Fasting is the forgotten pillar of great health. Everyone talks about diet and exercise because there’s money to be made there. We don’t talk about fasting because it’s free and you can’t sell free things and expect to make money. Fasting is actually better than free because you save both time and money on food when you fast. Fasting is far more effective than any pill, health shake, or wart-removing cream and the only side effect is a little hunger and looser fitting pants. Effective at what you ask? All the things, more to come on this. I’ve written about time restricted eating, AKA short fasts of 12-24 hours. This is the why and the how of a longer fast (48-96 hours). The good news is that we don’t have to do these fasts very often (monthly or quarterly is sufficient) and the benefits of such fasts are long lasting, miraculous, and sometimes weird. Before we get to the details, here is Cliff Clavin (from the 80’s Sitcom Cheers) and his buffalo theory…
“Well ya see, Norm, it’s like this… A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members. In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we know, kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That’s why you always feel smarter after a few beers“.
-Cliff Claven (John Ratzenberger)
Cliff Claven’s buffalo theory is actually a metaphor for fasting and autophagy (pronounced “uh tof Oh Gee.”) Autophagy is when the body intentionally kills off its own cells that are damaged, too old, or no longer working properly. What does this have to do with fasting? I’ll tell you. Ideally we would be cleaning house at the cellular level constantly (with autophagy) but unfortunately our bodies don’t really do much autophagy in our normal fed state. So these useless cells just hang around in a state called “senescence”. They get in the way, they’re pro-inflammatory, they turn into cancer, and are a major reason why our organs don’t work as well as we get older. It’s only when our bodies sense fasting or an extreme caloric restriction, do we start to get rid of these old, useless cells, AKA the slow buffalo. This herd thinning improves our body’s function, appearance, and efficiency. But wait, here’s the best part, after getting rid of the old saggy cells, the body generates new taught, sexy cells. This happens all over the body including our liver, brain, kidneys, skin, and muscles. Fasting induced autophagy and cell regeneration literally reverses the aging process on the cellular level. Scientifically speaking, that is fucking awesome.
Our bodies were meant to fast. Our ancestors lived for 7 million years without reliable food sources. For almost all of human history; fasting was a regular occurrence. Every major religion incorporated fasting because it is cleansing both spiritually and physically. Only recently, have we had refrigerators stocked with food and drive-thru’s open 24 hours per day. And while continuous access to Crunch Wrap Supremes and Seven Layer Burritos is convenient, it’s not what nature intended. On an unrelated note, I have woken up and found a Taco Bell receipt for 90 dollars. I was in college.
The effects of fasting last a long time. One study involving diabetics showed greatly improved glucose control in the subjects who did a 72 hour fast in the days following the experiment. What fascinated researchers, was how these effects lasted more than three months after the fast, despite no other dietary changes. Dr. Jason Fung, a nephrologist and author of the Obesity Code (great book), is literally curing type 2 diabetes in a matter of weeks with these longer fasts.
Fasting is simple. I have written over 70 thousand words about what to eat. Clearly, the ideal diet is kind of complicated, nuanced, and controversial. Fasting is simple. Just don’t fucking eat. That’s it. I will give some more details in a bit. I used to get frustrated after explaining my dietary theories to a patient only for them to come back two weeks later and happily report that they switched to whole grain pasta and margarine because that’s what they thought I recommended. To be clear, whole grain pasta and margarine go against everything I believe in. Just seeing it in the store hurts my soul, but my communication skills weren’t strong enough to overcome my patient’s 65 years of whole grain/saturated fat brainwashing. So, I tried the new approach of recommending fasting to my patient, and I was totally understood. Of course, there were the obligatory questions like, Can I have tea? Yes. Can I drink diet coke? No. Can I have fat free fig Newtons? Fuck No.
Weird benefits from fasting. If you’ve lost weight in the past, you may have some extra loose skin and connective tissue hanging about causing such conditions as “Lunch Lady Arms” or in my case “Old man Butt”. When we fast, these conditions improve, not just because we lose weight, but the process of autophagy, takes in those useless cells that are just hurting our self-esteem, slowing our buffalo herd, and not serving any other purpose. When morbidly obese people lose massive amounts of weight using conventional means, they usually have to get surgery to get rid of that extra skin, but those who fast to lose massive amounts of weight have no such issues, because of autophagy.
Another weird thing that happens when you do a long fast, is that you keep pooping. You can be two days since your last meal, but still having poops! Who knew? This can be very beneficial for cleaning out your digestive plumbing and will help your digestive health for months after your fast.
Fasting can lower total body inflammation and is a tool used in combating autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and many others. Fasting has shown to improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy and greatly reduce its terrible side effects, specifically fatigue, hair loss, and nausea. Finally and most notably, fasting induced autophagy can help get rid of some of the pre-cancerous cells that could lead to tumors down the road. Fasting is free, simple, natural, and an amazing tool for living longer and better. So now that you’re onboard, here are some tips for completing a long fast.
- The first rule of fasting is that we don’t talk about fasting.
- The second rule of fasting is that we don’t talk about fasting. It’s annoying when people go into great detail about their diets (I’m looking at you vegans), their pets, or their bowel movements. Refer them to my website and be done.
- Eat a high fat, low carb meal in the evening prior to starting a fast. This will help keep your insulin low and allow you to go immediately into ketosis (fat burning) and avoid a metabolic slowdown. If you ignore this advice and binge on pizza and cookies, you will have elevated insulin (from eating carbs) and are therefore unable to access your fat stores for several hours. Your body’s only option is to slow down it’s burn rate, plus you will get crazy hungry. All of this is bad.
- Avoid strenuous workouts during a long fast, but brisk walking, some resistance training, yoga, and aggressive hanky-panks are all encouraged.
- Stay hydrated and replace electrolytes. Eating normally covers your electrolyte needs, but since you aren’t doing that, replacing your sodium, magnesium, and potassium are important for keeping you feeling good. If you get a headache, it’s probably because your electrolytes are off. Drink some tea with salt and lemon added.
- Prioritize Sleep. If you are sleep deprived, fasting is not a good idea. We will actually hold onto fat and burn muscle in a fasted and sleep deprived state. This is obviously bad. Get sleep. Sometimes, fasting can make sleep more difficult. If this is the case for you, add more magnesium (400mg) and melatonin (5-10mg) at bedtime.
- Avoid Temptation. Try not to schedule barbecues, parties, or fancy dinners whilst fasting. I even avoid cooking for my kids because just being around food can be difficult. Instead, I reheat some frozen food for them. Don’t judge. They love it. Getting buy-in from your partner and friends can be a big help as well.
- Have Some Rescue Foods. I allow myself up to 3 tablespoons of MCT oil or coconut oil (per day) that I mix with coffee or tea if I’m getting hangry. Sometimes I also have a cup or two of miso soup to keep me happy, if I have to see patients during my fasts. Coffee and tea can be satiating, and I add a little salt in my tea and coffee when fasting. While the MCT oil and miso soup (or other broths) are technically not allowed on a strict fast, for my purposes it still counts as a fast. I try to keep this type of thing to the minimum, however. Lemon water, sparkling water, pickle juice, apple cider vinegar, plain tea, and coffee can all help, and are fasting approved beverages.
- Schedule Non-Eating Activities, especially during meal times. A Netflix marathon, video games, extra naps, or other distractions can help get you through a long fast. Be self-indulgent. You’ve earned it.
- Break your Fast. Weigh yourself later. As long as it’s not an excessively long fast (more than five days), it’s not dangerous to eat whatever. I recommend eating a smallish meal at first to avoid having an upset tum-tum and/or bum-bum. You will probably notice a pretty substantial weight loss after allowing for a day to normalize. I find that this weight stays off too. I often do a long fast following a weeklong vacation of overeating and debauchery to lose whatever weight I gained whilst being bad.
I use the free app “Zero” to keep track and to help me stay motivated during my long fasts, that I do once or twice a quarter. I get hungry initially during the fast but after the first 14 hours or so, I generally feel good. I feel a lot better in the days and weeks following the fast. It’s actually very empowering to know that you can go without food whenever you choose. My patients are super proud of themselves after finishing their first long fast and I bet you will be too.
In conclusion, the occasional long fast can be an empowering tool for weight loss, longevity, and to keep your buffalo herd moving at healthy pace.