In this blog, I am excited to share my most recent 3-day water fast experience with you.
Before I go on to share what I did and my experience, though, I would like to emphasize that fasting should be practiced under the guidance of a licensed healthcare provider or physician. Also, I’d like to point out that fasting is not for everyone. Some individuals may have health complications that make fasting impossible. Fasting could be particularly dangerous for individuals who need to take daily medication with food, for those with issues regulating blood sugar levels, for those who are currently struggling with an eating disorder or for people who are already underweight. If you are interested in fasting, be sure to do your own research and be monitored by your physician.
What is a fast?
In short, a fast is an intentional abstinence from food. Fasting has been a tradition for centuries, all over the world, for reasons of health, spirituality, and religious tradition. If you’d like to know more about the fascinating history of fasting, I highly recommend checking out this article from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
There are many kinds of fasts to consider. Fasts can have different durations and may have different limitations. Those of us who do not wake in the middle of the night to eat cookies (haha!) fast every night when we sleep. But most individuals who are practicing an intentional fast are doing so for a specific amount of time with specific limitations. In my daily life, I practice Time Restricted Eating or TRE ,which is sometimes also called “Time Restricted Feeding” or “Intermittent Fasting.” This is where an individual limits feeding time every day. In my case, I practice this about 5 out of 7 days per week, and I limit my eating hours to 8-10 per day. My general schedule is 9am-5pm. The rest of the time, I fast. More on TRE in next week’s blog.
But let’s get back to the big one…what I practiced last weekend is called a Prolonged Fast. A prolonged fast typically lasts more than 24 hours. I chose to fast for 3 days: exactly 72 hours. In addition, I chose to consume absolutely nothing but water and sea salt. This is what is meant by a Water Fast. No juice, no coffee, no tea, no coconut water. Absolutely nothing with any nutritional value other than the minerals that come from sea salt.
Why do a fast?
There is a plethora of amazing health benefits to fasting, and current research is bringing more exciting data to light. Even short fasts such as TRE have health benefits. Obviously, the longer the fast, the more benefits. You see, digesting food is a big job for the body. When we’re digesting, that’s the body’s priority and other processes get put on the back burner. The more consistently you’re digesting food, the less your body is able to do other things, like repair itself. Fasting gives our digestion a break, so our bodies have the time and energy to invest in other very important things. Current research has been proving some very special benefits to our health when we fast:
Improve gut health. Fasting allows our digestive system a break. When we eat too much, too often, we are stressing our digestive system so it never gets a break. When we consume too many simple carbohydrates, we grow more of the kinds of bacterias that feast off of those sugary/carbohydrate-rich foods. If there’s an overgrowth of bacteria that feast on simple sugars and carbohydrates, it makes us crave those unhealthy foods even more. When we fast we give our gut time to rebalance and kill off these excessive carbohydrate-craving bacterias.
Strengthen circadian rhythms. We are diurnal animals. Our bodies are designed to move in the daytime and rest at night. Stress, unnatural light and erratic scheduling and eating times all disrupt this in modern humans and can be detrimental to our health. Fasting and intermittent fasting both help to put us back on track with our circadian rhythms, so we can sleep better at night and be more alert and energetic during the day.
Ketosis: Burn excess fat. When your body has run out of carbohydrates/glucose, it goes into a metabolic state called ketosis. This is where the body starts producing ketone bodies to use for fuel from your fat stores. It takes about 12-24 hours of fasting for this to occur in most human adults.
Promote anti-aging! Prolonged fasting limits the growth hormone IGF-1 which has been shown in animal studies to be a significant factor in aging and the “decrepitude” process. Dude, I didn’t make up that word. Check out this wonderful talk with Dr. Rhonda Patrick and Dr. Valter Longo about slowing aging and decreasing disease through prolonged fasting, TRE and the fasting mimicking diet.
Cellular Autophogy! Autophogy means “self-eating” and is our body’s way of spring cleaning on a cellular level. Autophogy helps us clean out old and dysfunctional cells, cancer cells, viruses and other toxic stuff. Because our bodies aren’t busy digesting our food it has more time to devote to critical cleaning and repair. According to this article, fasting is the most effective way to trigger autophogy.
Repair brain cells, help prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. During cellular autophogy, our bodies locate and remove toxic proteins which contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Starve some cancer cells. Although some cancers can feed off of ketone bodies as well, some cancer cells feed off of only glucose/glycogen. When you stop consuming food (in particular, carbohydrates and sugars) you run out of your glucose stores in about 12-24 hours, starving some kinds of cancer cells.
Improve insulin resistance: Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which allows cells to use glucose as energy. When you have a resistance to insulin, the body does not properly absorb glucose leading to elevated levels of blood sugar and higher fat storage. When we have too much food, the body naturally becomes less sensitive to insulin—this can lead to pre-diabetes and type-2 diabetes if it goes on long enough because the too much food is stressing our your pancreas! When food is scarce (or when you exercise your muscles) your cells become more sensitive to insulin. In other words, fasting improves your insulin response, helping to prevent pre-diabetes and type-2 diabetes (and exercise helps too!)
Improve discipline. In general, I also just like to give myself a good mental challenge. Fasting is definitely a way to improve our ability to tolerate discomfort and strengthen our “mental discipline muscle.”
…and more is being studied every day! This is all amazing and motivating information and there are more links below if you’d like to research further. However, do keep in mind that many of these studies have only been performed on animals and more human studies are needed to give us more concrete information.
My 3-Day Fast
To clarify: I’ve been practicing fasting regularly for about 10 years. At this point in my life, I try to do a 3-4 day fast quarterly. I initially started with single-day fasts or longer fasts that allowed smoothies or juice. At this point I’ve built up my tolerance for fasting and feel comfortable doing so for longer. When I do longer fasts now, I make it a somewhat special experience. I take time off of work, I’m cut off from caffeine, and I block all social media. No food, no drugs, no addictions of any kind. When I fast, I get to do other lovely activities that I don’t usually have as much time for, like sleep in, watch movies, increase family time, take baths, read, etc.
THURSDAY: For this fast, I began at 6pm on a Thursday. I was in a circus class, and had my last snack of raw nuts and a few dried berries. My previous meals that day had been a vegetable-based smoothie for breakfast and goat yogurt, fresh fruit and chia seed lunch. Going into a fast, I make my last meals lighter. I took Friday, Saturday and Sunday completely off, as I have learn in the past that I actually prefer not to work while I’m fasting. My job requires me to be physically and mentally present so I don’t try to pressure myself to be “on” while I’m fasting.
FRIDAY: Friday morning I woke after a good long sleep (of about 10.5 hours) and had a slow morning. After filling my giant water jug with ice, water and a touch of sea salt (I add sea salt to my water during fasts to balance electrolytes), I did some light housework and computer work. In the afternoon we took the dog to a giant outdoor dog park which included about 2 miles of flat, easy hiking and a bit of light swimming in a river. About 24 hours after I begin a fast I usually get pretty headachy, dizzy and very lethargic. At the 24-hour mark on Friday evening, I spent time on the couch watching a terrible horror movie from the early ‘80’s. I did get nauseous enough to vomit some water. That kinda sucked. But then I just went to bed, around 10pm. I know it probably sounds bad to puke…but it’s actually fairly normal, especially since I’m a caffeine addict and I this time I didn’t bother to wean myself off of coffee. In the past I’ve given up coffee for a few days before a fast and I feel much less headachey and nauseous during the fast.
SATURDAY: Saturday was another easy morning…though I woke up much earlier. My body was already starting to become more sensitive to day-and-night times. I was ready to get out of bed at about 7am. I did a meditation practice, some reading and later some weeding in the garden. And more house work. In the evening, another crappy horror flick from the 80’s. The practical effects were wonderful. Bed happened again somewhere around 10:30pm.
SUNDAY: I was bummed to wake up to gnarly stomach growling bright and early just before 7am. One of the hormones responsible for feelings of hunger is ghrelin, and generally ghrelin levels drop significantly the longer we fast, though they still go up and down and individuals vary on how much. You can check out this website which has some fun charts from studies on fasting and ghrelin levels. So Sunday morning, bright and early, I got up and took the dog for a walk. My muscles felt tired trying to get my ass up our steep hills. When we got home I did more reading. I also meditated. That afternoon I was excited to go on a group motorcycle ride, which allowed me to focus on something and to leave the house. I wasn’t sure it would be safe but I was definitely fine once I got on the bike. The group stopped at a bar for snacks and drinks and I got to sip my water. At this point, I knew I only had a few hours so it didn’t bug me seeing everyone merry-making. We took the long and scenic route home which I enjoyed immensely and hit up the grocery store on the way home to get a few items to complete my breaking fast meal. Once home, I started with simple steamed asparagus and aoli. Just some veggies and a little fat to get things started. After an hour, I had a more substantial dinner.
AFTERWARD: For whatever reason the effects on my energy were wild with this fast. I woke with the sun the following mornings, needed much less sleep, felt much less stressed in general, was in an incredibly elevated mood and felt much more powerful athletically. That lasted just about a solid week. Things feel a bit more normal now (about 2 weeks later) but I still feel like I generally don’t need as much sleep, have more energy in the day and am in a better mood with more ability focus mentally and am performing better physically.
What I’d do differently…
Next time, I’ll wean myself off of the coffee a few days before…making that first day a little less painful. I also have decided that I prefer to start and end on breakfast rather than dinner. Just for my personality, I much prefer to be able to break my fast in the morning, rather than thinking about it all day. I’ll also get myself to meditate more; my general goal is twice daily for 15-30 minutes. I have more than enough time when I schedule non-work days so there’s really no excuse not to meditate. While fasting I tend to become a puddle of lethargy unless I force myself to get started on something and this time around I found that I enjoy doing light activities such as a simple hike, meditation, gentle yoga, or a scenic motorcycle ride and gardening so next time I’ll keep that in mind as activity options in an otherwise unstructured day.