Walk with me for a bit… this will take a few tangents. But fear not, we'll quickly get beyond the drudgery of scientific benefits and enter the realm of dancing stars and untamed wolves. So wet your appetite, and fast with me.
First, let me address the obvious, if the title didn’t do it well enough. Intermittent fasting (as well as a longer 3 day fast) is a core component of The Weightlessness Process, situated in the first of three months of training as an exercise (and experience) in stress-adaptation.
Fasting, well, let me be more specific, not eating for a period of time, is stressful. If you can envision the hardships of early man, hunting, gathering, enduring bouts of famine, celebrating in feast. Fasting wasn’t a thing anyone tried to do, it happened because getting food required a lot of time and effort. And it didn’t always materialize after effort.
Evolution has blessed us with remarkable capacities to endure, some of which, the direct consequence of wanting for food. Some of these capacities lie dormant in our DNA, and aren't tapped into and expressed without a stress-trigger (or many over time). These range from effortless lean body mass, to improvements in memory and intelligence, to cellular resilience and robust health.
Below, the most common reasons people intermittent fast today:
- Weight loss: Intermittent fasting can help to reduce caloric intake by virtue of eating less frequently. It can also promote fat burning and improve insulin sensitivity.
- Improved blood sugar control: Fasting regulates blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of insulin resistance (which can lead to type 2 diabetes).
- Improved heart health: Fasting lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and improves cholesterol levels, all of which can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Increased longevity: Studies suggest that intermittent fasting may increase lifespan and improve overall health by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Improved brain function: Fasting improves cognitive function and reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s.
Fasting isn’t a panacea, though it’s close (this is not a recommendation... DYO research). While there are extraordinary health and performance benefits to intermittent fasting, it's also a tool used for centuries to harness existential tensions of the human spirit and cultivate deep clarity and alignment.So let's leave the drudgery that is biology and get into a few less celebrated benefits of fasting.Let me tell you why I fast.
Giving Birth to Dancing Stars
Nietzsche, the 19th century German nihilist once observed, ”One must still have chaos in themselves to give birth to a dancing star.”
A poetic way of expressing the idea that creativity and innovation require a certain level of disorder or chaos. Just as a star is born from a chaotic swarm of gas and dust, condensed by gravity into an awe-inspiring creation of the universe, a new idea or creation so too requires unsettled tensions as kindling.
Nietzsche believed that people who are too rigidly organized and structured in their thinking and behavior are less likely to come up with new ideas or ways of looking at the world. In order to break free from established norms and create something new, one must be willing to embrace a certain level of chaos or uncertainty.
What many get wrong about health (and dare I say… happiness) is in thinking one ought to optimize for balance. “Everything in moderation,” they say.
No. Homeostasis - balance - is a physiological response to stress. Seeking balance as status quo is synonymous with seeking comfort - levels of effort and uncertainty and discomfort that you know you can tolerate, but which fail to inoculate you against unpredictable hardships in life. Comfort-seeking is a strategy that leads to mental fragility, physical deterioration, and suffering, if taken too far.
Your DNA has roots at least a quarter of a million years long - IDENTICAL homo sapiens DNA, with very close relatives going back into the millions of years. Your ancestors didn’t live comfortable existences, and their biology (your biology) isn’t optimized for a life of balance.
They suffered. They fought. And I promise you one thing:
They felt fear. They felt pain. They felt loss. They felt love.
They felt connected to the world around them. And they felt… hunger.
Hunger is chaos. It's a denial of what you want, and as time passes, what you need. What you genuinely need, to survive. And oh how your mind-body rebels… in brilliant ways.
Hunger gives birth to dancing stars.
(For fear of incurring the wrath of wayward nihilists, I'm aware Nietzsche wasn't fond of fasting, viewing it as a coping mechanisms to constrain internal chaotic emotional states. I'm also aware even nihilists can be mistaken. Chaos destroys as much as it creates, and to push probabilities toward the latter, I'm of the opinion a container is invaluable, if not essential.)
The Prophet Diet
I started intermittent fasting about 25 years ago after reading Hofmekler’s The Warrior Diet, which was one of the first, if not the first, to promote 20 hours of fasting daily with a 4 hour feeding window, along with recommendations for ideal food selection. In that book he discussed the health and performance benefits of fasting - cellular resilience, strength, and lean body mass, which appealed to me.
But there was a line in that book that went beyond biology and felt more spiritual in nature, pointing to the heightened sensitivity that all animals display when they’re truly hungry. It was about connecting to something deeper in all of us. With practice, I saw that for myself.
Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), and Muhammad all purportedly fasted for 30 days or more (49 days in the case of Buddha), each before their ascension as leaders of new forms of spirituality - worldviews that would later be practiced by over 85% of the world's population, as of today’s stats. None are my particular flavor of spirituality, but I can respect the hustle.
Coincidence that the three most impactful figures in history denied themselves of sustenance to an extreme to learn who they truly were? Perhaps.
Imagine the clarity of purpose, the strength of conviction that surfaced.
Imagine the chaos within, that preceded it.
Imagine the hunger.
Dancing stars need fuel. And that fuel is hunger.
If you’ve ever listened to a motivational speech by anyone ever, you’ve heard them yelling at you. And if you weren’t too terrified to hear the message, then you heard them yelling “Stay Hungry!”
Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford included the line, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Acknowledging the chaos within him that birthed his creative passion and undying commitment to cause, and his willingness to play the fool to realize his vision, Jobs undoubtedly left behind an incredible legacy. About 20% of the devices connecting the world have his stamp on them.
Steve Jobs also fasted… for days to weeks.
Hungry animals are singular in focus, and rarely rest until satiated. Getting smacked in the face by mortality, guts screaming for relief, has a way of bringing into focus what truly matters. 'Stay hungry,' while serving as vivid metaphor, is a visceral warning to all those who feel satisfied and resolved to the status quo.
Satisfaction is at cross-purposes with passion. And passion is life.
There should be enough tension in you to strive, and enough peace in you to settle. But if you've settled to the point of malaise, indifference, apathy, or surrender, you may need more tension. More hunger. Not just the Steve Jobs kind.
Hunger Does a Few Things
Hunger sharpens the senses of animals, of which you are one. When animals are hungry, their brains release ghrelin, a hormone which can increase their motivation to seek out food, and their adrenals release epinephrine, a hormone which charges the sympathetic nervous system for action - increasing heart rate and blood flow, improving reaction time and coordination, and even dilating the pupils for improved vision.
As less energy is spent on digestion, more can be mobilized from stored body fat and allocated to cognitive function and sensory perception. We might actually examine this in reverse, and note that eating beyond one’s needs has a numbing effect, in a literal sense, cutting you off from mind-FULL experiences - awareness and presence.
These reactions and adaptations are survival mechanisms, surely, but sages and prophets of old realized these extraordinary shifts in somatic experience are unparalleled in focusing the mind and establishing preternatural connection between self and environment - in generating order from chaos.
But how can one harness their primal nature without succumbing to it?
Somewhere between ferality and domestication, a wolf paces the steps of society.
A Wolf of the Steppes
Hermann Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf" explores the existential crisis of a middle-aged intellectual who is struggling with his dual nature as both a civilized man and a wild, untamed "wolf of the steppes.” The Steppenwolf concept is based on the idea that humans are not singular, unified beings but rather are composed of multiple and often conflicting parts - an idea fully corroborated by modern neuroscience.
The protagonist sees himself as being torn between his desire for a life of intellectual and cultural refinement, represented by his "bourgeois" side, and his deeper, primal urges, represented by his "wolf" side. The Steppenwolf is a metaphor for the struggle we all face in reconciling our innermost desires with the demands and expectations of society.
This is a living tension that the comforts of modern living encourage you to forget.
Perhaps that’s not strong enough. It’s a living tension that modern comfort destroys, suppressing the part of your nature so potent and hungry and life-affirming that what remains is the tolerable ‘good-enough.’
But there’s no tension, no life left. And people seek all kinds of outs just to get it back before its too late - drugs, affairs, high risk endeavors. They need to let the wolf out of the cage to feel alive again. But without a means of containing that chaos, it manifests in self-destructive impulses.
That is why I fast.
Fasting is kindling for, and a container of, primal chaos.
It allows the Steppenwolf to exist in all his tensions, connected and alive, without the reckless abandon of acting on his basest impulses.
These tensions are chaos - chaos that gives birth to dancing stars.
Stay hungry, and...