How the Baha’i Fast Can Improve Our Microbiome

Throughout history, many of the world’s religions — Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Sikhism, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith — have all recommended and practiced an annual period of fasting. 

Baha’is observe their annual fasting period during the daylight hours for nineteen days in early March, ending each year on the vernal equinox — the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Baha’is who fast — those over the age of 15 and under the age of 70 — voluntarily abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Individuals who are ill, pregnant, nursing, traveling, or doing heavy labor are exempt. For Baha’is everywhere in the world, the annual Fast is considered a time for spiritual as well as physical renewal, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

… fasting is conducive to spiritual awareness. One’s heart grows more tender, one’s spirituality is increased, and as a result one’s thoughts become purely focused on the remembrance of God. Such awareness and awakening leads inexorably to spiritual progress. …

The material fast consists in abstaining from food and drink, that is, refraining from satisfying the physical appetites. But the true and spiritual fast is for man to forsake covetous desires, heedlessness, and evil and animalistic attributes.

RELATED: The Physical and Spiritual Impact of the Baha’i Fast

However, many believers in various Faiths simply follow the rule of fasting out of love and obedience to the holy messengers, without really understanding the health benefits or wisdom behind fasting. Currently, though, with the latest scientific knowledge, we’re beginning to understand that fasting can and does have significant health benefits. 

I remember that when fasting during my younger years, I would only eat Nutella with milk for breakfast, and then after sunset, I would bring out all the candy bars I had saved. Now, does that sound healthy? Hardly.

But fortunately, today with my training in Functional Medicine and our increasing knowledge about the microbiome and gut health, I’ve begun to better understand the importance and impact of nutrition. 

For those who don’t know what the microbiome is, here’s the dictionary description from Merriam-Webster: “A community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment and especially the collection of microorganisms living in or on the human body.”

The human body harbors trillions of microorganisms — in fact, we have 10 times more microbes than human cells. But the vast majority of these microbes, some 100 trillion, reside in our gut, the digestive tract. These microbes in the gut have many important functions beyond metabolizing and extracting energy from food. Studies have shown that the microbiome may also help regulate 70 to 80 percent of our immune system, help produce hundreds of neurochemicals such as serotonin, which influences mood and brain function, and actually manufacture certain essential vitamins, such as vitamins B and K.

For me personally, the most fascinating aspect of the microbiome is its direct link to our brain and even brain development in infancy and childhood. Our digestive tract is often referred to as our “second brain.” So, what happens in your gut microbiome can directly influence what happens in your brain.

For the gut microbiome to perform optimally, we need to feed it properly. The microbiome is viewed as our “inner ecosystem,” and ecosystems survive on balance and synergy. Much of our Western lifestyle, our eating habits, and our exposure to drugs and environmental chemicals can disturb the balance of our gut microbiota, and that may produce negative health consequences in the long run. 

As a result of all this, I’m personally committed to paying more attention to my own gut microbiome during this year’s Baha’i Fast. But before I explain how I intend to do that, please note: the recommendations I’m giving here are only for educational purposes — they do not apply to everyone! Your diet, and your fasting practice, should be individualized and adjusted depending on your unique medical and metabolic profile. Any diet regimen you intend to start should be discussed with your doctor. 

Anyway, I’ve begun to wonder: how does fasting impact the microbiome and our health? Science still has a great deal to learn about the microbiome, but here are just a few examples that have surfaced so far in preliminary scientific research:

  • Fasting can increase the diversity of the microbiota. A healthy microbiota has higher diversity than an unhealthy microbiome!
  • Fasting can reduce inflammation. The gut microbiome can be a source of systemic inflammation, which may trigger some chronic diseases.
  • Fasting can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Our gut microbiome consists of beneficial and pathogenic bacteria, and a healthy gut microbiota should have more of the beneficial bacteria than the pathogenic. 
  • Fasting may improve gut barrier function. Some might have heard the term “leaky gut” or “dysbiosis” — this happens when the gut lining is compromised, causing harmful substances from the digestive tract to escape into the bloodstream, which can activate heightened immune reactions.
  • Fasting can help induce increased autophagy, an important process that removes damaged cells from the body.

Here are the foods I’ll be adding during the fast and the ones I plan to eliminate to maximize the health and balance of my gut microbiome:

  1. One week before the start of the fast I’ll cut out processed sugars and simple carbohydrates, such as sweets, pastries, sodas, white rice, white four, chips, and anything containing high fructose corn syrup — all of the “high glycemic index” foods and beverages. I admit this will be especially challenging because the Baha’i Intercalary Days festivities happen right before the beginning of the Fast — which means many gatherings and parties. However, I think cutting out sugars in advance of the Fast may ease my transition into fasting by minimizing insulin spikes. Also, I might not get the headaches that many get during the first few days of fasting.
  1. Both before and during the Fast, I plan to consume more probiotics (good bacteria) and prebiotics (fiber), two of the most important nutrients for the gut microbiome. Probiotics prevent the “bad” bacteria from overgrowing. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh are good sources of probiotics. If you for any reason do not want those foods, you can buy probiotics as supplements.

RELATED: Fasting: The Time of Spiritual House Cleaning

Prebiotics, which are basically fiber, are very important for gut health. There are many sources of fiber such as vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Some foods with the highest fiber content are split peas, lentils, beans, avocado, berries, chia and flax seeds. (However, I need to be mindful that switching to a high fiber diet can initially produce a lot of gas and bloating.)

  1. During the Fast, I plan to enjoy the “healthy fats” that have proven to be beneficial for brain health, cardiovascular health, and more: olive oil, fish oil, avocado, nuts, etc. Lately, chia seeds have become my favorite ingredient because they not only contain plenty of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but they’re also a great source of fiber and protein. (No Nutella, though!)
  1. One of the main physical reasons I fast each year is to detoxify my body from chemicals and toxins. For me, this is best accomplished by adding many antioxidants into my diet: turmeric/ curcumin, green tea/matcha, berries, pomegranates, dried fruits, dark chocolate, kale, beets, etc. Some people also choose to add supplements, such as liposomal glutathione, vitamin C, Quercetin, or Resveratrol. I also try to only eat organic foods that are not sprayed with chemicals. 

I plan to implement this four-step guide myself this year. Of course, knowing what to do is usually easier than actually doing it, but nevertheless, the path always starts with knowledge.

More important than all of this, for Baha’is, is the principle that the fasting period represents a time of spiritual transformation and growth, during which we focus particularly on prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and improving our inner character. Baha’u’llah wrote:

Even though outwardly the Fast is difficult and toilsome, yet inwardly it is bounty and tranquility. Purification and training are conditioned and dependent only on such rigorous exercises as are in accord with the Book of God and sanctioned by divine law, not those which the deluded have inflicted upon the people. Whatsoever God hath revealed is beloved of the soul. 

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