How 23-Hour Intermittent Fasting Saved my Life

The scariest moment of my life was being jolted awake at 2 am, drowning in my own acid reflux.

Imagine the panic of instantly transitioning from deep sleep to wide awake because you can’t breathe.

Called “dry drowning” or laryngospasm, it’s the body’s defense mechanism for preventing fluids or objects from entering the lungs. The vocal cords in the larynx, or voice box, involuntarily clamp shut, closing off the trachea (windpipe) and blocking fluids, and consequently air, from entering the lungs. Under normal circumstances, there is enough oxygen in a person’s blood to sustain consciousness until the larynx muscles relax. But a mouth full of stomach bile complicates things.

From 1990 to 1995, 78 official death certificates were issued in which drowning in their sleep from acid reflux was the primary cause of death.

Furthermore, the most serious consequence of chronic acid reflux is esophageal cancer.

At the time, I was in my mid-thirties, 5’10” and I weighed about 250lbs. My new job after leaving ten years of military service allowed for almost no exercise.

My schedule was 100% travel: Fly out on a Monday and fly home on Friday.

As a result, I was a chunky guy. Not obese, per se, but I had a stereotypical middle-aged “dad bod” that was not only unhealthy but unattractive. Especially with my short, military haircut that I kept long after leaving the service. At the time, my short hair only emphasized how round my face had become.

Excess weight increases abdominal pressure, making stomach acid leakage or backflow more likely. I had severe and chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Popular proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec had no effect.

My weight was slowly killing me.

A Serendipitous Article

About 4 years ago I stumbled on an anthropology article that examined the eating patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Presumably, they would wake up, spend the day hunting and eat only one meal a day, typically in the late evening. What’s more, the article said that our caveman ancestors were in phenomenal shape.

A recent article by Vice claims that all ancient humans used to be equivalent to today’s professional athletes. After thousands of years, we have evolved into a bunch of sedentary weaklings who throw huge sums of money at those who can outperform us athletically.

Maybe they were on to something. After all, the simple fact that you are here to read this means our ancestors did something right.

I decided to try it.

I’ll eat one meal a day, sometime after 8 pm, and I would do this for 7 days a week.

Ambitious? Perhaps.

Wes O’Donnell

Six Weeks of Misery

The first few days were brutal. I had conditioned my body to always be within seconds of a source of calories. I mean, for Pete’s sake, modern humans can’t go a few hours without shoving something in our mouths. People even keep Kind Bars in their glove box… You know, in case it has been more than an hour since we last feasted.

I was agitated and “hangry”, a handy portmanteau for hungry and angry, all day long. Your brain’s primary fuel source is glucose, which your body makes from the foods you eat. Without the constant carbs that I would normally be consuming, my mood plummeted.

The first week in, I felt more stressed than ever. After all, in “evolutionary” terms, we need food to survive. So, if you are an animal deprived of calories, it is entirely plausible that you will feel irritable and stressed.

I was also tired all day long. After the first week, I allowed myself a coffee, served black. This kept me alert enough to function.

My meals in the evenings took on a new significance: If this is my only meal of the day, I’m going to make it count. My eating slowed down so that I could savor every morsel.

Cellular Changes and Longer Life

While my body adjusted to a 23-hour fast, here’s what was happening on the inside:

My body said “Hey A**hole, we need energy to keep you alive! Whaddya doing out there?! Forget about it, bada bing!”

(For some reason, I imagine my body having a strong NYC accent…)

My body then adjusted my hormone levels to make stored body fat more accessible to burn as energy. My levels of growth hormone skyrocketed, increasing as much as 5-fold. This has benefits for fat loss and muscle gain.

My insulin levels plummeted. Lower insulin levels make stored body fat more accessible, also to burn as energy.

My cells initiated cellular repair processes. This included autophagy, where cells digest and remove old and dysfunctional proteins that build up inside cells.

Gene expression and several functions of genes related to longevity and protection against disease improved dramatically.

Perhaps most alarming, a study by Harvard has now shown how fasting can increase lifespan, slow aging and improve health by altering the activity of mitochondrial networks inside our cells.

I wholeheartedly believe that it slows aging because I was living it. My skin tightened up and took on a healthy glow. I didn’t need to use eyedrops; my eyes were always white. Even my teeth seemed whiter. People constantly remarked on how young I looked. Some refused to believe that I have a 20-year-old daughter. “You’re not old enough!” they would say, incredulously.

Is it possible that eating three meals a day is killing us? How could society have gotten it so wrong for centuries?

How is it possible that I felt so GREAT when I skipped breakfast and lunch?

The whole world seemed upside down!

Weight Loss

After the first six weeks or so, my body seemed to give up the fight and settle into this new reality. The crankiness went away and my normal happy-go-lucky mood returned.

But something else interesting happened: I found that for the one meal per day that I did eat, I could only eat small portions. My stomach was contracting. I was getting full faster.

Me in 2017 (left) and me today (right)

Perhaps most important, the weight began to fall off. Quickly at first, I lost 50lbs in the first year. In the second year, I dropped another 20lbs to settle in at a healthy 180lbs.

A 2014 review study found that intermittent fasting can cause 3–8% weight loss over 3–24 weeks, which is a significant amount, compared to most weight loss studies.

A recent physical two weeks ago with my doctor showed my blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol within the averages for a very healthy young man.

Most striking, I haven’t had heartburn or acid reflux for two years, after that initial six weeks in the beginning.

Intermittent Fasting is Hard

Imagine having lunch with a client and then politely explaining that you won’t be eating:

“Great to see you again sir, by the way, I’m just going to stare at you uncomfortably while you eat. I won’t be having anything…”

Our entire society is one that revolves around (at least) three meals per day. The social pressures to “fit in” are very real and can do psychological harm.

From lunch specials at restaurants to federally mandated lunch breaks at corporations, America is built around meals.

There are social challenges that you will have to consider and overcome. I am a member of Rotary which requires regular lunch meetings every Thursday. And every Thursday I have to explain to someone new why I won’t be eating.

There will be physical pain in the beginning as your body goes through acute food withdrawal (I suffered a little, your results may be different as everyone experiences pain differently.)

But perhaps most important, it will be mentally challenging. In fact, the biggest battle will be fought in your mind. If you decide to do something, you cannot be transactional with yourself. Many people start negotiating with themselves when they want to achieve a goal. But goals are binary… You either do or you don’t achieve them.

You have to make a declaration, out loud if you have to, that this is what you stand for: “I’m not going to let my weight destroy me. I’m going to fight through this and be stronger and better because of it.”

My Daily Diet

My diet is simple, and I must make the disclaimer that it is not for everybody:

I wake up and have a cup of black coffee and some ice water (and a multivitamin.)

I’ll drink more coffee at 10 am.

I’ll drink water and coffee at lunch. After “lunch-time” I’m pretty wired from the morning caffeine and usually don't have any more until early evening. I admit it is fun to watch my colleagues sluggishly come back from lunch with their inevitable afternoon sleepiness.

Because of my calorie restriction, I am alert, focused and enthusiastic all day long. Let that sink in for a minute. ALL DAY LONG. Imagine it!

My first meal of the day is between 8 pm and 10 pm at night, although anytime between 6 pm and 10 pm is fine for me. I have no restrictions and eat anything I want.

I go to sleep and do the same thing the next day, for 7 days per week.

I should mention that it is okay to cheat occasionally. We’re only human. Besides, a Mother’s Day breakfast or other morning events, based around food, that have significance to you shouldn’t be sacrificed upon the altar of intermittent fasting. Strive for a healthy physical/ psychological balance.

My diet might be considered extreme by some, but there are dozens of different schedules you can explore and get the same results. From meal-skipping to day-on, day-off fasting, there is an option out there for you.

What About Exercise?

In the beginning, I had a severe lack of energy as my body went through its adjustment phase. I didn’t exercise much.

Today, however, I stretch, breathe deep and do some light yoga to stay flexible. I imagine that you should get exercise whenever you can during or after the first month.

Now that I can actually see my muscles that were hidden underneath the fat, I intend to start resistance training in the near future.

Having said that, make sure to consult your physician before embarking on any major changes to your diet or exercise routine. Intermittent fasting can be a physical and mental shock to some, but I don’t want to scare you away: I have seen many people make the transition very easily.

More Than a Fad

The scientific data is out there. Intermittent fasting is NOT just the most recent fad diet. There is real data from numerous prestigious institutions that champion the benefits of eating like our caveman ancestors.

I can’t imagine going back to a breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule. That seems as alien to me today as intermittent fasting seems to some people. Besides, my body wouldn’t tolerate it.

No matter what you do, you have my love and support.

Good luck, and happy fasting.

Check out my two other articles on IF:

[Update] I have been overwhelmed at the positive response to this article and the love and support from you. I set out to simply share my experience and how it might benefit others; I had no idea that so many people were passionate about IF. Many have shared their positive experiences in the comments, be sure to read them for more inspiration. Much love, friends. -Wes

Indie filmmaker, writer, speaker & veteran of both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Law student. Intermittent Fasting Guru. Reach out at wes@warriorlodge.com

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