Living Without Eating

Article #1: Living Without Eating by Dr. Herbert M. Shelton

In March, 1963, newspapers around the world described the almost incredible story of the seven weeks deprivation of food and the survival of Ralph Flores, a forty-two-year-old pilot of San Bruno, California, and twenty-one-year-old Helen Klaben, a co-ed of Brooklyn, New York, following a plane crash on a mountain side in Northern British Columbia. The couple was rescued March 25, 1963, after forty-nine days in the wilderness in the dead of winter, over thirty days of this time without any food at all.

By means of a fire, a lean-to and heavy clothes in which they wrapped themselves, they managed to withstand the bitter cold. During the first four days after the crash, Helen Klaben ate four tins of sardines, two tins of fruit, and some crackers. Twenty days after the crash, the pair took their last “food”—two tubes of toothpaste. Melted snow became their diet, for breakfast, lunch, and the evening meal. “For the last six weeks,” she explained, “we lived on water. We drank it three ways: hot, cold and boiled.” Varying it in this way helped reduce the monotony of their single item menu of snow.

Miss Klaben who was “pleasing plump” at the time of the plane crash, was happily surprised, at the ordeal’s end, to learn that her weight loss totalled thirty pounds.

Flores, who was more active during their enforced fast, had lost forty pounds. Physicians who examined them after the rescue, found them to be in “remarkably good” condition.

Many thousands of men and women have gone without food for much longer periods, not only without harm, but with positive benefits. Periods of abstinence under such taxing conditions as the ones these two people endured and survived are extremely rare.

One of Sweden’s distinguished biochemists, Dr. Ragnar Berg, a Nobel Prize winner and an authority on nutrition, says, “One can fast a long time, we know of fasts of over a hundred days duration, so we have no need of fearing that we will die of hunger.”

The actual time period of abstinence forced upon Mr. Flores and Miss Klaben was of relatively moderate duration. The question is not how long man can fast, but what are the provisions of nature that enable him to do so.

Wear and waste, repair and replenishment, are continuous and almost simultaneous processes in all living structures, and none of these processes halt during a fast. The hibernating animal in the far north must produce sufficient heat to maintain body warmth. Both man and animal, while fasting, must breathe and the heart must continue to pulsate. The blood must continue to flow and the organs of elimination must continue their work of freeing the tissues of waste. The vital functions of life must be carried on, even if at a slightly reduced rate. Cells must be replenished, wounds must be healed. All of this, as I know from years of observations, goes on during a fast.

All manifestations of life—movement, secretion, digestion, and similar processes—depend upon the use of the materials of the body. If an organ is to work, it must be supplied with the materials with which to work. In the absence of fresh supplies with which to replace those that have been used up, the organ wastes and weakens. If life is to continue, a basic irreducible level of activity is imperative. Even the hibernating animal, with activities reduced to a bare minimum consistent with continued life, must breathe and the heart must pulsate.

An understanding of the process by which the body nourishes its vital tissues and sustains its essential functions during prolonged abstinence, and the sources upon which it draws, will help us understand how the body can survive periods when outside food is not available or cannot be digested.

The normal body provides itself with a store of nutritive materials that are put away in the form of fat, bone marrow, glycogen, muscle juices, lacteal fluids, minerals and vitamins. Always the healthy body maintains in store adequate nutritive reserves to tide it over several days, weeks, or even over two or three months of lack of food. This remains true whether fasting is enforced, as in the case of a plane crash or of entombed miners, or is brought on by illness where one cannot swallow or digest food, or by free choice as in voluntary fasting to lose weight. When food is not taken, the body draws upon its reserves with which to nourish its functioning tissues. As this reserve is used up, weight is lost.

Basic in the fasting process is the fact that our “built-in pantries” contain sufficient nutriment to hold out, in most instances, for prolonged periods, especially if they are conserved and not wasted. In the blood and lymph, in the bones and especially in the marrow of the bones, in the fat of the body, in the liver and other glands and even in the individual cells that make up the body, are stores of protein, fat, sugar, minerals, and vitamins which may be drawn upon during periods of scarcity or when food is not usable.

Neither animal nor man can survive prolonged abstinence from food unless he carries within himself a store of reserve food on which the body can call in emergencies. The fasting organism will not be harmed by abstinence so long as the stored reserves are adequate to meet the nutritive requirements of its functioning tissues. Even thin individuals carry a reserve of food in their tissues, to tide them over periods of abstinence. These people too, may safely fast for varying periods.

By a process known technically as autolysis, achieved by enzymes in the tissues, these stored reserves are made available for use by the vital tissues to which they are carried by the blood and lymph as required. Glycogen or animal starch stored in the liver is converted to sugar and distributed, as needed, to the tissues. It is significant that, even in prolonged fasts, no beriberi, pellagra, rickets, scurvy or other “deficiency disease” ever develops, thus showing that the reserves of the body are generally well balanced.

Fasting has been shown to improve rickets and calcium metabolism. In anemia, the number of red blood cells are increased during a fast. I have observed benefits in pellagra during a fast. The biochemical balance may be maintained and even restored while fasting. It is important to know this, for if it were not so, the fast would prove to be deleterious.

Numerous animal experiments have shown that underfeeding, as contrasted with overfeeding, tends to prolong life and to provide for better health. Other experiments involving fasting rather than underfeeding, have shown that fasting not only prolongs life, but results in a marked degree of regeneration and rejuvenation.

Thousands of observations of both man and animals have established the fact that when the physical organism goes without food, the tissues are called upon in the inverse order of their importance to the organism. Thus fat is the first tissue to go. The stored reserves are used up before any of the functioning tissues of the body are called upon to supply nutrients for the more vital tissues such as the brain and nerves or the heart and lungs. As it feels among its supplies for proteins, sugars, fats, minerals, and vitamins, and redistributes, utilizes, and conserves these stores, the fasting organism exercises an ingenuity that seems almost superhuman.

The aggregate of tissues of the organism may be regarded as a reservoir of nutriment which it may call in any direction or to any part as needed. But these tissues are not sacrificed indiscriminately. On the contrary, wastage of those organs that are primarily essential to life is repaired by withdrawal from less essential organs of materials required by the more important ones. Many of the necessary nutritive constituents, and this is especially true of certain minerals, are vigorously retained.

Studies made on men and animals to determine losses of various tissues and organs in prolonged
abstinence from food have almost all been made on organisms that have died of starvation. Starvation and fasting are two totally different stages of abstinence. It should be quite obvious that the extreme losses seen at the starvation stage of abstinence are far greater than they are in a fast of reasonable length. Extreme weight losses are not experienced in any normal fast. Where they occur, the fast should be broken.

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One must differentiate between fasting and starving. To fast is to abstain from food while one possesses adequate reserves to nourish his vital tissues; to starve is to abstain from food after his reserves have been exhausted so that vital tissues are sacrificed. We are not left unwarned as to when the reserves are nearing exhaustion. Hunger returns with an intensity that drives one to seek food, although during the fast proper, there is no desire for food. This differentation between fasting and starving should help to dispel any notion that starvation sets in with the omission of the first meal.

Contrary to popular and even professional opinion, the vital tissues of a fasting organism, those tissues doing the actual work of life, do not begin to break down the instant a fast is instituted. The fasting body does lose weight, but this loss, for an extended period, is one of reserves and not of organized tissues.

The efficiency of the living organism in regulating the expenditure of its resources during a fast is one of the marvels of life.

In periods of abstinence, the less important organs of the human being, although they waste consequent upon the withdrawal of substance from them with which to nourish the more vital tissues, do not undergo degeneration until the starvation phase of the period of abstinence is reached. The atrophy of muscles may be no greater than that seen to occur from a lengthy period of physical inactivity, while there is no loss of muscle cells. The cells grow smaller and the fat is removed from the muscles, but the muscle retains its integrity and a surprising amount of strength.

Loss of weight varies according to the character and quality of the tissues of the individual, the amount of physical and emotional activity engaged in, and the temperature surrounding the faster. Physical activity, emotional stress, and cold and poor tissues all provide for more rapid loss. Fat is lost faster than any of the other tissues of the body.

Bodily condition is, perhaps, the chief determiner of how long one may safely fast. In the case of the two who survived the plane crash, and went four weeks without food, for example, they had snow which is water and this kept them from the danger of dehydration. They could live without food; the lack of water would have been fatal. Voluntary or involuntary, the faster must have water.

It is clear then that fasting must be carried out intelligently, with proper precaution, and with common sense.

Precisely as a novice swimmer would seek expert guidance and advice before starting on a long swim, so the inexperienced faster must obtain reliable guidance as a precautionary measure before launching upon a fast of any extended duration.

Reprinted from Fasting Can Save Your Life

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