Odoemena: The health benefit of Lent
Thursday, 15 March 2012 00:00  By Cosmas Odoemena  Opinion  –  Columnists

RECENTLY a fellow came to me to ask how he could stop smoking. Know what I told him? I said, “Fast my friend, fast.” Smoking is just one. Bad habits or vices – we have many of them, I won’t mention them – are usually deeply entrenched. We are slaves to them. They control us. And more often than not, much as we would want to kick them, we lack the willpower to do so.  We need that extra or if you like supernatural force to help us. During this season of Lent, we have a good opportunity to harness the immense power that can only be found in Lent, and in all therein.

To be sure, I am not a religious zealot, and I do not pontificate, and won’t proselytise. But certain things cannot be trifled. Jeffery Kluger thinks so too. Writing in TIME he said, “When it comes to good-time holidays, Lent does not rank very high. Nor do Ramadan or Yom Kippur, of course, and no wonder. They are all about saying no to something (or many things) you love. Where is the eggnog and holiday joy in all that? But we observe these less-than-festive celebrations all the same – and we have good reason to do so. There are hidden benefits to so much ritualised self-denial.”

According to Kluger, willpower, a quality that can be in short supply in everyone of us, is now more seen as cultivatable. Willpower is best seen as a kind of psychic muscle that can atrophy or grow stronger, depending on how we use it. In addition, neurologists and behavioural psychologists generally think of willpower as “domain general”, and that means that the more you use it to control one aspect of your life the more it starts to work on other parts of your life.

Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University and author of, well, Willpower, conducted experiments where the subjects were given uncomfortable tasks to perform in a laboratory, for example holding their hand in ice water or squeezing an exercise grip. Then they were sent home and given a random rule to observe for two weeks, not swearing, or let’s say using the non-dominant hand for certain things like opening doors. After a while, they returned to the laboratory. It was found that those subjects who had been told to observe a rule and had followed it did better on their ice water or hand grip task when they did dry them again, than a control group that had not been given any homework. And it turned out that the two weeks of practising resolve rubbed off on other situations of their lives.

“An Australian group did something similar,” says Baumeister. “They had people work on a problem in their lives – like managing money – for two weeks. Then they came back and had to focus on a computer task that involved catching three moving triangles while a distracting comedy video played. Doing the work at home seemed to improve their motivation in the lab.”

How this works has still not been ascertained. “Both exercise and meditation lead to greater neuron density in the prefrontal cortex,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of the new book The Willpower Instinct. That is where executive skills and judgement live. McGonigal feels that regular training at a set goal “train up the skill set involved in self-awareness and practising habits consistent with your goals.” Being conscious of adhering to “something” and practising it regularly makes religious observances that prescribe strict rituals of denying ourselves of certain things very powerful. When you are in Lent and you crave for something and can resist it, an inner force builds in you, and it tells you you are in control of yourself and what is around you and not the other way. It is a commitment fulfilled. It is a perfect way to cultivate discipline which is unfortunately lacking in many of us. It can be a liberating feeling. The same feeling goes for Muslims in Ramadan.

Now, apart from quitting smoking, and other unsavoury habits, fasting itself is known to have other health benefits. It promotes detoxification. As our fat stores break down, stored toxins are mobilised and eliminated. Imagine working without rest. That is what happens to the digestive system as long as we keep gobbling. Fasting allows the digestive system a much-needed rest. And as a reward, after fasting, digestion and elimination are invigorated.

Fasting helps clear the skin and make the eyes whiter. It is very common to see skin eruptions disappear while fasting.

In this era of obesity and – diabetes, what can be more useful than any way out of a malady? With fasting there is usually appreciable weight loss which helps control diabetes especially the Type II. For those who are battling weight problems, and concomitant arthritis, the first to tell you thank you are your joints. And you would be surprised, if you fast long enough, to realize you lost the weight without feeling hungry! And in especially rheumatoid arthritis, fasting helps promote the resolution of inflammatory processes, which is the hallmark of the disease.

For asthmatics, and those with hay fever it helps quieten allergic reactions. Fasting will promote greater mental clarity, and improve our emotions and give you an inner stillness. Fasting makes you physically light and increase physical and mental energy levels.

I will not leave without some clarifications and words of caution. There is the so-called Dry Fasting, also called Absolute Fast, Black Fast, and Hebrew Fast. It is extreme form of fasting where the person goes without water. It is said to be for “spiritual clarity and/or union”. Some who do this have experienced extreme weakness and lethargy, photophobia, dizziness and feeling of depletion. Assuredly I tell you, there is no special gain or even grace from risking dehydration, and even death. It is ok to experience thirst for a few hours but prolonged periods of not taking water is putting your Lord thy God to the test. Fasting is strictly avoiding food. When you do not take water it is not fasting, but abstinence from water. There are many things in life to abstain from that will gain you more grace than abstaining from water. There is no heroism about it. Food can be avoided for considerable length of time because it is pleasurable, just like sex, and that is why it is written that man shall not live by bread alone. In these modern times of increased pollution, toxins find their way into our system, no matter how careful we are. A dry fast may cause toxins to be released easily and there will be less fluid to carry them away. Hard metals into the system are most damaging.

Fasting should be done without any risk to our health. By fasting and observing the ordinances of Lent – or any religious fast – you beam a searchlight of extraordinary grace and blessing on yourself.

Goat head pepper soup and chilled stout? No, thank you.

• Dr. Odoemena, a medical practitioner, lives in Lagos

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