Well, I did it again, and this time I won! I have 95% successfully completed my second water fast. I didn’t journal the first one but this time around I thought it would be interesting to track how my body responded.
As before, I jumped into this after several weeks of thinking about getting prepared to think seriously about doing it. Tuesday night I was dinking around on Facebook and I popped in to see what was happening on Aussa’s new group page, and she’d just posted her weekly challenge to set a goal and grab it by the … pearl necklace and make it behave.
Just like this. But with jeans. And my belly button is still an innie. (Source)
I was not in my happy place. It was nearly midnight, which meant I had once again failed to get to bed early enough to bounce out of bed, all full of get-up-and-go, before sunrise. (Here in the gloomy north the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 7.30 at this time of the year, but I’m pretty pathetic when it comes to sleep. I fight it like a bitch, but I need a lot of zzzzzs.) I’d been in full binge mode (aka compulsive pleasure-free eating) for nearly a week, and I felt squeezed by my XXXL jeans despite having undone both button and zipper, and was also regretting the ice cream I’d engulfed earlier that evening in the hope that a sugar hit would keep me awake long enough to manage the half hour drive home from the vet. (It didn’t. I had to pull over for a snooze less than 10 miles from home.)
In other words, my life was once again out of control at its most fundamental level. So, of course, I sneered and hated myself and kept scrolling to read about the extraordinary successes racked up by my fellow Aussa bitches … and then my fingers took over my brain, and by the time they’d done dancing around on the keyboard I had scrolled back and announced my intention to do a full water fast, starting immediately. Then I logged off and went to bed, quickly, before I was compelled to eat something.
I started each day with two green tea capsules (for energy) and a splash of raw apple cider vinegar in water (for gut health). We’re blessed with delicious water – our well draws from an aquifer nearly 600 ft down below a thick layer of rock. During the day I drank tap water whenever I felt thirsty. I slept longer and more deeply than usual, and woke feeling refreshed. I didn’t do any extra exercise, and as the fast progressed I moved more slowly and rested more often, responding to the needs of my body.
Ask Google “What happens to my body when I fast?” if you want to invite a barrage of conflicting information, ranging from “Your muscles will shrivel up and you will diiiieeee!” to “You will directly experience Nirvana and your whole life will change forever!” The interweb is host to hordes of experts, both self-proclaimed and accredited, and it can get confusing, so choosing your guru is pretty much an act of faith. As with any faith, the smart way to go is to study what the guru says, check in with opposing views to maintain your balance, remember that if anything sounds too good to be true it probably (but not definitely) is, and over time evaluate what they say based on your personal experience.
My guru of choice is Dr. Jason Fung. He’s flavor of the month and also way too young and pretty – definite red flags – but on consideration, for now at any rate, I’m willing to hop on his wagon and see where it takes me.
Day 1 – Tuesday
I didn’t start to feel hungry until quite late in the day, and several hours before I felt hungry I was aware of other benefits – dramatically reduced inflammatory pain in my muscles and joints, no brain fog, and a happier, more relaxed mood. I was moderately active (by my low standards) and became tired shortly after dark.
According to Fung, during the first day of my fast my insulin levels dropped and my body accessed its glycogen stores to release glucose for energy. The human body keeps a 24-hour glycogen reserve mainly in the liver and skeletal muscles. That stored in the liver is available wherever energy is needed (and apparently most of it goes to the brain! For some reason I find that reassuring.) As I understand it, the glycogen stored in muscle tissue used by the muscles, not readily released to the rest of the body.
As the day progressed without any more carbs going in, my basal metabolic rate fell as my body sought to cut back on energy expenditure. Most of the pro-fasting literature I’ve read says your metabolic rate rises again after a few days of fasting, to above your normal level, but I didn’t get to experience that. Maybe next time, when I go for longer…
Day 2 – Wednesday
Woke early feeling clear-headed and energetic, but after I got up I quickly ran out of energy. No hunger pangs as such, but I was aware that my body wanted fuel. My head felt tight, as though it was thinking about having an ache, but in fact I didn’t experience any headache during this fast.
I spent the day being gentle with myself, resting often, but still writing and doing my regular chores. By the afternoon I was ravenous and stupid, and by evening I was still hungry, tired, irritable and floppy all over. I was also constantly thirsty, despite drinking lots of water.
For some reason I cooked dinner for the male members of the household – my signature spaghetti bolognese. I don’t ever cook without tasting (I learned that the hard way – but that’s a story for another day) so I had maybe a teaspoonful of bolognese sauce and one strand of spaghetti … and then, after gritting my teeth and not eating with the men I couldn’t resist the redolence. I ate four, I mean five, okay SIX teaspoons of bolognese sauce. It was almost unbearably delicious. My stomach had pretty much given up on me by then and was hiding in a corner grumbling sadly to itself, so it was a little startled when that lot came walloping down my gullet. But the discomfort passed quickly and the relief was great!
Mind you, I was pissed at myself. I felt I’d let myself down, and was tempted to call myself a loser and just quit. But it was only meat, not carbs, and totaled well under 100 calories, so I decided to declare the fast unbroken and keep going. (Full disclosure: I ate a few teaspoons of bolognese sauce again the next night – I was just so hungry, and it was there. But that’s the only food I consumed for the 84 hours I fasted, so I feel … not good, but okay about it. Next time I’ll do better.)
To know what was happening with my body, I turned again to Dr. Fung. After 24 hours my body had depleted its store of glycogen, which activated other processes to generate energy.
- My liver kicked into gluconeogenesis, creating glucose from amino acids.
- In a parallel process (and I’m not going to pretend I understand yet how they are connected) it launched into autophagy, which essentially involves cannibalizing junk proteins, also to generate energy. If you want scholarly literature on the subject, Google has plenty; for those who want a greatly simplified explanation in layman’s terms, go here.
- Meanwhile, the hunger pangs kept coming and going because of a hormone called ghrelin – and the interesting thing about that is that ghrelin will switch itself off after a couple hours if you ignore it, even if you don’t eat. Knowing that hunger won’t last makes it a lot easier to resist!
The most important of these processes, as far as I’m concerned, is autophagy. This is relatively easy to trigger – unlike ketosis, which takes longer and can be harder to sustain. All you have to do is not eat for 24-48 hours. Unfortunately I didn’t get the full benefit of it, because eating even a small amount of protein switches it off. I wish I’d known that … It might have made it possible to resist the bolognese…
Day 3 – Thursday
I’ve read about how, after fasting for a few days, your body kicks into higher energy mode. The theory is that its initial response to a lack of food is to reduce your rate of energy consumption (aka “starvation mode”), so your metabolism slows and you feel tired and sleepy. But if there’s still nothing on the menu after a couple days your body goes “Woah! Gotta fix this!” and you experience a surge in energy, as well as much greater clarity of thought – because you have to get out there and chase something down and kill it.”
I was kinda hoping to feel that way by Thursday, but … nope. I woke hungry and was tired and draggy all day. My brain was clear but I was so fumble-tongued I might as well have been catatonic, for all I could communicate. During the afternoon I went out into the garden with Peter Pan to discuss vegetable matters, and – being too floppy to pick up my feet properly – I tripped over a squash vine and went down like a dropped two-by-four. And once down … well, I lay there for a while on the cool dirt, thinking about how nice it would be simply to stay there. Getting vertical again took way more effort than seemed worthwhile!
Anyway, Dr. Fung says you go into ketosis after two to three days of fasting, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen for me this time. I’ve always struggled to achieve and maintain ketosis, even when eating super low-carb and high fat. I’m not diabetic but maybe I’m somewhat insulin-resistant; I need to learn more about it and figure out how to change.
Day 4 – Friday
I went into this fast not sure how long I’d stay with it, but determined to last longer than I did last time. About halfway in a friend called and invited me for tea, so I put her off until Friday afternoon and set my goal at noon Friday – giving me 84 hours of fasting, or 12 hours more than last time. And I made it! In fact, I think if I hadn’t had the tea date I could even have lasted longer. By Friday morning the hunger pangs were less and my head was clear and alert, although I was still physically quite weak.
This time, I broke my fast gradually. At noon I had a cup of hot, salty bone broth. About a half hour later I had a small fruit yogurt with heaped spoonful of crushed pecans, which kept me going an hour and a half. Then I had a cheddar and tomato sandwich – just one slice, not my usual two. Tea was more indulgent – I chowed down on crackers with whipped cream cheese and pepper jelly and found room for lemon cake, but after that I didn’t want dinner. In fact, I didn’t eat again until after noon on Saturday.
Since then I’ve been ramping up my food consumption, which is annoying – why this relentless compulsion to eat? Still … I do seem still to want smaller quantities, and I seem to be going longer between meals, and I don’t have quite the same desire for sugar … so I guess I’ve gained some ground.
I found, while fasting, that my mood improved greatly. Since going back onto sugar I’ve been more irritable and short-tempered. The burning, aching inflammatory pain in my joints and muscles stopped entirely and still hasn’t come back – although it will if I’m not careful. I slept very deeply while fasting, and when I started eating again I immediately fell back into my night owl habits, reinforced by insomnia. My jeans were looser, but they’re getting tight again.
The main takeaway seems to be that very fat people are more likely to survive the initial weeks of the Zombie Apocalypse because, provided we have access to water, we’ll be able to hide away and live off our fat stores for a good long while – and when the hunger pangs don’t bite we’ll even have a jolly old time of it, because our brains will be sharp enough to joke, sing and tell stories.
We’ll find a cozy hole and party like Hobbits. (Original illustration by David Wenzel)
But over the longer term the outlook for VFPs isn’t so good, unless our hiding place also includes some weights and an exercise bicycle.
I’m convinced that the reason I didn’t experience the energy surge I expected is that I’m starting off at a frighteningly low level of fitness. It’s unrealistic to think you can go from being someone who can just about maybe almost chase down one chicken in a very small pen without having a heart attack (and actually the last time I tried to do that I eventually had to call in reinforcements in the form of Peter Pan), to being capable of chasing down a wildebeest, merely by not eating.
This is going to take some thought. And planning. And work. And a whole lot less ice cream.
I’ll think about it … tomorrow.
Let’s talk. Have you ever tried fasting? What kind of fast, and what was your goal? What was your main takeaway from the experience?