Giving up food in the pursuit of well-being
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Spa Rx: The Fast Lane
By Susan Crandall
March / April 2008
Grail Springs' great room
Beyoncé's done it. So has Barak. Mia, too. Jesus did it for 40 days and nights, Muslims do it all day long during Ramadan, and Buddha did it until he realized it was not the path to enlightenment. For most of recorded history, people all over the world have voluntarily forgone food for various reasons—spiritual growth, disease recovery, weight loss, or health improvement. The goal can be short-term change—Beyoncé Knowles used the popular Master Cleanse elixir (lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper) to drop 20 pounds in ten days for Dreamgirls—or long-term vision: In his 20s, Barak Obama fasted to find clarity about his future. Or to make a present-tense statement: Mia Farrow fasted to protest the genocide in Darfur.
In recent years, fasting has found a home in a small number of spas as a means of improving physical and spiritual health, often under the rubric of "detox." Most spas offer juice rather than full-bore water-only fasts, because that method gives the body some nutrients but in a form so readily absorbed that digestion and excretion are minimized. Grail Springs, a beautiful lakeside destination spa northeast of Toronto, promises that its juice-fast programs will rid the body of disease-threatening toxins, heal chronic ailments without drugs, and promote weight loss quickly, among other things. That's pretty representative of what most spa fasting programs promise, and one of the reasons I chose to use Grail Springs as the basis for this story. I did a five-day program, which consisted of fasting for three and a half days and transitioning back to food for a day and a half.
TO FAST OR NOT TO FAST?
Despite its long history and recent popularity, fasting is controversial. The basic question boils down to this: Do we, like cars, require a steady diet of fuel? Or, like athletes who perform better after a rest day, do we benefit from the occasional sabbatical from food?
The evidence for fasting is anecdotal rather than the result of controlled scientific studies. Elson M. Haas, M.D., the author of The New Detox Diet and a medical consultant to Grail Springs, juice-fasts regularly and recommends it as a means of detoxification. "I get marvelous results in conjunction with diet change," he says, citing patients he's weaned off blood-pressure and cholesterol medicines. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., the author of Fasting and Eating for Health, who believes water-fasting yields the most dramatic results, agrees. "Therapeutic fasting accelerates the healing process and can allow the body to recover from serious disease in a dramatically short period of time." After prescribing fasting to about a thousand patients over 15 years, Dr. Fuhrman says, "I have seen fasting eliminate lupus and arthritis, remove chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, and heal the digestive tract in patients with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease." He became sold on fasting when, as a 20-year-old figure skater, he fasted for 46 days to heal an injured foot that doctors told him required surgery. Not only did the foot heal, but he placed third in pairs skating at the World Professional Figure Skating Championships the following year. Conversion experiences like this are a recurrent theme among fasting advocates.
Proponents claim fasting purges the body of toxins that build up in our cells as a result of overeating, unhealthy food, and being exposed to harmful chemicals, including those in polluted air. Giving your GI tract a rest, the theory goes, allows it to turn its attention full-time to eliminating these poisons, which are flushed from the cells as the fast progresses. Dr. Fuhrman says fasting is a boon for people who suffer from conditions such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis, in which the immune system overreacts. "An interlude without food allows the immune system to reset itself to a lower level of function in three ways," he says: It decreases the level of cellular waste such as free radicals, diminishes antigens in the stomach that stimulate an immune reaction, and limits calories that power immune responses. The result: "The T suppressor cells that are supposed to control immune response appropriately can work. Of course, if you go back to your regular diet," he adds, "the disease is going to come back." In his practice, fasting is the entry to a nutritional regimen heavy on fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes.
Those who disapprove of fasting are just as strong-minded. "Are there any benefits to fasting? The short answer is no," says Abram Eisenstein, M.D., the director of gastroenterology at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. "Detoxification is an extremely appealing concept. Who would argue that you don't want to be healthier by removing toxins. Problem is, most of these claims are totally unsupported by medical data. Besides, we already have a detoxification plant. It's called the liver and kidneys."