Back in my twenties, I fasted on water only on nine separate occasions, twice on my own, 14 and 17 days respectively (not recommended); once with comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in a 7-day group fast to draw attention to world hunger — 120 of us, camping in the gym of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; and half a dozen times at fasting centers under medical supervision, ranging in length from 5 to 23 days. I knew about the health benefits of fasting, about its long history and the extensive studies then being conducted in the former Soviet Union and in Europe. But I was young and didn’t care about my health. I just wanted to lose weight, and that is one of the few situations for which I believe that fasting is contraindicated. The body wants to maintain homeostasis: losing a lot of weight quickly puts the physiology into eat-like-a-mad-person-until-balance-is-restored mode. Once I lost the excess weight for good in the early 1980s — from a beautiful combination of a 12-step program and getting off eggs, dairy, and junk food — I never fasted again. Until now.
I’ve dealt with exercise-induced asthma all my life. In the best shape of my life — age 39, living in the country where there wasn’t much to do and going to the gym twice a day every day — I still took cardio classes with the senior citizens. Otherwise, it was just too hard to keep up. I exercise because I know it’s important, but it’s never been fun. And I remembered that those weight-loss fasts so long ago, ultimately failures for their intended purpose, did help my lung capacity and exercise tolerance, so I figured, well, it’s been 37 years…I guess I could try that again.
There are only three centers in the U.S. at this time for supervised water-only fasting: True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, California; Dr. Cinque’s Health Retreat near Austin; and Ocean Jade Health Retreat in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. I know the doctors at all these places and trust the entire lot of them, but I opted for Ocean Jade because of its proximity to New York, its small size (eight rooms), and because I am a major fan of its director, Frank Sabatino, DC, PhD. — check out his appearances on the Main Street Vegan podcast — some of the program’s most popular episodes:
So . . . I found a spot on my calendar with two back-to-back weeks free and had a phone consultation with Dr. Sabatino. He wanted me to get blood work, a EKG, and an echocardiogram to clear me for safe fasting, so I did that. My plan was to prep for a week — a couple of days on fruit and salads, and three to five days on juice — but my stepdaughter decided to visit that week, and I had lots of work stuff going on, so I ate my regular way — vegan, raw and cooked, healthy but certainly not abstemious — up through the day I flew to Florida. In retrospect, that was a mistake. If I could do anything over again, I’d have either done that prep week despite life circumstances, or I’d have spent my first three days at Ocean Jade juicing instead of fasting. It may have made no difference at all, but this was a difficult fast, and in 20/20 hindsight, I’m wondering if easing in would have made it any easier.
The fasting literature, and my own past experience, both bear out that the hardest part of any fast is the first couple of days, when appetite nags and blood sugar plummets. For me on this fast, it was the opposite: I felt blissful the first two days, and on day #3, I was struck with profound fatigue. Moving wasn’t just harder than usual; it was an effort to be planned and orchestrated. Otherwise, symptoms were pretty much textbook: coated tongue, bad taste in the mouth, dizziness on arising, and periodic pop-ins of old illnesses and injuries. I had a mild sore throat throughout the fast. One night I had so much back pain that I thought the mattress was too soft and I ordered an air mattress online, but within 24 hours that discomfort was gone, the mattress was fine, and the grandchildren of one of the retreat’s staff members now have an air mattress for when they visit Gran. My pulse was rapid, again typical of the fasting state, and nights were long and largely sleepless. Digesting food takes a lot of energy, so a body in the fasting state needs a great deal less sleep than someone eating, or even juice “fasting.” I made it to Dr. Sabatino’s morning lecture every day, but I sat out the exercise, yoga, and pool classes, and the daily beach walk. I was there to rest and heal, and the fast forced me into the resting part.
The science behind fasting, as I understand it, is that humans and virtually all other animals developed the ability to fast over a long history when food was, more often than not, scarce. The body, then, knows how to fast, even in someone who’s never done it. After the first couple of days when metabolism is still in its normal state, the faster burns glucose and some fat and muscle. Once the body “gets it” that we’re fasting now, it switches to a state of ketosis, in which ketones, produced by the liver, are burned for energy along with fat, while sparing muscle tissue for the most part. This state of ketosis — the same state you were in if you were ever on an Atkins-type diet — is responsible for the bad taste in the mouth. The massively increased detoxification taking place is the reason for the coated tongue, foul body odor, and — in my case — extreme fatigue. When the body is in a state of nearly complete physiological rest — no digestion, no exercise, no work, and ideally no worry — it gets busy clearing out what it doesn’t need: excess fat, growths such as cysts and tumors, arterial blockages, and the like.
The average person has ample reserves for fasting around 30 days, and some people with more fat stores have fasted 40 days or longer, although most of the fasting centers hesitate to take a person that far into the fasting state. When someone “fasts to completion,” i.e., reserves are used up and they need to eat to avoid going from the healing state of fasting to the fatal state of starvation, hunger, which vanishes on the third or fourth day of a water-only fast, returns, not as ravishing gnawing in the stomach, but as a pleasant sensation in the mouth. I’ve never fasted that long, but someone you’ve heard of did: Joel Fuhrman, MD, an elite skater in his youth, fasted 28 days for a serious ankle injury. He recovered, went on to win a medal in the National Championships, and went into medicine as a result. He tells his story and makes an excellent case for fasting in his book, Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease.
I went 7 days on water. All the fasting institutes insist that patients stay for a break-fast of least half the length of the fast itself. I’d hoped to stay on water for 10 days, but Dr. Sabatino, who examines all fasters twice a day, determined that a week was enough for me this time, and I was frankly relieved. On the morning of the 8th day, I had a glass of diluted green juice, and I have to tell you: it was the nectar of the gods. In my past fasting experience, that first little bit of whatever it was — I’ve broken fasts on a piece of watermelon, half an orange, diluted grape juice — was like a shot of adrenalin. All my energy came back and I had to really keep a tight rein on myself that I didn’t jump back into life full-force. This time, starting the process forty years older and sixty pounds lighter, my body was telling me: “Not so fast.” The fatigue lingered for the first couple of days. It also took a few days for my heart rate to get back down to its pre-fasting state. I needed all my transitional days at Ocean Jade to get back to the place where I could safely fly home. I still wasn’t 100 percent, but the day after getting back, I could tell I’d turned a corner and was able to log 10,000 steps on my FitBit — a feat that would have been impossible a few days earlier.
Now I feel terrific. I’ve gained back most of the weight (I started at 121, got down to 110.5, and am now around 119, which is pretty normal for me) and my energy is better than before the fast. I’ve definitely had the post-fast munchies, but my desire is only for simple, natural food. My heart rate, resting and with exercise, is a bit lower than before the fast, and although I’m certainly not “cured” of the exercise-induced asthma, I am stretching myself a bit with the exercise intensity and so far, so good.
Will I do this again any time soon? Not on your life! This was tough — although I know some people who fast and feel amazing the whole time. I even remember fasts like that — one when I was 22 and went 17 days on water, going to work every day and coming home to a 3rd floor walkup. But I have to accept myself today and respect myself today. I may fast again in two or three years, but for now my focus is on building up the exercise, eating well, and loving life and those around me. One of the spiritual boons of fasting is the sense that can overtake a person that we really don’t live by “bread alone,” that love and legacy are all that’s real and lasting. I’m grateful to know about this powerful healing tool in nature’s arsenal, and that I was guided through this admittedly rugged experience by a doctor who’s experienced in supervising fasts, conservative in his approach, and kind every minute of the process. Life is full of memorable experiences. This is one more. And I have a feeling that, deep inside in my organs and systems and glands, the good work continues.
It’s not my prettiest portrait, for darned sure, but I was way happy to see that watered-down green juice on the morning following my seven-day, water-only fast. To your health! ~ Victoria Moran, author of Main Street Vegan and coauthor with JL Fields of the upcoming cookbook, The Main Street Vegan Academy Cookbook — a glorious, beautifully illustrated, full color, 400-page recipe tome and guide to vegan living with recipes and tips from not only JL and me, but a whopping 60 of our Main Street Vegan Academy graduates and faculty. It’s being offered now for preorder at the ridiculous price of $12.51 on Amazon, so do treat yourself to a copy and order gift copies for your whole holiday list: the delivery date is December 19, and that should get books to everyone you’ll be gifting this year in time for all the holidays.