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-- © GodSpeak International 2004 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from <copyright@godspeak.org> --

Author: Teresa Seputis <ts@godspeak.net>
Editor: Kevin Nolan

Prayer-School Course #26


By Teresa Seputis

Lesson 7
Physiological Aspects of Long Fasts

The physiology of a long fast goes something like this: The first three to five days you get really "hungry" and start feeling weak. If you're doing a short fast (e.g., fewer than five days), you usually stay hungry the entire time. But if you're doing a longer fast, your body begins to switch over to consuming energy from stored fats and you stop being hungry. (Unfortunately, your body also breaks down nonfat tissue. So this is a terrible and unhealthful way to diet. Don't fast to lose weight. You'll probably gain it all back and a bit more when you start eating again.)

After a while your body stabilizes and you feel more energy and also don't feel hungry.

A rather unpleasant side effect is that you will usually have diarrhea for several days as your digestive system shuts itself down and then you won't have any type of bowel activity. Note that what I described is for the total types of fast -- water only or water and nonnutritive liquids. If you take juice or skim milk, you'll find the first few days easier, but will tend to stay hungry longer. Your body will probably switch over to burning stored fat (as in the water fast), but it may take longer to do so. In one sense you stay stronger by putting the sugar from the juices into your system, but in another sense you get weak because you don't switch over to the burning fat-store type of energy as fast. The tradeoff on this affects people differently, depending on their metabolism.

It's not uncommon to get dizzy or lightheaded on a long fast, especially if you end up getting up rapidly from a sitting or lying position, or if you're exerting yourself physically too much. Sometimes that is caused by a lack of sodium in the bloodstream. I have found it helpful to drink something salty like chicken bouillon or maybe just a pinch of salt dissolved in a glass of hot water. (I have low blood pressure, so this works for me. But if you are controlling sodium levels for high blood pressure, you might not want to do that.)

You may find that you get cold easier. In fact, sometimes I can't stay warm on a long fast, even if I turn the thermostat up to 80 degrees (where my non-fasting husband is literally melting). I find that it's unwise to consume cold things while fasting, especially things like chewing on ice cubes. If you do that, you do get a bit of a sensation of eating, but you also end up getting so cold that you can't get warm again for a long time. Drinking hot liquids seems to help, even if it's just hot water.

It's very unwise to exercise strenuously while on a long fast. Many people find they can continue working the duration of the fast if they're careful to curtail most physical activity. When I'm on a long fast, I cut back my walking as much as possible and drive more. By all means don't do any exercise type of activity like jogging, playing volleyball or going skating during a fast unless the Lord has explicitly spoken to you to do so. Some people wisely curtail their activity and still find they need to take some "sick days" off of work to just rest in bed during a long fast. Again, people seem to handle this differently, based on their constitution and such. I can usually work the entire time I'm doing a long fast if I'm very careful to curtail all other physical activity, but I usually get very tired. (Sometimes God tells me not to take any form of nutrition on a long fast, but sometimes He allows me to have some fruit juice or a glass of fat-free milk on a long fast, which helps me with the physical endurance.)

I will often go to bed very early when I'm fasting.

Sometimes I get into a phase where God will wake me up in the middle of the night to pray. Usually I don't feel much like praying when He wakes me up. I feel more like I have insomnia. I'm often groggy when this happens and it takes a while to figure out what I'm supposed to be praying. After I pray on whatever topic(s) He has on His agenda, it becomes easy to get back to sleep again. But if I don't pray through His agenda, I usually have a great deal of difficulty getting back to sleep.

Finally, be careful on breaking a fast. Many find the breaking of a fast harder than the fast itself, because your digestive system turns back on and you start getting really hungry. You have to eat wisely and in small quantities. This is hard to do -- you want to stuff yourself. But if you do that, you'll probably get very sick. May people break a long fast with bouillon soups and plain bread types of food, gradually adding back in fruits and vegetables and eventually regular food. Personally, I do very well with milk or cheese in breaking a fast, but many people get sick from that. Also, be advised that you may experience some diarrhea as your digestive system begins to turn itself back on. This is fairly normal and shouldn't be cause for alarm.

Electrolytes and Fasting

There is an important part of our physiology we must understand related to fasting -- our body's electrolytes. There are important minerals and substances our body needs that are in our blood level. They regulate body functioning, like our heartbeat. You should take a multivitamin and mineral supplement when you are fasting to help control your electrolytes. Potassium is a very important electrolyte, and it is critical in regulating your heartbeat, as well as preventing muscle cramps. Unfortunately, potassium is not available at the level you need without a prescription.

So if you are thinking of doing a long fast, you might want to see your doctor for a prescription for liquid potassium. Your doctor will probably try to talk you out of doing a long fast, because it is considered very bad for you from a medical standpoint. You will need to explain that it is a religious observation and that you need to do it, but you also recognize it can be unhealthy and that is why you came to your doctor, to minimize the health risks while you keep your religious observation. Ask your doctor what vitamin and mineral supplements they want you to take for a long fast and then follow their advice. I don't believe God objects to us taking vitamins when we do a long fast.

Again, if God hasn't called you to a long fast, don't do it. It is bad for your health and if you are doing it apart from His leading, He probably won't protect you from health consequences. One time I had completed a 21 day fast that God ordained for me. All of my friends were participating in a 40 day fast that high-profile Christian leadership had called. I think I felt bad about only getting a 21 day assignment when everyone else had a 40 day assignment. I had done what God asked of me and He was pleased. But my mind (maybe with some help from the enemy) began playing games with me. I became convinced that God wanted me to do a 21 day water-only fast, starting just a few days after my other fast ended. This was not God's direction for me, but I convinced myself that it was.

I found my energy level was extremely low, and I became easily depressed. Also, I found myself having shortness of breath and heart palpitations. If I would do really simple things like walk up a flight of stairs, my heart would be pounding for 10 or 15 minutes afterwards, and I would have trouble catching my breath. About 8 days into the water-only fast, I decided to go to bed early, around 6:30 PM. I climbed up the stairs to my bedroom and had another attack. My heart started racing something terrible and I could not seem to catch my breath. I laid in bed and wondered when my body would get back to normal. An hour passed and I still could not catch my breath or calm down my heart. So I called the doctor who told me to go to the emergency room at the hospital. When I got out of bed to get ready to go to the hospital, I started having some intense chest pain as well. I remembered being a bit scared and asking God if I was going to die.

My husband drove me to the hospital. The emergency room staff treated me as a heart attack and took me in right away. I was put on oxygen, which helped me to get my breath back. They ran all sorts of tests and put me on some very fancy monitoring equipment. They eventually decided that I had an electrolyte imbalance (probably caused by the fasting) and that some chemicals I needed to regulate my heart rate were missing, which was why it would not regulate -- In fact it was beating so fast that it was hardly pumping blood at all. The doctors thought it was due to a shortage of potassium and magnesium. I received all sorts of medication -- intravenously, orally and by shots. I was in the emergency room for about 7 hours and the ER doctor stopped by on three separate occasions to tell me that I almost died, but that he did not think there was permanent muscle damage to my heart. I was given all sorts of prescription medication and finally sent home. I had a follow-up appointment with my regular doctor a few days later, who gave me a really big lecture on the dangers of fasting and disturbing my electrolyte balance. Since then, if God calls me to any fast of 3 weeks or longer, I make sure I have a good multivitamin and potassium and magnesium supplements.

Even those of us who can hear God clearly can make mistakes in our hearing about fasting directions (like I did regarding this water-only fast shortly after finishing another fast). That is why it is always a very good idea to minimize long-term health problems by taking the vitamin and mineral supplements while we fast.

-- © GodSpeak International 2004 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from copyright@godspeak.org --

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