Bad tempered clouds were moving across the sky as I woke on the morning of Monday 27th July. The sun looked more like a search-light in a sandstorm. Right kind of weather, I figured. A calm determination was in me, an end-of-an-episode Hannibal kind of calm, confident my plans would come together.
I went to the fridge, opened it and swore. It had taken four seconds to forget, and a split-second for it to dawn on me the next few days were going to get extremely weird. I looked over at the coffee machine in the muted light of the morning. Fuck am I supposed to do now, I wondered.
I made myself the only breakfast available, sodastreamed some tap water, took it over to the sofa, sat down and drank it in one. It was unsatisfying. As I felt my stomach drum its cutlery on the table I growled and went back for a refill.
A three day water fast means consuming nothing but water for three days.
In the strange way one is drawn to things and one doesn’t really know why, I found myself reading about water fasts recently, and a blend of curiosity and boredom and spending a fair bit of time alone in my flat, I thought it was as good a time as any to try it out.
Fasting is nothing new. There is evidence that our digestive systems are better evolved for a delayed eating pattern than for 3 square meals a day. Hunter-gatherers would eat only when they could find food, which meant going without for up to 36 hours. And we were them for far longer than we’ve had supermarkets, which supports the claim that eating whatever we want whenever we want isn’t altogether what our guts are crying out for.
12 hours in
The first few hours of Monday passed uneventfully. Traditionally when fasting for religious purposes Christians would use mealtimes to pray. Instead of breakfast I took a bath, gave myself a haircut, sunk another glass of water and sat down at my desk. I did this semi-successfully until around lunchtime.
I jazzed up my lunch with some ice cubes and read for a while. Around 3pm I started to get extremely cold, and an hour later my head started to pound, badly. Unable to focus on writing I cut my losses and finished the Notebook.
I then pulled out a jigsaw I’d been ignoring for five years and made a start on it. Which was confusing, since I hadn’t gone near a jigsaw since I was twelve. Still freezing I had another bath and psyched myself up for dinner. Two glasses of tap water, sodastreamed.
I called it a night around nine in the throes of a biting headache. As I lay in bed I noticed something strange: I hadn’t felt hungry all day. Which was also confusing, as if the mere fact of being mentally prepared to go without food had made the hunger I assumed was inevitable dissipate into thin air.
What did this mean. That all those times I’d had a hunger meltdown and been a twat about it, all along I was making a scene about nothing? I was staring at proof that the human body, at least my human body, could go without food for way longer than I thought possible without even a squeak.
36 hours in
I slept badly and woke up very cold with my head still pounding. I caught myself in the mirror on the way to the bathroom and thought, of all the birthdays I would remember this was definitely going to be the weirdest.
In the Bible fasting was meant to be a thing between you and God, and it encouraged keeping the fact of your fasting to yourself. I liked this idea, so I fielded a couple of birthday calls from my family without letting on how bad I felt or what I was up to, and took a pint of water over to the sofa lacking the energy to do anything more productive with my morning than this.
The funny thing was that on a normal day by around lunch time I’d be getting pissed and probably quite aggressive that I hadn’t eaten. But because food wasn’t an option the need to fill my stomach never materialised. It didn’t even enter my head. It was as if food was something I felt only a vague sort of indifference to.
At the same time a kind of excitement was bubbling in me, a kick that came from depriving myself in the aim of some higher goal, testing limits never hitherto tested, striding head first into unchartered realms, just me and my buddy H20.
It didn’t last. At three I went for a walk around the hood in a terrible mood. I was knackered and my first hunger pang in 44 hours had blindsided me. It depressed me to think in my state most of the high street was now off-limits, and depressed me even more to realise my life pretty much revolved around buying shit.
I got home, found an article endorsing black coffee during a fast, ignored the fifty others I’d read which didn’t, and flicked the switch on my coffee machine. I dropped a Solpadeine into a glass to attend to my headache and sat back and sang myself happy birthday.
45 hours in
My new mood was gathering pace. I was amazed. Without so much as a pea for two days this was the best I’d felt in months. I’d read about the side-effects of fasting and wasn’t sure what to believe. But this was something else entirely.
The numbing pain in my skull that had accompanied me for the last 34 hours had gone, and been replaced by a mountain spring of good feeling. I was my old self but on an extremely good day, clear-headed, fleet of foot, eagle-eyed and razor-sharp, I was a predatory animal zeroing in on the kill.
Not knowing when or how the next meal would arrive, early humans learnt to thrive when fasting. The depleted body would release a chemical called Norepinephrine which amped up energy, alertness and focus, all things that were needed for a successful hunt. Same reason I was now absolutely smashing my jigsaw.
Meanwhile my body was going into hyper-repair mode. 48 hours in, ketosis and autophagy were happening; my body was digesting old crappy cells and producing new ones, insulin sensitivity was rocketing, blood pressure was going down, cancer suppressing genes were activating, and I could see like a hawk.
50 hours in
I lay in bed that evening rushing my tits off. Special edition endorphins were coursing through me, I was tingling and felt light as a feather, as if tiny muted explosions of energy were fizzing and popping all over my body. If this was a drug I’d buy it in a second. I listened to music in the dark for an hour and felt amazing, present and content and peaceful.
60 hours in
The last day was more of the same. I went for a walk, wrote all morning with a rare clarity and no lapse in concentration, had a wobble around three when I felt faint, and counted down the hours until dinner. I almost considered doing a fourth day but an Egg McMuffin ad appeared suddenly at the start of a video and screwed me over.
As the clock ticked down and I inched my way ever closer to the finish line, I felt a strange soup of mixed feelings. I was definitely up for eating something, but really only out of habit and curiosity, since even now after almost three days my body still wasn’t crying out for food. And there seemed a strange sadness about bringing this peculiar state of deprivation to an end. I can’t really explain it, but the whole process had felt both exhilarating and meaningful, and now with normality about to be resumed I was having to wave goodbye to all that.
72 hours in
Doctors recommend breaking a fast of that length with something very easy on the stomach like fruit or vegetables, or a light protein like tuna. I weighed up my options, and broke it with a beer in the bath. By the second sip I was off, I sat back in the water and breathed in deeply and felt a happiness reign supreme.
The Dynastic Egyptians were into it, the Ancient Greeks joined the party, Socrates and Plato wrote about it, every religion still practices a form of it, and as long as you have food enough in the first place to consider abstaining from, then I would say have a go. I loved it.
How did it make me feel.
It felt like an adventure, one I entered into with only the eyes of God (and my girlfriend) on me, in my own company, without changing my environment. But still like stepping into an unknown and finding something out about myself and returning with a new understanding and a story to tell.
By the end of it, seventy two hours and zero grams of food later, I’d felt mild hunger no more than twice. In a bunch of ways it was a reset button. Surviving without the things you think you need resets your understanding of what you take for granted. That maybe the certainties in your life aren’t so certain after all, and could stand some interrogation.
In all I lost about two kilos, mostly water weight. What I found most remarkable was how much my body benefitted from not eating, when for so long I’d had ingrained in me the idea that food was fuel and without it our engines splutter and die. Having said that, towards the end the mere thought of a deep red tomato sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper had me drowning in a mouthful of my own drool.
It was a reminder too that to go without the things we take for granted can reset our appreciation for them. Food, a pre-Covid world, a love you suddenly get scared you might lose. The world has a funny way of revealing itself whole to us only in our rear-view. It was a lesson in noticing the things around me and paying attention to them, above all a reminder to grab hold of the things we love and hold on tight whilst proffering our whispered thanks up to the sky.