How to Fast for 24 Hours, Plus Why I Do it and How the Last One Went.
Wondering how to fast for 24 hours? Or why even do it in the first place?
A few reasons. One, through a process called autophagy, our cells begin to recycle and clean out parts that are damaged. This process also allows for the regeneration of new, healthy cells. When we are constantly in a "fed" state, we are not allowing for this process. Overnight as we sleep, we all fast for a bit of time, but extending that to 16-18 hours or so on some days can be very beneficial. To take it a step further, some go for a 24 hour fast once per month or quarter, and others take it beyond that to a several day fast a few times per year. I keep mine to 24 hours, a few times per year. As a disclaimer, I'll remind you that you should always speak to your doctor before embarking on any sort of fasting protocol, and this is not in any way a recommendation.
Anyway, back to the benefits. Insulin levels decrease and we are able to access fat stores for energy, rather than using the ready supply of glucose in the blood from constant carbohydrate consumption. Over time, intermittent fasting or periodic longer fasts like this 24-hour one, can help improve insulin sensitivity. The idea behind switching to fat stores for energy rather than the easy-access glucose is not necessarily about weight loss. You may lose some weight over a longer period of following an intermittent fasting protocol, but it's not the benefit. The benefit is a healthy sensitivity to insulin that is supported by a reduction in carbohydrate consumption.
When the digestive system is always processing food and converting it to energy, the body gives less attention to other systems and processes. I find that my focus increases and my energy levels actually rise during and right after a fast. I don’t do it super often (other than intermittent fasting), but I find that a 24 hour fast a few times a year is a great way to give my digestive system a break and my mind a kickstart.
Speaking of a fresh start for the brain, I love fasting from a Saturday night to a Sunday night. It allows me to focus all day Sunday, prep some meals, take care of some household chores, finish off with a nutritious dinner and feel energized and ready to get stuff done by the time Monday morning hits.
Notice that none of my reasons have to do with weight loss.
How long have humans been fasting?
We've been fasting since the beginning - though originally, it probably had to do with food scarcity. It was more of a "no other choice until we find some food" situation. But beyond that, according to Britannica, there is evidence that shows "fasting has been used therapeutically since the 5th century BCE, when Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstinence from food or drink for patients who exhibited certain symptoms of illness." As we learned more about the science, more sophisticated and specific methods came into use.
What are the types of fasts?
Today, people use time restricted windows during which they eat, at all other times fasting. This might mean an 8 hour feeding window from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM, fasting the other 16 hours, for example. There's the 5:2 fast which means eating regularly (without time restrictions) during five days of the week, and restricting calories to just several hundred on the other two days of the week. Then there are extended 24, 36, even up to 72 hour fasts that happen much less frequently throughout the year - like the one I just did.
Here's how it went for me:
This time, I started my 24 hour fast at 6:30 pm on a Saturday night.
I ate what I would normally eat for dinner, and even had a glass of wine. This is not a weight loss tactic, as mentioned above. It’s important not to overdo it with the alcohol of course, (one glass of red with dinner, not 3 glasses of wine and a few cocktails) because I don’t want my body having to get rid of extra toxins tomorrow. Plus when we are hungover, we need nourishment and a fast would just generally not be a good idea. Then we watched a Christmas movie and then the last hour of Moana, obviously.
I woke up with the sunrise - this is standard for me without an alarm clock. It was sunny and chilly - the perfect weather for a hike at our favorite local spot, the Giant Stairs Palisades trail in NJ. I wouldn't necessarily recommend a hike to start out a day of fasting - normally I’d say do something like yoga and a light walk. But I know my body and what I can handle, and I was really craving nature and challenge more than I was feeling a need to rest.
As humans, we tend to think we’ll simply not be able to go on without snacks every hour. Think about a 6 hour flight across the country. People have melt-downs if they aren't served snacks and meals every few of hours. Passengers hoard nuts and crackers from Hudson News in case - God forbid - we don’t have something to munch on for those moments in the air which are simply sure to perish without.
Trust me when I say, most of us have plenty of excess fat to burn for a few hours.
Our bodies can typically handle (I’m not talking about those with anemia or low blood sugar issues) a 24 hour fast just fine - if we can make it through mentally. This is key. It is usually a mental craving more than it is a requirement from the body to consume fuel.
What to consume during a fast:
Anyway, after the hike I made sure to consume plenty of water, I also had some tea and my vitamins. This wasn’t a strict fast, just a break for my system, so I was fine with the few calories in my vitamins. I included some gelatin powder in my chai tea, which again adds some calories, but in the form of protein that is fantastic for the lining of the stomach and intestinal wall. If I had any bone broth stocked, I’d probably have have had a cup of that as well (but we are fresh out).
What to do during a fast:
I kept busy with work, journaling and prepping my calendar for next week. I find that my focus is at an all-time high during a fast. Contrary to popular belief, most people aren’t consumed with thoughts of food - sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Just knowing that you won’t be eating until the evening, helps shift focus to other tasks at hand. Rather than trying to decide what to cook or snack on, you simply don’t have to make those calls.
A clear head is also the best for planning out my week. I fill in my “me time” first - workouts, walks, date nights - and then the critical meetings and private coaching calls are filled in. Next comes the chunks of time I dedicate to deep, focused work and the big daunting tasks that must be completed. Finally, I fill in the smaller to-do items, errands and other low hanging fruit. This ensures that my cup is filled first and my most important tasks get done. The rest is icing on the cake.
After the productive time, I finished up some holiday shopping (online, small biz whenever possible), we watched some more holiday movies and relaxed on the couch.
How to end the fast:
At around 6:30 pm on Sunday, I ate a normal meal with plenty of protein and fat. I didn’t load up on carbs because that would spike my insulin and completely throw me off. Further, it somewhat defeats the purpose of the fast and its positive effects on insulin. My dinner was baked salmon with some mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red cabbage and shredded carrot.
By Monday morning, I woke up refreshed, focused, ready to knock out a great leg day and tackle all the items on my list that I was able to plan out so well on Sunday during the fast.
More on why I do these a few times a year:
I love challenging myself regularly. Sometimes it’s with a tough workout, sometimes a long and challenging hike, sometimes a backpacking trip, sometimes a new goal for my business, and sometimes it’s a simple fast like this. I don’t do these all the time, just maybe 4-5 times throughout the year.
I believe that if we always get what we want when we want it - whether that be relief from a hard workout by quitting early, the easy route of staying in bed on Sunday instead of getting up and outside in freezing weather for a hike, or a satiating snack immediately after our minds desire it - there is no room for growth.
So the next time you're wondering how to fast for 24 hours, or if you should do it in the first place...first, check with your doctor ;). But if you get the all-clear, do it.
The days and years will go by, and our choice is to challenge ourselves and grow, or stay stuck exactly where we are.