Cleansing vs Fasting Summary
Decades of research has found that a low- or no-fat diet or prolonged fasting can cause the gallbladder to not contract fully, leaving concentrated bile to form sludge and stones.
Ayurvedic cleanses employ a low-calorie diet of ghee, to force the gallbladder to fully empty, and a monodiet of kitchari. This supports the same benefits as fasting, including stem cell activation and autophagy (cell cleaning and repair).
Should I Try Fasting?
Cleansing, fasting, intermittent fasting, time-restricted eating, calorie restriction, and detox have all been trending in the last few years. For the health-conscious observer, choosing the “right” one for better health and longevity can be confusing, to say the least!
It is a little bit like the Wild West in natural health. A study on fasting that happened to win the Noble Prize1 was published in 2017 and a wave of bestselling fasting books were quickly written, followed by more and more folks seeking the benefits of fasting.
This is not the first time fasting has trended in the natural health world. Back in mid 1970s, I became a big fan of Paul and Patricia Bragg’s book, The Miracle of Fasting.3 All of a sudden, everyone I knew in my health nut world was fasting—doing 3, 5, 7, 10, 14 days on just water and a touch of honey.
Dangers of Fasting for Gallbladder Health
In 1985, after a decade-long trend of long fasting, a study came out suggesting some health risks. The study found that when the fast lasted from seven to 10 days, sludge accumulated in the gallbladder and bile ducts by the seventh day in seven out of 48 patients. Where the fast lasted 10 days, bile sludge built up in 12 out of 38.2 This was not everyone, but it was a significant enough finding that it was necessary to warn people.
Another study published way back in 1980 found a similar effect. They saw a rise in cholesterol saturation or bile sludge of hepatic and gallbladder bile with an overnight fast, but they found a fall in the cholesterol saturation index of gallbladder bile with a four- to six-day fast. This study found an initial increase in bile congestion and risk of gallstone formation in a short fast, which was reversed during a longer fast.4
Fasting Mimicking Diets + Ayurveda’s Fasting Alternative
Valter Longo, PhD, USC Longevity researcher and author of The Longevity Diet, modified prolonged fasting techniques in what he calls the Fasting Mimicking Diet. While there are well-documented benefits of prolonged fasting, his studies and others suggest risks. Compliance for prolonged fasting is also low, as most people find not eating for three to seven days an impossible task.
In 2007, a study reported that prolonged fasting was one of the primary causes of acute gallbladder attacks.5 Valter Longo said, “Studies are showing that if you fast every day for more than 12 hours, there’s an increased chance you’ll need your gallbladder removed, there’s a two-fold increased risk of needing a gallbladder operation.”6
Ayurveda designed calorie-restriction cleanses thousands of years ago that mimic fasting, but add small amounts of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. In fact, Valter Longo’s Fasting Mimicking Diet proved that a precise amount of calorie restriction could replicate the Nobel Prize science of fasting, while boosting regenerative stem cells!7
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Importance of Daily Gallbladder Contraction
The gallbladder needs fat to contract and expel stored bile. A no- or very low-fat diet has been linked to an increased risk of gallbladder disease. Fasting, according to the studies, may also increase that risk. It seems the gallbladder needs to be contracted on a daily basis to move out stagnant bile sludge.
Studies show we need that at least 10g of fat at each meal for the gallbladder to fully empty. Low-fat meals do not force the gallbladder to completely empty, making bile sludge and gallstones more likely.8 Studies show a diet containing essentially no fat (1-2g fat per day) results in increased production of cholesterol gallstones.
The gallbladder is a storage sac for bile made in the liver, storing bile 15-20x more concentrated than fresh bile the liver produces.9 Logically, one would assume that if we have stored super-concentrated bile, eating a low-fat diet or extended fasting would cause the bile to congeal, congest, and harden. That is exactly what studies have found.
We RecommendYour Gallbladder Needs Fat! But How Much?
If not careful, fasting can mimic negative gallbladder effects of a low-fat diet, as they both can inhibit gallbladder contraction. The more the gallbladder sits without regularly contracting and excreting stored bile, the greater risk of bile sludge (thick bile) and gallstones.10-14
Want to learn more? Watch my Cleansing vs Fasting podcast!