The pain would start in my lower abdomen, usually in the mornings and seemingly at random. A 10-minute walk would leave me as fatigued as the five-mile jogs I used to take before wrestling practice in high school. My weight dropped, from 145 pounds to about 130. I grew irritable. Conversation frustrated me. I found it difficult to stay focused along any one line of thought. And the worst part? I had no idea what was wrong.
At this point, I’m under the care of a gastroenterologist, and I know that my pain is the result of an extremely sensitive caffeine allergy. But for two years, I struggled to find the source of my mystery illness. Despite several sessions with an acupuncturist, several more with a chiropractor, appointments with three different western medical doctors — all three of whom diagnosed me with IBS, a common catch-all for a variety of unknown digestive disorders, and one of whom gave me a medical marijuana prescription, which was fun but ultimately useless — I was no closer to finding a cure than when I started searching.
Somewhere in my quest for answers, a friend recommended a water fast. Nothing but water for anywhere from seven to 50 days. The previous year, he’d completed an 11-day fast and said he’d felt better than he had since childhood. His friend had completed a 21-day water fast, to the same effect, and a mutual acquaintance had gone for a whopping 50 days.
Morning: 1 Tablespoon of Non-Iodized, Celtic Sea Salt Mixed With 1 Quart of Lukewarm Spring Water (Filtered, if you can’t get spring)
Evening: Bath with 1 Cup Epsom Salt
Night: 1 Cup of Smooth Move Laxative Tea
Post-fast, spend one day of recovery for every four days of fasting. The first half of recovery includes six ounces of fresh fruit and vegetable juice every two hours. The second half of recovery includes small salads, juicy fruits and broth.
If it sounds crazy, our ancestors set the precedent. Almost every major world religion advocates fasting: members of the Methodist clergy historically fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays; those of the Bahá’í Faith fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of `Ala’; Buddhist monks and nuns abstain from food after a noon meal; Catholics observe Lent; Mormons fast on the first Sunday of each month; Hindus fast on a variety of days throughout the year; Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan; Jains during the festival of Paryushana; and Jews on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.
Each religion maintains its own set of beliefs around fasting, though most take some form of the sentiments expressed by Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 until his death in 1957, who said, “Fasting is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul.”
“Nothing is more effective than fasting when it comes to treating the consequences of dietary excess”, Dr. Goldhamer says.
But fasting for physical health? That’s a newer concept. One of the first recorded incidents of therapeutic fasting comes from Isaac Jennings (1788-1874) who advocated fasting as part of a “natural hygiene” regimen that also included a vegetarian diet, clean water, clean air, sunshine, rest and exercise. His ideas were picked up by numerous contemporaries, including Dr. Alan Goldhamer, co-founder of the TrueNorth Health Center, the largest medically supervised water-fasting retreat in the country. According to Dr. Goldhamer, “Nothing is more effective than fasting when it comes to treating the consequences of dietary excess.” In 2001, Dr. Goldhamer released a paper entitled “Medically Supervised Water-only Fasting in the Treatment of Hypertension” in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, which concluded: “Medically supervised water-only fasting appears to be a safe and effective means of normalizing blood pressure and may assist in motivating health-promoting diet and lifestyle changes.” There are also hundreds of anecdotal reports of fasting’s positive effects on obesity, poor diet, diabetes, drug addiction, autoimmune disorders and exhaustion.
Even with the evidence, I might’ve dismissed something so extreme, but pain drove me to consideration. 11 days felt like too much, especially considering my unfamiliarity with the stages of a fast and my already low weight, but the number seven resonated. I cleared a week in my schedule and started my fast.
I woke up and heated a quart of fresh spring water — drawn by hand from the pure headwaters of the Sacramento River — added a tablespoon of high-quality, non-iodized Celtic sea salt and drank it down. This was an activity I’d repeat every day for the duration of my fast. The salt prevented my intestines from absorbing the water, which ran through me, so to speak, cleaning me out from top to bottom. On the advice from my friend, I remained standing from the time I consumed the water to the time I felt the first rumblings of movement, about an hour and a half later. This helped prevent nausea, a common side effect of salt water flushes. Within two hours, the water had run its course.
By this time, it was about 9:00 a.m., and I thought about getting a snack. Then I remembered that I wasn’t eating for another seven days. At my friend’s recommendation, I also swore off distractions, the idea being that mental cleansing often occurred with the physical. Here I ran into my first problem: without cooking, eating, television, the internet, email, books and sex — what was I supposed to do with my time?
I moped around for half an hour, and then I realized one of the the true benefits — and true horrors — of a fast: without external distractions, I needed to look inside, and connect with myself. So I sat and listened to my thoughts. Some of them were useful — clean the house — but others were silly, like the one that kept telling me to hit the gym. I’m quite comfortable with my body, and consider myself in great shape. Not to mention that I was in the middle of a fast, and an intense workout was probably the last thing I needed. So where did the thought come from? I recognized it as an “old tape”, a thought that at one point served a genuine function, but now just ran in the background of my mind. Once I saw that it was useless, I was able to let it go.
Before I knew it, it was time for bed. I took a warm bath with a cup of epsom salt, drank a cup of Smooth Move laxative tea and passed out.
I awoke in the middle of the night and tossed and turned, fretting about my dreams, which saw me facing many of my high school demons, which I thought were years behind me. As I lay there, I received a flood of memories: situations in which I fumbled, dropped the ball, screwed the pooch, or any other number of clever euphemisms that essentially boil down to “didn’t achieve the expectations set for me”. More old tapes. Normally, I’d suppress such thoughts, but this time I let them move through me. Eventually, they subsided, and I felt oddly at peace.
According to many fasting experts, the hardest part of a fast is breaking it.
As Dr. Goldhamer explained in a phone interview, it’s normal for people to feel emotional and spiritual releases during fasting. This was, after all, why many of our religious ancestors endured the lack of food. When I got up, I once again drank a tablespoon of non-iodized sea salt mixed in with a quart of warm water. I felt foggy, but I’d been through this before: as a fruitarian, I’d experienced a “healing crisis,” where a sudden change in diet causes the body to release stored toxins. Although it was uncomfortable, I took it as a positive sign.
I broke my no-TV rule and watched the entire first season of True Detective. However, I didn’t see it as a failure — I saw it as a gift to myself. I’d been wanting to watch the show for a while, but couldn’t find the time. I enjoyed every minute. I’ve never seen a performance like Matthew McConaughey’s, except maybe Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight. True Detective is a damn good TV show.
Toward the end of day three, and the beginning of day four, my brain fog lifted. My hunger disappeared, but I felt pleasantly fatigued, as if I’d just returned from a long hike. I recognized my newfound clarity as a function of ketosis, during which the body runs out of glucose and starts burning ketones found in fatty tissues. In other words, the body stops burning sugar and starts burning fat. During this period, many people feel their hunger evaporate and experience a lift in energy. I didn’t get the blissful “run 100 miles” high described by many fasters describe, though I felt surprisingly good. Biologically, this makes sense: if you’re starving in the wild, you need to sharpen, not turn into a zombie. Food was a short walk away, but I had no desire to eat.
On day five, my cravings started. I wasn’t hungry, per say, but I salivated over thoughts of spaghetti and big Italian meatballs, hardshell tacos and anything parmesan. I nearly wept from thoughts of Hot Pockets, Lean Pockets and California Pizza Kitchen BBQ Chicken Pizza. But since I could still walk, talk and function normally, I knew that I wasn’t going to die. According to the “Fasting” chapter in the fourth edition of the Textbook of Natural Medicine, it takes several weeks to months for the body to move from breaking down fats to breaking down proteins, a process that eventually leads to starvation. These cravings were a passing fancy. I renewed my intention for health and pushed forward.
Day Six, Seven and Post-Fast
According to many fasting experts, the hardest part of a fast is breaking it, as my friend learned the hard way when he ended his 11-day experience with a berry smoothie and greasy vegetable pad thai. Most experts agree that for every four days you spend fasting, you need at least one day of recovery, though some put the ratio at a more conservative two to one. On the final evening of my fast, I made a juice with apple and celery, and moaned in ecstasy at the first sip. The next day, I drank six to eight ounces of fresh juice every two to three hours — close to 30 ounces in all. The day after that, I ate two small salads with a bit of olive oil and drank a bowl of bone broth. It took another week of slow integration to get my digestive system back to normal.
At one point, I thought that a week without food meant death. Now I know that a person can survive a week, two weeks, three weeks, even five or six weeks without eating. And not only survive, but thrive: without food, the body shifts, cleanses, and resets. The fast didn’t cure my my mysterious pain, but for a week afterward, I did feel better than I had in my life. It gave me an energy boost, and allowed me to release old emotional baggage. In the future, I’d be interested in trying another fast, focusing solely on the spiritual effects, which is where I seemed to experience the greatest changes. 50 days? I’ll be a yogi in no time.