Fast Response

Eating disorder trigger warning:  This isn’t about being quick – it’s about not eating.  And I don’t mean not eating for part of the day as in a Ramadan fast, or ‘intermittent fasting.’  I mean not eating anything at all for an extended period.

Fasting,  has been reported to have many health benefits.  It has been touted by people marked down as ‘quacks’ for a long time.  Recently people with some pretty serious research behind them such as Dr Valter Longo have been getting in on the act.  There appear to be benefits in not only type 2 but also type 1 diabetes, various forms of heart disease and even cancer are being listed.  Not to mention the elephant in the room with many of these: obesity.

Dr Longo has developed a thing called the ‘fasting mimicking diet’ but he readily admits that actual fasting is better.  The problem is that people are so brainwashed to think that they have to eat that he had to develop a packaged diet.  This has the handy side effect that it can be prescribed by a doctor, and of course charged for.  No disrespect to Dr Longo: where else is he going to get research funding?  If there is no product or pill at the end of it there is little or no funding for it.

There is increasing evidence that periods without eating not not only give our digestive system a chance to rest and re-set, but that some housekeeping functions in our body only kick in during the fasted state, or when transitioning back to feeding after an extended fast.

I don’t, so far as I know, have an issue with heart disease, or diabetes.  My BMI is typically 23.5 which puts me in the ‘normal’ range.  That’s considerably lower than the average man of my age in my part of the world which is a worrying 28.8 according to the most recent national health surveys for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Even so, having read so much about the benefits I was interested to experiment.

By chance I didn’t make lunch to take with me when I was stewarding at ArtSpring Gallery and I was so busy doing the finances for the month whilst I was there that I ended up skipping it.  I was feeling a little congested in the evening and decided I would also skip dinner and have an early night.  The next morning I thought that I might fast for the day and see how that went.  Then I checked my diary and realised that this was a good opportunity to do a fast of five days.

As it happens I was away on a conference the next three days.  Whilst the food at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham is excellent it was really no problem to skip it.  I would just make a cup of black tea and sit in the beautiful garden room, reading or watching the autumn colours in the garden.

On Sunday the Birmingham half marathon had closed some streets around Birmingham New Street station and I had to run for a solid five minutes to make my train.    On the way back through London I went over to Pink Jukebox at the Bishopsgate Institute and danced for two and a half hours.  Clearly plenty of energy was available to do that despite it being day five of fasting.

I had picked up a passing comment in an interview given by Dr Longo that autophagy (The process of the body consuming older cells and unnecessary growths, research into which was the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.) really kicks in after five days and that he recommends seven days if that is the goal.  I therefore decided to extend a further two days.


At the end of seven days I was emotionally ready to eat.  My body seemed perfectly happy to continue but it seemed unwise to just keep extending the period in an unplanned way.  I started with a light breakfast of yoghurt with a few raspberries and nuts sprinkled on the top.  The taste was amazing and afterwards I felt as though I had eaten a full Christmas dinner.

A potential pitfall, which can be a serious issue after a long term fast is that running on glucose requires phosphorous in the cells and during a fast this can be depleted.  Whilst this is not generally an issue with the length of fast I had done I wanted to give my body a chance to recover phosphorous levels before hitting it with a lot of carbohydrates.   Phosphorous is mainly found in meat, dairy and nuts.

I chose to stick with low carbohydrate vegetarian food for a few days and to try to incorporate fermented foods in each meal.  My theory being that this would encourage the proliferation of the desirable bacteria in my gut as it started to re-activate.  Lunch on the first day was soup and in the evening a green salad with nuts and avocado.

Ketones are molecules produced by the body when breaking down body fat.  They are the power source for the body in the absence of glucose.  Any excess is excreted in the urine and there are dip tests available to check for their concentration.  I tracked this throughout the fasting and re-feeding process and I aimed to delay the return to running on glucose fore a few days whilst my body adjusted to eating again.

What did I consume?

Primarily tap water and tea (either green or black) without milk.  Sometimes I would add a dessert spoon of cider vinegar per (UK) pint of water, which gave it a refreshing taste.  After suffering cramps in my feet at night I decided to include some salts.  I made a 50/50 mix of sea salt and lo-salt (which is mostly potassium chloride) and put about half a teaspoon in water morning and evening.


So am I healed of whatever ailed me?  Well nothing much was ailing me.  I did have a bit of a problem with post-nasal drip left over from a cold in early summer.  My doctor got me to take a steroid nasal spray for a month to reset that and it worked whilst I was using it but it was making a return.  During the fast I would have occasional sudden nose runs of clear fluid.  Since eating again the constant throat clearing does seem to have cleared up.

The main thing though was to experience at first hand that the human body has systems which enable us to work perfectly well without a continuous source of food.  Even someone like me with a ‘normal’ range BMI is carrying resources that will last for weeks.  Once these mechanisms kick in it’s like starting up the emergency generator: life goes on as normal.

Fast Response: conclusions

I think that the human body is capable of surviving and thriving on a variety of diets.  Even diets which are at apparently opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum can support a healthy human.   The natural human diet is likely to have been highly seasonal, with periods of eating mostly plants and other periods of eating some or even mostly animal foodstuffs.  The most unnatural foods are the highly processed products which sadly fill most of the shelves in our supermarkets.  Particularly refined sugar in both foods and drinks.

Periods without food are also completely natural and it is possible that the body uses these periods to spring clean systems, effect some repairs use up some out-of-date supplies before re-stocking with fresh.  I the modern Western world, where for most of us the food supply is unseasonal and continuous, fasting from time to time is probably wise.  And it turns out that it really isn’t hard at all.  The human body is truly amazing.

PS: I kept some stats during the fast and re-feeding and they will be the subject of a future post.

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Pumpkin Time


I’ve made no posts for quite a while.  Everything is fine, it has just been a busy summer and world news has been a little scary.  I have a sense of holding my breath. (Not literally of course, I would be more than a little purple in the face by now) It feels like watching a ski crash in slow motion and hoping that the racer will somehow recover balance and swosh past the finish mark.

Meanwhile the UK experienced a rare event: a real summer.  Day after day the sky was blue, the wind was light and warm.  There was talk of water shortages and hose pipe bans but it seems that there was enough water from the previous season.

Of course that didn’t help things at the allotment and it was necessary to try to get there almost every day to water.  Even so, things have suffered somewhat.  My potatoes produced a good crop but neighbours have not done so well.  The climbing beans eventually made it to the top of the poles, but the crop has been about half the usual output.  Most of the beans for drying are already picked and sitting in bowls in our living room.

We had strawberries, but they were over fast.  The pumpkin and winter squash pictured above were picked at the end of August, whereas I would normally wait until the end of September at the earliest.  The Crown Prince are a good size, but the spaghetti squash and Turk’s Turban are smaller than usual.  The only reason I have a good crop is that I ended up with an extra bed where I re-structured the old compost bins and planted it up with all my spare plants.

The weather has returned to our usual mixture of sunny intervals and showers over the past few weeks and the grass soon greened up.  The runner beans are producing a new flush of flowers and the yacon have finally started to grow.  It feels as though the Earth is finally breathing again – at least my little patch of it.

As to the political situation?  Still hoping.



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Today I Re-potted a Tree

20180625_171253.jpgFinally the allotment is under control, the squash and pumpkins have taken off, the beans are climbing the poles, and even flowering.  I’ve harvested the last of the strawberries and the raspberries are coming on stream.  I’ve picked the first few blackcurrants.  This morning I picked the first of the broad beans and dug up the first potato plant in the row to find half a dozen new potatoes under it.  It was jolly warm down there by 11am and there’s been no rain to speak of for weeks so after many trips with the watering cans everything has enough to keep it going for a day or two.

It’s not really the time of year for re-potting bonsai trees, especially deciduous ones.  The norm is to do them just before the leaf buds are about to break in the spring.  The thing is I didn’t get my act together and make the new pot in time.  Then I didn’t have enough of the granular potting soil that they seem to like.  I tried to get that at Heron’s Bonsai last week, but they don’t have it.  On Friday I found some on Amazon and ordered it.  I was sitting for meditation later that afternoon when the doorbell went.  I didn’t move as I thought D would get it and it would probably be for him in any case.  It was my bonsai soil.  It turned out that the supplier is based in Dartford and as the chap was coming this way he just stuck some in his car and dropped if off as he was passing.  Order to door in about two hours – that’s service!

So this afternoon I pruned the tree hard.  It is very vigorous and I do this every year.  Having removed so much of the top growth it seemed safe to disturb the roots so I re-potted it in the pot that came out of the kiln last week.  Then I sat down with a cup of tea to admire the work that nature and I have collaborated on.  I started this tree from garden centre stock abut 15 years ago.  It is Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, and although the leaves are a bit big for bonsai they are such a fantastic colour in spring and autumn that it’s worth it for that alone.

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Birds of a Feather

The past couple of months have been filled with birds.  We started with blue tits nesting in the box on a North facing wall in our small courtyard garden.  The blackbirds then built a nest in a corner above the patio.  For some reason they then abandoned this and built a second one in a climbing rose right under the blue tit box.


Female blackbird

Then the robins moved in.  In the centre of the garden is a Himalayan palm tree (Trachycarpus Fortunii) with some old leaves hanging against the hairy trunk.  They found a route in from the top and constructed a nest from the coir-like fibres of the trunk.  Next we noticed that the wren was darting into the same tree, but from below the old leaves.  The male wren builds several nests and the female picks one and lines it.  She chose this one, so we now had another two nests with little space between them and only a couple of metres from the other two.

There is a camera in the nest box so we could see that the blue tits had ten or eleven eggs and hatched about seven young.  It’s always sad that some die and we don’t know how many they managed to get out of the nest if any.  The blackbirds fledged at least two chicks.  The male was looking after the first to fly and we fear that the magpies got it one morning.  The female is still feeding another, which hides amongst the shrubs.




The robins have also fledged and although we have never spotted the chicks both adults and the female blackbird are back and forth to our patio door demanding meal worms.  Unlike the sparrows they are bold enough to approach when I’m sitting on the patio eating my breakfast.  D has even had the robins eating from his hand.

A few days ago I noticed that sometimes one of the robins would return to the palm tree with its goodies.  However, instead of going in at the top where their nest had been it was entering where the wren’s nest was.  Sure enough there were little beaks poking out of the hole and the robin was not only feeding its own young in the garden, but that of the unfledged wrens as well.


Wren chick

This morning the three wren chicks flew the nest and settled initially around the pond.  The robin was continuing to feed them along with their own parent.  I’d never heard of this but according to this article by the British Trust for Ornithology it is quite common.  Mother wren has since hidden them away in the bushes so I’ve no idea whether the robin is still lending a hand.  It is back looking in the window now with that look that says that I’m failing in my obligation to provide dried worms on demand.

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Anti-Allergy Soup

For a few months I’ve been following The Doctor’s Kitchen channel on YouTube.  This is presented by Dr Rupy, a Londoner of Indian ancestry who shares his intuitive way of cooking combined with maintaining health and his medical knowledge.


Generally my hay fever takes the form of a headache that just won’t go away.  I have to ask friends if the pollen count is high and then I realise that is the cause.  But this year I had no symptoms early on but when it struck I got the whole itchy eyes and runny nose thing.  Right on cue Dr Rupy has a video on foods that help suppress hay fever, and an associated recipe on his website for Cauliflower and Watercress soup.

He made the point that watercress is in season at the moment.  Well it might be, and maybe it’s not the best way to buy it, but Sainsbury’s are charging £1.50 for an 80g bag.  The recipe calls for a large handful, which is translated as 150g.  That was going to make it a bit expensive so I tried it with one bag, or 80g.  It made a pretty good soup, but it lacked something for us.  I repeated the recipe a few days later, doubling the garlic and onion and added some mixed herbs.  I also tweaked the method to make it a one pot recipe.

Ingredients (serves 2):

4 cloves Garlic finely chopped
4 Spring Onions chopped
250g Cauliflower finely chopped
500ml boiling Water
0.5 tsp Salt (I use lo-salt)
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
80g Watercress
0.5 tsp dried mixed herbs


Fry the garlic and onions in a little oil, just until they are looking transparent.  Don’t let them brown – so keep the temperature low.  As soon as they are done add the mixed herbs and pile in the cauliflower.  Remember you can use the stalky bits of the cauliflower and some of the leaves too.  If you do then put them in first and stir-fry them a bit before adding the chopped florets.  At the water and bring it all back to the boil and at the salt or lo-salt.  Let this simmer for 20 mins.

When the cauliflower is quite soft add the watercress to the top of the pan and cram the lid back on.  The watercress will steam and wilt in about 3 minutes.  I added a little back pepper at this stage.  Remove from the heat and zizz the lot in the pan with a stick blender adding more water to reach the consistency you want.

Pour into bowls and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.  It makes two generous servings.  That’s it – serve with fresh, home made sourdough bread – naturally.

So did it fix my hay fever?  Hard to say, because I also resorted to antihistamine tablets.  It was a smashing soup though and one we will choose to repeat as long as we can get watercress.

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Vipassana Course – Take Two


Meditation hall and gong

Yesterday I returned from sitting the ten day vipassana meditation course for the second time at Dhamma Dipa.  Apologies to those who have been trying to contact me – I think I’ve dealt with the backlog of messages now.  You can read about my first experience here.  To summarise: it’s ten days plus the evening of the day before and the morning of the day after.  Nine and a bit full days are spent in Noble Silence, which means not communicating with other students even by gesture or eye contact.  About ten hours each day are spent sitting in meditation.

It was tough the first time – why put myself through it again?  Well the answer to that is complex.  To start with it is recommended to repeat the course once a year.  I didn’t feel the need to do that.  However, after two years I began to appreciate the privilege of having ten days in which to focus on nothing else but meditating.  My own practice has been steady at most mornings for a short meditation and then about three afternoons per week to sit for one hour.  I was starting to feel a little stale with it so this was an opportunity to refresh and deepen my practice.

So was it tough the second time?  Yes but in different ways.  Knowing what to expect certainly helps.  My existing practice meant that I don’t find it difficult to sit on the floor for an hour – although that can still become painful when repeating it hour after hour with just short breaks.  Old students are asked to practice in a slightly different way to new students and this requires even more focus and sensitivity. This was frustrating at the start, but I did get it eventually.

The main aims of vipassana are to train us to:

  1. Recognise the changing nature of everything, that some things are pleasant and some unpleasant but either way they don’t last forever.
  2. To realise that our bodies respond to events with sensations which we find pleasant or unpleasant and that we can break out of old patterns of reaction by treating all sensations with equanimity.  This leaves us free to act rationally rather than react out of habit.
  3. To see that the stream of internal dialogue that we have is not our ‘self’.  Neither the sensations we generate nor reactive habits we have are the self either.  There is no need to identify with them.

S.N. Goenka, the teacher, explains that many students get caught up playing games with the sensations.  It took me almost to the end of the course to realise that I had also fallen into this trap.  It had become relatively easy to deal with the pain of sitting still, and to feel connected to most of my body with sensations that if not pleasant, were at least not unpleasant.  The danger is in becoming attached to that state – to cling to it, and to crave it when it disappears.

Sure enough, on the ninth day, in the first session I was all cocky and feeling that I’d worked my way steadily though the course.  Unexpectedly I struggled to focus.  I felt something dreadful going on in the left side of my trunk and it was so distracting. My mind played every trick in the book to avoid even acknowledging the sensation. Only after an hour and a half of this did the realisation strike:  Oh, this is what he’s been talking about.  It was like coming to from daydreaming at the back of the class to find the teacher shouting “YOU BOY! YES, I’M TALKING TO YOU!”  Here was an unpleasant reality and it was my job to treat it no differently than the pleasant warmth from the blanket draped over my shoulders.


A path through the walking area

After breakfast I went for a short walk in the woods and admired the daffodils waving their heads again after several days of being blanketed by snow.  Returning to the hall for the next session with some apprehension, I found to my surprise that the sensation was barely there.  Lesson learned, I knew better than to rejoice as it continued to dissolve. Better just to observe, and to realise that I can be happy in myself in any case.

In the following session we practised metta meditation, which is a way of focussing outwards after the inward gaze of the previous nine days.  I find it akin to Quaker worship in the way that it turns the mind toward the well being and happiness of others.  With that done we were permitted to talk, and the course entered the wind-down stage.  It was good do hear the experiences of others, and to realise that they are all different and all valid.

Will I be doing it again?  Yes, probably.  One option is to volunteer to serve on a course, which means working in the background to help run the centre for the meditators.  It’s a way of expressing gratitude for the benefit of a course, by supporting others.  I think I would like to do that.

Meanwhile: may all beings find true love, true peace, true happiness.


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Please give me a Placebo

This morning an article was published on the BBC News website:  “Anti-depressants: Major study finds they work.”  Apparently there has been some debate about this.  “Scientists say they have settled one of medicine’s biggest debates after a huge study found that anti-depressants work.  The study, which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common anti-depressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than dummy pills.”


The BBC article came with a meaningless picture of pills, so here is my meaningless picture of pills.  They are multivitamins in case you are interested.

Well that would seem like good news.  Until that is you read a little deeper.  Then we find that “the study found they ranged from being a third more effective than a placebo to more than twice as effective.”

Just a minute.  If a drug is one third more effective than a placebo I think that means that in a trial where the placebo cures 3 people the drug cured 4 people.  So this means that for every extra person cured by the drug three other people are cured, but would have also been cured if they took a sugar pill, and would have suffered none of the side effects.

Even the most effective drug on the list of 21 studied was only “more than twice as effective.”  Given that they didn’t say “nearly three times as effective,” let’s assume that it was at best 2.5 times as effective.   That means that if 10 people could be cured by a placebo 25 people are cured by the drug.  In other words, nearly half the people taking the drug would have been better off without it.  And this is for the best drug available.

Now let’s be clear: depression is a terrible thing, and it blights the lives of some people, or even leads them to take their own life, and sometimes the lives of others too.  However, most of the data in the study came from trials covering just eight weeks of treatment.  If all of those people had been treated with a placebo for eight weeks a bunch of them would have become better with no side effects at all.  And if those that didn’t improve were then given the drug that would result in about the same number again getting better, albeit some weeks later.  Wouldn’t that be a great result?

For some reason giving people placebos is seen as unethical but I can’t quite work out why.  Sure, it’s important to address the needs of someone with suicidal thoughts as fast as possible.  We should trust the doctors to have some idea who those people might be.  Let’s also bear in mind that some anti-depressants have also been linked to increased risk of suicide and we trust the doctors to prescribe them appropriately.

All I can say is that if a drug is only twice as effective as a placebo, then for my own case, in a non-critical situation, I would much rather be prescribed a placebo in the first instance.

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