This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of the Health Science Magazine
In 1877, a physician by the name of Henry Tanner had decided to end his life. Plagued with asthma, chronically disrupting his sleep, and rheumatism, Dr. Tanner spent his days in constant agony. He articulated his anguish, "I had found a shortcut and had made up my mind to rest from physical suffering in the arms of death"1. Not believing in suicide, however, he decided that the only other way to die would be to starve himself; he had been taught that humans could not live past 10 days without food.
What happened next was remarkable. Notwithstanding some minor uncomfortable symptoms, Dr. Tanner noticed that by his fifth day, he could sleep peacefully again. By the eleventh day, expecting Dr. Tanner to be near death, a fellow physician examined him but noted his excellent health. An additional 31 days of water fasting resulted in complete resolution of his asthma, rheumatism, and chronic pain. Some of his fellow physicians didn’t believe his reports and claimed he was a fraud, so Dr. Tanner then undertook a second, 40-day fast, this time allowing other physicians to check in on him. The British Medical Journal published an account of this fast, stating “...his being able to live during the first 14 days...is extraordinary....”2
Dr. Tanner had observed a rather remarkable occurrence - that "doing nothing” was more effective than doing anything else when it came to his own health. And as it turned out, Dr. Tanner had stumbled upon an ancient adaptation of many animals, including humans - the tendency to fast in response to acute illness. When we become acutely ill, our need for sleep and rest increases. Appetite is reduced and eliminated for a period of time, often days. We are designed to fast as a healing tool, and Dr. Tanner was lucky enough to observe and document his experience.
Therapeutic Fasting as Treatment
Today, there has been much more detailed investigation into the clinical effects of water-only fasting and the following are some conditions that respond well to therapeutic fasting:
Hypertension - Reducing the salt load on the kidneys, decreasing weight, and unwinding clogged arteries are just a few benefits of fasting when you have high blood pressure. While medications reduce blood pressure by about 12 points (systolic) and 6 points (diastolic), during water fasting followed by a whole, plant foods SOS-free diet, the average blood pressure change was about -37 points (systolic) and -13 points (diastolic) for an average water fast of 11 days.3 That study, done at the True North Health Center, is the largest effect size ever shown in the entire scientific literature for the treatment of high blood pressure. A subsequent study on borderline hypertension also showed a reduction in blood pressure.4
Type 2 Diabetes - Lowering the fat & sugar load on the body, reducing insulin resistance, and rebalancing blood sugar are all consistent outcomes seen during a therapeutic fast followed by appropriate diet & lifestyle following the fast.5,6 The results are so striking, that an analysis done by True North Health Center showed that Type 2 Diabetic patients had such a dramatic improvement from fasting and subsequently changing their diet and reducing or eliminating medications that they saved an average of $2800 per year in medical costs after attending the program.7
Body pain, arthritis, auto-immune conditions - Fasting has a consistent anti-inflammatory effect, as measured by erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), arthralgia, pain, stiffness, and need for medication. Though not always a complete cure, it is routine to see improvements in grip strength, swelling of joints, and functional activity in patients particularly those fasting longer than 7 days. 8,9,10 The suspected reason for these improvements may have to do with the association of arthritis and some auto-immune conditions and food intolerance, and the decrease in gut absorption of molecules causing an immune response(known as antigens) during fasting. Put simply, when the gut has time to rest from digestion, good things happen.
Overweight/Obesity - Although fasting is effective for initial weight loss, fasting alone, without dietary & other lifestyle modifications, does not ensure sustainability of weight loss11. For this, a patient must consistently eat a health-promoting diet. However, due to a hidden force, coined The Pleasure Trap by Drs Alan Goldhamer and Doug Lisle12, this can be a daunting task. One major obstacle is the taste of plain, healthy food. If an average modern-food eating person were to attempt to change their diet to a whole, plant foods diet low in added salt, sugar, and oil, it would likely taste awful as the taste buds, used to high salt, high fat, high sugar foods, have become dull. Taste buds, however, can change and it takes about 30-90 days of eating healthy food for taste buds to adapt to a low-salt, low-fat, health-promoting diet12. Whereas, on a water-fast, taste bud sensitivity will typically improve in under 7 days giving the individual a fresh start to eating healthy foods.
Non Hodgkin's Follicular Lymphoma- Fasting, at least in animal studies, appears to facilitate mechanisms that may slow tumor growth and increase tumor death. A case study, published in 2015, details the clinical story of a patient diagnosed with Stage 3 Follicular (Non-Hodgkin's) Lymphoma as evidenced by chest and abdominal CT scans revealing palpable enlarged lymph nodes . When advised by her oncologist that chemotherapy would cause her more harm than good and that the only course of action was to monitor every 3 months, she called True North Health Center to see if water-fasting might be of some benefit. After undergoing a 21-day water-only fast and a 10 day re-feeding period, the lymph nodes were substantially reduced in size and a follow-up CT scan confirmed this. A 3-year follow-up reported that the patient had maintained the whole, plant-food SOS-free diet with minimal exceptions and had a recent CT/PET scan that showed no evidence of active disease. 13,14
The lymphoma case study was published in the British Medical Journal, nearly 140 years after the publication of Henry Tanner's fast in the same journal where it was written that, "The human body has hitherto been regarded as only capable of existing from eight to ten days when all supplies have been cut off."2
Get healthy, Fast.
Therapeutic fasting has tremendous clinical benefits in a variety of diseases, particularly those caused by over-consumption of animal products and refined, processed foods. In addition, a therapeutic water-only fast can help an individual struggling with the Pleasure Trap to "break the cycle" and gain some much-needed momentum to get back on track with a healthy lifestyle.
Fasting is best done under supervision at an in-patient facility11. This allows the supervising doctor to exercise proper care in monitoring the patient during a fast including documenting symptoms, vital signs, laboratory values as well as properly terminating the fast and supervising post-fasting recovery. All of which ensure the safest outcome for the patient.
Luckily, several facilities now exist all over the world and these centers follow the standards of care and principles of ethics established by the International Association of Hygienic Physicians.
More doctors - young and old - are learning of this alternative method of healing, and word is slowly spreading. The hygienic lifestyle of simple foods, moderate exercise, absence of dietary drugs, nightly deep and restful sleep, punctuated by water fasting, when needed, remains the core of living a healthy life. And though distractions abound and we may sometimes get pulled off course, water-fasting may be the very tool that can help bring us back home.
1. Forty Days without Food: A biography of Henry Tanner, MD, Robert Alexander Gunn, 1880
2. British Medical Journal July 31, 1880 P.171 Dr. Tanner's Fast
3. A.C. Goldhamer, D.J. Lisle, B. Parpia, et al.: Medically supervised water-only fasting in the treatment of hypertension. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 24, 2001, 335–339.
4. A. Goldhamer, D. Lisle, P. Sultana, et al.: Medically supervised water-only fasting in the treatment of borderline hypertension. J Altern Complement Med. 8, 2002, 643–650.
5. G. Guelpa: Starvation and purgation in the relief of diabetes. BMJ. 2, 1910, 1050–1051.
6. F.M. Allen: Prolonged fasting in diabetes. Am J Med Sci. 150, 1915, 480–485.
7. A. Goldhamer: Initial cost of care results in medically supervised water-only fasting for treating high blood pressure and diabetes. J Altern Complement Med. 8, 2002, 696–697.
8. G.F. Kroker, R.M. Stroud, R. Marshall, et al.: Fasting and rheumatoid arthritis: a multicenter study. Clin Ecol. 2, 1984, 137–144.
9. H. Lithell, A. Bruce, I.B. Gustafsson, et al.: A fasting and vegetarian diet treatment trial on chronic inflammatory disorders. Acta Derm Venereol. 63, 1983, 397–403.
10. L. Skoldstam, L. Larsson, F.D. Lindstrom: Effect of fasting and lactovegetarian diet on rheumatoid arthritis. Scand J Rheumatol. 8, 1979, 249–255.
11. Textbook of Natural Medicine, Chapter 37 "Therapeutic Fasting"
12. The Pleasure Trap Douglas J. Lisle, PhD & Alan Goldhamer, DC
13. Goldhamer AC, Klaper M, Foorohar A, et al. Water-only fasting and an exclusively plant foods diet in the management of stage IIIa, low-grade follicular lymphoma. BMJ Case Rep 2015
14. Myers TR, et al. Follow-up of water-only fasting and an exclusively plant food diet in the management of stage IIIa, lowgrade follicular lymphoma. BMJ Case Rep 2018