Foods and Herbs to Prepare for a Fast

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Yom Kippur is coming and people will be fasting.  I was asked to put together some information on what will allow people to have a good fast that will allow them to focus on the meaning of the holiday without keeling over from blood sugar fluctuations.  Here are a few tips to keep the fast from debilitating you and to keep hunger pains from being a major distraction.  (You will still know you are fasting.):

  • In the weeks preceding Yom Kippur consider shrinking your stomach by reducing portion size.  You can get used to less food intake which will lessen the shock.
  • From the first of Elul, reduce carbohydrates like bread and sugar.  This allows your body to get used to not depending on regular sugar rushes. (Starches become sugar within minutes.)
  • Keep those honey cakes and sugary treats for a sweet new year to the first part of the 10 days before Yom Kippur and only take a little starch the day before. You don’t want to have huge fluctuations in blood sugar.
  • The day before eat proteins and fats that will not cause your blood sugar to rise and crash. You can prepare with either a meat or dairy meal. Eggs, beans, fish, cheese, chicken, quality meat if you can get it, nuts, butter, and avocado will help maintain your blood sugar.  
  • Start the meal with a mineral-rich soup.
  • Eat foods with fiber to slow your gastric emptying. Vegetables and fruits that are not too sweet will work. Cooling vegetables like cucumber, okra and celery are especially good because they soothe the stomach fire, cabbage and greens also help.
  • Salt, which you may normally not want too much of, will allow your body to retain the water. (People who have hypertension avoid salt because more water in the blood raises blood pressure.)   But if you don’t have high blood pressure it will help you through the fast. Sea salt is best because it contains other minerals.  Don’t overdo it though or it may carry fluids out.
  • Hydrate yourself.  Significant sources of caffeine, like coffee, cola or black tea may keep your tissues from being hydrated during the fast as they pass through rapidly without hydrating as well. Drink slowly, a half cup at a time so as to not trigger urination and your tissues will hydrate better.
  • Start tapering off on coffee or tea starting from Rosh Hashanah or the first of Elul.  You can usually drink a small amount coffee without causing addiction headaches.  Caffeine addiction causes headaches with abrupt withdrawal.
  • Stay away from places with food during the fast.  At least in the synagogue, everyone else is in the same boat.
  • If your mouth is dry, suck on a small pebble to stimulate salivary glands.  A traditional trick that works!
  • A nap between services can increase your stamina.
  • Break your fast with fluids first.  The traditional dates work well to bring your blood sugar up, but follow with protein and fat.

Herbs to help the day before:

Take your herbs in a tea form, because the water will fill you. But you want to SIP your liquids, because if you gulp more than a half cup at a time it will trigger your urinary reflexes, which defeats the point.

  • Drink peppermint or other kinds of mint tea. The cooling mint will calm the stomach.
  • Slippery elm bark or marshmallow root powder in applesauce help slow intestinal transit time.
  • Hoodia probably won’t help. Eating fresh hoodia gordoni, which is an African succulent, will reduce the appetite. But we don’t have evidence one way or another that taking a pill form will reduce appetite. And the amount of hoodia on the market exceeds the amount grown by a very large factor, so chances are good that you are getting something other than what the label says.
  • Green tea, stinging nettles and burdock root are appetite suppressant
  • Gymnema sylvestri will keep your blood sugar stable, but is not recommended for long term use because it can worsen the insulin resistance of the cells. Using it for Yom Kippur on the other hand is a good short term use.
  • The point is to fast, not to suffer the most.  There should be some discomfort but it should neither be overwhelming nor injurious to health.

Have a productive fast!  Tzom kasher!

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