The following article outlines the experience of my first 5-day dry fast. I do not recommend such a long dry fast to anyone, unless they already have plenty of experience with both 7-day water fasts as well as 3-day dry fasts!
A fast has been in the air for a while now. First, my last multi-day fast took place already half a year ago, and my body’s been asking for some general cleansing over the last month or two. Second, and more specifically, I’ve had nagging and quite severe tendonitis in my wrists since last autumn. (Too much bad typing technique on the laptop, combined with way too much heavy DIY building work last summer!) I wanted to spend some time dealing with this, especially because I feel as though the chronic inflammation in my wrists is slowly seeping out and spreading an underlying inflammation into the rest of my body.
Why a 5-day dry fast? And why precede this immediately with 2 days of water fasting?
In an ideal world, the best thing for my wrists would probably have been a 3-4 week water fast. In the end, like the old saying goes: only time can heal. And only a water fast is capable of such an extended duration. As strong and as intense as a dry fast can be, there’s no way it’s ever going to last 3-4 weeks! Unfortunately, though, a 3-4 week water fast just wasn’t going to fit into family life over the summer. So I thought the best thing I could do with the time that I did have – about a week – was to dry fast for as long as possible.
Up until now, I’ve struggled to get comfortably past the 3-4 day mark while dry fasting. Especially at night, I tend to get a really uncomfortable ache around the top of my pelvis / lower back which prevents me from sleeping, and this makes life a general misery!
This time, I set out to with greater resolve to find a way of reaching the 5-day mark. In the intervening period since my last dry fast, I’d given a lot of thought as to how I might maximise the chances. Theoretically, at least, I thought I had found a way.
I decided to apply two approaches, both of which were designed to minimise dehydration over the course of the five days.
- During the dry fast, I intended to walk as much as comfortably possible without tiring myself out in the process and then regretting it afterwards! In practice, for most of the fast this equated to a daily 5-8 km (3-5 miles), divided up into four short walks. The reason for regular walking is that, during ketosis, the process of breaking down long fat molecules into ketone bodies releases free hydrogen molecules. These then bond with oxygen molecules in the blood to form H2O: so-called ‘metabolic water’. Theoretically, therefore, the more fat burnt through gentle exercise, the more metabolic water produced by the body and the slower the process of dehydration. In my case, this was especially important because I have low body fat to begin with, which means that the amount of fat my body otherwise burns while fasting tends to be considerably below average.
- Unless you precede a dry fast with a long calorie-reducing dietary transition, it means that the dry fast itself begins with your normal carbohydrate-based metabolism still intact. Instead of releasing water, carbohydrates actually require water in order to metabolise. This means that the dry fast begins with a double whammy of dehydration: (1) from the dry fast itself and (2) from burning carbohydrates during the first couple of days of the fast, until ketosis is well established. This doesn’t cause major problems for short dry fasts of 24-48 hours, but in my experience for anything longer you run into trouble before long! My strategy, therefore, was to begin this dry fast with ketosis already established through a 2-day water fast. And there it was: my allotted 7 days of fasting offered the potential of a perfect storm of a 2-5 day water-dry fast.
What actually happened?
Based on prior experience, I know that two days is of water fasting is enough for me to reach a pretty good level of ketosis. Still, I wanted to maximise this further, so I applied another couple of ideas. First, I made sure that I was already tapering my calories the day before the water fast began, and, in addition to skipping breakfast as usual, I had a light dinner of only salad and olives. Second, I decided to practise the yogic technique of shankaprakshalana the following morning, at the beginning of Day 1. Here’s what happened…
DAY ONE OF WATER FAST:
Shankaprakshalana is an intestinal wash to clear the entire digestive tract. Without going into graphic detail here, the idea is to drink large quantities of salt water and practise certain yogic stretches in order to facilitate the water’s movement through the bowels: stomach, small and large intestines, until being excreted through the colon. (Your body doesn’t absorb the water due to the high salt content.) After a while, with each successive glass of water, the liquid passes increasingly easily through the whole system, until what comes out down below is almost as clear as what goes in above. For anyone interested in applying shankaprakshalana in their own fasting, I suggest doing a little research first in order to get correct and precise instructions!
My main reason for practising shankaprakshalana was to make sure that my entire digestive tract was completely clear. As much as I don’t normally have problems with bloating and abdominal cramping while fasting, I was determined to maximise my chances here, and I was hoping that shankaprakshalana could help ‘bio-hack’ the 5 days of dry fasting.
In retrospect, I believe that shankaprakshalana actually conferred two further unanticipated benefits. First, and almost incredibly, I felt absolutely no hunger through the fast (with the exception of a couple of brief and entirely insignificant tummy-rumbles on Days 4 and 5). I’m sure this must be due to the fact that, with an entirely empty digestive tract, the entire system was able to shut down much faster than usual. I also suspect that the lack of hunger is the reason behind the fact that, compared to other extended fasts, I enjoyed a much more neutral relationship with food than usual during the refeeding process. Simply no temptations!
Second, by fully emptying the intestines before their natural rhythm, the shankaprakshalana denied me the possibility of extracting the full caloric content of the previous lunch and dinner, minimal as it already was. Hey presto: another fast-track to depleting glycogen and beginning ketosis as soon as possible.
The proof of this was in my experience of Day One.
As might be expected, I was a little tired in the hour or so after finishing shankaprakshalana. It’s totally normal to lie down and rest. Normally, though, you’d follow this with a simple, nourishing meal called khicheri (also known as khichdi or khichri), composed essentially from a mix of boiled rice and mung beans.
My stomach, however, remained completely empty, along with my entire digestive system. To my surprise, I felt completely depleted not just for an hour or two, but also for the whole remainder of the day. Normally, the first day of a water fast means that I’m flying high with both my glycogen– and ketosis-based metabolisms engaged, but now I realise that my sugar and glycogen supply had been prematurely ‘cut off at the pass’, leaving no energy before ketosis was able to compensate. I did feel ketosis beginning to kick in at about 2pm but it was too little too late, and so I spent most of the afternoon feeling rather like a walking corpse. By the evening I had the shivers and my heartbeat was pounding, as can sometimes happen while fasting.
And so, completely exhausted, I hit the sack and slept over 8 hours.
DAY TWO OF WATER FAST:
The day began with a morning walk: part of my regime to gently burn calories in order to produce metabolic water. It’s true that ketosis was still only evolving, still only gaining momentum, but I was keen to apply theory to practice in the hope of preventing dehydration as much as possible. Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive to have applied this idea so soon, while I was still water fasting, but think about it. Water absorption through drinking takes place from the ‘outside in’. You drink, and the water gradually soaks inwards through the body. Metabolic water, on the other hand, spreads from the ‘inside out’. It comes into being on a cellular level and gradually works its way outwards, through the intercellular space and into the blood and lymph, until your body either uses it up or excretes it as urine. The two processes, therefore, are entirely different.
I felt confident that walking was the right thing to do, especially in light of my decision to begin dry fasting early that afternoon. Of course, this meant that I didn’t reach a full two days of water fasting before beginning the dry fast, but, within my 7-day time limit, it did consequently leave me with some transition time at the end of the five days of dry fasting – assuming I managed it. And so, first I would rehydrate with only water and herbal teas (ie no calories), essentially returning to a brief water fast for a few hours at the end of the last day. After that, I would gently add fruits and vegetables into the equation, thereby fully ending the fast with calories.
Through the morning of Day Two, I had a little more energy than Day One, but still surprisingly little compared to my experience of other water fasts. By what would have been lunchtime, though, it was already time to begin the dry fast. Fingers crossed and anchors away…
DAY ONE OF DRY FAST:
I had another walk in the afternoon, this time to the beach. (I’m fortunate to be spending this fast in a little village on an island in the middle of the Danube, surrounded by nature, fresh air and fresh water.) One of the biggest concerns in my campaign against premature dehydration was the temperature. In the middle of July now, we’re enjoying a summer of sun and temperatures in the low 30s Celsius (about 90F). Sweating was almost unavoidable. On the one hand, I could stay indoors and ignore the wonderful weather. On the other hand, I could take a more fatalistic approach and enjoy the day’s beauty for what it had to offer, sweating or no sweating. I chose the latter. In the worst case, I’d just have to break off the dry fast a little early and continue with water fasting for the rest of the week.
In the end, I did sweat, but probably not very much. (Of course, it’s impossible to tell exactly.) By the evening, though, I was beginning to feel a familiar, dull ache developing along the upper edge of my pelvis and lower back. I have to confess that this did rather worry me, especially because on previous dry fasts, the first signs of this symptom generally appear later, on Day Two. Looking to put a bright face on all this, I wrote it off to the effects of the sweating, combined with the fact that I’d already done nearly two days of water fasting, which – hopefully – meant that I was further on my trajectory than during previous fasts. Anyway, it wasn’t anything serious at this point. I just hoped it would go away by the morning.
However, by the middle of the night the aching had grown worse, and I had to get up to do some stretching focused on my hips, waist and lower back, before meditating and going back to bed. For the first time, I also felt a dull ache in my wrists, precisely in the areas worst affected by the tendonitis. This, for me, was an extremely promising sign. As I’ve experienced on so many previous fasts, injuries tend to reveal the fact they’re healing through a dull ache or ‘healing crisis’ which can last for several days or longer.
DAY TWO OF DRY FAST:
Day Two of the dry fast passed similarly to Day One, but with more energy. Similar walks. Similar sweating.
Throughout the day I began to feel my lower back again if I lay for too long in one place. Fortunately, though, it never developed beyond just a distant threat, and when it did start to drift into the foreground, walking always helped. In fact, it was today that I established the routine which would continue for the duration of the fast. This consisted of four 30-40 minute walks spread through the day: at dawn (5am), mid-morning (10am), late afternoon (5pm) and just before going to bed at night (10pm). It’s true they weren’t perfectly evenly spaced through each 24-hour cycle, but I wanted to avoid the heat of the day as much as possible. In addition, the aching tended to be worse at night, so having the walks spaced slightly closer together during the evening and night supported the pain relief. Finally, this is just the way things evolved, by following what my body was asking me to do :-).
Again, I woke at 2am, after three hours of sleep. But the aching this time was less insistent. The night of Day Two also established the basic pattern for what would continue for the duration of the fast: 3 hours of sleep, 2+ hours up and about (stretching, meditating, walking), and then another 3 hours or so of sleep. It’s true that the lower back pain may have contributed to the interrupted night. But it’s also true that this is exactly how my sleep patterns usually transform anyway while fasting, with the second sleep of the night gradually diminishing in duration. On longer fasts, this often means that it recedes almost entirely, and 3 hours of sleep becomes the norm for me, with no issues of tiredness weighing me down through the day.
DAY THREE OF DRY FAST:
I felt a little groggy upon waking and, for the first time during the fast, suffered from low blood pressure. This became immediately evident upon trying to stand up, as dizziness struck. All things considered, though, five days had elapsed since the beginning of the fast as a whole. It’s completely normal to experience a significant drop in blood pressure by this point during any zero-calorie fast. In fact, compared to previous fasts I was surprised that it hadn’t already affected me.
I also felt a little weaker compared to the day before. My knees seemed to wobble while walking, although it didn’t really affect my tempo, which, according to my wife remained completely normal. At times like these, it’s good to get outside observations, because there’s no way you can completely trust your objectivity during any fast longer than a day (that is, beyond the point that your glycogen runs out).
The weakness also expressed itself during uphill walking, which quickly left me out of breath. But perhaps the hardest moments came while standing up from a reclined position. First, psychologically it felt like I had to summon enormous strength to get my arse out of a fully reclined position. Second, physically it really was harder, and often brought on the dizziness associated with low blood pressure. I soon realised, though, that deep breathing before rising helped to provide both energy as well as support a more stable blood pressure.
In addition to issues of weakness, I also woke with a drier mouth: something which remained through the whole day and continued beyond. It was like a quantum leap into the next phase of the fast. In fact, to be more precise, it was really only on Day Three that I began to refer to the feeling as ‘thirst’. Nothing too drastic. It was more the feeling of a sticky, pasty mouth which didn’t particularly appeal. But when I asked myself: do I need to drink?, the answer remained the same: no, it’s just an attractive, comforting proposition. After self-questioning like this a few times at various moments throughout the day, the thought stopped crossing my mind altogether. In other words, I began to accept the feeling, and so it stopped bothering me.
Again, the aching lower back returned at night. Again I awoke after 3 hours of sleep and followed my usual routine before returning to bed for a second round of rest.
DAY FOUR OF DRY FAST:
In every respect I had more energy today. Getting up no longer felt like a Herculean task, and there were no issues with blood pressure, both now as well as later in the day. On my morning walk, I experienced for the first time ever (while dry fasting) the feeling I love so much about water fasting: something I’d describe as an ‘expanded eyesight from the heart’ in seeing the world, in which all things flow together and become One in a single visual dance. I interpret this to mean that I still have a lot to learn from dry fasting. This is because a similar process took place in my water-fasting past, in which the feeling of Oneness began to reveal itself only once I was completely comfortable, both physically and emotionally, with living on water alone.
I spent most of the day by alternating various gentle activities with lying on my back, at approximately one-hour intervals. By the evening a real sense of calm and tranquillity filled my being. It really felt like things had stabilised today.
And perhaps they had. It’s been hinted at in the rather scanty literature on dry fasting that if you reach the end of the third day of dry fasting, then things do become easier.
Another sign in this direction: I needed only two hours of sleep during the second half of the night, bringing my total sleep quota to five hours instead of six.
DAY FIVE OF DRY FAST:
Compared to Day Four, I was a little thirstier and a little weaker – not consistently so, but rather with definite ups and down. Nevertheless, compared to Days 1-3, I was certainly feeling much more ‘up’.
It’s also worth noting that for the first time during this fast I felt a slight tightening in some of my muscles, especially the hamstrings. From the start, I had determined to exercise vigilance towards dehydration, and it’s true that dehydration can cause such symptoms by forcing muscles to contract until they eventually begin to cramp. On the other hand, I continued to urinate at a steady volume (600-700 mls / day) – something which demonstrates how much metabolic water can be synthesised during the ketosis of a dry fast.* In addition, my lips and hands showed no signs of drying out. And absolutely no signs of headache or nausea. In other words, beyond the slightly tight hamstrings I presented with no signs of dehydration at all.
*If there are any chemists out there reading this, could someone please tell me how much metabolic water is actually released by breaking up chains of fat molecules? In other words, how much metabolic water is produced by burning 1 kg. of fat?
While wandering through nature on my pre-dawn walk, I began to feel the end of the fast approaching – something which filled me with a sense of subtle loss and regret, despite the physical challenges experienced over the course of the week. Again, this was something I’d never really experienced while dry fasting. Just like the expanded feeling of Oneness with All, though, I am familiar with this feeling from water fasting. Why? Because, perhaps more directly than any other practice, fasting opens up the opportunity to directly experience here on this material earth and material life our deepest Self or Soul (call it what you will). It offers us experiential contact with that element of ourselves which precedes physical birth, and, in our hearts, remains free and independent from physical needs throughout our physical life. Of course, what represents these needs better than food and drink? By experiencing that we can live without such physical sustenance, we eventually remember and embrace that deepest Self inside us. – Or, at least, we’re able to do so once we’ve given up our resistance to the challenges of fasting, both physical and emotional.
Please excuse me while I wax lyrical!
Back now to Day Five and the beautiful bitter-sweet sense of loss in soon returning to food… Well, despite those poignant moments out there next to the Danube, my feelings about daily sustenance gradually morphed as the day progressed into wild fantasies about liquid and what I was going to drink after breaking the fast. It’s hard to know whether or not this truly represented an authentic feeling caused by the slight increase in thirst, or whether it was just the usual anticipatory excitement often experienced on the last day of so many fasts – especially those which might go beyond our usual comfort zone.
Continuing the trend of the previous few nights, the ache in my lower back bothered me less and less. In fact, tonight it was completely negligible. I also had no need for a second sleep, so I’m writing this here and now on 3 hours sleep and am perfectly lively and alert!
BREAKING THE FAST:
I broke the fast in two ways. First was a glass of spring water, ending the dry fast once the full five days of dry fasting had elapsed. Second was a smoothie a few hours later, ending the fast in its entirety through the reintroduction of calories.
On my last dry fast, when that first water touched my lips and flowed through my mouth, my initial reaction was the pure sensuality of it. Surprisingly, this time what struck me was how quickly my stomach felt full – in fact, after a mere 100 mls or so (less than half a cup). Perhaps this was to be expected. It was the longest fast I’d undertaken in which absolutely nothing entered the stomach, giving it a chance to expand. Accordingly, it had contracted instead. Duh!
By the time I’d taken in my first calories, I’d already drunk nearly a whole litre (quart) of water – taking care never to drink too much too soon, especially during the first hour or so, and always respecting the limits of what felt comfortable for my stomach.
Interestingly, the pure liquid of water during the first phase of breaking the fast exercised two clear detox symptoms: an increased taste in my mouth of ketosis and a slightly runny nose – both of which lasted for only an hour or so.
In terms of gradually reintroducing calories, my first preference is usually for oranges, but unfortunately we’re too far into summer for them to be in season. So my smoothie consisted instead of an apple, a slice of watermelon, half a lemon and a thin slice of ginger. The apple is extremely easy on digestion, the lemon – as is true of oranges and other citrus fruits – helps to reawaken the liver for other types of food, the ginger aids digestion, and the watermelon was pure indulgence :-). Yes, it has a higher calorie content per weight than might be ideal, but it provided the perfect counterbalance to the palette. And let’s face it, the sugars weren’t going to kill anyone, given that the entire smoothie (approximately 800ml / 4 cups, with the added spring water included) rang in at only 130-140 calories, spread over the following three hours.
For my next meal – which I’ll cook as soon as I finish writing this article! – I’ll turn to a very simple but wonderful old favourite of mine: pure, unadulterated tomato soup, the antioxidants of which (once again) are perfect on a sleeping digestive system. You can find the recipe here.
Last night, during those last few hours, I felt an incredible sense of gratitude: towards the fast, towards the Earth which provides us with a bounty of food, towards Life – both the infinite life within as well as the material life here on the outside.
I’m also grateful my tendonitis has begun to improve. The tingling and numbness in my fingertips has completely gone. The diameter of my wrists has returned fully to normal. The stiffness in my fingers (especially in the morning) has completely gone. I can fully see the tendons running along the back of my hand and along the underside of the forearm. The ugly lumpy bits on the tendons of my forearms have considerably smoothed out. I haven’t yet enjoyed much increased flexibility in the wrists, but I know from past injuries that flexibility is always the last symptom to improve during serious cases of tendonitis. Fingers crossed for the future then!
In addition, I’m grateful that my strategy for approaching this fast succeeded. In the end, then, theory was indeed confirmed by practice! Or perhaps it would have succeeded anyway, as I naturally gain greater experience with dry fasting. In any case, I think the use of an introductory water fast is something I’ll continue to experiment with on future occasions.
The fact is that, without any obvious symptoms of dehydration, I could certainly have continued this fast further.
How far? How long?
Who knows, only time will tell. It will have to wait until the next occasion.
But of course, that’s part of the fun!
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