Here I was, on a six month sabbatical to follow the path of my deepest desire. After many agonising years, I had discovered what really resonated with me and after months of thinking, I had decided to give this dream a real shot.
So, what was my dream? To live a fulfilling, healthy life free from sickness and aches & pains; to make my self-practices my work and to make a difference in a deep meaningful way.
For starters I was going to work on my own physical health and learn naturopathy, an ancient system of drugless treatment that believes in the body’s innate ability to heal.
I had already started a 3 year diploma course in naturopathy and was learning about the five elements that make up the human body and everything around us: Space or Ether, Air, Fire, Earth, Water. Naturopathy has treatments aligned to each of these elements. The elements, I learned, have a hierarchy too, with Space topping the charts. Fasting is one of the treatment that naturopathy prescribes to increase space in your body, thereby increasing the body’s inherent healing energy. I decided it was time to do some fasting!
I made some unsuccessful initial attempts trying to fast for a day or two on just lemon water and sometimes buttermilk, but found it very difficult. When I broke the fast, I often found myself bingeing.
Then on July 1st 2019, I decided that I would try intermittent fasting. I’d heard of others who’d done it and also read about its wonderful effects online. So there I was…. Eating from 9 am to 5 pm and then fasting for about 14-15 hours daily.
My first week was tough: I found myself struggling with hunger late at night. I did not allow myself to drink anything other than plain water post 5 pm. I know a lot of people drink tea or coffee, but that never made sense to me. I was trying to remove toxins from my system not make it more acidic.
Post week 1, some results started emerging. I felt lighter, more energised and the chronic hip pain that I had come to live with, started going away.
‘This is great,’ I thought. The entire first month went by quickly. I lost 2 kg of weight, felt energised so was exercising more and everyone around me was impressed with me for my steely resolve. I felt more encouraged to eliminate things that didn’t suit me. I got rid of milk completely and switched to lemon tea (a concoction of 1 full lemon, 2 tsp. jaggery, a pinch of pink sea salt, some fresh ginger and 1 full cup hot water). My hunger was very controlled, so much so I didn’t feel like eating post the afternoon meal, only drinking my lemon tea at around 5 pm. I also prided myself on how good my food habits were getting: I ate more fruits, hardly ever ate any junk and always had a big tasty lunch.
I was looking forward to constant improvements from here on!
It was in month two that the downward spiral started. At first it was just fatigue. I started feeling tired a lot more quickly, often skipping my evening swim, something I have always loved. Sleep disturbances became a reality and coupled with fatigue meant I was napping during the day often. I blamed it on adjusting to my new life. I wasn’t going to work anymore or earning a salary; it was natural to get worried, I told myself.
Towards the middle of the second month, I had scheduled myself on a 10 day Vipassana retreat. Having done it once before, I was tagged an old student, which meant NO food post 11:30 am (which was their lunch time) till 6:30 am the next morning (that’s almost 18 hours of fasting). Having already fasted for 1 month, the food restrictions didn’t bother me at all. In fact I thought the routine was even better: I ate the breakfast and lunch very well and did not indulge in any snaking, something that I was doing in my first 1 month at home.
I got back exhausted. Vipassana does take its toll and I took a few days to adjust back to city life.
I went back to exercising, scheduling a long bike ride with a dear friend. All my muscles ached, but we enjoyed the sweat and exercise. I came back and gorged on some great breakfast. I had a throbbing headache and drank almost two cups of coffee that day (surprising for someone who is not a coffee drinker). On that that day, I craved coffee!
The next two days were filled with sheer exhaustion. I had headaches, muscle pain and a strange burning at the bottom of my feet (all signs of nutrient deficiencies, I was later to learn). I ate more fruits, drank lots of water, but persisted with my intermittent fasting.
The biker friend was getting increasing worried and asking me to stop. When I told her about losing hunger, she once laughingly said it was “like being anorexic “. You starve your body so much that it starts despising even the idea of food. I ignored the comment!
Honestly, the reason I didn’t stop was because I didn’t know how to: I had started on something but hadn’t the faintest idea how to come out of it. I felt like Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata trapped inside a Chakravyuh!
At the end of month two I was scheduled to travel to a naturopathy hospital in Pune, to put myself under their treatment for 15 days. It was my way of learning while experiencing, and I had made the booking almost 3 months back.
So I arrived in Pune on August 20th, feeling weak with headaches and a very poor digestion. Yes my digestion had slowed down considerably in the week after Vipassana. The naturopathy hospital followed a strict routine of yoga, treatment, and natural diet. Two days into it and I went rushing to the doctor saying something was terribly wrong and we agreed to do a blood test.
The blood test showed I had severe anaemia (my haemoglobin count was 8.8) with some serious B12 and Vitamin D deficiencies! Now, I am no stranger to these deficiencies, having encountered them a year previously when I was overdoing my exercising and neglecting my diet.
The doctors at the hospital immediately tweaked my food. I was to drink more nutritious juices: carrots, pomegranate, and sweet lime (all 3 are good for anaemia); extra salt was added to my diet to balance my low BP; and a breakfast alternating between sprouts and ragi (finger millet) was made mandatory. Over the course of the next 10 days, I slowly but steadily improved.
My intermittent fasting experience lasted for a total of 50 days, during which time yes, I lost about 3 kg of weight, but also a great deal of my vitality. The original intent was defeated since I didn’t do it right.
You know what I would do differently, if I ever do it again?
- Be very careful about the two meals that I eat. It needs to be energy-rich: Ragi (finger millet), sprouts, fruits and veggies (things that I avoided on days I was eating outside or merely tasty food). Ensure food diversity. I will make sure to add buttermilk to the meal since I tend to have a weak digestion and a bit of acidity
- Drink liquids during the14 or 16 hours of fasting. And NO NOT coffee or tea, but seasonal fruit juices or lemon honey water. I did find drinking 200ml ash gourd juice (white petha) next day early morning helpful. It’s a bland alkaline drink and very simple to make (peel the outside, remove the inner layer of seeds and put it into a juicer. If using a blender blend with 50 ml water and sieve through a muslin cloth). Vegetable juices are best taken empty stomach in the morning.
- If you are a woman and above 30, do get your vitamin and mineral levels tested before embarking on any kind of fasting. I have learned from experience and from others now that women are more likely to experience imbalances.
- Plan for your fast, so you have fruits and veggies at hand.
- If you experience loss of energy for more than 3 days at a stretch (post week 1), then something is not right. Become very aware and don’t ignore it!
- Learn from someone how to come out of the fasting. Trust me, it is even more necessary than going on a fast. Your system is most sensitive post a fast and you need to nurture it back gently. Bingeing, eating very heavy foods immediately will damage it more than your realise.
I haven’t given up completely on fasting but also not planning on taking one until all my iron/vitamin deficiencies are made up. You will hear from me again on this!