It improves the condition of the body, reduces inflammation and teaches perseverance. At least in theory, as Ewa Pawlik found out.
Everyone knows you should eat fruit and vegetables, but hardly anyone realizes that sometimes it’s good to take a bite out of yourself as well. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was recommending ‘self-eating’, otherwise known as fasting, to his patients as early as 400 BC. In 2016, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his research into the phenomenon of autophagy, the controlled degradation of proteins and other cellular structures that is associated with fasting. After several hours of fasting, insulin levels drop and glucagon levels increase; these changes give rise to autophagy. The level of growth hormone also increases, activating regenerative processes. Meanwhile, the risk of developing cancer is lowered, and symptoms associated with diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular diseases also subside. Even the ageing process slows down. All you need to do is stop eating!
It sounds simple, but it’s not.
It is important to start preparations for a fast at least two weeks in advance. This involves cutting out food groups one at a time. Firstly, meat and meat products should be taken off the menu. A few days later, dairy follows. No more cheese, or milk in your coffee. Even kefir, so rich in health benefits, is blacklisted. And since a crusty roll makes little sense without gouda and butter, bread is the next to go. Followed by pasta, of course. Step by step, you cut out everything until only vegetables and fruits remain. Raw, boiled, stewed – but not fried. There’s nothing to fry them in anyway – fats are out. Eating fruit and vegetables may seem easy. A piece of cake, you might say. But no! There’s a catch: you can’t use salt. Previously delicious soups and stews turn out to be surprisingly bland and not as enjoyable as they once were. At this stage, giving up eating completely ceases to be a sacrifice and can actually be a joy – as long as you give up coffee in time. Otherwise, the beginning of your fast might coincide with severe migraines. I made this mistake the first time. Quite rightly, it seems, I decided to distance myself from my refrigerator in order to eliminate temptation. I left town. This was a smart strategy: even if my willpower weakened unexpectedly late into the evening, as tends to happen, I wouldn’t want to go home to grab a bite to eat. But en route, I capitulated and had a coffee that tasted hideous, even though it was excellent quality. After a two-week quarantine, your taste buds perceive all flavours in a completely different way – if you give it a go, you’ll be in for a few surprises.
Hippocrates wasn’t the only one to recommend fasting. The idea was also put forward by Galen of Pergamon, a doctor, surgeon and philosopher born in 200 BC who practised in Rome. In the Middle Ages, the Persian scholar Avicenna also experimented with this method of treatment and considered it one of the most effective. More recently, researchers at the Medical University of Utah studied the eating habits of Mormons. Members of this religious group, which makes up over 70% of the population of Utah, don’t believe in the Holy Trinity, but claim that Jesus was Lucifer’s brother – and, in addition, that fasting is healthy. Mormons fast every first Saturday of the month. On the other days, they avoid coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol. In this community, there are 40% fewer cases of atherosclerosis and more than 10% fewer cases of heart disease. According to the researchers, these differences result from regular abstinence from food to a much greater extent than not smoking or drinking alcohol.
Virtually every major religion recommends periodic fasts. In Judaism, a one-day fast accompanies Yom Kippur and precedes Pesach and Purim. Fasts are also held on the anniversaries of tragic events. Followers of Islam observe a fast known as sawm. During the entire holy month of Ramadan, believers refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset.
Buddhist monks and nuns most often practise fasting by eating one meal a day (around noon) and avoiding food until the next morning.
I did my first fast in the summer as part of a fasting retreat. Excluding that unfortunate coffee, I was well prepared physically. Mentally, I was faring a bit worse – basically, I was scared. On the first day I was full of adrenaline. I found myself in a group of a dozen or so people who, just like me, dreamed of losing a few extra kilos without putting in any effort. And… surprise! A strict regime was imposed on us. Alarm at seven in the morning. A glass of water and dissolved vegetable fibre, followed by over an hour of yoga. More glasses of water or very, very diluted watermelon or cucumber juice were served at fixed times, for which we were required to be present. This makes sense. The shock of fasting directs all our thoughts to food. A bit like that famous psychological experiment where subjects were allowed to think about anything but white bears. It’s obvious what they thought about!
And then there’s the hunger. You don’t feel it constantly. Hunger comes and goes – those in the know claim this even happens quite regularly and predictably. The first day is difficult, then days three, six and nine. It’s not easy in between either, but you’re able to think of something other than food.
In Polish conditions, during the second fast, I replaced the watermelon juice with sauerkraut juice and milk thistle tea, but I still kept to the fixed times and regular rhythm.
Yoga makes total sense during fasting. It allows you to feel your body and what’s happening to it even more acutely. Some days are better, some are worse. Fasting is a sinusoid. It is accompanied not only by weakness, but also the opposite – a feeling of strength. Both the body and the mind are cleansed. This is worth observing. There were times when I was sad or angry for no apparent reason, but also times when I felt euphoric and full of energy. In fact, I had the feeling that apart from the mood swings, nothing particular was happening to me. On the sixth day of fasting, I took a trip to the ordinary world – the world that eats, drinks and takes holidays. Until then, I hadn’t left the area of the resort, which was extremely peaceful. There were no loud noises, no parties, no food, only people fasting. And from this oasis, I wound up in the very centre of mass tourism. I wandered along the bar-lined beaches and observed everything in disbelief. From the perspective of someone who is fasting – that is, someone who has decided to make a sacrifice, to resign from something, who has become a temporary ascetic – the average tourist is a total madman. I was struck by the excess of stimuli, the hustle and bustle, the frenzy. It’s a bit like the world has been colonized by a gang of three-year-olds who’ve eaten too much sugar and gone wild. They’re screaming, running around, unable to sit still for even a minute. My pace felt like the real pace, and everything around me looked like time lapse videos from YouTube, unnaturally accelerated. This feeling returns to me every time I fast. It wasn’t as clear when I was fasting in Dźwirzyno in November, surrounded by the calm sanatorium clientele, but I still felt it. That’s the main reason I like fasting.
Something for nothing
There are other benefits too. With each fast, I lose a few kilos, which I must admit is always nice. Fasting restores the factory settings. Everything returns to normal. Your skin is smooth and clear again, your nails strong, your sleep deep. Minor ailments vanish, the body works better and more efficiently. You’re rejuvenated, refreshed. Desaturated colours become saturated again, and there’s an improvement in your visual acuity: of yourself, your needs, and your compulsiveness. Fasting brings you back from the frenzy. After a few days without eating, you feel like giving up many other things. It teaches you that you can do less – in every sense. It’s something worth going through.
There and back
The return to normality should be similar to the pre-fasting preparations, and over a similar period of time. Introduce new food groups gradually. This can’t be overlooked – coming out of a fast too quickly is a great way to guarantee the yo-yo effect, I give you my word. My last four-day fast came at a time when we were returning to almost normal pace after the pandemic pause. The first social meetings after months of isolation are not conducive to fasting, and it was for the joy of meeting my friends that I broke my fast. But I’m not giving up my defences. This is my tool for resisting an intrusive, overly chaotic reality.
Long fasts are much easier to do outside the home, outside of the daily rhythm. Doing nothing can be surprisingly tiring; it’s best to avoid additional burdens, such as work, or even family. Shorter fasts don’t require a change of scene or living conditions, but they can still turn out to be an interesting journey.
A bite to eat
You don’t have to opt for drastic, multi-day ‘self-eating’. You can take a bite out of yourself once or twice a week. British doctor Michael Mosley proposes the 5:2 method. This involves eating balanced, normal meals five days a week and fasting on the other two. Here, fasting can mean not total abstinence, but taking in 500 or 600 kcal (for men or women, respectively) in the form of a juice-based diet, for example. Research conducted by Mosley shows that even occasional under-eating significantly reduces cholesterol levels and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
We need to bear in mind that permanent satiety is a novelty in human life. We’ve only been confronted with this over the last few decades and our bodies haven’t had the chance to prepare for it. If we do not feel hungry for a long time, the mechanisms responsible for longevity are turned off. That’s when we see atherosclerosis, diabetes, and the other plagues of these times that know no moderation.
It is worth trying to disconnect from this global feast, even for a little while. And you can start by refusing one dinner. Maybe today? Good health!
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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