In “Starving Your Way to Vigor,” an article in the March 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine (available on-line only to subscribers), Steve Hendricks discusses the possibility and the potential therapeutic effects of long-term fasting. How long is it possible for a human to refrain from eating any food (drinking only water)? It was once thought that one would be dead within 10 days. That was a theory that conflicts with the real world. For instance, Hendricks tells the story of a despondent doctor named Henry Tanner (his wife had left him), who tried to starve himself to death. During his long fast, his hunger pangs diminished and various ailments disappeared–he got better.
On the fortieth morning, the collegians weighed him at 121.5 pounds, thirty-six fewer than when he had begun. His other vitals were interesting only for being uninteresting: normal pulse, normal respiration. At noon, he ate a peach, which went down without trauma. He followed with two goblets of milk, which the collegians thought imprudent on a stomach so long inactive. But the milk not troubling him either, he ate most of a Georgia watermelon, to his colleagues’ horror. In succeeding hours he added a modest half-pound of broiled beefsteak, a like amount of sirloin, and four apples.
Hendricks reports that in 1965, a 27-year old Scotsman fasted for more than a year (eating only vitamins), dropping from 465 pounds to 180. His case was reported in the Postgraduate Medical Journal in 1973 and in the Guiness Book of World Records.
Hendricks himself decided to fast, to experience the lack of food first hand. At the beginning, he weighed 160 pounds. He proceeded to lose 25 pounds in 20 days, regaining only 5 pounds in the two years since completing the fast. Much of Hendrick’s article is a detailed description of his experience. Here’s a taste of his article:
I continued to dwindle. By Wednesday, the seventeenth day of my fast, the report from the bathroom was 138, three pounds from home. So near, I considered for the first time whether I might care to fast longer—a month, say, or the Christly forty days, or even a few days more to out-Tanner Tanner. I wasn’t long deciding no. Endurance, even with my ugly swings of mood and energy, was not the problem. The problem was that I missed eating. I wanted the sensation of food in my mouth again—the textures, the flavors, the hots and colds, the surprises, even the disappointments. I also wanted the fellowship of eating. Sitting to meals with family and friends had been sociable enough at first, but in the end it had proved an inadequate substitute for companionship, a word whose roots com (with) and pan (bread) reveal its true meaning: breaking bread with others. Not breaking bread with my intimates, I was an outsider in their rite.
Hendricks relates anecdotes that intense long-term fasting improves or even cures such maladies as hypertension, epilepsy and cancer. He laments the lack of serious scientific research to determine the extent to which the claims regarding these benefits are true.
I was amazed to learn of the possibility and potential health benefits of long-term fasting. Last week, on the morning I read Hendrick’s article, I decided to see what it would be like to not eat for two days. I only lasted 9 hours. I found myself at work, working on a legal brief and needing lots of mental focus. Not eating was not at all painful, but it made me light-headed and unfocused. I understand that these symptoms would pass if I gave them time, but I pulled the plug and decided that I would try a fast when I didn’t need to be at work. I’ll let you know if and when I carry through with this experiment.