A friend, who tends to be overweight, went on a Forty Day Fast recently saying that his dad had done that several times, and he himself had fasted for forty days once before. He explained that he continued all of his ordinary activities as an interpreter during his fast, without any difficulty whatsoever.
Maybe he felt so well, I thought, because normal activity makes more sense for the average mortal person than fasting alone in the wilderness like Jesus, which might awaken dreams and Devils. I had supervised students during a several week anti-Vietnam war fruit juice fast– like those of Caesar Chavez. Yet these were child’s play compared to my friend’s forty day fast.
Being in that magical age when one can be freely irresponsible, I was tempted to submit myself– as subject– in an uncontrolled experiment. But it needed a little thought. I decided on 90 hours because I wasn’t entirely convinced my friend was telling the whole story; and I don’t have enough fat to last long without feeding on my frightened proteins; or worse— a fatty little brain that might still be useful afterward.
I’m generally healthy, given the overburden of foolish years; my numbers and chemistries are ideal. (Whatever that means! Time suggests that today’s sacred truths are often tomorrow’s gross errors.) Yet I have type II diabetes, using only the medication that seems to me most rational and effective – lantus with a regular insulin pen for carb flings. My Hemoglobin A1c- , a reflection of average blood sugar during the prior 90 days, is usually between 5 and 6, not normal, but very satisfactory. I never have a very low blood sugar since I stopped all the oral diabetes treatment pills I had used earlier.
Looking over some of the literature on fasting quite superficially, it appeared to me there was some evidence intermittent fasting may be beneficial for humans. But well constructed human studies on longer fasts seem small, and over controlled to the point of –absurdity. Apparently they are not profitable, and worse, troublesome and costly.
Not so in mice i , where “prolonged periods of fasting – repeated cycles of 2-4 days with no food – over the course of 6 months, seemed to kill off older and damaged immune cells and generate new ones.” Longo and colleagues suggest that such “metabolic changes … as a result of prolonged fasting… for 3 days or longer–drinking only water …reset some components of (the) immune system... the drop in white cell levels trigger(s) a stem-cell based regeneration of new immune cells.” Interesting, especially if you are a mouse. Yet, if my friend could do long fasts why not I?
Day one began at noon on Monday and ended the next noon. I had cut the lantus (insulin) in half that morning and had a light lunch. The rest of the day was inconsequential.
Day two began at noon Tuesday: I had slept well, and had waked comfortably that morning, skipping insulin altogether, making breakfast of black coffee to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches. I was building a fence and had to dig post holes that in the afternoon making sure to drink plenty of water. It was a hot day but the work felt easy, and I felt no hunger at all. The rest of the day I read and wrote, which is my usual thing. I ingested some TV and Netflix.
Day three began at noon Wednesday: Much the same. I stayed with my thrice weekly regimen: light upper body work, about 8500 ft-lb*, and 110 Calories on an elliptical trainer; enough to sweat and get the heart and lungs going. I was not hungry. Not at all. Back to my books to dig up an old copy of Don Quixote, which offered new meaning for me; the aged Don Q set off on his quest after reading too much, and causing his relatives to fret.
*80 lb x 11 per exercise x 6 exercises x 6 sets = 8640 ft lb; that sounds like a lot, but it only takes a boring half hour or so.
Day four began at noon Thursday: I cemented and set five fence posts, being animated and comfortable despite triple digit heat. My GI tract relaxed after it had produced faithfully til day 4. Where did that come from? I read a book just published by Milton, a Peruvian friend. By 10 PM on day three, my fast had already lasted 82 hours; the last 8 hours would be spent asleep. I am an easy sleeper, and that night, like the rest, slept well.
At the 90th hour: I wake. My only memory of the night is being instructed, a bit tersely, to turn over and stop snoring. Did I dream? I did, but don’t recall; if ever I do a long fast again I will make a note about dreams when I wake. I am still not hungry but restart the lantus dutifully; two hours later I breakfast on granola with milk and fruit. I wonder: Doesn’t that make my fast 92 hours? Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the old and new me, except the old one lost 9 lb. During the next 10 days, 7 lb returns. We took no insulin during the entire fast; our blood sugars were constantly between 80 and 100.
Comment: Is there any benefit to a several fast besides transient weight loss? I don’t see much. I don’t recommend it though my little adventure did get me back to Don Quixote for some new and different insights consistent with my age and condition. Frankly, my fast reminds me of what a much admired old friend, Skeet, said years ago when he reached an advanced stage of emphysema and stopped smoking; on the second day of withdrawal he was asked,
“Do you think you’ll live longer now?”
“( Cough, Cough Cough, Gasp) I don’t know. (Cough, cough) But I sure as hell hope not!”