I Water Fasted for 5 Days. Here’s What Happened.

Aw, me, I busted out don’t even ask me how,
I went lookin’ for some help, I walked past a guernsey cow
Who directed me down to the bowery slums
Where people carried signs around sayin’ ban the bums.
I jumped right in line, sayin’ I hope that I’m not late
When I realized I hadn’t eaten for five days straight.

-Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”

 

I’ve been an advocate and practitioner of intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating for about a year now. It isn’t super popular in the plant-based/vegan circles. A lot of vegans are used to constant grazing. Plant foods tend to digest more quickly and easily, after all. Nobody likes to be hungry.

The human body is remarkable, though. Most healthy adults can survive extensive periods of time without food. Fasting has been a well-documented spiritual practice. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Gandhi undertook 17 fasts during India’s Freedom Movement—the longest of which lasted 21 days. And if you have a lot of body fat, you can survive for an exceedingly long time without food. A 27-year-old Scottish man fasted for 382 days in the 1960s—under doctor supervision, of course.

I have been regularly practicing a 16:8 daily intermittent fasting regimen for the past year (16 hours fasted, with an 8 hour eating window), and had recently incorporated what I call “Fast Fridays,” which is exactly what it sounds like—not eating anything at all on Friday. I almost always extend the fast until lunch or dinner on Saturday, usually fasting for 36 to 40 total hours. No big deal.

But I wanted to take on a bigger challenge. I wanted to fast for an entire week.

Why a week? 7 days is a seemingly arbitrary number, when you omit the cultural significance of it.

Perhaps that’s why I failed.

 

Here’s how it all went down…

 

Day 1

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The first day was by far the easiest, since I regularly practice 36-hour fasts every single week. It’s almost not worth talking about. It was easy and I felt great all day, as usual. The only thing notable about this day was that I spent a significant portion of it on the toilet. I took a bunch of senna the night before in an attempt to quickly clean myself out. TMI, I know. But senna works, people. Try it out.

Look it up.

 

Day 2

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I felt amazing waking up on the 2nd day. This was expected and typical, though. Like I said before, I go to bed with a completely empty stomach every Friday, and go to work starving every single Saturday morning. It always works out well for me.

But near the end of my shift at work, even the scented bars of soap started to looked appetizing. Worse yet, I even walked past some packages of hot dogs, and those looked appetizing! HOT DOGS! Do you know how those are made?!

(I’d sooner eat the soap than the hot dogs, though. I don’t hate myself that much.)

But when hot dogs and bars of soap start looking edible, you know you’re hungry.

This was going to be harder than I thought…

 

The real challenge started around what would have been dinner time. I’m used to ending my workweek with a delicious, bountiful vegan feast. I work at a natural grocery store, Detwiler’s Farm Market, in Southwest Florida. I have access to tremendously affordable fresh produce year-round. It’s a vegan’s dream. There is no shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables in my house.

I went to bed very hungry that night. My sleep was terrible. Restless leg syndrome came up out of nowhere. I hadn’t had RLS since I was a kid. But working in the supplement industry, I knew it was probably a symptom of mineral deficiency. Luckily, there was a bottle of Perrier in my fridge. I figured there was at least some magnesium in Perrier, so I desperately chugged the bottle, and lo and behold, my RLS went away after 5 minutes.

(If you suffer from RLS, please try to avoid taking potentially harmful over the counter, synthetic dopamine agonist medications. It might just be a simple magnesium deficiency. Try mineral supplements first. If you know it is a dopamine issue, do some research into Mucuna Pruriens).

After I went to sleep, I woke up with excruciating Charley horses (leg cramps) after a few hours. I solved the magnesium deficiency problem, but not the potassium and electrolyte deficiencies.

Needless to say, I slept terribly that night. Little did I know that my refusal to use supplements during my water fast would cause me to eventually fail on my 7-day goal.

 

Day 3

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After a grueling night of leg cramps, I woke up feeling light as a feather. I weighed in at 168 lbs, down 7 lbs from my initial weigh in of 175 lbs. I understood that much of it was water weight, and I wasn’t carrying any food in my body, but it was still encouraging! I could really start to see my abs, which have historically been accompanied by a bit of belly fat. I tend to carry my fat in my torso, which may be a symptom of adrenal fatigue and high cortisol levels.

I was exhausted, though. I dragged myself to work reluctantly. The lack of caffeine was putting me in the worst mood. This was the longest I’d gone without caffeine since USAF Basic Military Training (in the summer of 2008). I was told that fasting was such a beautiful, spiritual experience. But my brain was incapable of receiving the typical euphoria due to detrimental effects of caffeine withdrawal.

By the time I got home from work, all I wanted to do was eat snacks and watch a movie with my daughter. I couldn’t eat, so instead we watched the first half Lord of the Rings. I drank a San Pellegrino. The Hobbits’ affinity for food and hospitality just made me hungrier. I turned the movie off and went to bed. The leg cramps were even worse than the night before, and I still refused to incorporate a mineral or electrolyte supplement.

 

Day 4

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I woke up, still hurting from caffeine withdrawl. I was starting to get used to life without food, however. At this point all I wanted was coffee. It had been over 72 hours since my last caffeine fix.

In my pain, I yearned for the Holy Spirit, so without hesitation I drove to Meeting.

(I am a Quaker, and we don’t call it “church,” but rather a “Meeting of Friends.” This is because we consider the whole world to be our church. We are the church. For this reason, we avoid claiming any particular building to be a house of God. God is with you wherever you go. That being said, Quakers do not look down upon anyone who attends church, mosque, temple, etc. We choose to do things a bit differently, and some things are simply semantic differences. We love and respect everyone regardless of their spiritual practices/beliefs For more information about Quakers, check out QuakerSpeak on YouTube).

As I sat in silence, my mind rushed with ideas on how to quell the pain I was going through. I thought to myself, why am I doing this? I came to the swift conclusion that my caffeine withdrawal was having a detrimental effect on the spiritual goals of this fast.

At this point, the whole fasting experience had been nothing more than a health experiment/detox/reset.

I ran out of that meeting fast. As soon as it was over, I was gone. No time for coffee with Friends! This was sort of rude of me, and not my typical behavior. I was in too rough of shape to talk to anyone at that point, though.

Ironically, I drove down to Whole Foods and found a large Chameleon Cold Brew coffee on sale. So I bought one (black, of course). I didn’t even have a chance to leave the parking lot before I opened it. But this time I only drank ¼ of the bottle—2 servings! I normally drink all 8 servings (I know, I have a problem).

At that moment the weight of the world had lifted off my shoulders. I drove home singing along to my music, excited to see my family, grateful for the life I’ve been given, and excited to tackle the day ahead. The caffeine had brought me back to normal. This was the euphoria and spiritual fulfillment that I had expected from my fast.

 

Day 5

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Back to work! And this time I had coffee, and I was nearly 14 lbs lighter! Everyone who knew I had been fasting was commenting on how much better I looked than the last few work days. I admitted to them that I had coffee, and that was really the only difference.

Apparently I’m so addicted to caffeine that I look physically ill when I don’t have it.

I felt awesome for most of the day and I was unusually productive. At this point I was certain that I was going through ketosis, and my body had figured out how to utilize fat for fuel. I was still hungry of course, but not that hungry.

On my way home from work, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” came on through my phone’s shuffle.

That’s when this verse hit me:

Aw, me, I busted out don’t even ask me how,
I went lookin’ for some help, I walked past a guernsey cow
Who directed me down to the bowery slums
Where people carried signs around sayin’ ban the bums.
I jumped right in line, sayin’ I hope that I’m not late
When I realized I hadn’t eaten for five days straight.

This of course, was supposedly inspired by a dream Bob Dylan had. Fasting in a dream is an interesting concept, but nevertheless it resonated with me. I also hadn’t eaten for 5 days straight.

I was terrified about the prospect of yet another night of increasingly horrendous leg cramps. I was also beginning to get sick, which I started feeling near the end of the day. Some coworkers where coughing in a meeting earlier. The meeting was in a small room, and my defenses were down. I breathed in that cough. I had no nutrition left in my body to fight it off. So of course, I ended up acquiring the sniffles and a mild sinus infection.

I took that Bob Dylan lyric as a sign to stop my fast before things became unmanageable.

Call it a moment of weakness, or rather a healthy concern for nutritional pragmatism, I caved in at exactly 120 hours.

So I started cutting up all the fruits and vegetables in my house and tossed them into my Vitamix with some unsweetened almond milk, expired O.J, and some of those fancy ice cubes from Maine. I thought to myself, “I want nutrition and I want it now, damnit!”

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So it was a night of watching Seinfeld on Hulu and chugging down delicious smoothies with my daughter, Brooke. I felt a strange combination of relief, contentedness, and defeat all wrapped into one.

Next time I fast, I will be better prepared to combat the inevitable nutrient deficiencies. That being said, I have no regrets.

I went 120 hours without food or supplements and 72 hours without caffeine.

I’ve come a long way from where I was, and I shouldn’t beat myself up over falling short of my goal.

Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have even been able to go 5 days without a drink, or 1 day without a cigarette.

This is progress. This is success.