Fasting for Health—A Personal Odyssey
By Ellen Livingston
I discovered a raw food diet in 2002, after more than 20 years of chronic pain and disease. A skiing accident tore apart my left knee at age 18, and I began to suffer from a constellation of debilitating symptoms. These included chronic back pain, migraine headaches, TMJ, depression, profound insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and severe reflux. I was given drugs for all of these conditions, alternative therapies and remedies, and experimented all the time with my diet. My symptoms would shift, change, sometimes improve, and sometimes worsen - but I could not seem to heal.
I embarked on an all-raw diet the day I discovered it - I was sick and tired of suffering so much, and felt that I had tried just about everything else. Amazingly, or so it seemed, all of my symptoms disappeared or greatly improved within weeks on a raw vegan diet, so I was convinced! But I struggled with common pitfalls on this diet. Even though I felt great, my body wasted away to almost nothing before I learned how to do it right. After a year and a half, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Douglas N. Graham and his partner Prof. Rozalind Gruben. Extensive personal coaching with Prof. Gruben, her colleague Dr. Timothy Trader, and finally Dr. Graham helped me to correct the mistakes I was making, to maintain a healthy weight, and to understand Natural Hygiene and the requisites of health.
During this time I also experienced divorce, two moves, and major lifestyle changes. With three homeschooled children to care for, and mounting financial pressures, the stress was forever high. Twenty years of chronic reflux had progressed to esophageal inflammation, and this became my body's weak spot. Despite my now very healthy and still all raw diet, the stress I was under continued to cause occasional painful flare-ups in my esophagus, sometimes lasting for days at a time. Dr. Graham explained to me that ANY food coming into contact with inflamed digestive tract tissues could cause irritation. He recommended, to allow the tissues to rest and heal, an extended all-water fast and total rest. This would take six weeks (including recovery time), away from home and away from stress, at a fasting retreat, under close professional supervision.
For four more years I stubbornly resisted - after all, I reasoned, how could I come up with the money? Who would take care of my homeschooled children? What about our new puppy? And my fledgling business? It just seemed impossible. Besides, in between flare-ups I felt great! I told myself I would cope.
Though I continued to feel great most of the time, in 2007 the pain attacks became more frequent and more intense. I was sometimes unable to eat for days. The suffering became unbearable, and I was frightened. Desperate for relief from the pain, I finally tried the Prilosec recommended by my medical doctor. Two weeks of this brought no relief, only unpleasant side effects. At the end of my rope, I made the decision to complete the six-week fasting program under Dr. Graham's experienced supervision. And I made an important realization: I had viewed signing up for the fast as the ultimate admission of personal failure - an admission that I could not create health on my own at home, and therefore had to surrender helplessly. I was now able to see instead that signing up for the fast was really the ultimate act of healthy self-love - an act of great courage, not helpless failure. I finally believed that it was the best thing I could do for myself, and for my children. Once I had this clarity, the support I needed from friends and family materialized.
The Journey Begins
I arrive in Costa Rica on New Year's Day, 2008, with 11 other fasters from around the globe. Dr. Douglas Graham is there with his primary assistant Lennie Mowris, five interns, and miscellaneous other helpers. We have exclusive use of a beautiful retreat center nestled along the Chirripo River. Our shared rooms are comfortably rustic, with a full bath in each. We have a wonderful balcony, with a breathtaking view of mountains, valleys, and the rushing river. My generous roommate lets me claim the big bed by the window. "It's all good", she says cheerfully. The cool mountain air is refreshing, and deep sleep comes easily.
Our fast has already begun - we can look forward to all the water we want for the next 3-4 weeks! For my roommate and me, our days quickly take on a predictable rhythm: watch the sunrise and take in some gentle morning sun on the balcony; visit with an intern who comes to our room to monitor our blood pressure, hydration, body temperature, strength, and any symptoms, insights, or emotional dramas we may experience; nap; stroll up to the main hall and lie down for 3 hours of entertaining and informative lecture and discussion with Ms. Mowris and Dr. Graham, visit with the other fasters; stroll back to our room; read, write in our journals, and go to bed, usually by 7pm. As the fast progresses and we become weaker and more tired, there are days when we no longer get out of bed for the sunrise, and even a couple of days when we choose not to make the short trek to the main hall for the afternoon lecture.
By the end of the second day, my only symptoms are excessive urination, a bit of emotional fragility and lonesomeness for my children, a slight white coating on my tongue, some overall weakness, and slight chill. I am not hungry till evening, but then I really wish to eat! Dr. Graham has advised us not to talk about food.
On the third day I enter naturally into a state of pure bliss. I am sitting on my balcony, listening to yoga chants my children have loaded onto my ipod for me, awaiting the sunrise. Tears of joy stream down my face, as my heart seems to swell and swell to proportions much too big to be contained in my body. This wonderful experience will be repeated many, many more times on my fast.
Waves of hunger come and go for another day, then subside. My only physical complaint now is an intense ache in my lower back. Dr. Graham says it is likely related to the vigorous cleansing work going on in my kidneys during this early stage of the fast. Limited carbohydrate stores have long since been used up, and we are all slowing way down and spending more and more time resting in bed. Within a few more days we will spend nearly all of our time lying down. Dr. Graham often reminds us to equate fasting with resting and to rest ourselves as much as possible, in every way. We are instructed to limit to only the bare essentials, or to zero, our time on computer and phone, and to lie down and close our eyes as much as we can.
The white coating on my tongue will last throughout the fast (all the fasters experience this, some tongues more thickly coated than others), but my breath remains sweet and now my teeth feel incredibly clean and smooth. I lose 8 pounds in the first week - mostly just water weight being shed. Toxins are being flushed out of my body, along with the water my body has retained in order to dilute them to safer levels.
During the fast's second week, I experience several bouts of abdominal discomfort followed by strange looking, foul smelling watery stools. After each of these cleansing, healing efforts by my body I am exhausted for hours. Amazingly, this happens again on the 25th day of the fast, even though I had no food for all that time! Dr. Graham says, "Good, let's get it all out of you!" He also says is it not uncommon for a person with a history of digestive disease to experience some activity in the digestive system throughout a fast.
My backaches come and go for awhile, then disappear completely. In 12 days I lose 12 pounds, and a total of 19 by the end of the fast. Other than lightheadedness when standing up, and profound weakness, I don't experience any significant new physical symptoms. I generally feel content to pass the days in a dreamy, restful, peaceful state. I don't seem to have the energy, or the need, to express or process a lot of emotional turmoil. But I do continue to have frequent experiences of simple bliss, appreciation, and compassion. I enjoy plumbing the depths of my mind and my heart, and I am so delighted to find strength, peace, and contentment at the core of my being. Before the fast I had felt a little afraid that I might find myself in some scary dark places, but this did not happen.
Several times I am visited by a strong, clear voice in my dreams that offers me profound insights about what is most important. Other times, I experience bursts of energy and an astonishing clarity of thought. On a couple of these occasions I feel as if I am a "channel" for entire articles on health subjects - I grab my journal and scramble to write it all down before it disappears. At times my mind feels peacefully still, other times it is relentlessly busy. Perhaps surprisingly, I rarely feel "bored". Sometimes I feel like reading or writing or napping, but much of the time I am content to just "be".
About midway through the fast, Dr. Graham challenges us to make a list of 100 personal goals. I am inspired, and quickly come up with 75. I feel clear about many things now. In the quiet of this fast, far away from the busyness that normally consumes my attention, I am able to hear my heart speak independently from my usual mind-chatter. My courage grows - I want my heart to guide my actions.
By day 21 my spirits are flagging and I feel ready to end my fast. But Dr. Graham explains to me that a fast acts like a snowball rolling down a hill: it gathers momentum as it goes, and the benefits are greatest in the later days of a fast. He also tells me that digestive disorders often require the longest fasts. Luckily, we have "The Distance Club" that one faster started and invited us all to join. The motto is: "Going the distance, in the fast lane", and there is even a peppy theme song that gets played at lecture during this final, most challenging week. This helps me now, and I am thankful to be fasting with other people.
Two fasters break their fast during this last week. The rest of us all find that suddenly water doesn't taste so good anymore, and for some it becomes a real struggle to get it down. Lemon wedges in the water help some people. Ten of us hang in all the way to the last day allowable, day 26 (we must save sufficient recovery time). As eager as I am to taste food again, I also feel strangely sad that my fast is coming to an end. I am reluctant to return to the "real" world, with all of its stimulations and demands.
The Next Step
After 26 days with only water for nourishment, we are seated around the big dining table at last, a paper thin slice of watermelon, knife, and fork decoratively set in front of each of us. Cameras flash and click. We have accomplished something truly notable, and Dr. Graham hugs and congratulates each of us individually. There are some tears of relief. We hesitate before taking our first bite - it looks delicious, but it seems almost unreal. Finally, we eat - slowly at first, but then we are like baby birds: very weak, and suddenly aware of a ravenous hunger that must be satisfied! We are allowed a very small amount of watermelon once every hour. Gradually the pieces get bigger, and we act like children, jealously comparing the size and quality of each other's pieces.
We eat only watermelon, in increasing quantities, for three days. Gradually, other juicy fruits are introduced, then bananas, and finally greens. We don't eat any overtly fatty foods until our last night at the retreat, when we are each offered a few small slices of avocado. I do fine with the food, quickly transitioning to just three large meals per day. By the second day of eating I am having normal bowel movements.
After the first recovery week we begin to eat bigger, slightly more complex dinners, and I struggle a bit with digestion and overeating. Frequent nighttime bowel activity disrupts my sleep. Also, my mind becomes busy and keeps me awake with thoughts of returning home to overwhelming stimulation and responsibilities. After several nights of poor sleep, I have one dreaded esophageal flare-up. It is mild in comparison with what came before the fast, but still I am devastated. Dr. Graham tells me that this is not unexpected, and assures me that I am healing. I do have several more of these milder flare-ups soon after I return home, but then they stop completely.
This first week post-fast is a challenging time for me, both physically and emotionally. I struggle with the profound weakness of my atrophied muscles, and with a growing sense of anxiety that I am not ready to return home. Ms. Mowris helps me create an effective personal ritual for identifying and releasing specific emotional experiences from my past, whose weight has been dragging me down and holding me back. I feel much lighter afterwards, and empowered.
During our final week together at the retreat, Dr. Graham encourages us to move our bodies in earnest, and to build up our strength before returning home. He offers daily rehabilitation fitness classes. I attend all that I can manage - a couple of days my muscles are so excruciatingly sore (like nothing I have ever known!) that I am forced to take a rest day. The classes are very tough, but also full of fun and laughter. We are all humbled by our skinny, weak bodies, but determined to help ourselves come back to life, stronger and healthier than ever. Every day now we hike up and down the steep mountain roads, swim in the pool, and arrive ravenously hungry for our meals. Ms. Mowris gives some fantastic food prep demos, and we linger long over the spectacular dinners the interns create for us, in true simple-gourmet 80-10-10 style (please see The 80-10-10 Diet, by Dr. Douglas N. Graham, for a complete explanation of this fruit-based, low fat, whole-foods raw vegan diet). It is fun to finally have the energy to get to know other dimensions of our fasting comrades.
My first month back at home is a bit rocky. The transition I must make is enormous. My body, heart, and soul cry out for more rest, more stillness, and deeper healing, but the world seems to demand something else. I must find ways to cope with the incongruency. But I keep my dreams of a more nature-based, more nature-paced life in full color out in front of me as I step back into my roles as mom, head of household, and small business owner. I know it is possible to create the life of my dreams, and I know also that to create true health, I must continue to dare to be different.
Now, four months after completing my 26-day fast, I am maintaining a healthy weight, my digestive system is functioning better than ever, my esophagus is pain-free, and my skin and gums feel fresh and new. My muscles have finally bounced back. I am gratified that our financial needs are being met as I continue to offer my gifts and service to my community. As I keep my mind and heart focused on what I truly want, my actions become ever more congruent with my values and beliefs. Perhaps most precious of all to me, is my ever-deepening trust in my body's infinite intelligence, and a profoundly magnified sense of self-connection and inner peace. I feel as though I have travelled to the depths of my being, and there found strength and benevolence. In the reassuringly simple words of my roommate, "It's all good."
Ellen Livingston is a Registered Yoga Teacher, and holds a Master's Degree in counseling, specifically Art Therapy. She devotes herself to providing a homeschool environment for her children in which they can practice life-led natural learning, and to helping others create vibrant health for themselves. Ellen offers personal health coaching, classes, workshops, public talks, a newsletter, and retreats. Ellen has followed an all raw vegan diet for over six years. You may contact Ellen by email, email@example.com, and visit her website, LivingYogaNow.