“A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors.”
Introduction to Fasting
Fasting is the practice of restricting food intake. Fasting can take many forms. There are juice fasts, water fasts, liquid protein fasts, religious fasts, etc. There are also various duration-based forms of fasting. Intermittent fasting(restricted time-eating windows), prolonged fasts(no calorie intake), and variants in-between.
Why would one subject themselves to hunger and deprive themselves of nutrition? When done right, fasting as a strong therapeutic effect. The benefits of fasting vary quite wildly. Some do it for religious reasons, spiritual reasons, or to raise awareness for a cause. Most do it for health benefits.
“To Lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals. The best of all medicines is rest and fasting.” –Benjamin Franklin.
Fasting isn’t for everyone. Its challenging and requires a basic level of discipline. It also requires diligent research and/or guidance. Benefits vary by individual. The people that benefit the most fit a certain profile. These people are overweight/obese, stressed, over 30, and have had an acidic/non-organic diet for a long time. Typically they are high-risk for cancer/disease. The major benefit is purging pre-cancerous cells and detoxing toxins/heavy metals. I figure most people that read this won’t fit that profile.. but there are gains to be made by nearly everyone. Your average western yogi will benefit from a fast.
Benefits of Prolonged Fasting
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be focusing on water-fasting. These are fasts where ~0 calories are consumed and only water is drank. It seems that the industry considers “prolonged” to be 5-days or greater. There are some well-known potential benefits of prolonged water fasts. Before I begin.. Disclaimer; I’m not a doctor, and I’m not prescribing fasting programs– consult a professional before fasting. I’m passing on knowledge from my experiences and doctors/teachers that I’ve studied. I will provide links to sources along the way.
The well-known benefits of fasting:
Weight loss: The body goes into a state of ketosis and uses body fat for energy.
Immune system regeneration: More effective immune system, reduced inflammation, longer lifespan
Increases neurogenesis: New brain cells
Improved cell regeneration: Autophagy is the bodies process of clearing out and recycling damaged cells and/or free radicals. Through this process, fasting has been shown to purge pre-cancerous cells.
Fasting is good for general detoxification. In modern foods, there are high levels of.. well, poison. Antibiotics are used to keep animals from getting sick. When we digest animals that have been treated with antibiotics, we digest these poisons. Toxins, such as heavy metals, are stored in the fats of food– most notably fish like salmon/tuna/sardines(arsenic, yum!). When we eat fish, we digest these toxins. Pesticides are used to keep plants from getting “sick”. When we eat plants, we digest Pesticides. When we digest these poisons, often will be stored in the human body in our fat. Once stored, humans roam around with these toxins in our meat suits. A fast can detox the body of these poisons.
There are many lesser-known benefits of fasting. I’d like to write about these, as I don’t see these benefits mentioned in google-searches or by health magazines. I found these out from my experience. The process of fasting can change one’s relationship towards food. Going without food for an extended period of time can provide a sense of gratitude for food. It can improve one’s experience of eating. It’s hard to appreciate the sweet without the sour.
Fasting can influence the perception of hunger. Many of us think that when we feel hungry, our body needs food. This is not entirely true. Hormones play a pivotal role in the perception of hunger. Hormones(primarily leptin, ghrelin, cortisol, and estrogen) send signals to our body that can impact the feeling of hunger. Stress, poor sleep, and other factors influence these hormones and can be signaling hunger to the body. In addition, habits have an impact on hormones(and in turn, hunger). Consider a construction worker who eats three meals a day at the same times during the work-week. On the weekend, they barely expend any energy– they sit back on the couch and relax. On Sunday evening their body may not need food for energy, but the hormonal cycle(primarily, a timely spike in ghrelin) will signal hunger to the body at the regular eating time. It’s important to note here that his body doesn’t need energy, but it feels “hunger”.
In moments of emotional weakness, many of us have turned to food. The classic is consuming heaps of ice cream to deal with the loss of a loved one. Most of us resort to this under dire circumstances, but some people develop habits of eating to deal with regularly occurring emotions. For instance, some people will habitually eat food to deal with emotions such as anxiety, boredom, or anger. Over time, these habits develop into a routine, and they sink below conscious awareness. Eventually, people don’t realize they are eating to suppress emotions. A prolonged fast can provide the opportunity to explore the role our emotions and habits have on the eating process. Ideally, this may help people realize that what they considered hunger was actually an emotional response, and real hunger is something entirely different. This subject is covered well by Loren Lockman. Loren operates a fasting center in Costa Rica and claims to have cured people of cancer, MS, lyme, and other diseases/ailments. He has a video where he dives deep on fasting and emotional healing.
“If physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
There is the right way to fast, and the wrong way. The key to success is rest. Resting provides an environment for the subconscious/unconscious to express itself. Resting is not social media. Resting is not watching youtube videos or TV binging game of thrones. Resting includes lying/sitting in a comfortable position, meditation, listening to music, reading, and/or light exercise(such as walking/stretching/light yoga).
The most wide-spread misconception is that hunger will continue to get worse during a prolonged fast. This is simply not true. Hunger peaks around day2 or day3. After this, hunger subsides. This information tends to be met with surprise. I’ll give a brief overview on this. Remember, hunger is linked to hormonal activity and other internal functions. On normal diets, people use food for glucose-based energy. After 48-72 hours of fasting, the body stops requesting glucose-based energy and starts to consume stored body fat for energy. The hunger fades(until you run out of body fat!). In 1965, a morbidly obese man fasted for 382 days. He lost 275.5 pounds, which is to say his body used 275.5 pounds worth of fat for energy. In a 1983 article on “Starvation” George Cahill notes that glucose requirements fall drastically during fasting. He also notes that protein consumption falls ~60-80%.
Dr. Dominic D’Agostino is a professor and research scientist. He also deadlifted 500-pounds(227kg) for 10-repetitions at the end of a 7-day water fast. Many people believe water fasts result in a rapid muscle-mass loss. The evidence suggests otherwise. When the body is in a fasted state, mechanisms are activated. Most notably, fasting results in a massive release of human growth hormone(~endogenous steroids). The impact of fasting on hormones can be seen here:
As you can see, “Growth Hormone” sees a large, rapid increase. Insulin rapidly drops in the early stages and stays well below the baseline.
A study published in 1982 followed a patient who did a 40-day fast. His Human Growth Hormone increased by 1250%. A shorter 5-day fast showed 300% increase. These hormones help with the preservation/growth of muscle mass. Athletes, bodybuilders, and fighters have been known to spend large amounts of money injecting HGH directly into the body. Consider our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They regularly went days without food. They didn’t get weak and wither away. The human body learned to adapt. The hormonal system provided our ancestors with enough energy to hunt that big-old mammoth.
On a related note, another interesting finding is that calorie-restricted fasting prevents HGH release. As a general rule, eating suppresses HGH. This mechanism results in a counter-intuitive result. Studies that followed groups of water fasters and calorie-restricted fasters found that those which consumed small amounts of calories lost 4-5x more muscle mass than the water-fasting groups. Eating small amounts of food resulted in muscle mass loss. This finding seems counter-intuitive because people tend to think that eating some food would help keep muscles around while eating no food would cause them to wither. This makes sense until we consider the mechanisms of a water-fasted body(hormones!).
Another major misconception is that juice-fasts are as beneficial/more beneficial than water fasts. This is not true. During a juice fast, you are constantly consuming calories. In fact, most juice-fasts are mainlining sugar directly into the bloodstream. The digestive/immune system can’t activate its “detox/repair” mechanisms, and the hormonal effects are drastically altered. HGH doesn’t rise as much. Insulin doesn’t fall as much. The body struggles to get into a fat-burning state, and its more difficult to detox fat stores. I believe juice fasts have become popular because people think water-fasting is too hard and believe they will reap similar benefits from juice-fasting. Don’t be fooled, water-fasts are far more beneficial.
I could go on with the benefits. I won’t. Some great resources I found on fasting are; Ben Greenfield interview with Dr. Fung, Tim Ferris interview with Dom D’Agostino, Loren Lockman’s videos, and Tim Ferriss fasting protocol.
My fasting experience
I spent most of December consuming large amounts of delicious, unhealthy food. I bet most of us did. I decided early January would be a good time for a fast. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I wanted to find a location that was peaceful and relaxing. I found a farm/hostel in the “coffee-region” of Colombia, near Armenia. At the beginning of 2018, I weighed around 175 pounds(79kg) at 185cm(6″1′). My Body fat % was ~15%. I decided I would do a 7-day water fast. I could have probably done 14-21days safely(or longer with proper supervision).
I wanted to incorporate as many fasting “hacks” as I could. I loosely followed Tim Ferris’ 3-day fasting protocol. I didn’t do a strict water fast, I consumed a couple hundred calories in the first couple days. Here is the short version of my log:
One day pre-fast:
-2 cups of coffee in the morning.
-Morning cup of turmeric/ginger/pepper tea.
-Breakfast of museli/almond milk and fruit.
The strategy here is to open up the channels of detoxification. If you release toxins into the body, they have to be flushed out. Otherwise, they stay in the body and you can get sick. The tea is designed to assist the liver/kidney get into detox mode. There is an even better version of this tea found here(and a revitalizing soup recipe too!).
-I catch the bus from Bogota to Armenia.
-I have a salad for lunch. Spinach, watermelon, tomato, avocado, chia seeds, papaya, cucumber.
I think that a salad is a good idea for lunch. My thinking is anything low carb is good. I’d like to ease my digestive system into a resting state.
-I arrive in Armenia, take a walk around town.
-For dinner, I eat most of the remaining salad.
I give away the rest to a hostel guest. Small low carb meal that’s easy on the system…
-Evening cup of turmeric/ginger/pepper tea
Day 1 of fast
-2 cups of coffee
-~2hours walking around in the morning
2 hours of.. fast walking. I’m attempting to deplete glucose stores by moving quickly.
-2 cups of coffee with coconut oil and cinnamon
The idea here is I’m attempting to coax my body into using body fat for energy. This should accelerate the switch to ketosis. In addition, coconut oil slows caffeine release, and cinnamon helps regulate blood glucose.
-30 squats, core exercises(variations of boat pose), and 3 extended-sets of shoulder-stand
The strategy here is to stimulate the lymphatic system. Lipids are transported through the lymph system, and it is also involved in the detoxification process. The routine increases blood flow to legs/core, then I invert to the upper body. This should help stimulate the lymph system.
-I wear compression socks while I pack my bags
Compression socks for lymph stimulation
-1 hour bus and 45-minute hike to the farm.
I imagine this finishes off the glucose stores.
-I meet Natalia, my host.
-Light yoga with inversions as the sun sets
*Images of craving come to mind while I’m relaxed. I simply choose to think about something else. No strong hunger sensations. I feel energized the whole day.
-Meditation, 20 minutes
-Cold shower, 5 minutes, 20-30second strong contraction of the abdomen.
The idea here is to kick-start metabolism and wake up.
-Coffee + coconut oil and hang out
-Coffee + coconut oil around 10am, last one.
-Study some Spanish
-Read some Homo Deus. (Really cool book!)
Relax means resting in a comfortable position, with minimal stimulus. Listening to music, or simply being with my breath.
This was helping the detox process. This does count as non-0 calories, so it isn’t a “true” water fast.
*Energy levels felt high today. Lots of energy. Food cravings less than day1/2. Caught them immediately and changed my thoughts. I suppose the switch to ketosis was smooth..
-Various meditation sessions throughout the day.
*Energy levels feel a bit lower. Heart rate is slower. Light yoga which normally provides energy seems to require energy expenditure.
Light yoga turned into a very light yoga. Downward dog for a few breaths was a challenge. Body is entering a deep rested state.
There is far less motivation to get out of bed. I feel weak and lazy.
*I felt very low energy today. Movements slow and precise. Resting heart rate measured at 46.
Day 8 (Day 1 post-fast)
-Prepare a local pineapple. Cut 5-6 bite-sized pieces.
-Take the first bite. I let out uncontrolled whimpers. Feels like I’m a child.
I wouldn’t advise breaking a fast with pineapple. It’s a little too acidic. Watermelon or Papaya are better options.
-2 hours later, eat 7-8 bite-sized pieces.
-2 hours later, eat 8-9 bite-sized pieces.
-2 hours later, eat 9-10 bite-sized pieces.
*Energy at 50% of normal levels in the evening.
Day9 (Day 2 post-fast)
-Cup of coffee with coconut oil
-Eat 12-15 bite-sized pieces of pineapple
-Pack up belongings and walk uphill to get bus into town
-2-3 cups of coffee+coconut oil/cinnamon
Cinnamon helps regular blood-sugar. I want to avoid getting a massive spike from breakfast/coffee.
-Tomato, Avocado, Spinach, and Watermelon Salad for lunch. Fannntastic.
-Finish salad for dinner
*Energy levels at 75-80%
Days 3-21 post-fast
In the week following the fast, there was a slow progression of energy levels from 80% to ~110%. It changed me as a person, and I felt great after a few days. There was a notable experience that happened in the days following the fast… On the night of day2 post-fast, I had an experience of lying in bed all night being unable to sleep. I did feel very connected with myself on these nights. I felt as though I was having a conversation with my inner-self in images and fleeting thoughts. For me, it was a spiritual experience. From the research I’ve done, this is an unusual experience.
As I’m writing this post, it has been 3 weeks since I broke the fast. I’ve probably lost a couple pounds of fat, but I didn’t measure this– so I can’t be sure. There has been one definite lasting change. I eat slower. Much slower. Food tastes better. It smells better, too. I savor the process of eating a meal. Prior to fasting, if I was in a group of people I would be one of the first to finish a meal. Today, I’m often the last to finish a meal.
Looking forward, I plan to do prolonged water-fast on an annual basis. The length of time will depend on a few things but anywhere from 7-14 days if I’m in normal health seems right. I believe that the optimal time is after a few weeks of bad diet– probably January for most years. I’d like to do a 3-day fast each month. I’d follow a similar protocol as the first few days written about in this article.
Please feel free to leave comments about fasting experiences or any questions/comments about the fasting process.