function at high mental capacity throughout periods of starvation.
Studies show that intermittent and prolonged fasting increases neuronal autophagy, which is the cleansing of old nerve cells. This enables nerve impulses to fire faster and more efficiently; ergo, we have better-thinking abilities.
Spiritual and religious fasting, though sometimes done alone, is often performed in groups. This shared experience bonds people by the threads of religion and common purpose, and it enhances their connection to one another. Research indicates that strong social ties and the feeling of connectedness are among the most factors in overall health, happiness, and longevity.
Ikaria, ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die’, is home to among the longest-lived people in the world. Peculiar to this small island in between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey is the habit of religious fasting. Scientists observed that while other nearby islands had effectively the same diet and lifestyle as Ikarians, those islands had no increase in health and longevity. The one major difference was that Ikarians commonly fast up to 150 days a year in accordance with the Catholic religion.
Ten different studies have linked fasting of all types to improvements in metabolic health. Compared to people on normal diets, fasters have lower blood sugar levels, insulin levels, and weight. Dr. Valter Longo, a preeminent fasting researcher, has said that cases of diabetes have been completely reversed in fasted monkeys.
As with any fasting practice, spiritual and religious fasts have their risks – though most are not serious. Whether you practice 24-hour fasts once per week in Lent, or dawn to dusk fasts in Ramadan, you can expect these common side effects:
- and coldness.
How to Do it
Fully explaining how to do spiritual and religious fasts would take volumes of books, instead of these few paragraphs. But we’ll list a few of the most basic facts that apply to most readers:
These fasts entail abstinence from one particular vice or comfort over the period of 40 days that correspond to Jesus Christ’s fast before his ministry. This can mean fasting from TV, chocolate, alcohol, or anything similar. Simultaneously, Christians also practice a weekly fast on Fridays: either total abstinence or abstinence from meat.
Ramadan fasts can be more difficult because of the restriction of food and water. But it’s not all that bad: you’re permitted to eat and drink to satiety before the sun rises, and then again after the sunsets. This equals 12 hours of fasting from everything during the day. (Ramadan is an unusual fast in that it doesn’t take advantage of the 8-hour fasting window that happens every night during sleep.
Fasting and praying have always been intricately linked in many cultures. Many religious and spiritual organizations support, lead and recommend a prayer fast before making a life decision, to elevate spiritual awareness in order to address a challenging problem and even to dedicate and represent a re-purification before a life event such as marriage, a new position, or to increase spiritual fellowship prior to a new move or travel.
Prolonged spiritual fasts
People practice spiritual fasts apart from any religion for personal growth and a greater connection to the divine. These fasts can last anywhere from one to forty days and longer – Ghandi is famous for a 21-day fast to end violence in India – and they usually prohibit the intake of solid foods. (Water and non-calorie beverages are ok.)
Any prolonged fast, spiritual or otherwise, should begin by consulting a doctor. And if you have health problems, you’ll want to consider a doctor-supervised fast in order to avoid serious complications. Furthermore, if you are participating in a fasting program, such as a shamanic fast or journey, a guide or a coach or mentor should be on hand to guide you in the fast, particularly if it calls for time spent in a heated environment in solitude or in nature.
Sara Elnakib, MPH
Sara Elnakib, MPH and registered dietician, says that fasting during Ramadan requires strategy. “Muslims can more easily make it to sundown,” she said in a blog post for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “by eating high-fiber meals to sustain satiety over longer periods; fruits and vegetables to maintain electrolyte stores; and plenty of fluids to maintain hydration.
“Muslims should also limit fried foods and sugary sweets,” she said, “the latter of which is a common cultural tradition among many ethnicities during the holy month.”