Intermittent fasting, or very short fasts (2-4 days in length), are usually safe for most people who do not take medication. Some forms of intermittent fasting, such as the No-Breakfast Plan, or the 16-8 window of eating, may not even constitute “fasting” per se, since the body never relies on its stores of energy. Therefore, some of these fasting programs may also work with some people taking medication. Asking your physician is the best way to be sure about this.
However, when we look at longer water fasts over four days in length and particularly fasts longer than two weeks, it’s imperative to fast under proper supervision in the care of trained physicians who not only have studied fasting but also have medical training.
Why is this so important?
First, because things can go wrong during a fast, and only a trained professional will be able to distinguish usual symptoms of fasting and abnormal situations that require that a fast be broken in a specific way or require medical intervention.
The first thing a reputable fasting facility will do is run a complete medical exam, including blood tests, with a physician.
This check-up is crucial because not everyone should fast. It is not possible to fast while taking medication of any type — therefore, only a trained physician can judge if you can give up your medicines before undergoing a fast.
There are also many conditions where fasting is not appropriate — such as diabetes, cancer, and AIDS.
Then, while you fast, you should have access to a minimum of care, such as:
- Regular visits from doctors or interns with medical training.
- Access to, prompt, competent medical care.
- Access to proper medical facilities.
When you undergo a long water fast, you become extremely vulnerable, and it’s vital that you trust entirely the people who are taking care of you. I say that because, after two weeks of fasting, the body will be frail. Also, breaking a fast is a delicate process that can lead to disastrous results when not done correctly.
That’s why people can’t just walk out of fasting facility in the middle of a fast. The re-feeding period is as critical, and you can injure yourself and by eating the wrong foods too soon. This can lead to a horrible vicious circle that can be very difficult to break and has led some people to their deaths.
Don’t Fast in Costa Rica, Panama or Thailand
Currently, there’s only one fasting facility in the world that I would recommend: The True North Health Center in California. It is the only place that I know that meets all of the criteria that I’ve mentioned.
Some people organize fasting “retreats” in Costa Rica, Panama or Thailand. You need to avoid going to these places for many important reasons.
- Many of people running these retreats have been previously convicted of the malpractice of medicine that resulted in the deaths of their patients. This is documented, and you can find out all the details if you search for it.
- There are many horror stories from participants of these fasting retreats — that didn’t always result in death but led to disastrous health results. What comes out of these stories is the level of negligence and carelessness of the directors of those fasting programs. They often discouraged participants from breaking the fast if they requested it, pushed the person beyond their limits, released them from the facility when they did not complete a full re-feeding process, and let people fast who just should not have been fasting.
- They may offer very dubious services such as “fasting via Skype” which is akin to fasting on your own when you should be supervised in person.
At those retreats you do not have access to a trained physician with experience in fasting. If something goes wrong, you will end up in a hospital in a second or third-world country where you will probably not speak the language and where local physicians might not know how to act. In most cases, they do not request any blood tests, and there is an almost religious belief in fasting as an answer to everything and an attitude of “the longer, the better.”
Often “interns” working at those retreats are simply participants who are paying a reduced price to be there and have no medical training.
And curiously, those fasting retreats charge the same or much more than a legitimate fasting center.
My Experience in Central America
In January 2005, I fasted for 23 days in Central America at a fasting retreat.
At the time, I did not know about the True North Center, and I trusted the fasting director as someone with experience who could lead me to optimal health through his program. I stayed two months at this retreat: Six weeks was allowed for fasting and re-feeding and then two weeks for another event after the fast.
Although I did not have a “horror story,” compared to my subsequent fasting experiences at True North, I can rate my fast in Central America as bad for many reasons.
As expected, I did not have a medical exam before the fast and was judged a healthy young man of 28, fit for fasting. Throughout the fast, blood pressure and pulse were taken by an intern who was a kind man but did not have any medical training.
My main problem with my fast was anxiety. As the fast progressed, I became extremely anxious about my symptoms during the fast. Not only was I extremely weak, but I experienced numbness in my tongue and lots of muscle twitching that worried me.
As other fasting experts such as Albert Mosseri and Dr. Herbert Shelton have said — extreme worry and anxiety during the fast is never good, and one should never fast under those circumstances.
My anxiety was only worsened by the fact that the intern started telling me that he did not trust the director’s advice and even told me about a previous case who had recently died under his (the director’s) supervision. I felt that the director was only dismissing my worries and judging my anxiety as “abnormal.” He even told me that he had never seen someone with so much anxiety during fasting. However, he never did anything that reassured me. My worries about my symptoms were met with confusion, and it only made things worse when he suggested it might be “vitamin B deficiencies” and that “eating greens after the fast would solve it.” This showed me he was as clueless as I was about what was going on.
In reality, I was mentally falling apart when I realized I was entirely dependent upon him for my survival. I had started the fast at a very skinny 139 pounds (for 5 10) and reached 115 pounds at my lowest. I did not have the energy to walk out. The psychological climate at the retreat was terrible when patients would discuss their worries with each other.
I managed to convince the director to break my fast after 23 days, even though he was hoping I would fast for longer. He also discouraged me from breaking it after 21 days.
My re-feeding period did not go well since we were eating huge quantities of acidic fruits along with wild tropical greens. This led to quite messed up digestion that took months to normalize. The digestive issues meant that most meals were followed by colics and an urgent trip to the bathroom.
Back in Canada, I wrote to Albert Mosseri who criticized the way my fast was broken. “Your fast was ended too brutally,” he wrote back laconically. He advised me to temporarily stop eating so much fruit, avoid raw salads, all nuts, seeds, and avocados and instead eat steamed vegetables and potatoes for a week or two. I followed his advice and felt instant relief, and the digestive issues went away as I added back more fruit progressively.
After the fast, I had an uneasy feeling about my experience. On the one hand, I did not want to believe I had a terrible experience. But on the other hand, my feelings were telling me that it was a disaster. However, I could not exactly say what went wrong. I could summarize it in saying that I did not feel safe at this retreat and felt that the care was inappropriate.
It took me many years to realized that I developed generalized anxiety during the later part of my fast due to the uncertainties I was feeling, and my propensity for worry.
A respectable trained professional in fasting should have been able to recognize that and break my fast at my request without convincing me to fast longer.
I Still Believe in Fasting
Years later, I fasted at the True North Health Center and had a completely different experience. I was under competent hands and did not experience any anxiety.
Long fasts can be a challenging experience, so it’s important to choose carefully who’s going to take care of you.
Water fasting has been proven to be extremely helpful with many health conditions. In fact, there’s a lot of exciting research around fasting nowadays because scientists are studying carefully the possibilities of fasting as an effective treatment for many health conditions, particularly auto-immune ones.
But long fasts can be tricky, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of abuse in this field by people who should not be conducting fasts with the poor level of care they offer.