Back in February, Shaun Mathen, DO, joined us for a panel discussion on a topic that is a mission and a passion for all of us: integrative medicine. During this discussion (which also included Lynn Batalden, DPT, acupuncturist/herbalist Pat Faivre, counselor Sue Ouellette, and natural cook Jo Cessna), Dr. Mathen talked about nutrition, lifestyle, and the importance of fasting for overall health.
Integrative medicine makes use of both conventional and alternative therapies, taking into account the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. As a physician with the KishHealth System, Dr. Mathen applies his interests in nutrition, osteopathic medicine, and complementary medicine to help patients heal and reach their healthiest potential. We recently sat down with Dr. Mathen to explore the benefits of fasting in a little more detail. We also discuss his interest in Ayurvedic medicine and how this ancient system informs his modern practice.
You, Dr. Mathen, are a big proponent of fasting.
Yeah. I think good health requires fasting. Everyone needs a vacation, right? But is there ever a “vacation” for your guts, for your intestines? In fact, when people go on vacation, the intestines probably do more work, because they eat more! If there’s ever a time when the body needs rest, the most important systems that need the rest are the organs of detoxification. So if people can fast on a regular basis, I think they’d be healthier.
You mentioned detoxification. What are the benefits of fasting?
Is there data on this?
Yes. They do studies on animals all the time regarding calorie-restricted diets and diets of animals that are unrestricted. Animals with nutritious, calorie-restricted diets live longer than those animals of the same species that eat as much as they want. The animal that eats as much as it wants dies faster. You can Google it.
What would you tell, say, someone with diabetes, or someone who is on several medications about fasting?
The biochemical processes involved with diabetes mean too much sugar, right? We’re talking here specifically about diabetes type 2. The people who have diabetes type 2 have something called insulin resistance, where you are taking in a certain amount of energy—sugar—and it’s not being absorbed because the insulin that sends the blood sugar into the tissues, into the cells, doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to. The cells are resistant to that insulin; they don’t respond to it anymore.
Why? You have to ask the question: Why don’t the cells want the sugar like they used to? Maybe this is the body saying “We have too much. We need to cut back.” See, the body is too smart. The body knows what it’s doing. We have to look back, consciously, and say “Maybe I should stop eating. The body doesn’t need it.” And the system might work better. We know that to be true if those with diabetes type 2; if they lost weight, their condition will improve. We know that if they eat much less than they used to, and lose significant weight, their diabetes can actually go away.
But what about those on certain types of medication, where those medications are specified to be taken with meals?
It all depends on your condition. But fasting, in general, only improves your health. Just think about it: the purpose of the liver is to filter what you eat and repackage it, re-process it, making new proteins and other substances for the bloodstream to carry to the tissues and the body. So if the liver had a break, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
And the kidneys are always filtering the blood. Yes, you’re drinking water, but if you stop eating, there will be less new material to be filtered and the kidneys can simply worry about the waste products that are coming out of the tissues to be filtered. It will have less work to do. So if organs like the liver and the kidneys have a break every so often, it’s a good thing—they’ll work better!
How would you recommend approaching a fast, especially for someone who hasn’t done one before?
Most importantly, make sure that the day you are doing the fast you aren’t doing anything else. A weekend, for example. The worst thing to do would be to try a fast on a busy day of the week where you have a lot of obligations. You may not know how to respond to all the changes you’re feeling internally and externally. You might feel some irritation internally, and then express that irritation externally to someone you maybe shouldn’t be expressing it to! (laughs)
Say you have a day off, maybe a Saturday, maybe you have a few things to do around the house. It’s much easier to do a fast on a day like that than on a typical working day.
You’re not going to be encountering some inordinate stress that causes you to decide, OK, I’d better eat, because I’m getting really grumpy, here.
Right. And so someone who starts fasting may realize that their emotions are tied to certain things they eat. There’s an emotional connection to eating; some people eat emotionally. Food makes them feel a certain way. And one of the benefits of fasting, after you’ve done it a few times, is that maybe you can create a distance between how you feel and treating that emotion with food.
It sounds like you’re getting into the territory of mindfulness, here. I know when you came to our integrative medicine panel event, you had talked about when you come home from work, you might be really hungry. And you’d say, hold on, I’m going to go meditate for a while—and then that powerful pull to eat goes away. That sounds like a mini-fast, in a way, that you are removing that compulsion to get a quick fix of eating. Is that something you talk about with patients?
Oh, yeah, I do that often. I tell people that we have to know why we eat. It’s very important that we eat for the right reasons. If we come home from work—or even eating breakfast in the morning—the whole idea is that is that if you quiet the mind before you eat, you’ll eat and you’ll digest much more efficiently than if you eat with your mind clouded with all these fears, worries, obligations…you eat for the wrong reasons.
In American culture, and all over the world, traditionally people might say some form of grace before they eat. The whole idea for doing that comes from creating that sort of quietness before you eat. You’re not taking the food for granted. It doesn’t have to be a social thing, it can be a private thing—creating that environment of calm where you let go….But even after saying grace, some people might start watching television or look at their cell phone, whatever—well, that changes your mental state. When you watch TV, your mentality is different. You’re allowing something else to change how you feel. When we flip through the phone, go through Facebook, we’re actually looking for something that makes us feel good. Watching a video of a dog ride a bicycle—it’s entertaining. But maybe on the way to that video you encounter something that irritates you. You know, you might see that the Bears lost on ESPN.
Why is something entertaining? Because we let it. Why is something irritating? Because we let it. So we’ll allow these things to manipulate us—and then we eat food! And that’s going to affect our digestion. So it’s very important that when we eat, we just eat. It’s healthier. We’ll feel better.
Is one day an effective period for a fast? Or would you recommend a longer period: a weekend, three days?
That’s up to the individual and what they’re trying to achieve, but for the average person, I’d say one day a week is a great thing to do. It really challenges a person to get out of what they’re used to, get out of their routine, and look at food in a different light.
I understand you are taking a course in Ayurvedic practice right now?
Yes, it’s a two-year program out in Milwaukee; it’s a school called Kanyakumari Ayurveda. It’s like a wellness center, actually. You know, there’s just a lot of advice out there about how to eat. And it comes out to the public, like, “Well, you have to eat this way, like a one-size-fits-all approach to eating—“
When you search online for “fasting,” for example, it’s all about weight loss. It’s not necessarily about boosting the immune system, or giving the body a break. And it seems like that’s the primary motivation with all these diets.
Right. What you learn in Ayurveda is that every body is different; and because everybody is different, not everyone is meant to eat the same way. And that’s new for me, in a sense, when I look at all the advice out there about a “healthy diet.” In the medical field, we tend to tell everyone the same thing: “eat from this kind of food pyramid” and so on. And what we really should be doing is seeing how a single person is and giving specific advice to that individual based on who they are. In one family, you’ll have one person with one condition, another person with another condition. Not everyone gets the same condition, but you know what? They all probably eat very similar meals, yet they still have these different conditions. Everyone has a different genetic makeup. And if everyone has a different genetic makeup, maybe everyone should be eating differently.
There are sciences, there are studies, but Ayurveda is an ancient thing. It’s not modern; it’s ancient. Ayurveda’s long history means it has a lot of experience with understanding how people should be eating based on their constitution. It’s a qualitative medicine, not a quantitative medicine. Western medicine is quantitative: you need blood tests, you need numbers, data. Ayurveda is qualitative, so it has a different approach to advising people. That’s what appeals to me—it’s personal.