In Judaism, fasting is thought to have a significant spiritual benefit. It helps us focus on our mortality and the value of life, while freeing us of physical concerns for one day so we can focus on our spiritual well being. However, the severe side effects of fasting can detract from the spiritual experience if they are too severe (or in the worst case scenario threaten our health). While discomfort, hunger pains, thirst and weakness are an expected side effect of the Yom Kippur fast, one need not dehydrate, faint or get sick while fasting. There are several ways to prepare yourself physically for a healthy fast.
The suggestions below will not prevent you from experiencing the spiritual and physical powers of the fast, but they will help minimize the discomforts so you can focus on prayer, teshuvah, and the meaning of Yom Kippur.
Two Weeks Before the Fast: Kick Your Bad Habits
Caffeine: For caffeine addicts, going without any caffeine on Yom Kippur can make the fast particularly challenging. Caffeine is technically an addictive drug, causing a chemical dependency that can trigger unpleasant withdrawal symptoms (headaches, fatigue, nausea, poor-motor skills, irritability, inability to concentrate, etc.) that compound the ordinary physical challenges of fasting. If you have a caffeine habit, it is best to prepare yourself for a caffeine free Yom Kippur several weeks in advance. Beginning at least two weeks before the holiday slowly reduce your caffeine consumption with the goal of stopping your caffeine intake 3-4 days before Yom Kippur. If you drink two cups of coffee a day, start by reducing this to one cup, then after a few days switch to half-caffeine before switching to decaf. This way you'll experience the withdrawal more gradually and hopefully be through the worst withdrawal symptoms prior to the holiday. Be sure to drink plenty of water during this time and get extra rest if you need to. You may even consider quitting altogether after the fast to avoid this problem in the future. After all, excessive caffeine consumption has been linked to a number of health and behavior issues, read more here.
Fatty/Sugary/Salty Foods: Generally these are the foods people crave during a fast, by reducing or eliminating these types of foods in the weeks before you'll help to reduce cravings during the fast.
Hydrate: While a healthy adult can generally survive for weeks without food, dehydration can set in within a few days. It's no surprise then that most of the discomfort of fasting is caused by lack of water not the lack of food. To help reduce the effects of dehydration during a fast it is critical to properly hydrate beforehand. Most of us do not drink enough water in our normal day-to-day routines, so it is even more critical to begin hydrating in the week before the fast. There are different formulas for proper hydration, but generally an adult at rest should be drinking about half their body weight in ounces of water per day (i.e. A 150 lb. man should be getting 75 ounces of water per day, or about 9.5 cups of water). The best source for hydration is water, though fluids can be obtained from a variety of sources. Beware caffeinated beverages and soft drinks though, caffeine actually causes your body to use more water, and so caffeinated beverages and soft drinks do not have the same hydrating power as an equivalent amount of water and can actually contribute to dehydration. Sports drinks like Gatorade or PowerAde are also beneficial as they replace electrolytes in addition to fluids, but for fast preparation hydrating with just water is fine.
Prescription Medication: If you take any prescription medications (or have any health conditions that fasting may impact or worsen), you should consult with your physician prior to undertaking any fast. You may need a reduced dosage during your fast or, depending on the medical issue involved, fasting may not be advisable. Your doctor is best equipped to answer these questions.
Day before the Fast: Final Preparation
Stay On Target: All of the steps taken to prepare in the week or two leading up to the fast should still be followed the day before:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and salty foods that will worsen the effects of not drinking and contribute to dehydration.
- Drink lots and lots of water. Stocking up on extra water will help stave off the effects of dehydration during the fast.
Eat Normal Sized Meals: While being well hydrated will help stave off the effects of dehydration, over eating will not stave off the effects of hunger and may make you more uncomfortable. The excess fluids needed for your body to process large meals may also lead to dehydration. Eat normal sized meals leading up to the fast and reduce the amount of proteins and fats as the day goes on.
Focus on Complex Carbs: Complex carbohydrates like those found in pasta, breads, rice, fruits, vegetables, and beans (legumes) are best for maintaining your body's muscle energy levels during the fast. This is why runners stock up on pasta the night before a marathon, but your body will get a similar benefit prior to a fast. In addition carbohydrates help your body absorb water more efficiently, so eating carbs will aid in staying hydrated during the fast. Proteins and fats do not have this same hydration benefit. Whole-grain products and fruits/vegetables that are high in fiber are best, as these will not only provide energy but are slower to digest and will keep you feeling fuller the longest.
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