If you were watching the group’s stories last Friday, you will know that I did my first 24-hour water fast. I do daily intermittent fasting, where I leave 12 hours (sometimes a little more) between dinner the night before and breakfast the next morning, but I have been feeling bloated lately and like my digestive tract needs a longer break, so I decided to throw in a couple of 24-hour fasts each month. I will get into the benefits I saw, the challenges I encountered, and a few surprises, but first I’ll cover a bit of the science behind fasting and its benefits, particularly for cancer.
The Science Behind Fasting for Cancer
There are a few benefits of fasting that everyone can reap, and they are particularly significant to those of us with or who have had cancer and wish to prevent a recurrence.
The first, is that fasting gives your digestive tract and all your friendly gut buddies a break. It gives the lining of your gut a chance to repair any tears and inflammation caused by food sensitivities, without new food coming along and derailing the progress. Some studies have been completed that support this: “Scientific research, mostly in animal models, is revealing that intermittent fasting may restore microbe diversity in the gut, increase tolerance against “bad” gut microbes, and restore the integrity of the intestinal epithelium.”1 Healing any tears is extremely important, because if these tears can’t heal as a result of them happening too often, that is when you get leaky gut. When you eat something that your gut microbiome can’t handle and digest properly, little tears occur in the epithelial lining of your intestines. These tears happen and heal every time you eat wheat, or diary, or sugar, or anything else your body doesn’t do well with, until one day it just can’t heal anymore. Now you have these little tears that let food particles through into your body before they have been digested down into their nutrients, like a hole in a sieve letting through whatever you are trying to keep inside the sieve. Your body recognizes that this food particle isn’t a nutrient it can use; it flags it as something foreign and mounts an immune response to attack and get rid of it. This immune response will cause you to one, produce antibodies against that food so that the next time you eat it your body will attack it again (this is one way that food sensitivities develop over a person’s lifetime)2, and two, will cause low-level, systemic inflammation in your body3. Fasting gives your intestines and microbiome a break from digesting, so they can focus on healing and strengthening. This helps to lower inflammation in your gut and your body, which is very important as cancer thrives in inflamed environments4.
If you have read the section of my diet guide on fasting, you will be familiar with the next two benefits. Fasting sensitizes cancer cells to any natural cytotoxic compounds you are taking (anything that attacks cancer cells) and to conventional cytotoxins such as chemo and radiation as well, making these substances more effective while protecting your healthy cells to a degree. When calories are restricted, your healthy cells go into a hibernation of sorts, powering down to conserve energy. They are able to do this because they don’t depend as heavily on glucose to create energy like cancer cells do. On the other hand, the cancer cells start panicking because they need glucose so much more, and so they open up their glucose receptors even wider. This opens the door, so to speak, for those cytotoxins to enter the cancer cells and do their job more easily while your healthy cells are protected somewhat by their dormant state, lessening the adverse side effects from chemo and radiation. There have been lots of studies on this in animals5 and some human trials as well. Human participants6 reported fewer side effects, and the animal tests showed that the cytotoxins were more effective in those animals that fasted.
The second benefit to fasting when healing from or preventing cancer is that fasting increases the production of tumour killing cells while simultaneously stimulating the process of autophagy7, where your body breaks down and recycles old and abnormally functioning cells, like cancer cells. When fasting, your body wants to conserve energy and doesn’t have any to waste on cells that aren’t operating optimally or properly, like cancer cells for instance that are burning large amounts of glucose. In response to this, your body starts the process of autophagy; by fasting, you are essentially turning on your body’s sentinels that look for and breakdown abnormal cells. In addition to this, fasting also causes your body to produce more killer cells8, making the job of finding and killing those abnormal cells that much easier. In short, fasting actually helps your body find and destroy cancer cells, which is pretty freaking cool! Fasting has other beneficial effects as well when it comes to cancer and chronic diseases, such as inflammation reduction and lower levels of glucose and IGF-1 in the bloodstream. Our ancestors were regularly forced to go through periods of fasting when food was scarce, and it was also rare for them to develop cancer. Rates of cancer and other chronic diseases such as diabetes are on a continual rise; our constant ability to access food (and cheap, poor-quality food at that) may be contributing to this epidemic more than previously considered.
The steps to follow are pretty simple. You eat your last meal around 7pm (I forgot I had planned on doing this and ended up eating a snack around 10pm, so that is when I started this fast, but I will start the next one at 7pm). This way, you aren’t hungry before bed and you are asleep for a good chunk of the beginning of the fast, so it doesn’t seem quite as daunting when you get up in the morning knowing you can eat at 7pm. Around your regular breakfast time, drink 2-3 cups of water, repeat this again around your regular lunch time, and again around 4 or 5pm. Many people also allow clear green tea or black coffee on the fast for those who can tolerate them on an empty stomach, and it can help with the fatigue you may experience towards the last quarter of the fast. I had 2 cups of water and 1 cup of green tea at my breakfast and lunch times, and then 3 cups of water around 6pm, since I wasn’t eating until a little later than you normally would on this fast. It’s okay to sip these over the course of an hour or two if that helps you feel less hungry for longer.
When you break your fast, it is important to have a moderately sized meal (you don’t want to overwhelm your digestive system, although it can be tempting to stuff your face after!) that includes healthy carbs, lean protein, and some healthy fat, but not too much fat or you may feel ill.
Overall, this fast wasn’t nearly as challenging as I thought it was going to be, but there were a few things that were difficult to navigate through. The first thing I noticed was decreased energy by hour 17, so around 3pm. This is also about the time I started repeatedly opening the fridge and cupboards without even thinking, on “I’m hungry” autopilot, and more than once jolted out of it and remembered I wasn’t supposed to be eating! Overall, the hunger and the fatigue weren’t too bad, although I would avoid any high-energy exercise on a fast day and don’t plan anything for the evening before you break you fast as your energy will likely be low.
This brings us to the next challenge: you might start to feel irritable, and I know it’s best for everyone if I’m chilling on my own when I feel that way 😝 The irritability for me lasted from hours 17 to 21 (so from about 3pm when I got tired until about 7pm). Interestingly, this side effect wore off for the last few hours and I felt great again!
The challenges were minimal for me, but I know for sure that anyone out there can get through it. If you tend to get hangry more easily than others, it may be a good idea to have some tools to stay calm at the ready like going for a walk, meditating, deep breathing, listening to calming music, or watching an episode of your favourite TV show. And like I said above, maybe don’t plan anything social for that day 😉
The first thing I noticed was that I had mental clarity for a good portion of the day. This waned when I started to get tired, which happily was around the same time I was getting home from work, but for much of the day I clear and focused9.
Around 11am, I noticed that I was in a fantastic mood; I mean great, and for no apparent reason other than happiness at being alive and well! It was like the endorphin rush and elevated mood you experience after exercising except that it lasted longer, about as long as the mental clarity. Research suggests that this partially due to the “hunger hormone” Ghrelin, levels of which rise when you are hungry and which has been found to be a natural antidepressant and promote the growth and development of neural tissue10.
This might be TMI, but I definitely had improved bowel function the next day. I usually only feel that great intestinally after a colonic or coffee enema (I’ll talk about these in the near future when I dive into detoxing), but my intestines did it all on their lonesome! Giving a break to my digestive tract seemed to improve its performance afterwards. I mentioned that part of the reason I wanted to do this fast was because I had been feeling bloated recently. Below are three pictures. On the left is the night I started the fast, right after I ate my last meal, looking pretty bloated and definitely feeling uncomfortable. In the middle and on the right are the morning after I broke my fast (so about 36 hours after the first picture), and I don’t think I need to point out how different they look!
Not insignificant was also the great feeling knowing I was doing something that was good for my body. We are discovering that negative emotions cause physiological reactions in the body that can negatively impact our physical health11, so the more positive emotions you can flood your body with the better!
The first was that I wasn’t crazy hungry like I thought I would be. Don’t get me wrong, the last hour went PAINFULLY slow and I couldn’t wait to eat, but it was really just the last two hours that were challenging in terms of hunger, and even then, it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated.
In that same vein, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to complete the fast because the hunger wasn’t as bad as expected. I think it’s likely I was better prepared for this by the intermittent fasting I’ve been doing for nearly 2 years now (my body is already very used to going for 12-14 hours without eating). So, if you have never done any type of fasting before, you might find it more challenging than I did. If you are worried about this, try doing daily intermittent fasting or intermittent fasting a few days a week for a little while before going for a full 24-hour water fast. This will prep your body and get it used to not eating for longer periods of time, making the day more tolerable and making it more likely that you will successfully make it through the 24 hours without giving in.
All in all, I had a really great experience during my first water fast! I noticed some of the positive effects that people talk about like elevated mood and improved mental clarity, the hunger wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and although I did feel tired and irritable, it was only for a few hours towards the end.
I would highly recommend including some type of fasting in your diet, either a 24-hour water fast once a week, daily or weekly intermittent fasting, or a fasting mimicking diet. And with the last three options, like me, you can throw in a 24-hour water fast once or twice a month. If you would like more info on these types of fasting, you can check out my diet guide (which you can get for free when you subscribe to the blog below 👇), or feel free to post any questions here or in the FB group.
Happy Healing ❤️