Fasting for me has a particular personal appeal. It has nothing to do with the supposed medical benefits (I’ll get to those in a second) and everything to do with the meditative quality of it. I did a silence retreat once seeking an opportunity to eliminate something from my life (talking) to make it simpler. I found it much more challenging than I thought I would but also rewarding. On a similar note a water fast eliminates food from the equation stripping away something that is so hyper-focused on in our culture. For me personally I’ve been reasonably regimented with my nutrition during marathon training and then post-race I indulged in a lot of the junk food I’d been avoiding. I’m interested in taking food out my mind for a while and focusing on other things. I guess it’s kind of like what happens when you phone your internet company to complain you have no internet. They tell you to unplug the router and reset it. I’m resetting my diet.
A water fast in particular appeals to me for it’s sheer simplicity. Humans have been water fasting for centuries and examples of it can be found throughout our culture in religious and historical texts. I hesitate to use the word cleanse as I’m not much of a believer in cleanses (our bodies are always cleansing no matter what you do or don’t feed it) but fasting is different. A water fast involves taking in zero calories (you get water, herbal tea and sometimes lemon juice in your water) and doesn't rely on a particular food to "cleanse" your liver or body. In the long term it’s impossible to live off of water alone. Your body can’t function without calories and nutrients. However it’s believed that a short term fast can reset your biological processes stimulate a “health reaction.”
A great deal of people use fasting for religious or spiritual practice. This is appealing to me despite that I don’t identify with any religion. I’ve been wanting to restart my meditative practice and it seems like a good time. I’m also wanting to strip my life down to a simpler time as my busy season at work ends and rigorous marathon training has stopped. It’s time for quiet and simplicity.
The purported health benefits of fasting are:
- Weight loss: This is the most common benefit attributed to fasting. I’m skeptical of the benefit in a few ways. Firstly this isn’t a sustainable diet, so there is no long term benefit as you are likely to rebound back quickly after your fast. Also it’s not advisable for people with diabetes or any sort of health condition. In addition a lot of the weight lost is likely water and muscle.
- Slowing aging: While we can’t stop the aging process it’s believed that fasting can slow it. Animal studies show that intermittent fasting can extend lifespans. We can’t assume that what happens in mice happens in humans, but it’s an interesting idea. Fundamentally our bodies are designed for fasting, that’s why we have a fat storage system to carry us through as we forage for food. Today with our easy access to constant calories we have little use for that system except to store excess fat.
- Improved cell recycling: It’s thought that fasting forces your body to make hard choices about which cells it saves and which it ejects as it enters autophagy. With restricted calories your body must be selective in which cells it protects. It’s thought that your body will recycle or destroy damaged tissue which has a positive effect.
One mechanism by which caloric restriction may extend lifespan is by upregulating DHEA, the most abundant steroid hormone in our bodies. DHEA levels interestingly are also higher in people eating a plant based diet (which may in effect be a type of fast) and could be responsible in part for the increased lifespan of vegans. We have to be careful though about diet fads and fasting is an easy one to grab onto. I don't personally subscribe to making it a regular part of life in some attempt to prolong lifespan.
So upon some investigating I decided on a one day water fast. Mostly because it’s my first time and I’m not much into prolonged suffering. Also I think there is a time issue where I enjoy exercising and don’t wish to take an extended time off. I don’t feel one should plan on exercising while only consuming water. I came across a “True Fast” which is born out of the Christian faith and found a plan (Nutritional Pathology, Third Edition, by Dr. Lessard-Rhead pg 166) that slowly winds you into and out of your water fast. It works as follows:
- Day One: Whole grains (like oatmeal, brown rice, etc), fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, water, herbal tea.
- Day Two: Fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, water, herbal tea.
- Day Three (or as many days as you plan to fast): Water, herbal tea. You can add lemon juice to your water and take apple cider vinegar if you prefer.
- Day Four: Fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, water, herbal tea.
- Day Five: Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fruit juices, water, herbal tea.
No Caffeine during the fast if at all possible, so avoid green tea, coffee, etc. Try and drink clean water, filtered without chlorine.
During a true fast, common symptoms are headaches, dizziness, light-headedness and weakness. This makes sense as you are massively deficient on your basic calorie needs. Should you enter a ketogenic state during the water fast portion you may have bad breath, a coated tongue and increased body odour.
The logic behind stepping small into the fast by eating progressively simple foods is to wean your body from processed foods, meat, dairy etc rather than shock it with a drastic change. I already eat a whole foods plant based diet so I’m not expecting much problem with the lead in and lead out of the water fast day. It’s just a simpler version of how I already eat.
I also plan to sit for daily mediation during the five days. In particular I’m curious about how day three will go and my reaction to quiet contemplation on that day. I plan to avoid exercise, but otherwise lead a normal day. I’ll likely retire to bed early.
Before I close out this post (the next post will be a play by play of day three, the water fast day) I want to be clear about my thoughts on who this is appropriate for. I do not want to promote fasting, simply run you through my experience. This is not for dieting, if you’ve been reading this blog you know that I’m no fan of diets. If you have an eating disorder, diabetes or medical condition you should not fast. If you are an athlete actively training you should not fast. This is simply a curiosity for me and a reflective practice. If that appeals to you then give it a try!