Disclaimer: I’m the VP of Content and Community at Big Sky Health, makers of the fast tracking app, Zero.
Five days with no food. No technology. No people. Think you can do it?
Since 2015, I have escaped the hustle of the city for a multi-day, year-end nature retreat. I am often asked questions about these self-guided fasts, so I’ve developed this guide outlining my intention and process.
The basic framework is simple: go without food, people or technology for five days. However, if you’ve never been hungry and alone for a long period of time and live an “always on” life, this can be a challenging exercise. Resetting your dependency on food and human connection can teach you a lot about yourself, plus you’ll receive the neuroprotective benefits of autophagy (clearing out old, unwanted cellular materials and proteins, and stimulating the production of growth hormone) and an increased healthspan.
Read on for my five-day fasting guide to help start your year off in a new and energizing way.
- No Food
- No People (interactions or conversations with others)
- No Technology (mobile device, iPad, etc.)
- Seclusion (creating a unique environment that’s different from your everyday life)
Set and Setting
Your retreat can take on varying degrees of difficulty. At one extreme is a vipassana-style meditation retreat. In this format, there is no talking and no ‘doing’; you simply sit and meditate the entire time. Without the formal vipassana setting and guidance, this would be challenging for me. At the other end of the spectrum, you could do a fast at home and maintain your day-to-day routine, only subtract food.
For a year-end retreat, I’ve discovered a good middle ground for myself that is approachable and effective. By going off into nature alone and without food, you receive the benefits of fasting, plus the deep self-reflection of a meditation retreat. For that to work, however, it does require you to take a solo trip. For many people, that is going to be very difficult and perhaps not practical. The mere challenge of it suggests that it should be reason enough for you to attempt it.
Identifying the right place for your retreat may require some advanced planning. AirBnB and recreation.gov are two great places to start. Long dirt roads are a good indicator that you are successfully getting away from civilization.
Here are a few suggestions:
- AirBNB someplace off the grid. Look at the satellite images of the location and make sure there aren’t any nearby houses. My first retreat was in a yurt in someone’s backyard in Malibu which was suboptimal. The last thing you want is a host ‘checking in’ on you. In 2018 I went to this AirBnB in Joshua Tree which was much better.
- A campsite during the off season. Many have cabins and yurts that you can reserve for under $100/night. In 2019 I stayed in a yurt at Lake Cashuma outside Santa Barbara. During the summer the camp is packed with hundreds of people. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas it’s nearly empty.
- Dispersed camping on BLM land.
- Boondock in a national park
If you have work and family obligations communicate early and often that you will be off the grid. Add it to your shared calendar. Turn on your email autoresponder and stick to it. Say that there is no cell service where you’ll be going. A good line to repeat is “If there is an emergency, here is the phone number for the ranger station.” Few will call the ranger to go ask you about a missing TPS report or where to find extra paper towels.
The Day Before
- Pre-fast: One week ketogenic diet
- Fast: 5+ day fast
- Post-fast: One week ketogenic diet
As Dr. Attia explains, entering a fast when you’re already in ketosis makes the fast much easier. If you can do this, you should. Due to the year-end holiday schedule, I did nearly the opposite. My last meal was an elaborate multi-course extravaganza with my wife, another annual tradition that is on the other extreme of a retreat. The day after my retreat, I completed my fast with a week of big family dinners and holiday treats.
Don’t let great be the enemy of good. Keto or not, it is better to complete your retreat imperfectly than to not do it at all.
Finally, start your fasting timer and if you are curious to track weight during the fast, be sure to weigh in at this point.
Similar to the setup of your retreat, device guidelines range from not bringing anything battery powered to allowing a once-a-day check in. I bring my iPhone, but turn it to airplane mode once I arrive at camp. I don’t reconnect until I arrive back home days later.
Knowing in advance that you will not check your mobile device can create open space in your mind, which is important for deep introspection. Conversely, if you check your phone there will be things you want to respond to. If people see you responding, they’ll expect another response. This will collapse the wide open space you’re trying to cultivate.
I bring my phone for taking photos and listening to audiobooks. No podcasts, no apps, no looking back at old photos. If you are going to be tempted to quickly check your email or text messages, you should leave your phone in your car.
You may also find it helpful to create a special playlist for your retreat. In years past I’ve asked friends and family for music suggestions which I added to a playlist that I made available offline. The right music can greatly enhance your setting, but songs will evoke emotions that may not have otherwise surfaced. Proceed accordingly.
The act of removal will reveal habits that have become unconscious. Throughout the retreat, I’ll find myself unlocking my phone and staring at the screen before realizing I had no reason to take out my phone. As someone who has a podcast playing while I brush my teeth and goes to bed with one Airpod in, the retreat is a good time to reboot and reassess how and why we use technology.
You’ll need to enter your retreat with everything you need, so here are a few important items.
- Lots of water. At least half a gallon a day. Assume wherever you are going does not have drinking water, so bring it in.
- Salt or electrolytes – It’s important to supplement while fasting since you won’t be getting essential minerals from food. Aim for 3g of sea salt each day, spread over three doses.
- Magnesium – If you get headaches or cramps while fasting, the first thing to fix is magnesium levels. Aim for 450mg per day. If you’ve never taken magnesium before spread that dose out, otherwise you may experience some GI issues.
- Tea and/or black coffee (Black coffee and plain tea do not break a fast).
- Non-fiction books, ideally philosophy (I was reading a book about Western Esotericism and ‘The Case Against Reality’)
- A journal and a pen
- A candle, or incense
- Optional: phosphatidylserine and melatonin for sleep
- Optional: THC (if legal). I find 10mg in pill form a predictable and effective dose. It’s enough to alter your state without being too strong to function.
Things to avoid
I used to drink a lot of branch chain amino acids during my fast, but research shows that “BCAAs impair autophagy by activating mTORC1.” I mostly drank them for their flavor, and didn’t have any problem removing them this year.
I also used to chew sugar-free gum and eat sugar-free mints. But it appears that “the sweet taste of artificial sweeteners triggers cephalic phase insulin release, causing a small rise in insulin levels.” Like BCAAs, it is probably best to avoid sugar-free gum and mints during a multi-day fast if you want to achieve the maximum benefit. If a few mints are going to get you through the day, however, better to do that than break your fast.
By design, life on retreat is different from your normal life. Here are some thoughts on structure and what you can expect.
1. Wake up, likely early in the morning
Take your time, adjust to the day, take note of your hunger (good time to make a note in your fast journal). Write and reflect. Are you hungry? Lonely? Bored? Or are you energetic, enthusiastic and excited? I feel all of these emotions during my retreats. The negative emotions were very pronounced when I did my first retreat this in 2015. I would experience long periods of deep, paralyzing loneliness and the days would drag on forever.
As your body turns over to burning ketones, you’ll find low to mid level exercise enjoyable. Long hikes, 6-10 miles, are wonderful. Hopefully it goes without saying, but bring a lot of water, ideally an entire Camelbak full.
When hiking, avoid listening to anything except the sounds around you. No podcasts, audiobooks or music. If you are a modern city dweller, you probably have Airpods in drown out and modify the sounds of the surroundings. I’m guilty of this (and unsure if that is a good or bad thing), so this time of unplugging from your traditional technology routine is highly beneficial. Leave your Airpods at home and set out into the woods. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? It may be worth spending time with each of those senses.
3. Slow down
When you aren’t eating, working or mindlessly consuming content, space and time open up around you. Suddenly, you have 8-10 hours of daylight and 5 hours of night time to fill. All of the things that used to fill up your day – food, people, technology – are now gone.
Become aware of simple actions like walking or making tea. If you have to make a fire to boil the water to make the tea, all the better. Each step turns into an activity: finding good, snappy wood, breaking the twigs off the larger branches, breaking the branches into pieces, building those pieces into a pile, lighting the pile, tending to the fire, pouring water into a pot, watching the water boil, pouring the water over the tea, then finally sipping the tea.
During my first retreat, I was obsessed with food and time. Time moved at a painfully slow pace. I’d distract myself for what seemed like hours, only to check the clock and see it had only been ten minutes. Loneliness would overwhelm me as my stomach ached for food. All I can say is, it gets easier with focus and practice.
4. Find special places
As time slows and moments expand, you may find special places near your camp: a large tree standing by itself, a rock with the perfect indentation to sit on, a grassy space with an amazing view. These places will call to you for one reason or another. Spend time here.
New ideas, old thoughts, and reoccuring anxieties will surface during this time. Capture them. You’ll never exit a retreat upset that you wrote too much. Thoughts and ideas that occur in a flash and seem obvious in the moment will begin to slip away and fully disappear once you enter back into the real world. Darwin style split-column decision lists may also be useful, as is the Zero fasting mood tracker.
This can take any form you want. Without artificial sounds, a hike provides a great opportunity for walking meditation. That special tree or rock you found is a great place to sit and reflect. When you wake up and before you go to bed are also great times to sit. The only other app I allow myself to use during retreat is Sam Harris’s Waking Up. I use this for my daily practice and find a lot value in it. Be sure to download a few meditations prior to clicking over to airplane mode. The last thing you want is a flood of Slack messages, emails, texts and voicemails as you’re trying to download a meditation.
This is optional, depending on how difficult you want your experience to be. I allow for non-fiction books that are about philosophy or self improvement. Such books can enhance your mental environment, giving you things to think deeply about. I would not suggest reading fiction as that will drastically alter your environment, acting as a time accelerant.
With the obligations of life a distant memory, being on retreat is a great time for deep sleep. Take advantage of this opportunity. Unless you normally eat late in the day, you likely won’t go to bed hungry. Instead, you’ll find your hunger levels spike the most during your normal eating times, for instance at lunch and dinner time. If you do find hunger is getting in the way of sleep, try taking Phosphatidylserine which stops hyperactive production of cortisol in the body, allowing unhealthy, elevated cortisol levels to decrease, and consequently, more restful sleep to occur. For me, phosphatidylserine induces fast and restful sleep.
Questions to consider
Away from your normal routine, your mind will be primed to reflect. Here are a few thought starters for your journal, originally gifted to me from my wife.
- What are the most impactful experiences that made you who you are today?
- What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced and how did you overcome them?
- If you could have done one thing differently in life, what would it be and why?
- What are your core values?
- Describe your ideal future.
- Define personal success.
- What is one thing you could change that would increase the quality of your life?
If you have never done a retreat before, there are three big challenges that you can expect to encounter
The solution to these three items are simple, yet difficult. They are all states of mind, so think about what happens to a thought after you’ve thought it. Where do these thoughts go? What replaces them? Instead of running from these feelings, explore them. What does it mean to be hungry? What does it mean to be bored? Where do you feel lonely?
Many of these feelings can also be reframed. For instance, loneliness can easily be reframed as gratitude for those for whom you feel lonely. Through this lens, explore past and current relationships (but be careful to not get sucked too far down the vortex of regret).
If any of these feelings become unbearable, then change your surroundings. If you’ve been sitting inside for an hour suffering, go outside. If you’ve been journaling about your feelings, get up and move. If your hunger is all consuming, make some tea. Above all else, remember that these feelings will pass.
You may return home to hundreds of emails, texts and Slack messages. You also may be really hungry. Reintegrating food and technology should be done carefully and deliberately.
Use your drive home as a final moment of reflection. Keep your phone on Airplane mode, if possible. Listen to music. Notice the world around you. Many of your profound realizations about your dependence on food and technology will start to slip away. What felt so obvious a day before (“Why do I look at my phone so often? Why do I plan my days around food?”) will recede to the back of your mind.
At some point, you may want to type out your notes and journal entries as a final moment of reflection. Bringing these journals with you on your next retreat also provides valuable insights as you examine what you were thinking and feeling the year prior. Reading my 2018 entries during my 2019 retreat, I had outlined very specifically what I wanted my next job to be. I forgot I wrote this, and was shocked to see I was not doing exactly what I had written the year prior.
Breaking your Fast
Depending on when you break your fast, you may have to do some real world activities before eating. 5 days into a fast, you’ll be moving and thinking a lot slower. Take advantage of that fact. Be deliberate. Embrace your slower speed for these final moments.
This is also the time to do your post-fast weigh in. I tend to lose 6-7lbs. Weight loss is not my goal during a multi-day fast and you should expect to go back to your starting weight within a few days.
Breaking a five-day fast should be done with intent. During my first retreat, I obsessed about how I’d break my fast; pizza and ice cream were the primary fantasies. With many more fasts under my belt, I rarely, if ever, have these fantasies. Regardless, don’t indulge that inner voice. Plan to spend an hour or two eating. Start slow and small. Avoid throwing a bunch of junk into your system. Bone broth, then some vegetables and a small protein meal is a good place to start.
Going on a personal retreat is effective because it is challenging. The most surprising thing to me is that, despite only doing it once a year, it is no longer painful. While that means the first retreat is the most difficult, each year it becomes easier and more productive. Your first retreat will be hard, so mark it in your calendar months in advance. If you don’t plan for it, it won’t happen since difficult things are the first to be removed or ignored.
My first retreat was also my first multi-day fast. That is inline with my all-or-nothing personality, but it also cranks up the difficulty. You may find it more effective to try a 3 day fast at home (I’d suggest Thursday night to Sunday night to avoid being cranky at work) where the rest of your routine stays the same, then remove people and technology for a full retreat.
Since 2015 I’ve made two major career changes and got married. I considered all three of those life changing events deeply while on retreat and am confident that it played a major role in how I approached big changes.
Take real time for yourself. No one else is going to make you do it, nor will they set aside time for you. There is a reason that people for centuries have gone off into the wilderness on their own, and I hope you, too, will discover the power of this practice.