Monday, February 20, 2012

Starve a cold, starve a fever

There's an interesting article in the new Harper's about the potential health benefits of fasting ("Starving Your Way to Vigor" by Steve Hendricks). It cites a number of historical cases to refute the common wisdom that a person will die of starvation after 10 to 14 days. There are reported cases of people living much, much longer than that without food, assuming they are adequately hydrated, and especially if they are overweight to begin with. One grossly obese Scotsman supposedly went a full year without food, feeding solely off 276 pounds of excess body weight.

Hendricks names numerous studies in which short fasts reduce or eliminate the symptoms of various illnesses and diseases, some associated with obesity and some not. In one, a group of 174 hypertensives fasted for 10 days, and all but 20 of them had normal blood pressure by the end of the fast; the average drop was greater than has been reported in any drug study, and six months later most were still maintaining a healthy blood pressure. In another, cancer patients who fasted prior to and during chemotherapy suffered fewer side effects. Rats who fasted every other day prolonged their life spans. There's a treatment for epilepsy that involves fasting for several days, followed by adherence to a strict high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet; discovered decades ago, it has recently come back into favor and is known to be far more effective in preventing seizures than drug therapy in some patients. The author himself fasts for 20 days (with daily exercise) and loses 20 pounds.

Given my interest in outsider health stories and self-experimentation, I of course find all this fascinating, but I do think it's strange that the author doesn't address calorie restriction, known to prolong lifespan in pretty much every species for which it's been tested, as a method distinct from fasting; long-term calorie restriction doesn't require fasting per se, and humans who voluntarily adopt calorie-restricted diets have reported similar health gains (and weight loss, natch).

I kind of want to do a brief fast, not to lose weight but to give my intestines a chance to heal up completely. They seem to be in a constant state of slight disrepair, though certainly much better than they were when I was eating gluten all the time. My guess is that not eating anything for a few days would do my gut good. I'm too paranoid to try in earnest, though, because I have a history of fainting when my blood sugar gets low; one of these episodes sent me to the ER in need of stitches (in my face, no less). So it seems unlikely that I'll get a chance to try it out, unless some nearby hospital runs a study and I can volunteer as a subject, hence doing it under medical supervision. That would be swell, especially if they paid me. How about it, science?

25 comments:

  1. Fasting may help your writing, too. It helped Andre Breton.

    Are you subject to panic attacks? If that's an impertinent question, sorry. You needn't answer it.

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  2. Not impertinent, and no, I'm not -- why do you ask?

    Twain and various other geniuses too.

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  3. My blood sugar gets too low for fasting. I'm sure I could ease into it, but I've done the fainting-thing a few times when I -wasn't- fasting, just had skipped breakfast. M fasts every once in a while, though, specifically for the intestine-clearing benefit. It's amazing what keeps coming out when you haven't even put anything new in in three days. :)

    I know that when I'm not eating much, the smell of all perfume makes me instantly sick. :(

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  4. I read that article . . . actually, I read the whole Harper's cover to cover two nights ago, wide awake at 2 in the morning.

    The author mentions in passing various side effects, like irritability and lessened sex drive, and I was really wondering if he was sufficiently self-aware to realize all of the possible changes to his affect and interpersonal behavior.

    I have read many times the research results of low-calorie life. Funny that you don't hear more about it.

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  5. B, interesting about perfume! Most of the times I have fainted, I skipped or ate a too-light dinner and then drank alcohol, then passed out the next morning -- apparently the alcohol makes your blood sugar drop faster.

    The article mentions that risk of fainting is probably the most dangerous risk of a short fast.

    Whimsy, me too re: calorie restriction. I'm pretty sure I first heard about it in college, 10 years ago.

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  6. I ask because I read somewhere that panic disorder is linked to such digestive problems as irritable bowel syndrome. The part of a personality test that measures neuroticism, for example, might ask how often you have diarrhea. But I'm ignorant of medicine. If I had elephantiasis, I'd bleed myself with leeches. Glad to hear you don't have that problem.

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  7. I'm David Grove, by the way.

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  8. I think having digestive problems often causes anxiety, not the other way around -- I know someone for whom this is the case. She realized recently that she has a gluten intolerance; having given up gluten her anxiety went away (she always believed her anxiety caused her to have digestive problems).

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  9. FYI, "intermittent fasting" has become extremely popular in health & fitness circles over the last few years. The term refers to only fasting for 16-24 hours at most. Some people fast from 8 p.m. at night to noon the next day for example, both as a means to lose weight and because it supposedly activates hormones advantageous to improving body composition (more muscle, less fat). It's also a means to induce autophagy, whereby the body "cleans out" cells in the absence of dietary protein (this can also be induced by simply eating an extremely low-protein diet for a day, but fasting is easier since most everything has protein in it)

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  10. Yes, I have heard of people losing weight by only eating every other day. Supposedly, it's actually easier will-power-wise because you can tell yourself "I can eat whatever I want tomorrow..." as opposed to feeling like you have to wait weeks or months to go off a diet.

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  11. I've experimented with intermittent fasting, and I really liked the effect it gave. My digestive system has never been too cooperative. I worry that is too much information, but I'm sharing it anyways.

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  12. Never stopped me!! Anyone who has had digestive issues knows there is a weird trade-off that happens sometimes, where you're hungry but you're not sure if it's worth it. Food, ugh.

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  13. Hi Elisa, This reminds me of the article a while back about CR diets...

    http://nymag.com/news/features/23169/

    "For someone attracted to control, power, and accomplishment, this is the life. And I'm living it." HAHA.

    Also this: "Adam’s skepticism got me thinking, is all—not so much about how the food tasted to him as about how the whole evening must have looked to him, and for that matter, how it might have looked to me just a few months earlier. The slightly messianic tint to Paul McGlothin’s every utterance; the casual yet total confidence with which Don and Michael had discussed their prospects for eternal life on Earth, like two born-again Christians guessing at the precise date of the Rapture. I liked these people, I really did. But in the end, I made my way home that night with the growing sense that I had just come closer than I ever had to falling down the bottomless black hole of cult membership."

    I have come to the conclusion that fasting is useful and necessary in extreme digestive crises (which, like you, I have from time to time). But I try to avoid it at all costs. I have the wrong personality for it, I think. It quickly turns me obsessed, ravenous, righteous, and mean.

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  14. Thanks for the link! I don't think I had read that one.

    I essentially practiced calorie restriction for several years, though I did it because I was borderline obsessive-compulsive about how I looked, not because I wanted to live forever. I ate 1200-1500 calories a day (not counting alcohol; some studies have shown the body doesn't process alcohol calories the same way it does those from food) and worked out all the time. I think it was much worse for me mentally than physically (indeed, there was nothing wrong with my physically; I was pretty much a model of health in my early 20s). But I grew very tired of the constant counting and vigilance, waking up hungry in the middle of the night, etc.

    I still don't want to live forever, but it would be nice to feel 20 years younger. The main thing standing between me and any long-term CR diet or even more of a paleo-diet (which would be better for my tum than, you know, nachos) is my love of SUGAR! Not being able to eat Sour Patch Kids on an airplane? I just don't know about that.

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  15. I have done five day fasts on and off for the past 30 years. After I always feel lighter smarter and more spiritually connected. I never work during a long fast though never. I take it easy sleep a lot meditate.
    xor

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  16. RK! Lovely to see you.

    I kind of need to get a wisdom tooth out at some point. that might be a good time to fast -- I'll just be lying around all day anyway, too sore to eat anything toothsome...

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  17. I had my wisdom teeth pulled under the influence of laughing gas. Loved it! It induced no mystical experience, but it definitely elated me.

    A couple of my wounds wouldn't close, however. I ended up stanching them by biting down on a wet teabag. Surprisingly effective.

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  18. Biting on a wet tea bag sounds pleasant. As a kid I used to like to drink water by getting a washcloth wet and sucking on it.

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  19. Really? I wondered if my brother and I were the only ones.

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  20. i probably did it in the bath. of course those were also my glue-eating days.

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  21. I never ate glue or anything weird you're not supposed to eat that I recall.

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  22. i remember a particular dog treat that i enjoyed.

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  23. I read it. Consider that it amounts to a low-carb (well, zero-carb) "diet." All of the ills fasting is said to help or cure are the consequence of high-insulin levels. All. Carbohydrates convert to blood glucose, and glucsoe triggers an insulin release.
    Fasters---to broadly generalize--are often vegetarian/vegan predisposed, so won't (in general) be receptive to the notion that giving up their oats and whole wheat an fruit may actually help. It IS counterintuitive, after all. But beneath the shield of "whole, healthy foods" are carbs that lead to high insulin levels.
    We are all likely to interpret the findings of the Harper's story through our personal filters and biases...but if you are open to the possibility---however remote you believe it to be---that a diet consisting mainly or only of meat, eggs, fat, and leafy greens might actually be better for you, then get a book called Why We Get Fat (and What To Do About It).
    Awwww..you're welcome!

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  24. I think grains are evil, so you'll get no argument from me. like I wrote above, I'd "go Paleo" if I had it in me. I feel best when my calorie balance is mostly fat/protein w/ the carbs coming from vegetables as opposed to grains or sugar.

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