I’ve been a devout student of fasting for the last year or so. It started with circadian fasting (maintaining a 12-ish hour eating window each day – roughly from sun up to sun down) followed by intermittent fasting (eating within an 8 hour window each day – which for me is usually 10 or 11 am to 6 or 7 pm), and later progressed to extended fasting (all while working closely with a functional medicine practitioner).
There are many benefits of fasting which we’ll discuss later in this post. But I want to mention an important caveat: extended fasting may not be for everyone, and is something that should be approached with respect, knowledge, and the support/guidance of a qualified healthcare professional. It’s also not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Anyone with a history of disordered eating should consult with a medical professional prior to engaging in any sort of fasting.
Because although extended fasting has been a part of life for humans since the beginning of time (we wouldn’t have been able to survive + reproduce as a human race if our bodies weren’t capable of going for periods of time without food!), it isn’t something that most people should dive into full throttle right away.
Healthwise, we’ve come a long way since our hunter-gatherer days (not necessarily in a good direction) and even though fasting undeniably has profound health benefits, it could end up being a negative thing if it’s not something the body is ready for just yet.
I know that if I had jumped into a six day fast a year ago when I first started learning about its benefits, my body probably would have freaked out a bit (I also would have felt pretty miserable during the fast, and most likely would’t have made it very far).
But after nearly a year of intermittent fasting and slowly easing my way into a 24 hour fast, then 36 hours, and then 72 hours…I felt ready (and excited!) to attempt a seven day fast to kick off 2021. (Yes – seven days is what I intended to do. But I decided to end my fast a day early for a key reason I’ll explain in this post!)
HOW I FELT GOING WITHOUT FOOD FOR SIX DAYS
This may sound a little crazy to anyone who is new to the idea of fasting, but I truly felt amazing throughout my six day fast.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t ever uncomfortable or hungry, or that it wasn’t hard – it was all of those things at times! But for the most part, I felt great. Especially after day two. No matter how many times I fast, day one is never easy and day two is always the most difficult (ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is said to peak on day 2 of a fast).
On days three through six, I experienced some of the best energy, mental clarity/focus and mood stability that I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
But before you start thinking that I’m some special type of person who is well-suited for this kind of thing, let me shed some light on my eating habits prior to embarking on my fasting journey.
I’ve been eating a real food diet for the last ten or so years, and have spent a lot of time researching and fine-tuning my diet in that time. When I initially switched to a real food diet, I noticed a big improvement in my overall health and particularly in the health of my skin!
But over the last few years of undergoing the stress of growing a business and raising kids, I often felt like there was more I could be doing to improve my health and resiliency. I knew about intermittent fasting, but had always thought of it as purely a weight loss strategy. Since that wasn’t a major goal of mine, I never gave intermittent fasting much thought.
It wasn’t until a year ago that I learned more about the benefits of fasting outside of weight loss (activating autophagy – the body’s way of recycling damaged cell parts and replacing them with new cell parts, improved focus/productivity, better emotional stability, improved skin health, saving time and money, etc.)…these benefits captured my attention.
Although my diet was pretty solid, my eating window was quite large. I was the girl who regularly had some sort of a pre-breakfast snack soon after waking, followed by breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner, and then a bedtime snack.
Needless to say, fasting didn’t come easy for me. I had to ever so slowly decrease my eating window over time, cutting it down by an hour or so each week. For example, I started by decreasing my eating window from my normal 6 am – 8 pm, to 7 am to 8 pm for a week. Once that stuck, I would decrease it by another hour (8 am to 8 pm) for the next week, and so on.
Giving my body the time it needed to adjust to intermittent fasting, and later to extended fasting, made the process much less painful. Because I eased my way into extended fasting so slowly, there was very little suffering involved and I was able to truly enjoy the process.
Here are a few other things that helped!
- Understanding hunger: hunger comes in waves – it doesn’t build and build and build until it becomes utterly unbearable. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) tends to peak at mealtimes, and then it subsides.
Prior to my first 24 hour fast, I was fearful of going to bed on an empty stomach. But I was amazed by how tired I was at the end of a full day of fasting. This makes sense, as high levels of insulin (a hormone secreted by the pancreas to regulate our blood sugar when we consume carbohydrates and protein) can actually suppress the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). When insulin isn’t present, melatonin is higher and sleep comes easier. It’s amazing how our bodies are so well-adapted to going without food for periods of time!
And when the body isn’t spending time and energy digesting, we sleep more deeply. I’ve even found that my nights of fasted sleep are more often than not my best, deepest nights of sleep!
- Salt/Electrolytes: When we’re in a fasted state and not taking in electrolytes via food (but still losing them via sweat), supplementation is important.
In my experience, whenever I’ve felt my energy dip during a fast, a dash of Redmond Real Salt (I just lick my hand, sprinkle some on and then lick it off) or a packet of LMNT electrolytes (unflavored) in my water puts me back on my game.
- Coffee, tea and carbonated water: Okay, I know I used the term “water only” to describe my fast – but I did drink some black coffee, as well as green tea and herbal tea, during my fast. Some fasting purists may frown upon including these beverages, but coffee or tea won’t throw off any of the benefits of fasting as long as they aren’t consumed with anything that contains calories (sweeteners, cream, etc.).
During an extended fast, a little bit of flavor can make fasting easier and more enjoyable. Carbonated mineral water falls under this category for me as well – it has helped me get through many evenings of cooking dinner for my kids in a fasted state (which is always the hardest part for me!).
- Eating well prior to fasting: Consuming foods that are nutritionally empty and addictive will lead to some pretty intense withdrawal symptoms while fasting, as well as serious cravings due to nutrient deficiencies. Fueling up with nutrient-dense real foods prior to fasting (and post-fast) is critical.
- Calming practices: Fasting has profound health benefits, but it’s also stressful for the body – a good stress, but still a stressor nonetheless. In order to minimize any potential negative effects, it’s important to practice calming rituals in order to reassure the body that everything is okay.
For me, that takes the form of prayer, Wim Hof Breathing, spending time in my infrared sauna, and taking long walks outside.
- Knowing the “why”: During my first three day fast, I was knee-deep in The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung. This kept me motivated to stay strong whenever I struggled because I was so jazzed up on all of the health benefits of fasting that I was learning about!
Any intentional steps to keep your “why” at the forefront during a fast is always helpful. Some ways to do this include writing down what you want to get out of your fast (i.e. clarity to solve a problem, specific health benefits, etc.) and then setting aside time to pray or meditate on those things.
Listening to podcasts or reading books on fasting can also really help to inspire + motivate during a fast. Some of my favorite fasting resources are Dr. Jason Fung, Dave Asprey and Dr. Tony Evans (Evans offers a faith-based perspective on fasting).
Despite doing all of these things and feeling so good throughout my fast, I made the decision to end my fast a day short of my goal (I was originally shooting for seven days) because I unexpectedly started my period a few days early. When this happened, I began feeling weak and knew that my body needed food.
Could I have pushed through and gone another day just to hit my goal? Probably. Was I willing to go against what my body was telling me, purely out of stubbornness? Absolutely not!
There’s a difference between feeling hungry and just not feeling good. Feeling sick or unwell during a fast means that it’s time to end the fast.
WHAT I LEARNED GOING WITHOUT FOOD FOR SIX DAYS
In addition to feeling great during my fast, I walked away with benefits that have extended far beyond just the six days I went without food.
Here are my main takeaways!
- Skin health + overall health + longevity: Fasting can have profoundly positive effects on physical health largely because it activates the process of autophagy, the body’s way of recycling unnecessary or malfunctioning cell parts and replacing them with new, better functioning parts.
Because autophagy targets diseased or broken cell parts in its process of cellular cleansing, there is a growing buzz in the scientific community about its effectiveness in preventing various diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
The appearance of aging is also slowed (and many say can even be reversed to an extent) when we activate this mechanism of clearing out old cellular parts – therefore revealing more youthful, vibrant skin. I can’t remember a time when my skin has looked better than it did after my six day fast!
- Faith-building + spirituality: Fasting is the one thing that all of the world’s major religions and types of spirituality have in common.
In my own faith as a Christian, fasting has been instrumental in connecting with God on a deeper level. To paraphrase the words of Dr. Tony Evans, “Fasting is feeding your soul over your stomach – a breaking of the outer so the inner emerges.”
Before my fast, I wrote down specific things that I wanted to hear from God on. During the fast, my discomfort was a reminder to connect with God and to pray for those specific things. I was truly blown away by how much clarity I felt on the things that I was seeking guidance on by the end of the fast.
- Mental Strength: There’s something magical that happens when we do hard things. When we overcome seemingly impossible challenges or feats, we develop a sense of confidence in ourselves and we begin to trust in our ability to be successful in other areas of life.
In a world where anything and everything is readily available, fasting can be a helpful tool in managing impulses. Fasting (from anything) can help us to overcome things that might have power over us in some way (food, excessive spending, too much time on social media, etc.). By intentionally depriving ourselves of impulses such as these, it makes it easier to manage other impulses of the flesh.
During my fast, I found that I was much slower to give into emotional impulses. It got me into a state of equanimity (mental calmness, composure) that I really missed once I broke my fast.
- Focus + productivity: For me, another major benefit of fasting is increased productivity. Practically speaking, fasting saves a lot of time and energy in regards to not having to prepare food or even make decisions about what to eat.
Mentally, something even more profound takes place. Dave Asprey (author of Fast This Way) wrote in a recent newsletter, “When you fast, it activates enhanced mental clarity due to the energizing impact of ketones on the neurons in your brain. This helps to bring focus and steadiness to your mind. In addition, all the life energy that would typically be going into digesting your food is now yours to direct to a higher purpose.”
During my six day fast, my mental clarity was off the charts. I had one creative breakthrough after another. With ketone levels that ranged between 4 and 7 mg/dL in the final few days of my fast, it’s no wonder I experienced such a heightened level of focus.
Fortunately, extended fasting isn’t necessary in order to experience these benefits, as elevated productivity can be felt even from daily intermittent fasting. On a day-to-day basis, intermittent fasting gives me the energy and alertness I need to be the wife, mom, and CEO I want to be.
So, will I ever do another extended fast? I think so! But probably only once per year. In the meantime, I’ve adopted an intuitive approach to fasting where I fast based on what I feel like my body needs in the moment.
Most of the time, that looks like daily intermittent fasting (with a 4-8 hour eating window) and usually one full day of fasting per week. And especially right before and during my cycle, I listen to my body and eat whenever I feel like eating.
I’d love to hear from you guys on this topic – have you tried intermittent or extended fasting? What are some of the benefits or challenges you’ve experienced? Let me know in the comments section!