How not to fast: Doctors, clerics, traditionalists speak on dangers of marathon fast

TADE MAKINDE, IMOLEAYO OYEDEYI and ADEOLA OTEMADE explore the phenomenon and spirituality of fasting, revealing that though people embark on fasting for different reasons, going for many weeks without food and water could cause serious health implications.

HAVING claimed to have been called by God, the late Evangelist Chidi Eke left his wife and two children in Lagos for his hometown in Imo State to pursue his ‘divine’ assignment. He had informed his friends and wife in the ‘Centre of Excellence’ that he would be starting his own ministry immediately after completing a spiritual exercise.

He told them that he was proceeding to the ‘wilderness’ for divine power before commencing his ministry, but little did he know that the 40-day dry fasting he was embarking on would send him to his early grave.  He left Lagos with his wife and two children bidding him goodbye, not knowing that was the last time they would be seeing him alive.

Upon getting to his village, the late Eke proceeded to the Eziala Nguru in Ngor Okpala council area of the state for the spiritual exercise. Starting off, he decided to first experiment with 21 days of dry fasting which he successfully completed. The success of the first phase emboldened him to proceed for the next 40 days. But perhaps, his body wasn’t prepared and/or mature enough for such exercise, the 46-year-old pastor gave up the ghost leaving his wife and children in agony.

Recently, a newspaper in Nigeria reported the death of a woman after she embarked on a two-month dry fasting in Sapele, Delta State. The unnamed woman, her husband, son, and a friend, locked themselves inside the house for two months to complete the 60-day fasting initiated by a family friend. All observing the fast took only water when necessary during the spiritual exercise. Sources said that while the mother lost her life due to the exercise, her son became emaciated.

According to the Wikipedia, “Fasting is the willful refrainment from eating for a period of time. In a physiological context, it may refer to the metabolic status of a person who has not eaten overnight, or to the metabolic state achieved after complete digestion and absorption of a meal.”

Fasting has been with the human race since time immemorial. Though it is well pronounced in religious circles, traditionalists and medical practitioners have also in one way or the other promoted it. Christians and Muslims, who investigations reveal practise fasting more, observe it in different ways.

However, Sunday Tribune gathered that the whole essence of fasting within the religious community is to make the human body yields more to God and less-indulgent in sin. Both Christians and Muslims generally see fasting as a potent weapon for spiritual warfare, according to findings by Sunday Tribune.

To an average Christian or Muslim, the fasting period brings him or her closer to God and prepares his or her body to receive spiritual direction from God. But there is more to this religious perspective about fasting.

The chairman of Ibadan North-Central auxiliary branch of Bible Society of Nigeria, Superior Evangelist Moses Sobowale, says fasting goes beyond just abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. According to him, “Fasting is the deliberate and conscious abstinence from eating, drinking or engagement in activities that defines humanity.”

Sobowale, who is also a cleric of Celestial Church of Christ (CCC), Eleyele Cathedral, Ibadan, Oyo State noted that people fast for personal pursuits and spiritual reasons.

“For personal pursuit, people fast when grieving, preparing for particular examination or working towards achieving a particular target; while for spiritual reasons people fast when seeking spiritual power or other things from God,” he said.

He also noted that: “People also fast when interceding for others and when obeying God’s mandate. You do this even if it warrants you going about barefooted. In CCC, this is what our mentor and founder, Reverend S.B.J. Oshoffa taught us. Though it has been argued in some quarters that Celestial faithful aren’t mandated to fast, this isn’t entirely untrue,” he added.

However, Reverend (Mrs) Omowumi Popoola of Word Communication Ministry, Onireke, Ibadan, believes that fasting shouldn›t be done to the extreme. She said, «I am not a medical practitioner, so I can›t really say much about the health issues relating to it, but in our church here in WOCOM, we tell our members to drink water irrespective of the kind of fasting they might be observing. I personally don›t exceed three days of marathon fasting and I drink water in between, while I have never seen my husband fast for more than seven days and he also drinks water in between. Any fasting that you observe and it affects your health should be checked. Some go on fasting for long days, but what really matter is the motive behind your fasting.»

Another cleric and pastor of World Assembly, Mr. Archiles Edward, believes that fasting should be led by God.

“I (once) fasted for 70 days, which was not a marathon; I had breaks in between, it was only Jesus that fasted for 40 days and which was a marathon. Fasting should be inspired by the Holy Spirit,” he said.

In Islam fasting is regarded as one of the great ways a Muslim can seek the face of Allah. Reporting the teachings of Prophet Muhammad SAW on fasting, Abu Hurairah said, the Prophet SAW said:“Allah says (which means): Every human practice is for him except fasting, fasting for me.” (Bukhari).

According to an Islamic scholar, who is also the General Secretary of National Council Muslim Youth Organisations (NACOMYO), Alhaj Mas’ud Akintola “there is nothing like  dry fasting in Islam. Religious rituals have rules guiding them. They must be done in accordance with the laid-down rules and as stipulated by the prophets.”

But fasting is not only restricted to Islam and Christianity. The traditional religion practitioners claimed they also observe spiritual cleansing by fasting. Also sharing his viewpoints, a lecturer at the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, Dr Bifatifemi, who was the public relation officer of International Council for Ifa Religion and editor of all the publications of Ifa council, Adeseye said, “fasting is all about abstaining from a particular thing. In Ifa corpus, people consult Ifa to know about the year ahead, the things they are meant to abstain from among others. Let me use myself as an example.

“I was told to abstain from eating ram and for the past 22 years, I have not eaten ram. Also, I was told not to drink alcohol and I am not to dance for the next one year. Anything that you were told to abstain from in Ifa, is fasting.  Some might be for life; some might be for a particular period of time. Most of these dos and don›ts are taboos, and once you go against the taboos, you face the consequences. So fasting should be done for the sole purpose of abstaining from a particular thing and also to avert whatever impending evil that might want to happen,» he added.


Physicians speak

From medical point of view, Dr Oluwaseun  Aluko  of Maxcare Hospital, Ring Road, Ibadan, said he was not surprised that someone could die in the process of long fasting.  Dr Victor Adeyefa of All Souls Hospital, Elebu, Ibadan, also agreed that fasting can kill.

“Fasting has been defined as a deliberate abstinence from all or some foods or drinks for a set period of time, usually for a religious reason in this part of the globe. It contrasts with starvation whereby individuals though desire to eat and drink but was denied these for whatever reason.

“When prolonged beyond what an individual’s physiological make-up can cope with, fasting can kill. When it triggers severe metabolic imbalance in an observer with background contraindicated medical condition, e.g diabetes, peptic ulcer diseases, etc, fasting could be dangerous,” Dr. Aluko told Sunday Tribune.

Asked if prolonged fasting could lead to death, Dr Adeyefa said: “Yes, one could die from fasting if not careful.”

Speaking further, Dr. Adeyefa said food and water gives us energy and “it is like a phone without battery or cars without fuel. Both won’t work. Since human energy source is water and food, when one runs empty on it, death is certain. I am surprised that a woman who wanted to fast for 60 days even survived for 20 days without both food and water.

“When we walk, run, dance, or do anything, we are able to do it because we have something in our stomachs.  Without food and water, the kidneys will pack up. The way man has been made, it is impossible to live without food and water for some time,” he added.

Dr Aluko also told Sunday Tribune that the duration of time of survival without food and water varies with individual›s physiology and background medical conditions.  He, however, agreed that fasting is good for certain group of people for health reasons, noting that medically it is not usually indicated for children (below puberty); the aged (above 65 years); pregnant or lactating mothers, or anyone with certain background medical conditions such as diabetes, malnutrition, peptic ulcer diseases, etc.

“Fasting is good for obese individuals for weight control. It is also good for those at risk of heart disease, Type 2 (Adult onset) diabetes, degenerative brain diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson›s diseases, etc). It has also been found helpful in prevention and slowing down of cancerous diseases when applied appropriately.”

Lending his own voice to the debate, Dr. Adeyefa, added that sick people and old people should be exempted.

“A pregnant woman eats for two; herself and the baby she’s carrying, so, she should not fast. As for old people, they naturally don’t eat much, they also should not fast,” he said.

To be sure about whether or not to embark on the exercise whether for spiritual or medical reasons, Aluko advised people to consult medical experts

“Ideally, absolute fasting without food or water should not last beyond 72 hours (three days), but intermittent fasting can last as long as few weeks with intermittent return to routine/normal pattern of diet,” he said.

For those who believe that fasting is a ‘must do’ exercise, Aluko also said “there is nothing as a must or compulsory exercise when it comes to fasting. It is a matter about life or death and humans will naturally choose to live. Fasting can never be compulsory.”

Dr Adeyefa agreed that fasting should not be compulsory.

“Right now, Moslems are fasting and they don’t need to see doctors before they do that because they eat twice in between the fast; early in the morning and late evening. It is not a total fast,” he said.




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