Seven Days In Hell: A Week of Fasting

Never mind Lent, Michael McLaughlin is taking fasting to a new level as he pushes himself to the limit and endures seven days of hell in order to raise money for a good cause.

Editor’s note: HeadStuff does not encourage its readers to fast. If any reader is considering fasting, they should discuss it with their doctor first.


No, I am not a war veteran recently discharged from a short service in Iraq; I’m about to starve myself for seven days starting on April Fools’ Day. Without food, most people get very irritable, very quickly and enter a world of hurt after a few hours.

Why Am I Doing This?

The main reason I am subjecting myself to this pain is to raise money for the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People. The work involved in the running of this centre is mesmerising. Up to 400 breakfasts and 500 dinners are served daily for Dublin’s homeless community. It is hard to picture these large numbers in your head, but I can tell you it requires a frantic pace of service. The staff on the floor, as well as those serving food, are flat out.

Having volunteered here, I can attest to the maelstrom of activity from the doors opening to when the last meal is served. The service they provide is above and beyond what I expected.

Depriving myself of food for seven days is a small fraction of the suffering others must endure in the plight to find shelter each night and obtain basic sustenance. I hope that by doing this I can collect money for the centre, but I also aim to draw attention to the hard work that goes into keeping it running. By putting myself through some hardship, I hope I can learn to cherish what I have and appreciate everything a little more. Most of us have a utopian existence and we take that for granted.

Challenges I Expect to Face

I know this is going to be hard, really hard at times, and I expect to learn a lot about myself. We are misled by our environment into thinking that we are constantly hungry. Advertising takes a lot of the blame for this. It is hard to walk down the street without seeing a McDonald’s billboard. We can survive for around 60 days with just water. Take a second to let that sink in… It is a remarkable amount of time to go before our bodies no longer have any resources to power the engine. Most people start panicking if they miss a single meal; this is an indication of how far from our natural way of being we have been conditioned. By resetting the digestive dial, I will be in a position of requiring less. We all need to be a bit more conscious of how much we consume, the planet is on its knees and future generations rely on us to scale things back.

The Benefits

A lot of the illnesses we suffer from today used to be called the diseases of the kings, because only those of noble wealth could afford to indulge themselves to excess. This rich, nutrient bereft food is now the cheapest, so it is consumed by all of us. The damage this diet is doing to us can be seen in the high rates of heart disease and diabetes. By fasting, the digestive system gets a chance to purge these excesses from the body and allows a sustained period of rest and repair. As humans, we are designed for long periods of fasting. As hunter gatherers, we were forced to go long spells without any food.

The Five Stages of Fasting

During phase one of my fast, I expect a lot of discomfort as my body desperately tries to get glucose from the usual sources and wonders what the hell is going on. My body will crave what it is used to, all the good stuff; caffeine, sugar and the fuel it has grown accustomed to. I expect nausea, headaches, dizziness, stomach aches and even some bad mood swings. The more sugar and caffeine in my system leading up to the fast the harder it will be.

From day two, phase two will kick in and my body will look to the liver for glycogen. On day three, phase three begins and my body will raid my muscles for energy stores. On the fourth day, phase four will begin and ketosis will take place. Ketosis is a metabolic state where most of my body’s energy supply will come from the ketone bodies in my blood. My body will start to burn fat from adipose tissue to keep me going, realising that the usual fuel will not be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

You stay in this phase for another ten weeks depending on your fat reserves. Then the body goes into starvation mode. Real hunger actually comes from the throat, not the mind or stomach, and it is at this stage that you feel pain from the back of the throat. In phase five protein from muscles and organs will be pillaged as the body makes one last desperate attempt to keep the show on the road. But thankfully, I will not be going beyond the fourth day of phase four.

Am I Nervous?

No. I am excited to do this, because I think any opportunity to raise money for charity should be taken and people really dig deep when they know you are pushing yourself to the limits. I am aware that this will be difficult, but I have done my research and know what to expect. I will be getting a full medical examination beforehand to make sure my body is healthy enough to go through this experience. I know that when I reach the seventh day I will have accomplished something unique and I hope that what I learn about myself will allow me to live a more peaceful and less impulse driven existence. I hope to learn to cherish what I have and grow my compassion for others, especially those who suffer most.

homeless man
Photo by Rebecca Gaines via Flickr