Sunday, June 5, 2011

Metabolism of hunger strike Yoga should help, otherwise choose the right flashlight


June 3: If Baba Ramdev resists the UPA’s advances and presses ahead with more than a token fast, his self-professed yoga skills will also be put to the test.

The skills that the yoga televangelist has learnt and preached for years should help him handle his planned indefinite fast with relative ease and longer than it would be possible for untrained people, physiologists and yoga experts have said.

Ramdev, who claims to have a postgraduate degree in yoga, has threatened to begin an indefinite fast from tomorrow, though the government appeared optimistic about a turnaround in two days.

“Yoga allows a person to develop the discipline of detachment from everything, and that includes food,” said Lauren Manning, a South African yoga specialist at a yoga retreat in Portugal that offers fasting detoxification programmes, far from the feverish developments in New Delhi.

“It doesn’t mean the body does not need food — it’s just easier to go without food,” said Manning, who has been teaching yoga for 16 years. “Instead of thinking ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry’, the mind might just say ‘the sky is beautiful, the sky is beautiful’.”

But water is essential for anyone on a fast, physiologists caution. Without water, the body will experience dehydration.

Anna Hazare, in whose footsteps Ramdev is trying to follow, had sipped water during his fast. Ramdev has not yet specified if he would be drinking water. If he stays away from water, he can look up to Mamata Banerjee who survived a 25-day hunger strike that her party had described as “nirjala upas” (fast without water) in 2006.

Physiologists say the number of days a person can go without food depends on individual body metabolism and energy expenditure. Tragedy had often struck between 58 and 74 days. (See chart).

If such heroic and grim instances abound, so do tales of mirth springing from satyagraha hotspots. In Kerala, which can give Bengal some competition if a derby for protests is held, long-stemmed stainless steel flashlights used to be spotted beneath the mattresses in satyagraha tents. Legend has it that bananas as well as a cylindrical (and filling) delicacy called puttu used to replace the batteries in the
flashlights — a nocturnal fallback option that sheds light on the science-beating staying power of some satyagrahis.

Doctors say prolonged fasting initially leads to the breakdown of stored fats in the body. Then, if fasting is continued, proteins break down, which leads to the production of harmful molecules and to life-threatening physiological complications that eventually cause death.

“In general, a younger person or a person with a heavy body composition may tolerate fasting longer — but it depends on how robust the person’s metabolism is,” said Shashank Joshi, a consultant endocrinologist at a private hospital in Mumbai.

This is where yoga comes in. “A trained practitioner of yoga may be able to lower metabolism and reduce the energy expenditure,” said William Selvamurthy, a senior scientist with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation who has studied the physiological effects of yoga.

The fast-induced changes in body metabolism appear to involve a cascade of physiological pathways that originate in the brain, act through the pituitary gland, and touch the thyroid gland that plays a role in regulating metabolism, Selvamurthy said.

If the government is unable to dissuade Ramdev, it should be prepared for at least a 12-day haul. “Twelve or 13 days’ fasting with adequate intake of water is possible with relative ease,” said Ishwar Basavaraddi, director of the National Institute of Yoga.

For law-enforcers, force-feeding is an option. The standard medical intervention to prevent starvation or dehydration is intravenous feeding to correct the body’s electrolyte imbalance and deliver appropriate nutrition. The process is similar to the treatment given to severely ill patients who are unable to eat or drink.

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