The most “extreme” health thing I’ve ever done
I never did the Master Cleanse. I’ve never attempted to be 100% raw. And I’ve never lived on juice long term. If you know me, you know this is because I simply couldn’t find the evidence to convince myself that the benefits (if any) were significant enough to outweigh the inconvenience. I prefer to concern myself with dietary approaches that are sustainable, meaningful, offer significant long-term benefits, and are compatible with enjoying my life every day. Both for myself and in my work with helping other people, it makes the most sense to choose the least restrictive approach, which offers the most robust benefit. That’s why I focus my way of eating on whole, plant foods, and that’s why I don’t try the latest 3-week program crazes. I’m simply not inclined to experiment on myself unless the intellectual curiosity for it is based on some darn good facts and reasoning.
But on December 29th, I’m going to stop eating altogether.
Today, I started my preparations for a water-only fasting experience at TrueNorth Health Center**.
Fasting can be defined many ways, but what I’m talking about is completely abstaining from eating or drinking anything with calories. A water-only fast is exactly what it sounds like: the only thing to pass your lips is water. TrueNorth specializes in using this approach to create positive changes in health status, and has been doing so for more than 30 years.
For many people, the fasting experience accompanies a turning point, at which they are taking control of their own health, experiencing big improvements, and making lasting, lifelong changes. For other people, who may already be practicing excellent health habits, the fast can serve as a periodic tuneup, or re-set. I’ll tell you more about my own situation below.
But you might be urgently wondering two important points about all this:
- Is it safe? And,
- Isn’t this some sort of fad, crash-course diet, which won’t hold any long term benefit, or may even screw up your metabolism?
I will be learning a lot more about the physiological mechanisms over the next 5 weeks, and I look forward to bringing my knowledge forward to assist more people. For now, I can briefly address each of those important concerns by saying:
- Yes. When done under appropriate medical supervision, water-only fasting is actually incredibly safe. Certainly, if you have a very complicated medical history, then the conversation may become more complex — and this post is by no means meant to be taken as medical advice. But fasting has been done, especially by sick people and animals, naturally, for thousands of years, and in countless cultural and spiritual traditions. In modern times, the main factor that may be potentially dangerous is the medication that may already be in your system. That’s one reason it’s wise to only attempt fasting under the supervision of a clinician who understands your history, as well as the physiology of the fasting process. The medical doctor should be the one to explain how and when to discontinue medications.
Don’t worry, no one has ever died at TrueNorth.
- The long term implications depend on the person’s habits over time, of course. Most people who make some type of heroic effort for their health will just go right back to their previous habits, if they aren’t experiencing comprehensive and accurate education, alongside their Herculean intervention. (Or if it isn’t the right intervention, which of course most “diets” and “cleanses” aren’t!) But fasts of various durations — and let’s defer to the experts before we discuss the length of the fast — actually have been documented to create benefits to all systems of the body. While it’s true that some bizarre dietary interventions (such as chronic under-nourishment for attempted weight loss) can “slow down your metabolism” or promote fat storage and make it harder to lose weight, fasting is different. Intermittent fasting and long term fasting actually reduce stress, inflammation, and cortisol production, and promote better metabolism and fat loss after the completion of the fast.
There’s one more crucial point I want to mention in this initial discussion of fasting. At TrueNorth, it is not all about the fast. Any patient’s stay, regardless of the details of their health conditions, duration of fast, or modifications to the fast (more on those later) is coupled with a deliberate re-feeding program, and education about healthful eating. A fully plant-based diet free of sugar, oil, and salt (SOS) is utilized, and foods are introduced in a certain way, when each patient has completed their fasting period. Additionally, patients have the opportunity to learn how the rich Western diet and individual components like sugar, salt, fat, and animal protein, cause havoc and promote disease. It is the combination of the bodily experience* and the improved intellectual understanding that sets each patient up for better success with their health.
Why am I doing this?
In brief, I am interested in water fasting at TrueNorth because it is scientifically fascinating, seems to be a valuable tool for improving health, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ll be working there as an intern for the month of January, to learn how to prescribe and supervise fasting. For approximately 5 days before I start working, I’ll be staying there as a patient to go through a fast, myself. Five to seven days is a typical minimum fasting length for a person who is generally in good health and is mainly looking for a tune-up type of experience. (For those who are ill, the symptoms guide the length of the fast, which can be many weeks long. “Forty days and forty nights” is not only possible and safe, but also not unusual!)
Dr. Goldhamer, one of the founders of TrueNorth, reports that the common (and temporary) side effects include weakness and dizziness, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, low back pain, hair loss, gastric irritation, emotional disturbances, a strong and foul body odor, and a horrible taste in the mouth, “like something crawled in there and died.”
Why on earth would I willingly sign up to go through all that (and risk being an emotional, irritable jerk to people I’d like to count among my colleagues in the future)?
Because of the evidence. Because it makes scientific and logical sense that pairing a digestive/metabolic rest and re-set with optimal dietary change would be an incredibly powerful way to promote health. Because doing it with the experts at TrueNorth is an opportunity I can’t pass up. And because it’s important to me that I know what the heck I’m talking about when I recommend it to someone else.
My experience started today
Today, two days before starting the water-only fast, I had to start following a different way of eating. My preparations haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped, but I did follow the “rules.”
Tomorrow I’m going to be sharing more details about this!
Please check back to see how it is going: what I’m eating (and not), experiencing in my body, mind and soul. I don’t know how much I’ll post in real-time, and what aspects might require more reflection or research before sharing. What I know is that this is going to be one experience I’m not likely to forget.
*The TrueNorth staff addresses medical care, psychology, and health education, but is not involved in the spiritual significance that fasting may have for many people.
**This post was edited 1/1/2016 to reflect the proper name of TrueNorth Health Center, which does not have a space in the word TrueNorth.