Living a healthy lifestyle has always fascinated me. I had been trying to include exercise, yoga, meditation, healthy food, and diet in my routine but the many distractions in my life and my chronic lack of commitment weren’t allowing me to do so. The COVID-19 Lockdown came as a great opportunity for me to set my commitments right.
Although the lockdown in Nepal started from March 23, we closed our office from March 20 and posted ‘working from home’ on our promotional site. The volume of work decreased significantly. So, I felt freer to focus on my quest for a healthier lifestyle. I began with a very humble thing adding shower to my morning routine. I used to be very lazy when it came to grooming myself. Since I learned about the many benefits of cold showers including reduced stress, anxiety, and depression and boost in energy and immunity, I have been taking a cold shower every morning.
I also started brisk evening walks doing rounds on my rooftop for about 45 minutes with some stretching and pushups in between. After the exercise, I would lie down and stargaze for 15 minutes, meditate, and try to ‘connect to the universe’. I also started consuming herbal tea - ginger, fresh rosemary, oregano, and mint and sometimes turmeric water. My family, including my parents, replaced the usual white rice with brown. We used to believe that brown rice is expensive but we found out there are cheaper and tastier varieties of brown rice in the market with price range comparable to that of the regular white rice.
I had first heard about intermittent fasting six months before the lockdown from a friend who used to practice it. While we ate grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, he used to sip at coffee without sugar. I also came across an interview of a popular Nepali actress practicing intermittent fasting and heard about it from many others. So, I googled it and found the theory very interesting. Actually, fasting is a part of the major traditions and religions everywhere. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians from around the world have been practicing it for millennia. With modernization of diet patterns, fasting was increasingly cast aside as something rooted in blind faith. Then in 2016, Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of autophagy, a process that degrades and recycles cellular components. In other words, autophagy is a process of ‘self-eating’, in which our body ‘eats’ its own old/dead cells, and recycles and renews itself.
A new health trend followed his discovery. It was called intermittent fasting. Many people around the world and some in Nepal have been practicing it. Going with the trend, I and my parents also started practicing it. There are three ways of practicing intermittent fasting. Our practice follows the ‘16:8’ rule. We fast for 16 hours from 9 pm in the evening till 1 pm the next afternoon. After that, we allow ourselves to eat. During our fasts, we drink only water and herbal tea without sugar and milk; even lemon water is not allowed. Since my parents are taking regular medicines, I made them consult the doctor before deciding to continue with the practice. My father had to stop it but my mother can continue and she has been reaping some visible benefits from it in terms of health and happiness.
Though most people seem to be aware about its weight-loss benefits, there are many other health benefits of fasting. Our evolutionary past tells us that as hunter-gatherers, we had to go for hours and days without food and our bodies, thus, developed a mechanism to deal with starvation. That mechanism is deeply intertwined with healing and other bodily systems. We go through substantial damage every day with any work we do. Our cells need constant repair. But if we keep eating, our bodily resources are forced to stay so busy digesting and processing the food that the efficiency of our overall healing gets compromised. Moreover, the fat reserves that we have in store never gets utilized. However, if one hasn’t eaten for several hours, the body will start utilizing its own fat reserves, that is often a source of many chronic conditions, in the absence of new food to fuel us in a process called ‘ketosis’ – starvation-induced autophagy. I slowly learned about the many benefits of prolonged fasting – from slowing down aging, controlling inflammation, revitalizing our cells and detoxifying them to even preventing cancer. A YouTube video by Dr Mindy Plezon on what happens to our bodies with each day of fasting gave me further valuable insight on the subject.
Convincing my parents about extended fast (72-hour water fast) wasn’t easy. I, first, watched many videos with people sharing their personal experience on the subject and convinced myself of its benefits. I, then, showed my parents a few of those videos and explained them the concept and theory behind it. My father had advised me to start with a 24-hour fast but the benefits of a 72-hour fast and the absence of any significant risks (for someone like me) tempted me to go with the longer version. My mother usually finds it difficult to bear through her 24-hour fasts on Teej festival. So I could understand her concern regarding my 72-hour fast. But I told her I was free to break the fast anytime I experienced anything untoward. So my parents agreed and I started the fast at 2 pm, Friday, May 29, after lunch.
Some experts mention that lack of salt intake while fasting may cause severe and acute health conditions. I had learned that consuming salt with water in the morning does not hamper ketosis and that Himalayan pink salt is packed with more than 80 types of minerals and is known to be very good for our overall health. So, I decided to mix some Himalayan pink salt with my glass of water in the morning. During the fast some people drink only water, some drink herbal tea and black coffee without sugar, and some recommend a spoon of apple cider vinegar with a glass of water once a day. I took a cup of black coffee during the day, a spoon of apple cider vinegar with a glass of water, rosemary and oregano tea, and lots of water. The gut is often called the second brain since the enteric nervous system can generate motor activity in the gut independent of the brain and spinal cord. Moreover, our moods and thought patterns are, in part, dependent on how healthy our gut biota is. Even depression and other mental conditions are linked with gastrointestinal problems and imbalance in gut flora. Anecdotal evidence points toward the possibility that a pinch of salt with a glass of water every morning may help the bacteria in our guts flourish.
I didn’t experience any significant discomfort on the first day. I didn’t really even feel hungry. I did some pushups that evening and slept well at night. Day two started normally and till about our usual lunch time (1:15 pm), I was doing well. But shortly after, I started feeling hungry. I went to the kitchen for some water where my mother was preparing lunch. The aroma of the vegetables was very tempting. But I stuck with my water and herbal tea all day. In the evening I started feeling weak but I still went to the roof for exercise. I walked for just 15 minutes and did just five pushups (I usually do 10-15 times in a set). I started feeling a little dizzy in the evening. I think I should have avoided visiting the kitchen during cooking-hours as some people in the YouTube videos had suggested; it did make things a bit harder. They had also warned that the second day would be difficult– they were correct. It took me long to fall asleep that night and the quality of sleep wasn’t very good.
Day three started with a similar feeling -some dizziness and weakness and absolutely no urge to empty the bowels (as expected). At lunchtime, I went to the kitchen to see what my parents were having (again, against my good judgment). Never in my life had I imagined I would experience such intense craving for food. The heavenly aroma of the vegetables, the cucumber on the table and every edible thing in the kitchen were urging me to break the fast. The third day started from 2:00 pm (since the fast had started at around 2:00 pm two days earlier). According to the video testimonies, day-three is usually much easier but that was not the case for me. I could feel more weakness and dizziness setting in. I could only sleep for about four hours that night. But with the fast coming to an end, I was happily anticipating all the health benefits.
Day four was the day I was supposed to break the fast. I had learned that a big feast after a fast can create problems and it is best to avoid sugar and limit carbohydrates during that period. A small amount of protein is all that people recommend. So, I took a few fried sticks of tofu, some spinach and four pieces of pointed gourd. I then took cucumber and fruits at 4:00 pm and two slices of bread at night. Breaking the fast was quite satisfying but my energy level was yet to get back to normal. The fifth day was much better. I didn't measure my weight but I can safely guess that I had lost at least three kilograms in those three days.
It’s been a month since the 72-hour fast and I can now feel the real benefits. I feel very light mentally and physically: I can concentrate on things much better than before. Fasting has also helped me focus and invest more on other activities that improve my health and well-being. I have been doing 45 minutes of breathing exercise every morning followed by chakra meditationas guided by guru Ravi Shankar. A few years back, Vipassana had helped me immensely in overcoming a difficult phase in my life. I do not know how chakra meditation will benefit me but it is letting me experience some very interesting sensations. I have deactivated my Facebook account for a while to keep myself away from distractions, noise and pointless arguments. I have also been regularly listening to spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle, Sadhguru, DandaPani, and Vikasananda. I hope I can continue all this even after my schedule starts getting hectic with the gradual relaxation of the lockdown. I am planning to go for an 80-hour water fast after six months of the last fast.
Before 2016, fasting didn’t make any sense to me and I am not coming to any big conclusion on something that I have just begun to grasp. But I can say for certain that it holds promise for many like me who may find themselves lacking in vitality, positivity and joy. As the CEOs of our own health, we need to continue educating ourselves and keep experimenting with tried and tested methods to help us enjoy the best of mental and physical health.
(The author is an IT entrepreneur and can be reached at [email protected])
Disclaimer: I am not a health professional or expert. What I presented here is a based on my online literature review and my brief experience on the subject. I recommend that you do your own research and expert consultation before drawing conclusions.