Everybody knows about fast food. Scoffing that factory blend of hormone-heavy protein, sluggish starch, industrial trans-fats and E-numbers, is the reason why most people have also heard of the Fast Diet: 5-2, where you restrict your calorie intake by three-quarters for two days a week. Not many people though, have ever really fasted; that is, given up food completely for a period of time.
When I decided to go on an 11 day fast at the Buchinger Wilhemi Clinic on the shores of Lake Constance, my friends decided I had gone crazy. 11 days with no food?
Why would anybody want to do that?
The response was interesting. What if I had said I was going on a gourmet holiday for a fortnight, munching my way through the Michelin stars? That would have been normal. Eating is normal. Eating too much is normal. Not eating –unless it’s the latest diet or celebrity detox, puts you in the box with the weirdos. Or are you secretly anorexic?
I discovered that the very thought of not eating makes people anxious. Food is comfort. Food is safety. Food is plenty. Food is how we mark the divisions of each day. Or as Leonard Cohen put it – Humans are always looking for things to do between meals.
Fasting is not new. Religions of every kind have had fasting in their calendars forever. Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights before he began his ministry. His is the inspiration for Lent – 6 weeks of food restriction before the feast of Easter Day.
The prophets and patriarchs of Judaism spent a lot of the Old Testament fasting – squaring up to a bad tempered despot like Yahweh seemed to work better on an empty stomach – or to précis a latter-day Jew like Freud – don’t overfeed your controlling Super-ego.
In the Islamic tradition, the fast of Ramadan forbids daily eating until sundown – and then only a modest meal should be consumed. The prophet Mohammed declared that while prayer takes the believer half way towards Allah, fasting completes the journey.
Hindus regularly observe dawn till dusk fasts, 12 hour respites for the body that allows the internal organs a welcome rest from their duties as a processing plant The 5000 year-old Hindu method of natural health, Ayurveda, uses fasting to balance the body, concentrating on digestion and elimination.
Buddhism, naturally, prefers a middle way of no excess; not too much food, not too little. The Buddha himself began by road-testing extremes – all the wine, women and curry nights a young man could want, followed by years of self-denial. But the Buddha didn’t reach Enlightenment through fasting – only after he was commanded to eat. Even so, Buddhist monks are encouraged not to eat solid food after midday – both to rest the internal organs and to concentrate the mind on higher things – that is, things higher up the food chain than, er, food.
The religious and mystical point is that human beings are not just what we eat – remember that bit in the Bible ‘man shall not live by bread alone.’ We are more than food, more than reproduction, more than survival. We have creativity, curiosity, a need for meaning, and the strange desire to put ourselves at risk, both to discover our limits, and to get beyond them.
No matter how comfortable our lives, it is hard to be happy without challenge or meaning – and as love is both of those things, I include it here.
Plenty of stuff is never enough. This isn’t discontent; it is the oddity of being human. Our stubborn belief in an afterlife can be put down to superstition, terror, ignorance, or magical thinking, or you could see it as a the logical conclusion of the only organism on the planet that feels itself to be more than its body. The body dies, the spirit continues. That this must be so makes more intuitive sense than the likely empirical truth that it is not so.
Some people go on retreats or try and connect in some way with the part of themselves not expressed by the frantic full-on world of getting and spending. Fasting does that by making the body itself the site of retreat.
Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Dante puts his Gluttons in the Third Circle of the Inferno – writhing 24/7 in a whirlpool mudbath of live intestines and excrement with attitude. Does that seem a bit judgemental for a life spent on Supersize with a bucket of fries and vat of gelato?
Given the way we live now, the gluttony debate in Christian thought looks like a proto-Marxist prophecy against the over-consumption we have learned to call Capitalism. Over-consumption that wrecks the planet and unbalances our relationships, nation to nation, class to class – and to one another.
The greed is good philosophy of the Reagan/Thatcher era – 30 years of stuffing your face followed by economic collapse – is the macro model of what happens in our bodies not designed for All You Can Eat.
True, some of the best conversations happen over a good meal and a bottle of wine. Food is fabulous. But too much eating of too much easy food too much of the time, is responsible for our current level of degenerative disease – diabetes, heart conditions, fatty liver, hypertension, inflammation, and of course the rise and rise of obesity. Yes, this is about the sort of food we eat, but it is also about the quantity of food we eat. We’re gluttons.
And reaching for the next piece of cake when we’re stressed or miserable solves nothing, as anyone working with eating disorders knows. As Susie Orbach puts it, ‘Feelings don’t live in the fridge.’
At the other extreme, anorexia is as much about disgust as about control. Take a day noticing how bombarded we are with food – not just the food we eat, but the advertising, the supermarkets, the candy at the fuel station, the wrappers and litter and overflowing bins. A young friend of mine who is no longer anorexic told me she hated how her parents were always eating – and soon she hated how everybody was always eating. And soon she hated herself if she ate.
Interestingly, Buchinger is good for anorexics. There is no food – though anorexics undergoing treatment there are, of course, fed. But Doctor Wilhelmi tells me that the relief experienced away from food is part of the healthy impulse back towards food.
It’s important to say that fasting is not starvation. The anxiety and fear that attend lack of food in critical circumstances of famine or enforced deprivation are not present if you are fasting voluntarily. Nor are you beating up your body to get it in line. You are in control, but this is a partnership – your body and you.
When I began reading about fasting, before it was my turn to try it, I found that religious visionaries like St John of the Cross, St Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, all recommended fasting as a way to clear the head and concentrate.
Ghandi fasted in order to focus his mind. Pythagoras refused anyone into his academy who did not know how to fast.
The Greeks interested me. Our religions are imports from the East where ascetic practice is normal, so I would expect to find a tradition of fasting there, but the Greeks were rationalists, the founders of Western thought and Western medicine. But here’s Plato and Socrates fasting for mental efficiency, Plutarch advocating a day of fasting for any minor disorder, and Hippocrates, the doctor of us all, saying that ‘to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.’
I wasn’t sick but I did have high hereditary cholesterol. I am the right weight, and fit, and I have more good cholesterol (HDL) than bad, (LDL), but my total count was just under 8 and there is a history of heart disease and early death in my biological family. I was determined not to go on Statins. I did my own research and could see that while the drug companies are pushing to get more of us on the pills, there is mounting evidence against taking them at all, unless there is no alternative. At my GP practise the overworked doctors act like the robot arm of Big Pharma – if it squeaks, drug it.
But I was under a lot of stress and I knew my cortisol was too high. I was exhausted back in March.My dear friend Ruth Rendell had been in hospital for 3 months, and I was commuting between Manchester University, my home in the Cotswolds, Ruth’s hospital bed in London, as well as trying to finish a book due for October publication, and prepare for my marriage in June. I was feeling overwhelmed.
At this point people either eat or drink too much. I suddenly had the odd idea that I should do the opposite.
Dr Michael Moseley, Mr 5-2 Diet, has written about the near miraculous effects of fasting on insulin levels, triglycerides, cortisol and cholesterol, and levels of energy. So knowing that I am a person who likes extremes, I thought, why not?
And that’s how I found myself heading to the Buchinger Wilhelmi Clinic on the shores of Lake Constance.
The Clinic was set up here in Uberlingen in 1953 by Otto Buchinger, a German medical doctor who had been discharged from the German Imperial Navy in 1919 with chronic rheumatism of the joints caused by septicaemia. Unable to move without agonising pain, a life as an invalid in a wheelchair awaited him; instead he fasted for a month and emerged utterly weak but fully mobile. For the rest of his life – into his 80’s, he researched the fasting principle.
So what happens when we stop eating?
First the body uses up the glycogen stores in the liver. That might take 12hours or 24hours. Afterwards the body will have to use proteins (muscles) or lipids (fats) to produce the energy (glucose) it needs. The body is programmed to avoid breaking down muscle, and so the liver turns into a factory to manufacture ketones for fuel.
That’s where all those hokum diets with raspberries and ketone pills come from. But you don’t need to buy anything; just stop eating and your body will ketone for you.
This is where the process gets exciting. Imagine your house is freezing and you have to burn the furniture to keep warm.
First you burn the rubbish, stuff you have been hoarding for years and don’t really need, including what you inherited from your dead aunt. The body does the same. Sick cells, old cells, decomposed tissues, are burned away. This is the ultimate spring clean. It allows the body to eliminate toxins and metabolic waste at the same time as turning them into heat and energy. And you can live off this rubbish for days.
Next, the body will go for its fat reserves – a bonus if you want to lose weight. Most of us have plenty of fat for the body to get busy on – and belly fat is an easy target. As the director of the Buchinger Wilhemli clinic, Doctor Francoise Wilhemi Toledo, told me, ‘You haven’t stopped eating – only you are eating from the inside for now.’
But the process of ketosis is more than the body eating itself. While fasting, the body goes into repair mode.
Valter Longho, Professor of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, believes that this protective repairing mechanism is the result of our 3million years of evolution.
Longho’s ongoing research shows that fasting actively reboots the immune system and leads to a drop in IGF-1, a growth hormone linked to ageing, cancer, insulin resistance and tumour progression. Working with cancer patients, Longho has proved that fasting both protects healthy cells and devastates cancer cells. At the same time, fasting has been shown to minimise the effects of chemotherapy on the immune system.
If you are interested in knowing more about this, there is an impressive documentary available on YouTube called The Science of Fasting. It begins with research done over 50years in the Soviet Union, and until recently, unavailable in the West.
There, doctors discovered that fasting could successfully treat chronic asthma with cure rates pharmaceuticals would kill for.
But that’s the problem; fasting is free. OK, so it’s not free because you need to be medically supervised, at least to begin with, but there’s no money in it for Big Pharma.
As Doctor Andreas Michelsen from the Charitie Hospital Berlin – Europe’s largest public hospital, and one that treats over 500 patients a year with fasting, explains in The Science of Fasting. ‘ If I had been studying a new drug and got these results, I would be getting phone calls every day. It is very easy for critics to say there are not enough studies when we know there is no funding for these studies.’
That is starting to change as data from the Soviet Union, from the Buchinger Wilhemi Clinic, from the hip rock-star status of Valter Longho at the University of Southern California, and the success of the 5-2 diet, forces health care companies and governments to take notice of the astonishing capacities of the body – if we will get out of its way.
But while your body is happily munching its miseries, what happens to you, the person used to having a good relationship with a full fridge?
The first 3 days are difficult. Emotionally and physically. The Buchinger method encourages you to accept the mood swings and create an attitude of acceptance and tolerance in yourself; you are working with your body not against it.
In the early mornings patient meditate. Exercise classes begin at 8am and run through the day, including long walks and personal training in the gym.
Exercise is as important as mindfulness. Exercise keeps the metabolic rate high and encourages the body to move towards a state of maximum efficiency. After all, when we were coping with food shortages in the past, we had to keep moving to find something to eat. Sitting in your room feeling terrible is not the answer.
It helps if you know you are in safe hands. At Buchinger, on arrival, every patient begins with a full set of blood tests and a consultation with a doctor. Then, every patient sees a nurse each morning to check blood pressure and general health.
Day 3 is always the crisis as the body moves into full ketone production. I felt cold that day, withdrawn, and a little light-headed, especially after the compulsory doses of Glauber Salts for full bowel evacuation. But Day 4 was a revelation. I woke early, clear-eyed, cheerful, full of energy. This continued right through my fast. I was able to concentrate, take long walks and go to the gym. Every morning I was swimming in the cold air in the outdoor pool. I wasn’t hungry at all for the next 6 days. My blood pressure was stable throughout, and I was enjoying myself. When the time came to break the fast – something that has to be done most carefully with tiny amounts of solid food – I really wanted to continue, just to see what would happen next.
When we measured my cholesterol it was down from 7.9 to 6.2, and with the ‘good’ cholesterol in the right ratio. Three months later it is stable. Cortisol was back in the normal range. Joint pain in my foot following an operation last year has disappeared completely. I lost about a kilo and an inch from my waist and I haven’t regained either.
If you have weight to lose, you will lose it. If you have less weight to lose, the body seems to know how to balance itself there too.
Fasting isn’t a diet. It isn’t calorie restriction. At Buchinger they are keen to make this distinction. After fasting you will return to eating normally, though with adjustments where necessary, and Buchinger has nutritionists to help you work out what was upsetting your body in the first place and how to choose a diet that will keep you healthy.
But while you fast your body will undergo profound changes at cellular and metabolic levels. These changes last after the fast is ended. Improvements can be maintained through diet and by making fasting a normal part of life – as it once was.
Most impressive among the people I talked to at the clinic were the regular visitors for rheumatism and arthritis. Quite a number come a couple of times a year, to fast for a couple of weeks each time, and have seen a drastic reduction in medication and pain, and a significant increase in joint mobility.
The answer seems to lie with fasting’s ability to decrease intestinal permeability – the ‘leaky gut’ problem so often associated with inflammatory diseases, as large molecules acting as antigens, pass through the intestinal wall and cause immune reactions.
Remember that 80% of our immune system is in our gut. If the gut is wrong we are wrong. Fasting is good for your gut.
I intend to return to Buchinger this year to further reduce my cholesterol. But also to experience again the profound sense of well being, lightness, and peace of mind that fasting delivered. Most of all, you feel that you have time again – think how much time shopping, cooking, eating, clearing, takes out of every day. Suddenly there is time to think deeply, read, re-assess, be with yourself, and make a new friend of your best friend – your body.