Fasting transformed me after medicine failed. Written by Jenni Russell in The Times on 22nd April 2015.
This free, simple therapy has changed my life. Could it be the panacea to transform the NHS? In the last ten months my life has been transformed. I didn’t write a book, move house, have children, find a faith or change my job. Instead I have gone from being an exhausted person with a lifelong and incurable illness, kept alive by four drugs, to a currently healthy and energetic one. This remarkable difference has been brought about by a therapy that’s simple, free and overlooked by the NHS: fasting.
I tried fasting because I was desperate. It’s two decades since I developed a serious autoimmune condition which has often left me sleeping 12 hours a day and sometimes kept me in bed for months at a time. It was made worse by chemotherapy for cancer five years ago. I was told after that I could never live without immune-suppressing drugs; when I tried to, I was rushed to hospital as an emergency admission and spent several days on drips.
I wouldn’t stay on steroids, the most common immune-suppressant, because they have so many side-effects and I’d already had a lifetime’s dose. My diligent, dedicated consultant argued for me to be given an intravenous drug that cost the NHS £25,000 a year.
Even that amount of money didn’t make me well. It just kept me out of hospital. What’s more, the drug was carcinogenic and had its own side-effects. Last summer the money for it ran out, and though my consultant was determined to fight for more, the chances of success were low. I needed an alternative.
That’s when I came across research from the University of Southern California. Valter Longo, a leading biogerontologist who has been studying the effects of fasting on mice for 20 years, had discovered that if mice were starved for three days, their immune systems started to regenerate.
Starvation forced the bone marrow to create stem cells, replacing the faulty immune response with a normal one. Intermittent fasts over six months created steady improvement. This therapy might, said Longo, prove remarkably effective for anyone with an autoimmune condition or whose immune system was deteriorating with age. He cautioned that nothing was proven until human trials had been done.
I had nothing to lose by trying it, except my temper and a little weight. I started the first fast on a boat journey on a stormy sea. It was made a lot easier by the fact that I’d lost my appetite anyway, and that I wasn’t required to do anything except lie in a bunk and read. Still, it was very boring to have nothing to look forward to but hot water, cold water, fizzy water; black tea, green tea, mint tea. I got fiercely hungry, and sometimes dizzy, but the sensation would pass. I lasted two and a half days and thought nothing could come of it. On the fourth day I woke feeling better than I had for years.
Since then I have fasted three more times, most recently for four days. It’s no fun. I couldn’t do it while working, or cooking for anyone else. You need to be free to crash out whenever your indignant body complains. You also need distractions to look forward to when you remember, gloomily, that there isn’t a meal ahead; books, films, the company of partners and friends.
I only do it because the results have been so dramatic. I am off every drug, and for the first time since getting ill I don’t have to ration my energy and time. I can’t know if it will last, but I have become a quiet evangelist. Fasting, as one doctor said recently, may be the panacea that western medicine forgot.
In the last few years diabetes researchers have found that the disease can be cured by a daily 600-calorie diet for eight weeks. Longo’s own earlier research indicates that fasting is as effective as chemotherapy in treating cancer. Combining the two, fasting just before and after treatment, increases the efficacy of chemo by up to 40 per cent while minimising side-effects. Cancer cells cope badly with being simultaneously poisoned and starved. But normal cells gain protection, because fasting closes the pathways that let toxins in. Since a fifth of all cancer-related deaths are due to the effects of chemo, this may be a major breakthrough.
These are sensation discoveries. If they were drugs, they’d be the basis of billion-dollar companies, and yet the millions of people who might benefit them aren’t told about them. Doctors can’t recommend them because they need the evidence of large-scale human trials. Drug companies won’t conduct these because there’s no money to be made; indeed, if fasting was shown to work, it would destroy some of their most profitable markets.
Which leaves the NHS. Here’s a top priority for the new health secretary, whoever he or she may be: fund some major trials. Find out conclusively whether fasting really might save both money and lives.