Last week I completed my first 5-day water fast and thought I would share my experience with everyone who might have heard about fasting and is maybe considering doing his or her first longer water fast. By longer I mean longer than intermittent or alternate day fasting but not as long as some fasts that you can find out there. There are people fasting for a month and longer, but in this post we are going to concentrate specifically on the 5-day fast.
So, briefly about what is fasting and why do it? Who would want to willingly put one self through the torture of not eating anything for 5 days and what are the benefits? This post is not about describing the all the benefits of fasting as it would take a whole other post, therefore I won’t delve deep into them as there is plenty of good information out there right at your fingertips, but I will mention the main reasons.
Humans have actually been fasting for tens of thousands of years: before there were supermarkets we had to forage for our food ourselves and that meant that sometimes you might go without any food for a few days until you find something to eat. Because life always finds a way to survive, human bodies are really amazing at adapting to new stresses. Therefore, when there is no food available the survival mode turns on and the chemistry in your body changes in such a way that not only are you able to survive the hard times, you can actually thrive, still be able to forage for food and become stronger, smarter and purer. And this really doesn’t require much evidence as otherwise we simply wouldn’t have made it this far. If you think about it – if every time when you have no food for a few days you would die, humans would have gone extinct a loooong time ago. Yes – our predecessors made us who we are because they fasted. So fasting isn’t just the new hippie trend but has been a part of our evolution since the beginning of time and scientists are only starting to understand this process and the good news is that the evidence shows some pretty amazing benefits of fasting.
Many people associate fasting with weight loss, which it also does help, but it’s definitely not the main benefit. Ideally you shouldn’t even be in the situation where you should be losing any weight, but our modern life has ruined us. The reasons that appealed to my mind were that fasting:
- Delays aging and extends longevity
- Helps with cancer prevention
- Decreases the risk of heart disease and improves heart function
- Improves brain function and prevents neurodegenerative disorders
- Boosts the immune system
- Improves fat metabolism and glucose tolerance
When all of the benefits are put together in one short list then it almost raises some questions; it starts to look too good to be true. But the truth is that studies have showed that all of it is happening to some extent and as more studies are being conducted the evidence of it all is going to show.
I first got interested in fasting during my PCT hike when I heard an interview with Dr. Valter Longo on the Rich Roll podcast, where he explained the benefits of fasting and the science behind it. As I am a person that always loves to try something new and challenges that are hard to complete, trying fasting for 5 days sounded like one that I would be up to and if doing so comes with all these health benefits then …sign me up!
As with every challenge you first have to ease into it so I didn’t want to just jump straight into the hardcore fasting. Therefore, three and a half weeks prior to the fast I started with 16:8 and 20:4 intermittent fasting while training almost every day. Intermittent fasting is when you only eat during a certain time period of the day, which for me usually would be between 12:00 – 20:00; therefore 16:8 means 16 hours of fasting or not consuming any calories and 8 hours during which you eat how much you want, which still triggers the same effects but it takes a lot longer for them to start and of course still eating reasonably and most importantly healthy is preferable. Then some days I would only eat during 4 hour windows, mainly because I would spend the whole morning and afternoon training and simply wasn’t near food.
And finally the days on my schedule fell so that I could see the possibility for a 5-day fast. Nevertheless my 5 day window was during a regular work week so I would still go to work everyday and go about life as I would usually, except for not eating anything. For some reason, however, I chose my fast to start at lunch on day one and finish at lunch on day 5 or 120 hours without any food, any calories.
Day one – started after lunch time at around 12:30 and that day was my first time skipping dinner and going to bed with a completely empty stomach. It’s such a first world problem that I had to go to bed with an empty stomach for the first time so I had absolutely no right to complain. I could finally feel what millions of people are experiencing every day (for whom the feeling of going to bed with a full stomach is familiar). Regardless, doing so still resulted in all my dreams being about me eating something, which made me wake up every time I was munching on something in my dream because eating was not part of the deal and I felt like I was cheating. Hunger was present but manageable. I weighed myself that day and I was 73 kg, which gave me a reference.
Day two – here is where the choice of my fasting to be from lunch to lunch makes it a bit trickier to regard them as days – 1,2,3 because even though it’s within 24 hours it’s technically two days that you spend your time in – morning of day one and the afternoon of the day two and so on. Anyways, hunger was present and I felt irritated by everything. As the work day progressed weakness creeped in and everything felt much harder, even simple tasks, such as walking, took more effort. My body became slower as if I had lost a higher gear in the gearbox and I was left with only the slow one to just get through. A little surprise of day 2 was an unexpected nr. 2, which I guess consisted of the leftovers that were summoned by the body. I felt better in the afternoon, it was kind of like this: if I keep myself occupied with something I have enough energy and the hunger feels kind of fine. My weight had dropped to 71.5 kg, which was to be expected, and I also drank much less water as I didn’t want to flush out all my electrolytes, which can be dangerous. Therefore I drank only when I was thirsty and sometimes I added a pinch of salt to my glass of water. I slept very well that night and the dreams of me eating were gone.
Day three – in the morning the hunger was present and I felt that the weakness in my body had remained. They say that day 3 is the hardest and that afterwards it should get easier as the body adapts to using the fat reserves to fully power everything you do. As I am mostly on my feet during work I really felt that I needed a few sit-down-breaks here and there, despite being used to standing on my feet for 10 hours a day. The day felt hard but I embraced it and thought that at least I will get a good mental training out of it. Constantly resisting your hunger and your brain that keeps telling you to give up and get some food is definitely a good mental training and I could see how that might be helpful later on in the ultra endurance races, where you reach the point where the only thing that keeps you moving forward is your mental strength. I weighed 71.1 kg that day, which technically was within the normal rate of initial weight loss during a water fast.
Day four – It did not get any easier; I remained feeling weak, but maybe not as hungry anymore and I wasn’t tired. I felt like my brain functioned absolutely perfect, just my body felt weak, but I could still do the tasks I had to do and didn’t feel irritated anymore. It was hard, harder than I thought it would be, and only a few days away from the goal I wasn’t gonna give up even though my body begged me for food, especially when I saw some around me. I had dropped down to 70.2 kg and decided that because it’s only a few days left and I felt mentally fine I would just start drinking more water as I felt a lot more thirsty. I also didn’t sleep very well, had trouble falling asleep after waking up in the middle of the night, which was weird, as during all the previous days I had slept very well. Another interesting observation was that my average resting heart rate was dropping by a few beats every day during the fast and on the last day it was only 34 beats per minute. I guess my body had entered a low power mode and my metabolism was slowing down, which kind of showed that things were working.
Day five – as I crossed over to day five during the “lunch time” I had a very difficult task to accomplish: go to a store and buy the food that I will consume at lunch the next day or at the end of day five and the fast. The mental training of resisting my temptations was strong with this one as everything looked very tasty. At home I would usually just do something else while Stiina would eat. However, I managed to stay true to my goals and did not fall for the temptations. I could see the end of this and it made things feel easier because I knew that the sacred moment of eating would happen shortly. As I woke up during the second part (the morning) of my day five I didn’t feel that bad, still felt weak but functioning fine and the lunch time felt so close. My weight, however, did not drop but rather increased to 71.2 kg, which could be explained by the fact that I had started drinking more water. But the big surprise of the day was that I had another nr. 2, no idea where that came from, but my guess would be that drinking more water helped to gather more bad stuff that needed to leave my body. Then the lunch time came and it was time to re-feed my body, the fast was over!
Ending the fast – what a better way to end the fast than by a nutritious smoothie with fruits, some seeds and some nuts. I drank about a litre of the banana, apple, raspberry, mango, kiwi, coconut milk, flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, ginger, turmeric and water smoothie, taking one glass at a time and waiting about 5-10 minutes in between to see how my body reacts to this sudden change. After the smoothie was over I craved some veggies so I made a veggie sautee with broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, tomato, garlic, onion, green peas and red kidney beans. That pretty much filled me up for the rest of the day, I just ate whenever I felt hunger again.
The next day I simply rested and didn’t do anything besides eating, which was kind of nice, but I missed training. I thought that if I will have enough energy during the fast I would still work out an go running, but unfortunately the energy simply wasn’t there. But now I could start feeling it coming back so I went for a run the day after the rest day and my body somehow naturally wanted to return to intermittent fasting which I then resumed. Three days after the fast I felt fully normal and was back into training and 16:8 intermittent fasting like before the five-day fast. My weight came back in a few more days and I felt strong again, maybe even stronger than before.
Conclusion – did I gain anything? Who knows, but I followed the protocol and for all I know it felt like it was supposed to so I could hope that I got some health benefits out of it, but if not then so be it. But a gain that’s more measurable would be this: it was definitely one of the hardest mental trainings I had ever done, which in my opinion is an important gain as it’s not often that you get to push yourself mentally and dig deep for the strength to not give up, which is what life is essentially all about. Never give up.
Would I do it again? I actually think I would, they say it’s easier the next time you do it, which might or might not be true and the only way to find out will be to test it on my own body. Currently I am not yet looking forward to it, nor should I, as it’s a thing that for my age and health only 1-2 times a year would provide a sufficient benefit. Therefore, maybe in the end of the year I would consider doing it again.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, you don’t really miss out anything, you only gain and get to know your body better and what it is capable of.
In case you would like to read more about fasting then check out this link
in which the benefits of fasting are explained all with references to scientific research.