Intermittent fasting is one of today’s most popular health trends—just ask celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian or Jennifer Aniston. It has been shown to help slow aging, help with weight loss, and even lower people’s risk of having complications from COVID.
In this article, we explore intermittent fasting in Ayurveda from a holistic and scientific viewpoint. Remember, you should only fast under the guidance of a medical practitioner!
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a process where people cycle between periods of eating and fasting to reduce caloric intake.
Though “intermittent fasting” is a recently coined term, the concept has been explored in Ayurveda for milennia. For prehistoric humans, fasting was not a choice. In later civilizations, it was a part of human culture for spiritual and health reasons. Even animals fast when they are full or unwell. Our bodies are naturally adapted to periodic hunger, rather than three full meals along with multiple nibbles throughout the day.
According to Ayurveda, fasting can be used to balance doshas, remove toxins and heal the body. The fasting methods recommended for any individual depend on their strength and underlying health conditions. It’s important to remember, however, that just fasting isn’t enough. For holistic change, we also need to alter what we eat and how we live.
There are many different variations of intermittent fasting regimes, described below.
Types of intermittent fasting
Only eat within a certain time period during the day. People who follow this regime often fast for 12, 16, or 18 hours. (This form of intermittent fasting accompanies many people’s natural eating cycles. If you eat dinner at 5pm and breakfast at 7am, you are doing a fourteen-hour fast.)
Alternate day fasting
Eat as normal on one day, fast on the next day.
Whole day fasting
Abstain from food for the entirety of one day.
Eat your normal meals for five days of the week, and restrict to 500-600 calories for two days of the week.
Scientific benefits of intermittent fasting
Periodic fasting lets our bodies reset. When we deplete our circulating blood glucose levels, we switch to stored fats as a source of energy by producing ketones, which also sends other positive signals to the body.
Numerous research animal studies have shown that fasting can play a promising role in controlling obesity, removing toxins and aberrant cells, and reducing inflammation and blood pressure. Fasting can potentially lower risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. It has also shown a beneficial impact on the gut bacteria. There are also benefits related to memory, improved cardio health, and control over obesity.
Regardless of your method of fasting, sustained weight loss can result only from excess calorie reduction. Excess calories, irrespective of carbs, fats, or proteins, will all end up as the body’s stored fats. This is because all nutrient sources are subject to the fully reversible nature of the body’s energy creation and storage, known as the Krebs cycle.
What does Ayurveda say about fasting?
Ayurveda has a long history of using reduction therapy to treat diseases, focusing on removing food rather than adding food.
It’s critical to note that in Ayurveda, food is not just what you put in your mouth—it includes all sensory stimuli. A holistic fast involves abstaining from food, mental, visual, and sound stimuli. By practicing restraint, we help focus the body inwards for healing and recuperation.
If you are stressed and overstimulated, simply avoiding food will not help much. Stress and mental stimuli are seen as a precursor and are associated with all the disease conditions as a result of the involvement of the entire hormonal system.
There are two broad types of reduction therapy. The first is Panchkarma, which involves eliminating severe toxins (ama) through vomiting, enema and other means. This is only practiced under expert supervision from Ayurvedic practitioners, for people capable of withstanding physical shock.
We’ll focus on the second, gentler method which includes fasting. The duration of fasting depends on the individual’s physical health and underlying conditions. Fasting ignites the digestive fire, removes metabolic toxins in the digestive tract (amashaya) and gives mental clarity.
This Sanskrit sloka captures the importance given to reduction (langhana) therapies in Ayurveda. It says that “reduction therapies, if used judiciously, are the best medicine.”
Intermittent fasting in Ayurveda is used for numerous objectives, shown below.
- Reducing excess body weight
- Removing of toxins
- Improving mental function and memory
- Controlling excess body discharges
- Improving the metabolic processes
- Controlling certain fevers
- Controlling diseases of the stomach
- Balancing doshas, especially kapha
- Promoting a calm (Saatvic) nature
- Increasing drive, enthusiasm, mental acuity (Pitta)
How to follow Intermittent Fasting in Ayurveda
Any individual’s approach to intermittent fasting in Ayurveda will depend on their doshas and digestive fire. In general, we recommend starting with simple methods that you can continue to follow on a long term basis. With a simple approach, you’re more likely to balance, rather than disturb, your doshas.
In general, the process makes use of three elements: space, air and fire. Space and air relate to using breathwork as well as abstaining from food. When we take a break from external stimuli, we can rekindle our mental and digestive fires.
Eat according to the circadian clock
Eating according to your Circadian clock is a simple way to experience the benefits of intermittent fasting in Ayurveda.
Have your heaviest meal at lunch
You should eat your heaviest meal of the day between noon and 2pm, when your digestive fire is highest.
Eat a light, early dinner
If you eat a light, early dinner, your body will benefit from an intermittent fasting regime without much effort.
When the next morning comes, remember that there’s nothing sacred about breakfast (or any meal, for that matter). Eat if and when you feel hungry, and/or if you had your last meal at least twelve hours prior. Pay attention to the signals of your body.
Fast in the springtime
Seasonally, springtime is the best period for slightly longer fasts that are aimed at cleansing your system. In order to prevent disbalace of doshas, these fasts should be performed under expert guidance only.
Let yourself feel what hunger feels like
Fasting (upvasa) is about withdrawal. Many of us no longer know what hunger really feels like. Tune yourself to your body and let your stomach rumble to be able to better control your appetite later on. Don’t feast before and after a fast.
Remove other stress-inducing stimuli
Practice abstaining from mental stimuli for a certain period of time everyday using meditation, breathwork and good sleep practices. Stop scrolling over emails, text and social media messages as you lead up to sleep time. Any screen time or books ought to be used only if they relax you. Pause and let your mind digest experiences!
Introduce good food habits-six tastes
Removing highly processed food, added sugar and salt, and excess alcohol can automatically help bring the body into balance. Try to avoid snacking throughout the day to prevent unnecessary insulin spikes in the body.
An Ayurvedic fasting regime is about nutrient diversity from diversity along with calorie reduction. Try to incorporate the six tastes into your meals: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent.
Some recommendations about exercise
During fasting, exercise is intended to be pacifying rather than excitatory. For a healthy person who is following a gentle regime of natural fasting one can undertake normal activities. Light body resistance exercise, yoga and pranayama are all good. However, heavy physical exercise is not recommended in any extended period of fasting.
The basic idea is that exercise is used with the aim of rejuvenation rather than burning calories. The amount and kind of exercise is determined by our dosha and body constitution (deha prakriti).
Intermittent fasting in Ayurveda by dosha type
Depending on your dosha imbalances, different kinds of fasting may suit you. Food is not abandoned! Instead, you may have light food according to your constitution. The total avoidance of food and water depletes the body and strains your digestive fire.
If you have a vata imbalance, you may experience an inconsistent appetite. Vata dosha types have the lowest tolerance for fasting. Instead of full, prolonged fasts, you can try having light meals including sweet fruits and light food. You can also use dried ginger or trikatu to spark your metabolic fire.
If you have excess pitta, you may want to include foods with the astringent taste in your fast, like prune, grapes, pomegranate, or cilantro. These foods help with toxin removal. Juices and buttermilk can also be used to soothe the digestive system.
Pitta will have low tolerance for hunger and therefore you should keep away from long periods of fasting which may leave you faint headed. The focus should instead be on correct timing and content of meals.
If you have excess kapha, you may experience sluggishness, lethargy throughout the day. Kapha types can benefit from regular intermittent fasting in Ayurveda.
A Kapha type has greater capacity to reduce food intake unless you have a complex situation in which diabetes is also involved. You can try dried ginger or trikatu to speed up digestion as well. Periods of eating are not for aimless indulgence.
It is important to note that what you feast on is as important as how you fast.
What to eat while during intermittent fasting in Ayurveda
Your exact diet during fasting depends on your dosha and fitness level. Some people stop eating entirely; others have lighter and more soothing food than usual. Whatever you do, your goal should be to lighten the load on your body.
Here are a few things from a toolkit that you may choose to consume while intermittent fasting in Ayurveda.
- Light liquids: Buttermilk, warm water, coconut water, juices from single fruits like oranges, grape and pomegranate
- Cleansing teas: coriander, cumin, fennel, Ashwagandha, tulsi
- Moong dal and basmati rice khichdi in thin gruel form
- Fox Nuts sauteed in ghee as a snack
- Sweet potatoes gently sauteed in cumin, coriander and ghee, sprinkled with lime
- Saindhav namak (rock salt)
- Soaked nuts like almonds
- Ghee used sparingly serves to soothe the gastrointestinal tract, especially when toxins have been eliminated
- Steamed vegetables sprinkled with olive oil, lemon and salt
Ayurveda offers other types of more complicated fasts with and without water, those which rely on only fruits and longer fasts (anashana) which are outside the scope of our discussion.
Example food for a weekly one-day fast
There is no typical fast in Ayurveda. You can skip breakfast, skip lunch or dinner or skip both. You may abstain from solid food and sustain only on juices/salads; the choice is all yours in consultation with your doctor.
Here is an example of a calorie reduction one day fast that works for a Vata-Pitta constitution:
Buttermilk with saindhav salt and roasted ground cumin seeds, one sweet potato sauteed in coriander and ghee and sprinkled with lime and freshly cut coriander leaves.
Steamed broccoli, one cup of moong dal soup with one coarse grain roti (bread)
How to break your intermittent fasting in Ayurveda
When you are ready to break your fast, use something like freshly squeezed orange juice rather than a single large meal that will overload your system. Such a heavy meal will increase vata and decrease digestive fire.
What kinds of people should not fast?
Consult your doctor, fasting is not recommended for the feeble and sick. Similarly one would have to exercise caution if one is suffering from diabetes or is on some medication. Fasting in Ayurveda is not recommended for pregnant women as it can harm fetal growth.
Excessive fasting can lead to increase in vata and conditions like diminished hearing and vision, loss of sleep and pain in joints. Muscle loss due to fasting without adequate resistance training is an active area of research.
Ayurveda advises against fasting in conditions of fear, grief, anger and physical exertion. It leads to depletion of Ojas (akin to immunity).
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All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation related activity.
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