Ep. #17: The Skinny on Fasting

Fasting is an ancient practice that’s been revived for modern times. There are many benefits, but few people discuss the dangers. Listen to this episode to hear about why I love fasting, how fasting landed me in the hospital, so you can decide if it’s right for you.

TRANSCRIPT:

Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s episode is for every listener who’s considering fasting as a strategy to improve their health, mental clarity and focus, and also to drop a few pounds, or maybe many pounds. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth, and I’m glad you’re here because today we’re going to talk about fasting as a strategy—the good, the bad, and the ugly, so you can decide if it’s right for you.

What is Fasting?

Fasting is voluntary abstinence. Usually when we think about fasting, we think about abstaining from food, and sometimes liquids, too. Mostly it’s food. People sometimes go on offending spouse where they spend the money, and that could be an interesting discussion for another episode, but for today we’re just going to talk about fasting as it relates to food.  When people talk about intermittent fasting, they’re talking about short-duration fast, sometimes it’s skipping a meal, sometimes it’s eating every other day, and there are also longer-term fast where people go for three, five, 10, sometimes even 30 days with consuming no food.

Benefits of Fasting

If you’ve heard anything about fasting lately, you know that it has a lot of cheerleaders. To start off today I’d like to discuss some of the reasons why many people think it’s a great idea. Then I’ll share my experiences, including one example of how fasting can be dangerous, actually a couple of examples so you can decide for yourself if this is something you’d like to try.

Autophagy

I first got interested in fasting when I was recovering from a hiking injury. I’d had a couple of surgeries that didn’t help, a bunch of physical therapy that didn’t help, and I was basically confined to the couch and I was watching my body go from pretty fit to pretty flabby. I also felt pretty foggy, because I couldn’t really move, much less exercise enough to break a sweat, and I just felt like I wanted something to clear my brain. And after all that time on the couch, tightening up my body here and there would have also been a welcome change.

And this is when I learned about a process called autophagy. *October G is a cellular cleansing process that our bodies do this naturally—we’d die without this process—and a researcher named Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into how it works.

According to some information I found at nobelprize.org, “[a]utophagy mediates the digestion and recycling of non-essential parts of the cell during starvation.” In other words, autophagy cleans the gunk out of our cells when we’re not eating. It helps prevent us from getting dementia because it cleans out gunky proteins and other stuff in our brains. It also helps us avoid cancer because it eats up gunky stuff in our cells that could mutate into cancer. It can obviously help us lose weight because we were not ingesting food our body starts pulling from our fat stores.

A stronger, healthier body

Many people are afraid of fasting because they’ve heard that low-calorie dieting eats at your muscle mass, thereby reducing your metabolism because muscle burns more calories than fat, so when you stop dieting and begin eating normally again, you just gain more weight back because your metabolism is lower because you’ve lost your muscle.

So I read a book about this. Dr. Jason Fung is a medical doctor who rebuts this idea about muscle loss during fasting in a book he wrote called The Obesity Code.

In this book he basically explains that what we’ve all been told about how our metabolisms work, and how we have to eat constantly to protect our metabolisms, just doesn’t make sense. In his book he describes the research about dieting, low-calorie dieting, and its adverse effects on metabolism—in one study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, for example, young men who were put on very low-calorie diets for 24 weeks experienced all manner of unpleasant physical and psychological deterioration that was attributed to the low-calorie dieting. And all of us who better low-calorie diets can agree that it’s a very unpleasant experience

Based on this study and other studies like it, the researchers have generally concluded, it has been assumed that if a low-calorie dieting was bad, then a period of no calories, in other words the fasting period, would be even worse. Our muscles would deteriorate even more rapidly, and the other physical and psychological adverse consequences would be even more profound, but according to Dr. Fung, that is not the way it works.

He says that our bodies have evolved to understand feeding, periods where there is food and were eating, and fasting, periods were not eating, but our bodies don’t understand dieting. There was either food available, in which case we ate as much of it as we wanted, or there was no food and we went without. Completely without. And this kind of makes sense doesn’t it? Before we had refrigerators and freezers and modern canning and packaging and preservatives, if there was food people ate it. They didn’t dole out a few ounces of it to themselves today, jot it down in their food journal with a calorie count, and think, well I’ll save the rest of it for myself tomorrow. And then if there wasn’t any food tomorrow they just went without until there was food.

Dr. Fung says that based on this way of living—feast or famine, but not dieting–our bodies learned how to use aging material in our cells, and to access our fat stores, during periods when there isn’t any food. And this makes sense too–isn’t that why we have fat? It’s a store of energy for the future when no food is available. And Dr. Fung says that our bodies are really smart. He’s not worried about our bodies burning muscle during a period of no food–a fasting period–because that would be the equivalent of burning the furniture to heat our house when there’s a stack of firewood right next to the fireplace. He describes it that way in his book. He says that if our bodies functioned this way, if they used up valuable muscle when there wasn’t food, the human race would not have survived the first famine that ever occurred on earth. We would’ve gotten so weak that we wouldn’t have been able to get out and hunt for food or gather food or do whatever we needed to do to get food, because our muscles would’ve been wasted away, and we wouldn’t have reproduced and that would’ve been the end of it.

So according to Dr. Fung and other proponents of fasting, none of us need to get all freaked out about not eating three meals a day, or skipping breakfast, or even going whole days without food. He says our bodies have evolved not just to tolerate periods of not eating, but actually to enjoy it. And the frequency of our eating is killing us, according to him. It’s not just the quantity or the quality of the foods that are problematic for us now—it’s also how often we’re eating. Snacking between meals and “small meals frequently” eating protocols are a huge part of the current obesity crisis that we have, according to Dr. fun, and it’s also contributing to diseases such as dementia and cancer, because the gunk in our cells doesn’t get cleaned out when we are constantly eating and that causes all kinds of problems.

The other cool thing about fasting, according to Dr. Fung’s book, is that it doesn’t just clean out the gunk inside of us, inside ourselves that we can’t see, Dr. Fung says it cleans up the loose-skin problem that many dieters experience after losing significant amounts of weight. I told Reggie actually helps your body take loose skin and use that app. Activity is where your body just uses up stuff that it doesn’t need anymore. Fasting proponents on YouTube have gone on extended duration fast is actually reported that scars disappear from their bodies during an extended duration fast. The body during the activity process, October G means “getting oneself as quote by the way, during that process it eats up your scar tissue, and Dr. Fung’s patients in terms of loose skin, he reports them going from being severely obese to normal weight, but they don’t have to get skin removal surgery like many or most formerly obese patients do, because his patients are dieting, there fasting, and that helps his patients eat up the loose skin and make it go away.

In my mind, this is another huge benefit to fasting during my time on the couch. As a person who is going from pretty fit to pretty flabby, , I thought, terrific. If fasting can take wear of brain fog is where is clearing up excess lab on my body I thought terrific I’m all in.

Mental Mastery

I was also interested in the mental aspect of fasting, not just the part where the gunk gets cleared out of your brain cells, but the part where you have to manage your mind to forgo food when everyone else is eating it, or when you want some good as a comfort or as a break or for any of the other reasons that we use food when were not really hungry. Managing my mind during a water fast, which is where you consume nothing but water, no coffee, no tea, nothing but water, was a challenge that I was eager to try. I wanted to see if I could do it and what it would be like.

The mental part was definitely the most challenging part. When I first started doing some shorter fasts, half a day, and then a full day, I think the longest fast I did was a little over 72 hours, the most difficult part was the psychological aspect of it. We are so conditioned to believe that we need to eat, it’s healthy to eat, it’s unhealthy not to eat so eat all the time, that I was just psychologically uncomfortable, sometimes bordering on disturbed, that I had gone so long without eating and it was fine. My husband and I would look at each other and he’d say, “Wow, are you still not eating and you seem okay,” And I would say, “I know, and the crazy thing is I feel pretty fine.”

Diminished Hunger

I definitely felt different when I was fasting– not nearly as hungry as I expected to be. What I learned is that hunger comes in waves, and the waves dissipate if you don’t act on them. We’re so accustomed to, the moment we get hungry, to jumping up and thinking, It’s time to eat. It’s time to eat. I have to get something immediately.

I learned during the fasting process that this isn’t necessary. If you just ride the wave, the hunger will dissipate and then it will go away. And this I presume is because your body starts dipping into your fat stores and feeding off of those, who knew? It makes perfect sense when you think about it, though.

Improved focus

another very cool thing about fasting is that I got a lot of stuff done during this time. I’m a good reader—I read pretty fast and with pretty good comprehension, but during my early fasting experiences I could read twice as fast and retain even more. It was just amazing, and I think some of that was physiological because your brain runs on ketones during a fast, those are as I understand things the byproducts of burning fat as opposed to sugar for energy, and when your brain is running on ketones that contributes to enhanced mental clarity.

But I also attribute at least some of my increased focus to the fact that my brain wasn’t constantly tugging at me with, “Hey let’s go have a snack. Isn’t it time to get some food?”

This is another very wonderful and eye-opening experience. For many of us, there’s just so much noise around food in our heads all the time. Food addicts often say, “I wish I were an alcoholic, because you can abstain from alcohol 100%.” Alcoholics can just eliminate alcohol completely and not have a constant tug at them about when and how much and what kind. But my early fasting experiences taught me that you actually can abstain from eating food, and during the periods that you’re not eating, you can also get that exact same benefit that you get if you completely abstain from alcohol. The noise just falls away during the fasting period.

Disadvantages of Fasting

With everything I learned about fasting, I was ready to go all-in. I had done some short practice fasts, I found that I tolerated it well, and for the most part, I felt good when I was on a fast. I felt amazing during large portions of the one-, two-, and three-day fasting that I had done.

Diminished Sleep

One thing that I didn’t like about fasting was that when I laid down to try to go to sleep, I couldn’t relax. My body felt twitchy and antsy and I couldn’t sleep. I read that this is due to a surge in adrenaline and other stress hormones, maybe some growth hormones that are generated during fasting, and if this makes sense to me too. If there’s no food, your body wants to give you energy to go out and get some. I wasn’t super crazy about that part where it was difficult to sleep, but it wasn’t awful.

Electrolyte Imbalance—Can be Fatal

So I decided that I wanted to do a longer-term fast to try to improve my health, feel better, and maybe even drop a few pounds while I couldn’t move around very much, and I went to see my doctor about it and she was completely on board with the idea, at which point I embarked on a longer fast. I was going to try to go 21 days without eating, drinking only water.

When I started this fast, I didn’t feel well. I had a sore throat and I felt like I was coming down with something, maybe strep throat. My throat was pretty sore. Normally I would have used a lozenge or some throat spray to tone it down, but I decided not to. One of the benefits of fasting, according to many fasting cheerleaders, is that it helps your immune system to recover. Your body isn’t busy digesting food, so it can focus on fighting whatever ailment you have.

So I just kept going with my fast, and I sipped ice water constantly, I kept filling and refilling a quart jar of ice water and sipping on it to soothe my throat. By the end of the second day of that fast, I was sitting on a chaise lounge in our dining room, I had my computer in front of me and I was looking at the screen, and my field of vision went blank in the bottom half. It was like someone had put a barrier over the lower 50% of my eyes, and I could only see the top half of the screen. The bottom half of my eyes weren’t working anymore. I had to avert my eyes, lower them as if I was looking through the bottom part of a bifocal lens, to read the bottom half of the screen. And this freaked me out. I don’t know what I would’ve done about it if my husband had enough come home, but he did come home right then, and he walked over to me and I put my computer aside and I tried to stand up and I felt really shaky and weird, like my brain wasn’t working. And then I looked at his face. He was about 2 feet away from me, maybe 3 feet, and I could see his four head and I could see the bottom portion of his face, his mouth and his chin, but in the middle part of his face, that part of my field of vision all I could see was a jagged blue line, like a lightning bolt, flashing in electric blue. Flashing like a disco light, it was the craziest thing I had ever seen. And I told him, “I don’t know what is wrong with me but something is really wrong.” My voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else’s body when I said those words.

So he drove me to the urgent care across the river from us, probably took about 12 minutes to get there, and they took one look at me and told him to take me straight to the emergency room. And when we got to the hospital I couldn’t even stand. My husband is a germaphobe, and he was completely horrified but as we were waiting to check in to the ER, I just laid down on the floor in the hospital. That was all I could do.

So the ER doctors ran tests and try to figure out what was wrong with me and they determined that I had a sodium deficiency. Evidently our cells maintain a balance of water relative to sodium, and if you drink too much water relative to sodium, the ratio gets out of whack, there’s too much water relative to sodium, and this screws up the way your brain operates. You can go into a coma. You can also have seizures. When they admitted me to the hospital, they didn’t let me go home that night, I had to stay in the hospital. The nurses came in and strapped a bunch of cushions on all the metal parts of the bed where I was sleeping in case I had a seizure so I wouldn’t break an arm or something slamming it into the metal.

When I was doing my research on fasting, before I tried this extended-duration fast, I read report after glowing report about it, and some of them were footnoted with, “Oh, by the way, be careful because you could die.” No one ever says how you can die, and I discovered for myself that night at least one way—you can drink too much water, and if you’re not eating food or taking an electrolyte supplement or consuming something to keep your sodium and other electrolytes up, you can get an electrolyte deficiency, you can get this imbalance between water and electrolytes in your cells, and it can kill you.

And by the way, I had planned on a 21-day fast, but I was only at the end of two. It wasn’t that long of a fast. Another thing to consider here: I’d read that some people only use distilled water during a fast, but now having had this experience that seems nuts to me because as I understand things, distillation removes the electrolytes from the water, so if I’d been drinking distilled water, I think my sodium deficiency could have been even worse.

So this obviously wasn’t a terrific experience, it was a great learning experience—I learned a lot about fasting that I didn’t know before, but my doctor didn’t tell me,  I hadn’t heard anything about this online. In fact, everything I’d read on line said drink water, drink TONS of water, during a fast. And what I learned from this experience is that’s just a bad idea. If you’re not eating when you’re over-consuming water, you can wind up in a lot of trouble.

Low Blood Pressure—Can be Fatal

But my prior experiences with fasting were so great, that even though I wound up in the hospital, I wanted to try again. I just thought that I would go back to not over-consuming water, I won’t have a sore throat on a fast again, so I won’t be sipping ice water out of a quart jar all day, and I’ll take an electrolyte supplement and made sure that my levels don’t get depleted and I don’t wind up with the same problem that I had before.

And that was interesting. The instructions on the electrolyte supplement said to put it in my water, but that was like drinking a glass of sweat, so I just started doing a shot glass of it, which was basically like bolting down a shot of salt water.

And that seemed fine, but then on day two of that fast I got low blood pressure, and it felt like I was going to faint in my kitchen. I have low blood pressure anyway, and that’s one of the problems with people who are fasting. I’ve since read an online account of a man with normal weight who decided to do a 21-day fast for the mental clarity and for the challenge to see if he could do it, and towards the end of the 21-day fast he passed out in his kitchen. This kind of thing I think is very disturbing because a fall can be very dangerous. We fall a lot, but we don’t often consider how dangerous a fall can be. When my dad was still alive, my dad broke his c-1 vertebrae when he passed out in his kitchen—his fall was alcohol-induced, not fasting-induced—but a fall is a fall—no matter what the reason you’re passing out, a fall can hurt you. Arianna Huffington passed out from lack of sleep and broke her jaw, and I had a client who died when he hit his head on a marble floor after passing out and falling backwards in a restaurant. So at that point with the low blood pressure and feeing like I was going to faint, I decided that as much as I like fasting, I had to declare myself done with fasting.

My Conclusions on Fasting

I still wish I could fast. I loved how I felt on a fast. I loved the mental clarity. I loved the challenge of doing something difficult and figuring out that I could do it, it was easier than I thought it would be. I think that translates to all other aspects of our lives, when we try to do something difficult and figure out that we can, then our brains start to say, :wait, what else did I think I can’t possibly do, and realize, maybe I can do it.”

I love the idea of working on my mind and mastering my thoughts during a challenging circumstance of not eating food when everyone else is. I love the idea of the health benefits, especially the idea of autophagy cleaning out my brain and maybe even shrink-wrapping my body into its formerly fit version, or something resembling Angelina Jolie’s body even, but I just can’t do fasting.

It’s a little like those climbers who want to climb Everest. Some of them can get acclimated to the low-oxygen environment, and some of them can’t, and that’s where I am.

I still think fasting can be a great idea for some people. One of my husband’s co-workers recently went on a 30-day fast, and he lost 100 pounds in 30 days. He’s a business traveler, and as we all know, it’s tough to eat well on the road, much less lose weight when you’re on a business trip, so what could be better for a business traveler or someone who’s very busy at work? We all say we don’t have time to lose weight because it’s too hard to prepare special meals, it’s too difficult to find the certain foods that we’re eating on a weight-loss protocol, so could anything be easier than fasting? Save time, save money, you can do it anywhere.  I just love the idea on so many levels.

So I still think fasting can be a great thing for some people, but I think it’s dangerous and even fatal for other people, and it turns out that I’m probably one of those people. It’s just not the right thing for me. After some experimenting that’s the conclusion that I had to come to. So now, the most fasting I do is skip a meal. One of my best girlfriends is Russian and she told me a Russian saying, “Eat all of your breakfast, share your lunch with a friend, and give your dinner to your enemy.” And when I skip dinner I feel really good the next morning, so this is about all the fasting I do right now.

If you’re considering fasting–and there are lots of good reasons to consider it–you should first check with your doctor and discuss electrolyte deficiency, blood pressure issues—these are the two potentially fatal problems that I’m aware of—and aside from falling the other thing about low bp is that if it gets too low you just die. You have to have a certain amt of blood pressure in your system to keep you alive. So check with your doctor on those two things, and also ask if your doctor is aware of anything else that could harm you if you go on a fast. There are lots of fasting cheerleaders out there, but it’s difficult to get information on exactly why fasting is dangerous and what we can do to mitigate the dangers and who shouldn’t fast at all. I think I’m one of the people who shouldn’t fast at all, so with this episode I wanted to start a dialogue about that to try to help listeners avoid the same problems I experienced, and also to warn you that it’s nothing to mess around with. If you want to try it, definitely see your doctor and do it under medical supervision.

And on that positive note, I’m going to close for today. Thank you for listening, it’s been my pleasure to share my experiences with fasting. I’d love to hear your experiences if you’d like to share. You can email me at kelly@richandthin.com, and I look forward to connecting with you next week.

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