Spiritual Fasting: Everything you need to know about this religious practice
We’ve heard that Muslims participate in Ramadan and Christians practice the 40 days of Lent. But what does this spiritual fasting mean? What are the different types of spiritual fasts around the world and how do they affect our brains and bodies? What are some tips to use when spiritual fasting?
What is Spiritual Fasting?
Fasting is the willing reduction or complete abstinence from some or all drink, food, or both, for a certain amount of time. In medical and physiological terms, a fast can refer to someone who hasn’t eaten overnight. It may also refer to the metabolic state in which the digestion and absorption of a meal are completed. Metabolic changes happen once the meal has been absorbed- roughly 3-5 hours after the meal. One is considered to be fasting, on medical terms, after 8-12 hours have elapsed since their last meal.
Spiritual fasting, also known as religious fasting, is fasting for a religious or spiritual purpose.
There are several different types of fasts, each with their own procedure and benefits:
- Absolute fast, also known as a dry fast means that someone abstains from all food and drink for a certain, defined period of time. Usually 24 hours or a number of days.
- Liquid fasting is when one must abstain from all food, but water is okay to drink. In some cases, tea and black coffee are also okay to drink.
- Diagnostic fast is a prolonged fast (between 8-72 hours) that is used to determine hypoglycemia.
- Cleansing fast is used with the goal of cleansing the colon. Typically drinks with lemon juice are used.
- Water fasting is drinking only water (about 2 liters a day) in order to lose weight and cleanse the body.
- The famous juice fast involves eating no solid foods- only liquids from fruits and veggies. Many believe that this cleanse and fast allows the body to rid itself of toxins that are absorbed by processed foods.
- Partial fasts are fasts that exclude a specific type of food. For example, rice, meat, dairy, pasta, or wheat.
- Intermittent fasting is going between fasting and eating in order to increase one’s health.
- Liquid protein fast is a fast used for obese patients who need to lose weight. Medically supervised, people can lose between 10-100 lbs.
- Religiously, fasting is can also be a huge element.
Spiritual fasting in Jainism and Hinduism involves a single day fast before an important occasion. For Muslims in Islam, it’s a month each year. For many Christians, there are the 40 days of Lent which involve a partial fast in many cases. Mormons are encouraged to fast one day each month. Annually, on the night before the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, there is a 25-hour period of prayer and fasting. Each spiritual fast changes with duration, contents, procedure, and motive. However, one thing is common between all types of spiritual fasting: something is taken out of the diet and an intense self-reflection and understanding are practiced.
Religious or Spiritual Fasting Traditions
Islam and Spiritual Fasting
Muslims, like many other religions that fast, do a spiritual fast known as Ramadan to step away from the body’s primary needs from sunset to sunrise in order to practice self-discipline. During the obligatory spiritual fasting, Muslims try to abstain from lying, indecent speech, arguing, and lustful thoughts. They also fast in order to get closer to those less fortunate than themselves and understand what it feels like to be hungry for an extended period of time. One tradition during Ramadan is to give to charity and to those who live in the constant state of fasting daily. In general, overindulging in food is advised against and one must only eat enough to “silence the pain of hunger”.
Like many obligatory spiritual fasts, there are exceptions to those who aren’t able to fast. For example, prepubescent children, a woman while menstruating, breastfeeding, or pregnant, a long-term serious illness (like diabetes), a short-term serious illness (like the flu), an ill person (either mental or physical), or elderly who are unable to fast (they may have a single meal at lunchtime in order to partially participate).
In Islam, it is forbidden to fast on Eid al-Fitr, for Sunni Muslims on the Tashriq, and the Eid Al-Adha.
Judaism and Spiritual Fasting
In Judaism, fasting means completely abstaining from both food and drink. Fasting in Judaism is seen as a sign of repentance and is expected by every man and woman over the age of bar mitzvah (age 13, boys) and bat mitzvah (age 12, girls). There are two main fasts within Judaism- Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. Both are practiced from sunset until dusk the following day. However, there are other minor fasts that are more optional. Those fasts include the fast of the 10th Tevel, the day after Rosh Hashanah there is a fast known as the fast of Gedaliah, bahab, the fast of the Firstborn, and the fast of Esther.
The most traditional Jewish believers fast six days a year. Except for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting is never permitted on the Shabbat (Saturday) due to a commandment in the Jewish holy book, the Torah. Yom Kippur is typically considered the most important day in the Jewish year cycle. It is the only fast explicitly mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:26-32). Those exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur are those who are ill, weak, or would be put in danger by fasting (pregnant and nursing women). Those who are able to eat on Yom Kippur are encouraged to eat as little as possible and to avoid a full meal. To some people, fasting on Yom Kippur is more important than praying on that day specifically. This is due to the fact that if one casts on Yom Kippur, even if they stay in bed all day and do nothing, they are considered to have participated in a full religious service.
The second major day of fasting in Judaism is Tisha B’Av. it comes from the day when the Babylonians destroyed the frost Holy Temple in Jerusalem about 2500 years ago, the day when the Romans destroyed the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem roughly 2000 years ago, and the Bar Kokhba revolt when the Jews were expelled and banished from Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av fast marks the beginning on a three-week mourning period. The fast begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz– a day where observant Jews remember the tragedies that have happened within Jewish history- including the Holocaust.
Yom Kippur is seen as a fast and day of atonement whereas Tisha B’Av is seen as a fast and day of sadness.
Buddhism and Spiritual Fasting
In Buddhism, the nuns and monks who follow the Vinaya rules don’t eat after noon. It’s less of a fast and more of a disciplined regimen that helps health and mediation. However, monks practice a form of spiritual fasting when they go into an intense meditation. During the Buddhist fast, one from staying away from animal products (although they do allow milk consumption), processed foods, and the five pungent foods: garlic, asana, leeks, garlic chives, and welsh onion.
The Buddha, when he first began to practice Buddhism, didn’t fast but ate moderately. On the days of Uposatha which happen about once a week, Buddhists must partake in the eight precepts. Among those precepts include not eating after lunch until the next morning. There is also the obligation to “fast” on things that aren’t food. For example, not sleeping on a luxurious mattress, refraining from sexual activity, and destroying living creatures.
Hinduism and Spiritual Fasting
Spiritual fasting plays a large role in the Hindu religion but the fasting traditions differ from place to place and personal beliefs:
- Certain days of the week, depending on personal beliefs and one’s favorite deity, people will fast. For example, Saturdays are fasting days for the believers of Ayyappa, Thursdays for the Vishnu, Tuesdays for believers throughout India who believe in the Goddess Shakti, and Mondays for Shiva.
- Spiritual fasting during religious festivals, like Maha Shivaratri (not consuming even a drop of water), and the nine days of Navratri (occurs twice a year).
- Certain days of the month like the Pradosha, Purnima, and Ekadasi.
- Married women may fast for the purpose of gaining prosperity and longevity for their husbands. The fast ends when the wife sees the moon through a sieve. This fast is known as Karwa Chauth.
Typically, the person doing the spiritual fasting will not have any food or water from the previous day’s sunset until 48 minutes after the next day’s sunrise. However, there are also partial forms of spiritual fasting which take out certain foods from the diet or limiting oneself to one meal a day for a period of time. The most typical items eaten during spiritual fasting in Hinduism are sweet potatoes, sago, and regular potatoes due to their starchy aspects.
Christianity – Catholicism and Spiritual Fasting
In Catholicism, spiritual fasting, in part, is the reduction of food intake and partial fasting in one meal. Such as meat not being permitted in meals on the Fridays during Lent and Ash Wednesday. The second part is having two smaller meals, known as collations, for breakfast and dinner. The two smaller meals together shouldn’t be equal to the size and amount of the larger meal. Snacking (solid food) isn’t permitted.
Spiritual fasting is obligatory for those between 18 and 59 on specific and certain days- like Ash Wednesday. Those who are 14 and older are required to have a complete abstinence of meat (fish and cold-blooded animals included) on those specific days. Those who would be negatively affected by the fast are not obligated to participate. In the U.S., there are two days of fast that a required- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Roman Catholics are also encouraged to fast during the Eucharistic Fast. This spiritual fasting involves only eating nothing but water and medicines for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. The current Catholic tradition modified the fast from fasting from midnight until the Mass of the Eucharist to fasting just one hour prior.
The Catholic Church also participated in the Black Fast which involves the consumption of both water and bread. Historically, this spiritual fasting was used by monks and those who practiced asceticism and mortifications. However, all Catholics are encouraged to participate.
Christian – Orthodoxy and Spiritual Fasting
Spiritual fasting is important in Orthodox sects of Christianity. The purpose of fasting isn’t to suffer, but rather to guard against impure words, thoughts, and deeds and repent of sins. Found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, Orthodox Christians see the body and the soul as one and believe that what happens to one, happens to the other. Fasting is always done in accordance with prayer and almsgiving (donating to the poor). To not participate in the fats is considered spiritually harmful. Some other sects of Orthodox require that people fast before the Holy Communion, and every Wednesday and Friday, too.
Christianity – Protestantism and Spiritual Fasting
The founder of the Lutheran church, Martin Luther, fasted to:
“kill and subdue the pride and lust of flesh”.
This is why the Protestant churches often promote voluntary spiritual fasting- especially during Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday. More recently, Advent, as well. Like many Christian religions, the absence of meat on Fridays, eliminating an entire food during Lent, abstaining from a favorite activity (like watching TV) during Lent, and not eating before Communion during Lent is a normal way to fast. Many Protestants consider fasting to be an important part of their personal experience, along with prayer, apart from any church tradition.
Christianity – Mormonism and Spiritual Fasting
For Mormons, those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spiritual fasting is defined as a complete abstinence from both food and drink and must be accompanied with prayer.
Within Mormonism, there is Fast Sunday which is the first Sunday of every month and members are encouraged to fast for two consecutive meals (breakfast/lunch or lunch/dinner). The money that is saved from not having to buy food for meals is donated to the church as a fast offering which is later used to help those in need. There are fast and testimony meetings which involve members publically testifying during the sacrament.
Spiritual fasting is also encouraged if the members of the church want to grow closer to god and exercise spirit-over-body. It’s also possible to have a personal, family, or group fast in order to ask for a special blessing from God.
Spiritual fasting and the donations from fasting in Mormonism are an important principle of the Church.
Jainism and Spiritual Fasting
Jainism, a non-theistic religion found in the 6th century in India teaches salvation by perfection and non-injury to living creatures. Fasting in Jainism is common and most Jains fast during festivals, at special times, and on holy days. The most important festival is known as Paryushan and lasts ten days in the Digambar Jain tradition and eight days in the Svetambara Jain tradition. The monsoon is also considered a time to fast. That said, Jains can fast at any time- especially if they feel they have made a mistake or sinned. Spiritual fasting is used to help Jains practice and maintain their self-control. According to the Jain texts, fasting is considered to be abstaining from the pleasures of the five senses and dwelling in a state of deep concentration.
Bahai and Spiritual Fasting
Bahaism is known for its 19 day fast which takes place from sunrise to sunset during the Baha’i month of Ala (their word for ‘God’)- March 1 or 2 until March 19 or 20). As outlined in their holy book, the Kitab-I-Aqdas, a fast means to completely abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. However, drink for prescription medication is fine. Participating in the fast is an obligation for those who are well and able. After the age of Baha’i considered maturity (15 years old) one must partake in the anual fast until age 70. Those who are not obligated and/or should not participate in the fast are those under the age of 15, over the age of 70, people who are ill, pregnant, nursing, menstruating, traveling (more than a certain distance), and those whose professions involve heavy labor. However, if those exempt decide to participate in the fast, they must eat in private and eat smaller portions than normal. There is also an obligatory prayer.
The Baha’i guidelines are similar to those for Ramadan. The goal of the fast is to abstain from carnal pleasures.
Sikhism and Spiritual Fasting
Sikhism doesn’t encourage spiritual fasting unless it is for medical reasons. The Sikh Gurus believe that Gaston brings no spiritual benefits with it- torturing the body with a lack of nutrients won’t bring wisdom. However, they do believe that if you are to fast, you must let your mind be happy and be kind for the fast to be successful.
Different types of Spiritual Fasting
There are many different types of spiritual fasting. Of those include:
- Ramadan (30 days) in Islam
- Drinking only water during the whole day
- Religous days where people fast during the whole day, from sun-up until mass, from noon until sundown, or only have a noon-time meal
- The Paryushan (8-10 days) in Jainism
- Eating only bread and drinking only water for the whole day
- The 19- Day Fast in Bahaism
How does spiritual fasting affect the brain?
In children, dietary changes have a huge effect on the brain- both good and bad. It’s been proven that children who have epilepsy have fewer epileptic seizures when placed on a diet of caloric restriction or fasting diets. It’s thought that this is because fasting helps give the brain some protective measures that counteract the overexcited signals that are sent all over in an epileptic brain. When normal brains are overfed, there is a kind of uncontrolled excitation that impairs brain function. In studies that look at caloric restriction, the participants show a longer lifespan as well as a heightened ability to fight chronic diseases.
Some say that doing prolonged spiritual fasting, such as Ramadan, help give way to better habits because there is a pause in dietary routine. For example, it’s easy to break the habit of eating a dessert after every meal because, for 30 days, you won’t be eating dessert for lunch. It’s easy to get rid of that caffeine addiction because, for 30 days, you can’t have any during the day- the time when you consume the most caffeine. The brain rewires itself to new habits and breaks the old ones.
If you think about it, our ancestors were built to go long periods without food. This means that we, too, can do it. Overall, the brain has an improved ability to cope with stress, reduce inflammation, slows aging, improve cell repair to DNA, lower coronary artery problems, and improve neuronic synapse health. Multiple studies have shown that spiritual fasting is a good way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as a potential treatment for diabetes.
Positive cognitive functions of spiritual fasting
When we eat, our bodies store glucose in our liver as a form of fuel. This glucose is called glycogen. It takes about 10-12 hours for glycogen to empty from our system. Once it’s all used up, our bodies start to burn excess fat which is converted to a natural chemical that our brains use for energy known as ketones. The role of ketones is to shift the structure of our neural synapses to ensure better learning and improved brain health overall. However, when food is constantly introduced into our system, our bodies don’t become depleted from glycogen and ketones aren’t able to be produced. This results in a lower brain health overall. The improvement in production of ketones also improves the production of mitochondria in nerve cells which helps the brain adapt to stress. The improvement of mitochondria allows for neurons to form and maintain connections between each other. This means that neurons are also to be better connected and therefore learning and memory abilities are improved, as well.
When we fast, our brains are challenged and our brains respond to that challenge by creating stress-response pathways that are meant to help the brain cope with disease risk and stress. Interestingly enough, the same pathways created during fasting are also created during regular exercise- both increase the protein production in the brain, known as neurotrophic factors, which promote the growth of neurons, the connections between them, and the strength of the neurotic synapsis.
Fasting has also been proven to alleviate some of the symptoms and effects of anxiety and depression.
Negative cognitive functions of spiritual fasting
There are several negative short-term effects of fasting. Of those include:
- Brain fog and sluggishness. However, the brain fog typically disappears after a while.
- Headaches, both mild and migraines, are common during spiritual fasting. This can be due to a lack of water and sometimes just staying hydrated at night is enough.
- Dizziness and lightheadedness are also common side effects from a lack of water and sometimes a lack of blood sugar.
- Spiritual fasting can impair the body’s ability to absorb certain types of medication. Fasting can also alter the drug interactions in the body. For example, one may be doing well on their antidepressant before fasting. During the fast, the antidepressant may act differently with the body’s chemistry and brain’s function.
- Some people feel an impaired ability to do certain things while fasting. For example, operate machinery and driving.
How does spiritual fasting affect the body
Spiritual fasting can affect the body. When we eat food, our bodies spend energy to break down and digest it. Depending on the food type and food quality, such as processed food and meat, it can take more energy for our bodies to turn that food into the nutrients that we use as fuel. When our bodies are digesting, there is a significant amount of less energy spent on the other processes that our bodies do, such as fighting off disease, turning excess fat into energy, and cellular repair. This means that fasting, not eating, helps the body to relax its digestive system.
During short periods of low energy intake, the body burns free fatty acids from the fat stores, as well as small amounts of muscle tissue, to provide the necessary glucose (brain sugar) for the brain. After long periods of low energy intake (no eating), the body goes into a state called starvation mode. During starvation mode, the body has depleted the body fat that it can burn and instead begins to burn muscle and lean tissue for fuel.
Some people report that fasting helps with weight loss while others report that it causes weight gain. Fasting for periods less than 24 hours, which most spiritual fasting is, has been shown to help with weight loss in both obese and healthy adults.
One study shows that those who fast have a lower risk of coronary disease while another study found that people who fast have lower bad cholesterol and metabolic changes that can reduce the risk of coronary diseases. The second study also showed that those who fast have lower blood sugar levels overall.
Tips to do spiritual fasting
- The most important is to surround yourself with family and friends because it’s no fun to fast alone and they can help support you through the rough parts of the fast.
- Make sure you’re healthy enough and in a good mental state before starting the fasting process.
- Try making meals as healthy, nutritious, light, and full of water as possible. Rather than drinking a soda, have soup or watermelon instead to keep hydrated and healthy. Using nuts and fruits for snacking (when it’s okay to eat) is also recommended because they give the body good, healthy fuel.
- Nap when you can. Not only does a nap distract from hunger, but it helps the body re-energize as much as possible without food for fuel.
- If you like to work out and do sports, do so after breaking fast. The body needs hydration before, during, and after working out- hydration is impossible when water and liquids aren’t allowed to be consumed. Furthermore, the body won’t benefit much on an empty stomach.
- Try drinking at least 1 liter of water- more if possible. Being hydrated is more important than getting food- although they are both essential. It’s easy to get dehydrated and not know it- especially when fasting during summer. Try to drink a lot of water and juices as well as eat as much water-giving food as possible. Such as watermelons and cucumber.
- Plan the meals ahead to be sure that you are getting healthy meals with nutrition and vitamins. Some people feel so hungry that they go to fast food joints or cook unhealthy things (large portions, as well) which isn’t advised.
- Some people like to start fasting a few days before the fast starts (if the fast is longer, such as Ramadan) so their bodies can get used to fasting.
Have you ever done spiritual fasting? Let us know in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.