TCM and Fasting

“Abstinence and fasting cure many a complaint.” Anonymous

By Susan Tretakis For me and many others, this Tuesday is Yom Kippur. In English, Yom Kippur means “the Day of Atonement” and is considered the most important holiday in the Jewish faith. Yom Kippur marks the end of the 10 Days of Awe, a period of introspection and repentance that follows Rosh Hashanah.

“It is believed that those who repent from their sins will be granted a happy New Year. Many Jewish people spend time in the synagogue at this time of the year. Fasting lasts for 25 hours; it begins on the evening before Yom Kippur and ends after nightfall on Yom Kippur.”

My mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home; my father was the son of a Greek parents who were far less religious. Together my parents raised me in a Conservative home and most practices – including fasting on Yom Kippur – were dutifully followed. Then – as I reached my maximum hippie, rebellious stage – I withdrew from all religion – loudly citing the treatment of women, social issues, time constraints, etc., as reasons to “do my own thing”.

Ironically, it is my relatively recent study of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has made me understand the impact of my faith. Even more ironically, it is TCM that has made me see other than atonement, there are other values found in fasting.

“The purpose of fasting in Chinese medicine is to address stagnation, as stagnation prevents energy and blood circulating in the body. It mainly starts from food, but can also come from mental blockage related to emotions and trauma. According to TCM theory, illness occurs because the body is out of balance, which generally arises from two possibilities: deficiency or excess. Excess requires reduction, deficiency needs reinforcement. Despite being opposite conditions, deficiency and excess are actually closely related. For example, a person’s symptoms can show deficiency of, say, spleen energy: weight gain, feeling sluggish, low appetite, a little depressed. However, the cause may in fact be stagnation as a result of the person eating too much over a long period, which suppresses spleen function and causes deficiency of spleen energy. This means an excess of food in the gut is the cause of the problem, and so this person needs reduction or withdrawal treatment.”

Intermittent FastingIf the human body is similar to the cache in your computer, than it makes sense that periodically, your inner cache needs to be cleared. When food is absent there is no opportunity for stagnation; in essence, fasting permits a total body reset.

Fasting alone is not the perfect reset, Traditional Chinese Medicine reminds us that meditation and other thoughtful practices – such as attending Temple – is also beneficial.

Pi Gu is an ancient Chinese way of fasting. “According to TCM history, Pi Gu is a Taoist practice for the attainment of immortality”. While I don’t wish for immortality, I would love to outlast most of the service contracts on my appliances. And while I do not think that fasting will ever be my preferred way to spend 25 hours, I am intrigued by the Pi Gu practice that slowly leads to a cessation of eating. The practice says that if followed, we become more of one with our life force, our Chi (also spelled Qi).

“According to TCM, most disease is caused from intake of food through the mouth. This includes diet, virus, germ, and food pollution. If we want to have healthy bodies, we must have good diets. The best diet is to eat nothing from food. In the Pi Gu theory, it is believed that the food we eat changes into Chi and nourishes our lives. If we can take the Chi from the universe, this Chi will nourish us without the taking of food.” 

I find it interesting that it appears that from this ancient belief seeds were sown for what is quite popular now – and that is the practice of “intermittent fasting”. Wikipedia defines intermittent fasting “as an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It doesn’t specify which foods you should eat but rather when you should eat them. In this respect, it’s not a diet in the conventional sense but more accurately described as an eating pattern.”

“From a contemporary perspective, many functional medicine practitioners believe the benefits of semi-regular or intermittent daily fasting are profound – longer life, blood sugar regulation, better body composition, etc. In fact, intermittent may help regulate Spleen function. There is a theory that essence (jing) is stored in fat – as stem cells are derived from fat. Some TCM doctors and nutritionists see ketogenic diets as being essentially yang tonifying in nature – they are thermogenic, give a feeling of energy, etc. Eating low-carb eliminates the desire to take a nap for many people. Part of the inspiration comes from the Daoist practice of abstaining from grain – supposedly practiced by Daoist alchemists.”

Research on intermittent fasting is extremely compelling…

“Multiple studies have shown a link between intermittent fasting and a reduced risk of breast cancer. Intermittent fasting is thought to lower heart disease risk to by its ability to lower triglycerides and blood pressure as well as raising beneficial HDL cholesterol.   A fasting-mimicking diet of under 1,000 calories for 3 days cycles has shown to improve the symptoms associated with autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis as well as lupus. When it comes to managing blood sugar, intermittent fast takes center stage. With its proven ability to lower insulin and increase metabolism, most doctors recommends intermittent fasting their patients with blood sugar problems. Weight loss resistance can often be due to an underlying hormone imbalance. Leptin resistance occurs when your brain stops recognizing leptin’s signals to use your body’s fat stores for energy. This causes your body to store fat instead of using it. Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve chronic inflammation that can dull the brain’s leptin receptor sites. Research is in the process of studying how intermittent fasting curbs cravings, increases cognitive functions, improves lung health and helps heal the stomach.”  

To me, it’s interesting that the same organs that benefit from intermittent fasting are the same organs my acupuncturist is treating with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs. It’s also interesting to see how functional medicine continues to learn from – and apply principles from the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

As for me, I am still on a spiritual search – and I suspect I always be. I tend to cobble together a bit from the teachings of almost every religion. I know I believe in the Rule; I believe in kindness. I believe there is a power bigger than all of us. I know that I will always celebrate any holiday that includes love, kindness, friendship, laughter, food and/or gifts. That’s my inner hippie-dippie “hard wiring”; however, this year, I will participate in the Day of Atonement for both its original reason – as well as to kick start a new, healthy habit.

For those of you who fast – for either religious or health reasons, “May you have an easy fast.”

The Acupuncturists offer free consultations daily and serve the communities of Margate, Coconut Creek and Coral Springs Florida.



  1. Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center