The Tao of Intermittent Fasting:
There is an unexpected and welcome benefit to a new way of eating
I had surgery in 2015 after back problems and increasing pain left me using a cane. I woke up one morning in 2011, my right side weak, and had no idea why. I had no app to tell me what had caused such a thing to happen during the previous eight hours, such as the one my BFF uses to map her sleep patterns. For all I know, I might be going out and knocking over banks while I’m asleep. Fast getaways and carrying heavy bags of money would explain a lot.
I finished student teaching for my master’s degree by using a rollator. Middle school, with its many fire drills, assemblies, occasional lock downs, ‘temporary’ outlying buildings, and geographically out of reach bathrooms, isn’t the most convenient venue for an adult with a rollator, which is a walker with four wheels and a seat.
Over the years, between buying a cane and now, I have tried every pain relief therapy heard or read about to get off pain meds and go back to frolicking in the sunshine once more.
I’ve tried therapies offered by chiropractors; I’ve done therapeutic massage (judging by the pain it’s anything but therapeutic), myofascial release, thai yoga massage, AquaStretch, cryotherapy (which is like being stuck in a shower with NO hot water, times three), orthopedic doctors, trigger points, and three or four more I’ve forgotten. All were temporary fixes, and the trigger point injections began to have strange effects on me, a benefit of steroids.
One summer, I lay in bed in excruciating back pain for a week. The only thing that got me out of it was spinal decompression offered at a chiropractor’s office. It took at least six sessions to feel close to normal. Finally, I consulted doctors and a neurosurgeon about surgery and had a laminectomy three years ago.
Before the surgery, I had been on the Atkins diet. I had gained a considerable amount of weight from not being able to hike and bicycle as much as I used to (which killed me; I always counted on bicycling as something I could do when I couldn’t do other things), and Atkins worked.
After surgery, it was almost a given I would gain weight, and I did. I couldn’t get back in the pool for two months. I came home from the hospital, three days after surgery, sat down on the sofa, and couldn’t get up. My legs didn’t work. It took the two men in my family, a rolling desk chair, and a piano bench to get me over to the hastily ordered and delivered (it was a weekend, naturally), hospital bed, assembled where the dining room table and chairs had been.
I should have given the hospital hell over this; they had given us no indication or warning that my legs be as would be as useful as cooked noodles when I got home. I had taken walks around the nurse’s station while I was in the hospital with a physical therapist at my side (who made fun of me for having brought a little makeup to the hospital. I don’t go to the pool without a little makeup. He had NO call). I didn’t take into the account the cocktail of painkillers and steroids they were giving me while I was their hostage, but it wasn’t my job to take that into account.
After I was able to get back in the pool, I failed to lose any weight. (But I was more buoyant. Go figure.) I was waiting to get stronger, waiting to be able to do more. The only more I could do was take Sugar, my dog, to the park now and then, push my rollator around, and watch her run. There is joy in seeing the pleasure a dog takes in the simple act of running. The joy of movement and speed under your own steam. There’s nothing like it, even for a dog.
Not only that, but I was still in pain and had less mobility than before the surgery. I don’t think it did me any good. I’ve never even seen the scar on my lower back. For all I know, they might have done nothing but tattooed the likeness of a 1974 orange Gremlin back there.
After two years of trying, I had failed to lose anything but my mind. I was still in pain, still couldn’t walk, couldn’t get out there on my bike, climb hills, or walk any faster than a snail stuck in maple syrup, my trusty and obnoxious furry companion bounding away in front of me, occasionally stopping and looking back at me like I was holding up the troops’ advance and eventual victory over the Saracens. (I have tried to hike with my rollator, pushing it determinedly over dirt and rocks.) All the doctors would tell me was that I have “arthritis,” which seems to be a catch-all phrase, and then they’d hand me a scrip for some drug.
It was time for drastic action. I didn’t want to go on the Atkins diet again, because I don’t want to eat that much protein or meat, don’t want to give up fruit, or worry about how many vegetable carbs I’m eating. I do not want to count any numbers except the pounds I’m losing and the lower sizes I’m fitting in.
I had researched fasting over the years and tried it when I was younger. I believe in it and all its benefits, but like anything else, for something to do any good, it must be put into practice, not just admired from afar.
I began a program of eating within an eight-hour window while the rest of the day is considered a fast. In four months, I had lost a whopping two pounds. And no wonder, that’s the way I eat 99 percent of the time. I haven’t eaten breakfast since the Carter administration. I could do an eight-hour window standing on my head.
It was time to take it to another level.
Two months ago, I began to do 24-hour fasts, and occasionally, 36-hour fasts three times a week. With this plan, there is rarely a day during which the sun rises and sets that I don’t have something to eat. Usually I fast from dinner to dinner, between 6 to 8 pm to 6 pm the following day.
A month later, I went to the doctor, who is obsessed with weighing people and taking their blood pressure when they show up at his office, even if their patient just wants to sell him Girl Scout cookies. When they weighed me, I discovered that I had lost 11 pounds. I was stoked. I decided losing weight was the bomb, even if I had initially started this ‘diet’ to get healthier, which to me meant not getting sick. After being healthy overall for most of my life, I was sick every few months last year with some ailment.
A month after that visit, I went back to see him to ask about a full physical. They did their weighing thing and I had lost another 11 pounds, for a total of 22 pounds in two months.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had quit using sugar in my coffee, which was apparently a lot of sugar. Or a lot of coffee. I wasn’t about to go without my coffee in the morning.
Here’s the meat of the post, if you’ll forgive the food reference: I noticed many benefits from fasting; a clearing up of frequent headaches, an unfamiliar feeling of energy and well-being (sometimes I’m so amped from a day of fasting, that when I go to bed and try to sleep, I feel myself vibrating), I haven’t been sick this year even once, and of course weight loss, where weight loss had eluded me for so long.
Here’s a reason for the lack of ill health this year:
In their study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the team found that repeated cycles of 2–4 days without food over a 6-month period destroyed the old and damaged immune cells in mice and generated new ones.
I haven’t even had to do it that long.
That quote was from the pro side of the question of whether fasting is “good for us.” Their con column goes on to cite the same old tired reasons that have been used for decades to scare us off of fasting: that it will trigger bingeing, that we won’t eat our fruits and veggies as prescribed (huh? I eat them the next day!), and that fasting sometimes doesn’t even lead to weight loss, and if it does, it’s just temporary and it’s water weight. We’ll gain it right back, say they.
I decree that these people shall go without food all day tomorrow.
If I was carrying around 22 pounds of water, I’ll eat my hat. (Good thing I fast, just in case I’m wrong and have to find a hat to marinate.) When I continue to lose weight almost effortlessly and keep feeling better, will it just have been a water induced fantasy, hydrophobia, if you will?
It was hard doing this at the beginning. For the first couple of weeks, I over ate the day after a fast. Doing three days a week helped curb that tendency. I didn’t like going a full day without food, just to nullify the effects the next day. After awhile, I started looking forward to fasting. Because, guess what? You don’t have to think about what you’re going to eat, preparing it, or cleaning up after it.
Does no one ever discuss the money fasters save? I suspect it’s the number one reason we don’t hear much about fasting, or when we do, we hear how awful it is for us, because there is no money to be made from fasting. What would they sell? A fancy and expensive fasting energy bar or drink?
I have no clue how to figure the average for this, but if we use $2 per meal for food that’s in the house and not bought outside one meal at a time, that’s $6 a week, $24 a month. Stick it in the bank with the rest of your millions and before you know it, you’ll have enough for a nice dinner out. You WILL spend less on groceries and save even more not buying lunch every day, or picking up a burger and fries on the way home.
If someone wants to go for a day on 600 calories, that’s fine, but I won’t do it that way because a little taste of something is not to my taste. I would rather go without than be restricted to a little bit. That’s not a fast, it’s a calorie restricted diet, which typically just makes you feel dragged out.
I have not been able to find evidence for the most surprising benefit, which is less pain. This is huge. When every step hurts, and pain and stiffness curtails all your activities, it’s foremost on your mind as to one of the ways your life sucks, even if it doesn’t suck 95% in other ways.
Perhaps this benefit shouldn’t have been a surprise. One of the touted benefits of fasting is that it helps reduce or eliminate the effects of arthritis, which simply means “inflammation around the joints.”
Fasting has brought down inflammation, whether through a special mechanism of its own, or because weight loss naturally reduces pressure on joints and thus less pain is experienced. I have no proof of this, but it makes sense. 22 pounds is a lot pressure. I’ve read other articles that said fasts can dissolve the calcification around joints, which if true is another reason pain would be reduced.
Then again, it’s given me the energy and motivation to work out more at the pool, adding an hour and a half to two hours more exercise each week. That might also have a lot to do with improved mobility and less pain, but it would still come under the credit column of fasting.
The so-called ‘experts’ call this way of eating a “diet” that will work only as long as someone follows it, and the benefits will be lost when one resumes “normal” eating. Pardon me, but isn’t that true of any “diet”? I’m not thinking of weekly fasts as a diet, I intend to fast a minimum of two days a week for the rest of my life, and will stay on my three day program until I lose the weight I want to lose.
I haven’t had to give up a blessed thing, which counts as a point in favor of not having to learn a new way of behaving. When you have to give up pizza for good or for months, or give up dessert, or give up your nightly glass of wine, all you can think about is the day you get to have it again. And then you feel guilt, which must be assuaged with a pizza and beer. Too much angst for me.
I haven’t had to give anything up, count anything, feel guilty about anything, or go hungry for longer than a few hours in the scheme of things. It’s a done deal.