Jainism, Science, and Intermittent Fasting

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Hello and Jai Jinendra, readers! My name is Minal, and I am a young Jain professional based in the Washington D.C. area. I finished my doctorate in biomedical sciences, specifically focusing on metabolic diseases. I currently work as a research scientist at AstraZeneca, a global biopharmaceutical company.  

Reflecting on knowledge from my academic training, professional experience developing research programs to innovate new medications for patients suffering with debilitating diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as my own personal beliefs, I have come to value the merits of fasting from a combined Jain philosophy and scientific perspective.

In fact, I have recently incorporated an intermittent fasting protocol within my daily routine. As I have come to really appreciate the wonders this can do for your health, I would like to take this opportunity to share my perspectives on the scientific benefits of fasting, and specifically how fasting can serve as a healing process for our body, mind and soul, which ultimately bring us closer and connects to our core Jain philosophical principles.  

When we think about fasting as it relates to Jainism, the word Upavas [1, 2] often comes to mind.  This refers to a complete, one-day-long fast for up to and including 24-36 hours, with or without water. There are other variations of fasting as well, such as Chauvihar, in which no food or water is consumed after sunset, and Unodar (partial fasting), where less food is consumed then desired [2]. Vruti Sankshep is the limiting of the number of food items eaten, and Rasa Parityag is the practice of giving up favorite foods [2].  Beyond these categories, there are a number of special Jain occasions when we undertake fasting, such as Paryushan.

What is the purpose of fasting according to our Jain principles? Why do we do it?

The aim of fasting is for several reasons.  It is a way of penance, reminding the practitioner of Lord Mahavira’s renunciation and ascetism, of being in a minimalistic state of living.  Fasting is also practiced to maintain self-control through abstinence from the pleasures felt through the five senses, to gain deeper self-awareness of our being, and to help us gain mental clarity and inner calm.  And lastly, it is also done to purify our body and mind, while allowing for the shedding of karma through sacrifice. 

How does fasting allow the body to maintain proper balance of energy when food intake is limited?

Scientific research provides ample evidence that fasting is actually beneficial for the body’s rejuvenation.  When we fast, a series of metabolic pathways that promote excessive stored fat to be burned as fuel to provide energy for tissues and organs are activated.  Long-term fasting ranging from 24-36 hours promotes production of ketone bodies that further drive fat burning processing resulting in desired weight loss [3, 4, 5].  Research also supports that these ketone products [i.e. beta-hydroxybutyrate or BHB] often protect against adverse cardiovascular events such as heart failure [6].  Furthermore, fasting allows our tissues and organs to “cleanse” through a mechanism called autophagy which allows old cells, toxins, and even cells that may be prone to becoming cancerous or dysfunctional to be degraded and cleared-out of our system, essentially detoxifying our bodies [7]. 

In contrast, when we are constantly eating, certain important hormones such as insulin and glucagon remain elevated causing our body to become desensitized to them and stop recognizing them altogether.  Fasting creates restoration of this hormonal imbalance and provides control over hunger.

Our gut health is also significantly improved when we are in a fasting-state, where fasting allows resident gut bacteria to restore its metabolic functions including proper digestion and absorption of the food particles within the gut [4, 5].  Fasting has been shown to delay the onset of age-related diseases such as cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease [8].  And lastly, fasting has also been shown to enhance learning and memory as well as to increase one’s overall life span [9].

Now that we understand how and why fasting is a great way to maintain a healthier lifestyle, there is also a word of caution that we should be mindful of when considering this way of living.

I am a firm believer that everything in life should be done in moderation, and this goes for fasting too. When practiced to extreme levels, fasting can lead to severe consequences, including death.  A recent case about a Jain girl who died due to food deprivation for an excessively long period of time is a case in point [10]. Proper nutrition is important for survival, and we cannot rely on not eating to sustain ourselves.

Therefore, while fasting is a great way to keep our body in-check, it is also equally important to eat healthy food, which includes a balanced and nutritious diet that consists of fruits and vegetables.

I like intermittent fasting for that purpose. Intermittent fasting is a fasting protocol very similar to chauvihar, where the designated eating period is typically during daytime within an 8-hour window before sundown, and the remaining 16-hours in the day is the designated fasting period.  Breakfast is skipped, but then lunch can be a good nutritious meal with a light dinner before 8PM [3]. The great aspect about this protocol is that half of the fasting period happens while we are sleeping, and the other half maintains our body in a fat-burning state before lunch. It allows the body to adapt to taking in less food, providing the self-control over our hunger.  There are variations of intermittent fasting as well, where one can practice alternate days of fasting and eating, where the choice can be determined based on personal preferences and schedules.

What I find is that doing full days of fasting in between eating periods can drive energy loss quickly, and that one can burn out easily and resist this type of dieting control. I believe incorporating intermittent fasting in our everyday routine helps to maintain that energy balance over lethargy.  In fact, I personally find that I am mentally and physically more aware and focused when I am practicing this intermittent fasting regiment every day.

I hope I have convinced you that abstaining from food for a moderate period within your daily routine can be great for your health.  Allowing the body to attune to fasting-induced metabolic adaptations will have a positive and lasting impact on your mind, body, and soul.  Collectively, it connects you back to a simpler, authentic and Jain way of living.  

References

1. Sutaria V, Sutaria H. Jain Rituals and Ceremonies, 2002.

2. Julka S, Sachan A, Bajaj S, et al. Glycemic management during Jain fasts. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2017; 21(1):238-241.

3. Anton SD, Moehl K, Donahoo WT, et al.  Flipping the Metabolic Switch: Understanding and Applying the Health Benefits of Fasting. Obesity. 2018; 26: 254-268.

4. Mattson MP, Longo VD, Harvie M. Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes. Ageing Res Rev. 2016; 39:46-58.

5. Patterson RE, Laughlin GA, LaCroix AZ, et al. Intermittent Fasting and Human Metabolic Health. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015; 115 (8):1203-12.

6. Cotter DG, Schugar RC, Crawford PA.  Ketone body metabolism and cardiovascular disease.  American Physiological Society. 2013; 304 (8): H1060-H1076

7. Antunes F, Erustes AG, Costa AJ, et al. Autophagy and intermittent fasting: the connection for cancer therapy? Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2018; 73(suppl 1):e814s.

8. Zhang J, Zhan Z, Li X, et al. Intermittent Fasting Protects against Alzheimer’s Disease Possible through Restoring Aquaporin-4 Polarity. Front Mol Neurosci. 2017; 10:395.

9. Weindruch R. The retardation of aging by caloric restriction: studies in rodents and primates. Toxicol Pathol. 1996; 24(6):742–745.

10. Sudhir U. 13-year old Jain girl dies in Hyderabad after fasting for 68 days.  https://www.ndtv.com/hyderabad-news/13-year-old-jain-girl-dies-in-hyderabad-after-fasting-for-68-days-1471700. Accessed: March 5, 2019.

 

Author Minal completed her doctorate in Biomedical Sciences from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2017.  She currently works at AstraZeneca as a research scientist in the cardiovascular and metabolic disease research group and loves to talk about nutrition and healthy living and is a brunch lover and yoga enthusiast.

This article was first published in YJP (Young Jain Professionals) Perspectives and is reproduced here with permission. Credits - Mehta, Minal. "Jainism, Science, and Intermittent Fasting." YJPerspectives. 19 March 2019: 16-18.  

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