The benefits of an empty stomach
(Harper's) Two weeks after a Fourth of July at the end of Reconstruction, a doctor in Minneapolis named Henry S. Tanner resolved to end his life. His wife had left him some years earlier in favor of Duluth,which may have spoken to the quality of his husbandship, and his efforts to reacquire her had failed. He had been a lecturer on temperance but not a rousing one, he had owned a Turkish bathhouse but not a successful one, and his health was poor in a manner not specified. The usual methods of self-destruction being too painful or too messy or too likely to succeed, Tanner decided to starve himself. At the time, the consensus among men of science was that a human could not survive more than ten days with out food. Christ may have fasted forty, but his was thought a special case.
On July 17, 1877, Tanner drank a pint of milk and repaired to bed. He passed some days, hungrily. His physician, one Dr. Moyer, urged him to eat, but Tanner was firm. Only water crossed his lips. Presently odd things happened. His hunger vanished, and he ceased to think of food. With each new day his ailments, whatever their origin, diminished, and by the tenth day—which should, by the wisdom of the moment, have been his last—the ills that had plagued him were completely gone. Far from nearing death, he was possessed of a renewed strength. It had been his custom to walk one to three miles twice daily, and after the tenth day he resumed these constitutionals. If his step was shaky at first, it quickly grew steady. He judged his recovery complete and bade Dr. Moyer, who had kept a nervous vigil, bring him food.
But while the food was being prepared, Tanner turned to a thought that had lately come to him: If a man might not only survive but indeed thrive after ten foodless days, what would be the limit of his unfed endurance? Twenty days? Thirty? More? And what would the answer say about us? Did it imply, for example, that we were meant to go without food for long periods? If so, why? Was fasting perhaps a healing mechanism, like sleep? It was the sort of pons asinorum that will gnaw at a person of a certain turn of mind until he must have an answer. By the time Moyer brought his meal, Tanner had come to a resolution. He would forgo gratification of the stomach for gratification of the mind.
Ten fasted days became fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five. He noted no great changes in his person save loss of weight. (Reconstruction was an era of proud midriffs, and doctors did not regard slimming as a benefit per se.) Tanner did acknowledge a slight slowness in cogitation, chiefly on complicated subjects, but otherwise his mental powers were undiminished. On reaching four foodless weeks, he celebrated by walking ten miles of riverbank to Minnehaha Falls and back. He later walked Lakes Calhoun and Cedar, but after drinking from those bodies, he contracted gastritis, and Moyer again urged him to end his fast. On the forty-first day Tanner relented, taking a small glass of milk. He had bested Christ.
Tanner had hoped to persuade skeptics that fasting was curative, but in New York he had no disease to heal. He was a pitchman without product. Scientists ignored him, the laity did not experiment at home, and the Times synopsized his feat as “Tanner’s folly,” echoing Seward’s of a decade earlier. But Tanner knew that such benightedness had long greeted men of genius, from Socrates to Galileo. Time, he doubted not, would vindicate him.
By Thursday much of the odd in-my-head feeling had gone, but a moderate pain now assaulted my lower back. Some fasters believe this lumbago, a fasting common place, is caused by toxins dislodged by fats that are burned during a fast. Most toxins (so the hypothesis goes) are flushed out of the body via urine and sweat, but some take up an uncomfortable residence in the lower back. There is little evidence to support the lumbago hypothesis, but there is some evidence more generally that fasting detoxifies. For more than a week in 1984, sixteen Taiwanese victims of PCB poisoning were quasi-fasted (they ate nothing for one day and drank a modest amount of juice thereafter). Subsequently their PCB-induced migraines, hacking coughs, skin pustules, hair loss, numbness, and joint pain either faded or disappeared entirely.
In the 1960s a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania named Garfield G. Duncan became troubled by the epidemic of American obesity, which then afflicted a shocking one man in twenty and one woman in nine. (Today it afflicts one in three men and women alike.) Like other researchers, Duncan fasted obese patients and studied how many regained their lost weight. Unlike other researchers, he noticed that the blood pressure of every patient who was hypertensive fell to within normal limits during these fasts. He reported, for illustration, the case of a man of fifty-three years and 325 pounds whose unmedicated blood pressure was 210/130 and whose medicated pressure was 184/106—still menacingly high. The man fasted for fourteen days without drugs, and his blood pressure fell to 136/90. Six months later, it was 130/75. Duncan did not record how many of his patients sustained such improvements after their fasts, but the possibility of a simple cure for some forms of hypertension seemed well worth pursuing.
Other research confirmed that fasting could slow and even prevent cancer in certain lower mammals, although a handful of contradictory studies found that some fasted rodents fared worse against cancer than did their non-fasting peers. The reasons for the contradictory results have not been explained, but they were possibly the result of genetic differences between species and subspecies, and of differences in the duration and timing of the fasts. In 1997 a promising series of follow- up studies began. In one, at the University of California, Los Angeles, baker’s yeast that was fasted was found to be protected from “oxidative insult.” By “oxidative insult,” researcher Valter Longo and his colleagues meant attacks by free radicals and other agents that damage DNA and thereby cause cancer and other ills. Somewhat paradoxically, oxidative insult also kills cancer— chemotherapy essentially insults cancer cells to death, oxidatively and otherwise. The trouble with chemotherapy, of course, is that it insults healthy cells to death too, and sometimes the patient with them. Hence the oncologist’s recurring dilemma of how to destroy the most cancer and the least patient.
The yeast study was promising in this regard because the fasting seemed to protect only healthy cells. To Longo, this raised an intriguing question: If a cancer patient fasted, would her healthy cells be protected from chemotherapy, while her cancerous cells were not? If so, could she be given a dose of chemotherapy that would kill more cancer without killing her? ... ► Read the full article by Steve Hendricks in Harper's (via University of Colorado Boulder)
Author: Steve Hendricks has written two important non-fiction books, including "A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial," as well as dozens of articles for major publications. But it was his personal account of fasting for 20 days that generated the most reaction.
In "Starving Your Way to Vigor," published in the March issue of Harper's, Hendricks describes in precise and even lyrical detail the effects of going without food: "I passed Monday morning, the first of my fast, with no evidence of appetite. By afternoon, however, my stomach - I use the term in its general, nonclinical sense - was encircled by emptiness. Soon I felt it contracting. and now and then it murmured aggrievedly..." ... more
Illustration: by Darrel Rees. Henry S. Tanner images courtesy PBA Galleries, San Francisco, and Historyforsale.com│Harper's