Fasting for 68 days killed a 13-year-old girl in Hyderabad last week. Her Jain parents said their pious child chose to fast voluntarily for religious reasons, but most others raged over why they allowed their little daughter to undergo such extreme penance.
All religions observe some form of fasting as a form of discipline, penance or spiritual cleansing. The rules vary widely for Hindus, with some not eating at all while others eating once a day or excluding spices and certain foods from the diet for several days in a year. Fasting and prayer are integral for Jew and Christians to get closer to God -- both Moses and Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. It’s the fourth of the five pillars of Islam. The Vinaya rules of Buddhism advocate not eating after midday.
But beyond faith, how does fasting affect your mind and body? Complete abstinence from food for more than three to four days hurts you at many levels. India’s iron lady Irom Sharmila’s fasted for 16 years because 40 persons, including five doctors, 12 nurses and three policewomen, ensured she got all the required nutrients through a nasal tube to stay alive.
You can’t just stop eating and live on faith and fresh air.
The brain is hungry for glucose and uses between 20% and 23% of the energy from food. Along with the brain, the heart, kidneys and liver use up about 60% of the energy consumed, which makes them the first to get damaged when you stop eating. The brain stores little energy as glycogen and relies almost entirely on circulating glucose for fuel.
A healthy adult can last for three to four weeks on water alone, but without water, it’s difficult to survive more than three days – sometimes less, depending on the how hot it is – because the kidneys start getting damaged.
Glucose stored in a healthy liver easily sustains the body and brain for 18-24 hours without food. From day two, blood glucose levels start falling and your body starts breaking down glycogen in liver for energy. Proteins and amino acids reserves in muscles become the main energy source after three to four days without food, followed by fat reserves a week into fasting.
Between the first and second week, you may start experiencing vomiting, anxiety, weak pulse, low blood pressure, low urine output and/or fainting spells. You need lots of water and electrolyte replacements to keep functioning. Within three weeks, blood pressure, pulse etc start dropping. Toxins start accumulating in the blood, lowering immunity. Haemoglobin plummets and you risk organ damage and death from multi-organ failure.
Your liver, kidneys, lungs, colon and skin get rid of toxins very efficiently so starving yourself beyond a couple of days to detox is pointless. Since many toxins your body absorbs from the environment are stored in fat tissue, rapid fat loss leads to their getting released into the blood, where they do more damage to vital organs . A study in the journal Obesity Surgery found that levels of pesticide, dioxin and PCBs in the blood rose 25% to 50% in people who lost weight very rapidly.
Even very low cal starvation diets (600-800 calories) don’t do much for weight loss as your body goes into a power-saving mode and responds by lowering the basal metabolic rate, so you burn fewer calories for energy. Another minus is that you lose muscle before you lose fat, which weakens skeletal support and effect movement.
The only upside of three days of intermittent fasting is that it helps regenerate a damaged immune system by making the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells to fight infection.
“Refeeding” after a long fast is also fraught with risks if done without medical supervision. Starting food also kicks in electrolyte imbalances that cause neurologic, breathing, heart, neuromuscular and blood complications, which are what killed the Hyderabad girl after she ended her fast.
When fatty and amino acids become the main energy sources during prolonged fasting, insulin secretion gets suppressed. During refeeding, the basal metabolic rate shoots up and insulin secretion is resumed, leading to increased glycogen, fat and protein synthesis. These processes need essentials minerals such as phosphates, magnesium and potassium, stores of which are wiped out during prolonged fasting. The imbalances have a domino effect that lead to death, usually from wildly irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), with or without confusion, convulsions, coma and heart failure.