Water: What Happened When I Went Five Days Without Food
I booked a ‘retreat’ at the TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California in late 2016. It took me over a year to commit to get myself up there to do a water fast. Why? Because I live to eat. I look forward to meals the same way a child can’t wait to get to Disneyland. So when I finally booked my stay, I had no idea how I was going to plan my day–if it wasn’t centered around food.
I first heard about the Center from my mom–a good friend of hers had spent time at the retreat to treat more serious medical conditions. Most of the folks that come to TrueNorth, journey there to treat any number of ailments from hypertension and diabetes to autoimmune disorders and even cancer.
And while I had no presenting issues–as far as I know–diet and nutrition had increasingly become a sore spot in my life. It impacted not just my health and performance but also my mood. And I had this sneaking suspicion that my attempts over the years to tap into my intuition were affected by the rumblings in my ‘gut’.
I was told that the best outcomes–and least struggle–required a diet of at least two days of raw or steamed fruits and vegetables. Some context here–the last time I had tried to go vegetarian (leave aside vegan) was in high school when I woke up one morning to announce that I was going to go ‘veg’ for a day–that is, until I smelt the wafts from the kitchen of my mom’s chicken curry.
To be fair, for a few weeks prior to the retreat I had tried intermittent fasting–basically a 24-hour fast every Sunday (last meal was Saturday dinner and skipped breakfast and lunch the next day). Sunday dinner, though, was a meat extravaganza–couple pounds of steak, whole chickens…you name it. Like I said, food is life.
That said, even that short fast had some consequences–by the early afternoon my head started to hurt and stomach continued to growl. But by evening time, all of that stopped. More importantly, I just felt more calm–less anxious about having to do something and be ‘productive’. It was basically a lot easier to sit and be still.
But I still had quite a bit of anxiety on the drive up to Santa Rosa on Friday morning. I had kept a vegan diet the past two days but it wasn’t in moderation–gorging myself on as much as I could in fear of the water fast. Since I had no presenting medical conditions, the Center staff–a mix of doctors, naturopaths and others–recommended a five day fast. Like I said, daunting. What would I do for five days? How would I feel? A barrage of questions ran through my mind over and over again. I got to the Center just in time for my doctor’s appointment where they checked my vitals and implored me to not try to do much of anything.
Which only raised my anxiety levels even higher–I couldn’t eat and rather than occupying myself with something…I was told to do nothing? After checking into my room, I did some work–yes, not the doctor’s orders–and no surprise that same discomfort in my head I had from intermittent fasting appeared in the late afternoon. By the evening time, though, I didn’t exactly feel hungry. The motivation to eat seemed more about my routine than anything else.
I woke up without any hunger pains–not sure why I assumed I would have them. What I craved instead was the pleasure derived from eating. The Center is not only a place for water fasting but education as well. In my room, there were a host of videos on diet, nutrition and most importantly the psychology related to the same. I slowly started to delve into this content–and attended a lecture that same morning from one of the resident staff on a similar topic.
Truth be told, I thought I would have been nodding off minutes into the lecture. On the contrary, I was so mentally alert. Most of our energy is spent on digestion–when that’s not happening, the level of clarity you get is game changing. And it wasn’t the frenetic energy you get from caffeine or some other substance–it was clarity with calmness. I spent the afternoon and early evening lounging outside in the sun–chatting with other fasters about their lives, lifestyles and the rest.
What put me over the edge to book my stay at TrueNorth wasn’t just my mom’s recommendation–it was also reading this GQ article from a few years ago. Become a new man? Sign me up. I wasn’t old, diseased or on any medication. And in fact, many of the folks at the center weren’t either–except that they had been for years before water fasting. Story after story of getting off medications–bumex for hypertension, metformin for diabetes and a host of anti-inflammatory medications for autoimmune disorders–and never going back.
But it wasn’t from the water fasting–that was just the reset button. Diet was key. I’d heard this from countless trainers over the years–you can work out all you want but know that 80% of the game is what you put in your body, not what you do to it. The Center advocates a whole foods, plant-based diet–and even goes as far as recommending the elimination of oil, salt and sugar–but that’s a topic for another post. What I did learn first hand was that many if not all of the ailments that we commonly associate with Western lifestyles–are reversible.
And having seen my dad undergo a bypass surgery some years ago was enough for me. According to my blood work, I’ve got high risk for cardiac disease–and I was determined not to be on an operating room having my chest cut wide open. So when the hunger pains increased considerably on the third day and I felt even weaker than the day before–that was the image I put front and center in my mind.
I woke up with an immense amount of energy. Not to mention clarity. Over the course of three days without food, I had dropped about ten pounds. But I didn’t feel hungry in the slightest. In fact, there were several lectures that morning and afternoon in the dining hall where other guests were eating or juicing–and I had no desire to have any of it. I plowed my energy into reading and writing (as well as work) and my energy levels went from strength to strength.
The Center staff came in every morning to check my vitals–and they noted that the first few days were generally the hardest but once you’re over the hump, it’s smooth sailing. Some fasters had to give up on the first or second day because their vitals or blood work were borderline. Others continued–I met several folks that were completing 7, 14 and some even 21 days of water fasting. One woman had gone 40 days. Mind blowing.
On the last day of my fast–I didn’t want it to end. And believe it or not–I attended a cooking demo and had no cravings for the food being prepared. Throughout my fast, I was reminded of Muslim friends or others I knew growing up where fasting was built into religion or culture more broadly. Whether it was Ramadan or a Hindu festival–I remember seeing family members fast every now and then…but not once did I think that this was something I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong–I loved breaking the fast during Eid-al-Fitr but never wanted to do what was required prior.
The next two days at the Center after the water fast were for refeeding. First day for juicing and the second was raw and steamed fruits and vegetables. Drinking juice on that first day was an other worldly experience–it was like I could taste every molecule of the apple, carrot and celery. But it was hard to drink. It took me more than an hour to finish the first juice–and there were three more delivered that day at specific intervals. I basically had a few pieces of fruit the next day and again–it was a little easier to eat on the second day but it still took some time.
When I got home on the seventh day, I showered up and weighed in–15 pounds lost. Not my goal by a long shot–I was my ideal weight prior to heading to the Center. But I looked–and more importantly–felt rejuvenated. Not at a surface level–but deep down inside…in my gut. I felt lighter all over–and especially in my mind. And what I felt was categorically different from juicing or any number of elimination diets I had tried in the past–when you give your body the space and time to heal, it will do exactly that. Our bodies are natural detoxifiers–just let it do its job.