Friday 9 June 2017

Fasting in the Ancient World by Caroline Lawrence

It is the morning of 9 June 2017 and I am beginning the final leg of a six-day fast. Fasting is usually defined as abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. Over the past thirty years I have fasted for a day or two (sometimes three or four) for health and/or spiritual reasons. I have also tried the 5:2 method and blogged about it HERE. Now, inspired by a new podcast called Fasting Talk I decided to attempt a longer fast. I wanted to try it for three reasons:

First, health benefits. According to recent thinking, fasting can bring hormones and insulin back into balance, as well as burn excess fat and encourage cells to heal themselves via the process known as autophagy (Greek for ‘self-eating’).

Second, for spiritual reasons. Many religions believe fasting can bring you closer to God, add power to your prayers or show repentance. I’ve been experimenting with meditative prayer and wanted to see if being in a fasting state helped. 

My third reason is historical curiosity. I wanted to share in something that mankind has done for millennia and go without food for an extended time. 

I chose a week when I had very little in the diary and could rest as much as I wanted. A week like this is a rare luxury so I decided to think of it as a mini-retreat at home. I would abstain from food, prayerfully meditate twice a day and investigate the historical background of fasting. 

Here’s a short diary of my six days. N.B. Some bodily functions are mentioned. The squeamish may want to stop reading now. 

Day #1 Sunday - In the morning I drank some weak black tea with lemon and in the afternoon I nursed a double espresso on ice. For dinner I sat with my husband and ate a bowl of thin bone broth with lentils. Before bed one of my eyelids was twitching so I took a spoonful of raw apple cider vinegar and the twitch stopped immediately. (This is a tip I got from my grandmother who also taught me that a spoonful of vinegar is the best cure for hiccups.) I only felt hungry a couple of times over the day and on one of those occasions I had the broth. I found it hard to focus during my prayerful meditations but I slept well that night. 

Historical slant: The oldest homo sapiens bones have just been found in Morocco. They date to a staggering 300,000 BC. The bones were found with flint tools, gazelle bones and lumps of charcoal, probably from the fires over which these early men and women roasted their game. These ancient hunter-gatherers would have had periods of fasting followed by periods of feasting. The fatty meat would have been most desirable for survival. Three modern diets based on the idea of replicating this sort of existence are the Paleo diet, the LCHF (low carbohydrate, high fat) and Intermittant Fasting diet, (e.g. the 5:2 where you fast for two days out of the week.) These have proved popular because, unlike calorie restrictive diets, they seem to work. 

Day #2 Monday - My aim was to drink take only water with sea salt. As Megan Ramos from the Fasting Talk podcast says: ‘water and salt and not a damn other thing’… The doctors on the Fasting Talk podcast recommend fasting in conjunction with LCHF (low carbohydrate, high fat). Apparently, fasting and then ‘feasting’ on high fat, medium protein and limited carbohydrates and sugars puts your body in a state of ketogenesis where you burn your own fat. Another astonishing aspect of fasting is autophagy, where your body begins to burn or ‘eat’ its own damaged cells, thereby healing itself.

I felt quite sleepy at times during the day, so I rested or had a catnap. Whenever I had a hunger pang I drank some warm water with a tiny amount of sea-salt stirred in. I also listened to the Fasting Talk podcast as a way of encouraging myself. By doing this, I was able to go all day on just salted water. It was hard to meditate as I had strange images floating into my head.  

Historical slant: I have been reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world, and wondered if there was reference to fasting in it. The story of Gilgamesh recounts the story of a Sumerian king who is devastated by the death of his best friend Enkidu and travels to the underworld in search of immortality. 
Although the word ‘fasting’ is not specifically mentioned, Gilgamesh goes on an epic journey and it is never stated that he stops to eat. When he finally meets the tavern keeper Shiduri at the edge of the ocean, she is terrified of him because of his ‘hollow cheeks and ravaged features’. When he tells her he wants immortality, she gives him this beautiful advice. ‘Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child that holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace. That is the best way for a man to live.’ The Epic of Gilgamesh, Steven Mitchell 

Day #3 Tuesday - They say the third day is the hardest and that once you get past that you rarely feel hungry or tired. I woke up early (5am) with dry mouth, coated tongue, sticky eyes and a dull headache. I had taken a lot of water with sea salt the previous day, but dehydration is still one of the biggest problems so I made sure to keep drinking water all day. I wanted to be aware of my body so resisted taking a painkiller and just drank water, either warm and salted or cold and sparkling. I also did a half hour guided meditation with a body scan. This helped a little. I dozed and had some vivid dreams. My headache was worse in the late afternoon so I put two soluble aspirin in my warm salted water. For the first time I felt cold (to be fair, the temperature had dropped dramatically) and my lips were getting chapped. That night I had vivid dreams. 

Historical slant: Not only was Jesus Christ a champion faster but he had lots to say about the matter. Most famously he doesn’t say if you fast but when you fast. (Matt 6:6). In the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, fasting is mentioned dozens of times. We know from the Didache, the earliest Christian document, that in the mid first century Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays whereas Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. (Didache VIII.1) In a distinctly nasty poem, the Roman poet Martial mentions the fasting breath of the Jews in a list of unpleasant smells. (Epigrams IV.4) According to Suetonius, the Emperor Vespasian enjoyed good health thanks to massage, exercise and fasting one day each month. (Vespasian XX)

Day #4 Wednesday - This is the day when my body should start eliminating cellular garbage. I should also be burning my own fat stores by now. This is known as ketosis and is often accompanied by a fruity breath smell. I woke at 5am with sticky eyes, dry mouth and splotchy white coating on my tongue. I also did a movement, my first in two days. No headache. Meditated with focus and had a brief moment of ‘connection’. Felt vaguely hungry around 11am so added a teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar to my warm salt water. It damped my appetite and I only felt a mild inclination to eat three or four times during the day. No hunger pangs at all. I nursed a double espresso over ice all afternoon but apart from that and the spoonful of vinegar I took only water and salt. The experts were right. I didn’t need to nap and although I wasn’t super alert I felt fine with almost no cravings for food, even when my husband tucked into a hearty dinner of toast, mushroom omelette and bacon. I was in bed by 11.30 and slept well apart from getting up to pee a couple of times. 

Historical slant: The Ancient Greeks loved to fast. The philosopher Pythagoras, who lived roughly five hundred years before Christ, believed that a fast of up to forty days increased clarity of thought. The followers of Pythagoras were vegetarians who ate no meat (and, incidentally, no beans, because they believed the transient souls of humans and animals could go into them.)

The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates recommended a regime that sounds very like Intermittent Fasting plus Ketogenic: Fat people who want to reduce, he wrote, should take their exercise on an empty stomach and sit down to food out of breath… Their meat should be fat as the smallest quantity of this is filling. They should take only one meal a day... Hippocrates (Regimen for Health 1.4) 

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca advises his friend Lucilius to ‘Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself ‘Is this the condition I feared?”… Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food…’ (Seneca letters to Lucilius 18.5

Day #5 Thursday - I should be clear, light and free of the distractions of the body. No demands for food, no worry about using the loo, just pure intellectual clarity. I woke at 5.45 less ‘sticky’ than previous days. Thirsty but no headache. Tongue still coated but not as bad as yesterday. No cravings or hunger pangs. No tyranny of desire. My body felt very calm and still. However I felt drowsy mid-morning so took a nap. I woke with no hunger and no headache, but waiting in vain for the fizzing energy promised by some practitioners. I spent the day mostly writing and researching but went out for a short walk. (Today was voting day but I’d already cast my vote by post.) In the afternoon I had double espresso on ice, making it last over two hours and a spoonful of apple cider vinegar at 7pm when I had a mild hunger pang. (Roman soldiers drank posca, water tinted with vinegar. Not only did the vinegar kill bacteria in the water but it suppressed the appetite.) Slight runny nose in the evening puzzled me. My mediation was tinted with strange scenarios that kept drifting into my consciousness. Maybe I should use these as plot fodder. 

Historical slant: Thirty years ago I did an M.A. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. For a while I studied Syriac. I was amazed by the writings of Syriac-speaking Christian monks. The so-called Fathers of the Desert were strange ascetics who went into the desert or other isolated places to do spiritual battle with demonic forces. They were extreme fasters. One Syriac monk walled himself up in a tiny cubicle with a removable brick. Every other day his claw-like hand would emerge from the hole to grasp his sole meal, a small loaf of bread. Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for nearly forty years without coming down. He fasted so often that I reckon he produced small hard stool, like a goat’s droppings. Fasting was so much a part of their existence that one monk warned that excessive practice could put you in danger of becoming proud of your ascetic achievements. This sentiment reminds me of the beautiful Bible passage about True Fasting: ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,’ says the Lord to Isaiah, ‘to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:6) 

Day #6 Friday – In bed at 12.30 last night, up twice to pee, got up this morning at 4.40am with only a slightly dry mouth and lightly coated tongue. Beautiful light mornings make it a joy to be up this early. My meditation this morning was focused and good. Wordless concentration on the breath and scanning of the body but also an awareness of the world around me. As for the past few days, I felt absolutely no hunger, just a quiet calm... Then at midday the hunger pangs suddenly felt real. I ate a bowl of bone broth but had mild diarrhoea (!) about ninety minutes later just as I was going out. Luckily it was only a little, but be warned! If you eat something during a fast like this, even broth, wait for it to hit your digestive system. 

I’m going to see a four-hour version of Hamlet this evening. One problem I often have at the theatre is the temptation to nod off. But with the promise of improved mental clarity I should be able to appreciate every nuance and line. (P.S. I was alert at the theatre but sadly my seats were so high that I couldn't see or hear properly so I left at the interval.)

Historical slant: We are about midway through the festival of Ramadan when devout Muslims abstain not just from food but also from water during the hours of daylight, (i.e. a ‘dry fast’). That must be very challenging in higher latitudes like Britain when the sun rises at 4.30 and doesn’t set until 9.30. The hardest part of this practice must be lack of water or liquid. As with Christian and Jewish practice, the Ramadan fast is not just about giving up food and drink, but about abstaining from arguing, lustful thoughts and falsehood in speech and action. It’s about seeking a kind of spiritual purity. According to another source, ‘The period is intended to bring religious followers closer to God and to remind them of people who are less fortunate.’ Once again, a noble motive for fasting. 

Day #7 Saturday – Tomorrow evening my husband and I are meeting friends at a restaurant, so I’ll break my fast around midday with a little bit of fat: a few olives or half an avocado. Because my body has already been burning its own fat this will keep me in ketosis while preparing my body for food later in the day. We’ve already chosen from a set menu so I know my starter will be roast goat’s cheese with smoked almonds, watercress and beetroot. For my main course I’m having grilled cod fillet. My final course will be cheese and a grape or two. Fatty but filling. Megan Ramos, one of the co-presenters of Fasting Talk podcast said she battled with her cholesterol from the age of nine, but it wasn’t until she started a low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet that it dramatically dropped to a safe level. 

Historical slant: Last year, 2016, the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to Dr Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries on the mechanisms of autophagy. In the introductory speech of his prize-givingProfessor Nils-Göran Larsson observed that ‘Impairments in the regulation of autophagy are linked to a variety of human diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, infections and severe disorders of the nervous system.’ And autophagy kicks in when we adjust our metabolism by fasting and starvation. This goes right back to Hippocrates the great physician of Classical Greece, who said ‘Everyone has a doctor within; we just have to help it work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.’

What have I achieved over this short week of fasting? I feel slimmer and lighter, obviously. But any healing that has happened has been internal. If anything, it made my prayerful meditation harder. Maybe that is why the Desert Fathers fasted while praying; they wanted a challenge. 

But the main thing I’ve realised is how much time I have spent over the past year or so being distracted by thoughts of food. Recently my writing has been increasingly difficult because every time I get into the flow a little voice says ‘How about a snack?’ or ‘So-and-so would taste good about now.’ This is not every half hour or quarter hour but every ten minutes. Going on this fast has freed me for a short time from the tyranny of those thoughts and cravings. I now know what it feels like to be in control and not be plagued by thoughts of food. 

The double bullies of stomach and brain can be conquered. 

This is not at all what I was looking for during these six days but I am hugely grateful for it. I hope that by continuing intermittent fasting combined with a low carb high fat diet I will be able to maintain this focus and self-control. 

A few days ago, as if in confirmation of this, an old friend on Instagram posted this about intermittent fasting and a low carb, high fat diet: Without trying I lost a stone and am back to my pre-20’s weight - stayed stable for the last 18 months - no effort really not hungry - I cheat now and again but it’s usually because of accepting someone else’s hospitality. It’s easy when eating out… 

Thank you, Fasting Talk, for putting me on this new road!

Disclaimer: Don’t attempt an extreme fast without checking with your doctor first. As I was coming back from dinner on Saturday night I got dizzy and had scary heart palpitations. This was PVC, due to the fact that I was dehydrated, hadn’t been drinking salted water for the potassium and had been drinking coffee!

Caroline Lawrence has written over 35 history-mystery books for children and is trying to stay fit and healthy so she can write lots more. 


Susan Price said...

I found this very interesting.
I've tried to control my weight my whole life, both for vanity and health reasons, as my family are very prone to diabetes.
The only thing that has ever worked for me is a high-fat, low-carb diet. It is exactly as you say: you rarely feel hungry and when you do, are satisfied with very little. It shuts up that craving for snacks which you describe, clears the mind and sharpens the concentration.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Susan! Lovely to have an affirmation! I can't wait to put it into action when I finish this fast.