This is your brain without glucose

The first time I ever remember fasting (outside of medical necessity) was to raise money to end hunger in my high school church youth group. It was a 30-hour fast and pledge-a-thon, and I remember feeling all special when I skipped dinner the first night--a Friday--because of a) how conspicuous I was by not sitting at the table and b) I got a lot of homework done. That first night, I don't remember being particularly hungry or disturbed. I just did what I normally did and went to bed. End of story.

The next morning, I also did what I normally did and went to work at the public library (I was marked as a nerd from the start, apparently), came home, and went to get in the shower before heading to the end-of-fast celebratory pizza dinner. I don't remember being especially hungry, but I do remember nearly passing out in the shower. Apparently, I was swaying on my feet, and my mom just gave me a glass of orange juice and said "Here. Drink it." I told her no, that would be cheating, I'm okay, and she said, basically, drink it anyway. I did and felt tremendously guilty as I headed to the church.

I found out, of course, that some of the kids had been painting the rec room all afternoon and had been guzzling Sunny D. This left me incredibly pissed because I thought it was supposed to be fasting, and starving kids in Calcutta didn't get any fluorescent orange-flavored juice drink, did they? Nope. They also didn't get to bust out pizzas after only 30 hours, either, but that didn't stop me.

It was neither a negative or positive experience. I mainly participated because I thought I would be a loser if I didn't. I think the fact that I had no emotional attachment to the experience probably saved me a little bit from having the AN triggered then. It wasn't like when I started restricting in college and felt better. In high school, I just felt kinda peeved that no one told me juice was fair game during a fast and I nearly got a concussion in the shower.

Well, 'tis the season of Yom Kippur- it was yesterday, actually, and seeing that I'm not observant in general or of religious things in particular, it probably shouldn't be all that surprising that I'm not blogging about it until now.

Harriet had a great post yesterday about eating disorder recovery and religious fasting, and there was a fascinating post from The Frontal Cortex today about the author's experience fasting yesterday for Yom Kippur.

I have to confess: I'm a terrible faster. When I don't eat, my thoughts don't become more ethereal and holy - they become fixated on calories, so that the only thing I can listen to is the impatient gurgling of my stomach. (My belly drowns out the sermon.) I get cranky and tired and squander hours daydreaming about ice cream - my wife tells me that I regress into a five year old...

For me, the lesson was rather obvious: my brain needs glucose like my laptop needs alternating current. Even a few hours without food means that I'm running on reserve power; I could feel my executive function (and my frontal lobes) begin to sputter and quit. And then I passed out.

Besides his own personal experiences, blogger Jonah Lehrer shares the results from an interesting study, in which a group of students were first asked to complete a mentally challenging task, to "exercise" the brain and strip it of glucose. The students were then split into two groups; both were given lemonade, but one group was given lemonade sweetened with sugar, and the other was given Splenda-laced lemonade. After fifteen minutes, the students were asked to choose different apartments, and the group that received Splenda lemonade made much more impulsive choices. Writes Lehrer:

The reason, according to Baumeister, is that the parts of the brain responsible for careful, rational deliberation were simply too exhausted to think. They'd needed a restorative sugar fix, and all they'd gotten was Splenda. This research can also help explain why we get cranky when we're hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances.

Which is, perhaps, why depression so often accompanies dieting and disordered eating. It could also explain why I was so peeved about the Sunny D scenario. Another study found that adequate glucose was necessary for the brain to exert "willpower." And it could be why dieters spend more on impulse purchases.

Whether or not you choose to fast--for religious reasons or not--is ultimately up to you. But if you do, you might want to lock up the credit cards along with the ice cream.

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Cathy (UK) said...

The earliest cases of anorexia nervosa were apparently driven by religious asceticism, and like you, Carrie, I can identify with that feeling of pride/satisfaction at being in control of my appetite and able to tolerate hunger. That was a huge factor in my spiral down to anorexia nervosa as an 11 year old. For once, I felt good about myself.

Now in recovery I cannot fast without suffering. I had to go nil by mouth pre-surgery last year and it 'killed' me - both mentally and physically. My glucose-starved brain was attempting to survive on glucose while the rest of my organs depended on ketones. Unless I now eat every 3 hours during the day, and immediately on wakening in the morning, I develop a banging headache. It's sooooo not worth it...

Laurel said...

I lived three years without really remembering anything about them. They are just "days" in my life. I too have had what I would say are long term effects. If I don't eat every 2 - 3 hours (and when I awake), my blood sugar plummets.

Now, when I listen to my ed, I can go through an entire day without even knowing what I did etc. I guess that is my body's way of saying, "hey, you do this to me, see what I have for you". The body is amazing. Even though anorexia wants to take over, my physical body won't let it (without dire consequences). Mine has "save my life" more than once.

Carrie Arnold said...

I'm like both of you- I need to eat regularly! Diabetes runs in the family, and I've always been sensitive to blood sugar fluxuations, but recovery has kind of amplified that. I need to eat the second I get up, and I often have difficulty falling asleep unless I eat something right before bed. I have had several temper tantrum meltdowns when my snacks/meals got delayed, partly because of my OCD thinking, and partly because my brain just needed fuel!

Laurel, sometimes I think all of this is just sort of my stomach's way of giving my brain the finger, the way my brain screwed over the rest of my body all these years.

Annae said...

I'm a member of the Baha'i Faith, and from March 2-March 20, all Baha'is (over the age of fifteen, under the age of seventy, and not traveling, ill, pregnant, nursing, or engaged in a job requiring physical labor - women are also exempt during their periods) fast from sunrise to sunset.

I'm eighteen, so 2010 will be my fourth year fasting. I certainly have mixed feelings about the whole thing. The first time was very early into my ED and it probably was very bad for my brain to realize what I was capable of. On the other hand, it was during my second fast that my mum realized what I was dealing with - we all got up to eat breakfast as a family before the sun rose, and I could no longer pretend that I was just eating when other people weren't around.

Last year was hard. I didn't relapse into old patterns, but because I usually eat 4-5 meals a day, two of them twelve hours apart made it extremely difficult to eat as much as I needed to. Religious fasting is one of those things that you do because you're supposed to, not because you like to; the first few days of the nineteen are very, very hard. It gets easier (but, at least if you're not in the midst of an ED, not TOO easy) but at least in my experience it CAN be spiritual. The times it has not been for me have been those when I was dealing with other eating issues that sort of superimposed themselves over the good that it actually could do.

Carrie Arnold said...

I am of no religious persuasion whatsoever at this point, so I'm in no position to comment about spirituality and fasting. Or spirituality and anything else, for that matter.

From a scientific/cynical point of view, I think extended periods of fasting can create kind of an altered mental state that can seem quite religious and spiritual. You see it in the religious usage of certain chemicals (peyote, etc), and fasting is another way to acheive this. When I would go for extended periods without eating, I did feel lighter and more spiritual and less of an actual person, an actual body that I inhabited. Again, I have the general spiritual and religious inclinations of a gnat, so do with my comments what you will.

I'm not trying to advocate fasting or not fasting- I do think it's a little more dangerous in those with a history of ED and shouldn't be undertaken lightly. And I certainly think an ED would qualify as a medical exemption. I would never personally recommend it, but then, I can't think of anything religious that I would really recommend doing.

Cammy said...

I have noticed that I am a much, much more impulsive and less safe driver when I have gone too long without eating. Also, my emotional stability falls through the basement. It tends to create a vicious cycle, because the hungrier/more hypoglycemic I am, the harder time I have making decisions, including choosing what to eat. Which means the more I need food, the less capable I am of settling on something and actually eating it. Thanksabunch, anorexia.

I was raised Catholic, and Lent tended to be a big trigger for me when I was younger, I think that many religions and other groups have similar traditions. It always REALLY bothered me in high school/college when school-wide fasting days were promoted to raise awareness about worldwide hunger issues. I just pictured all those little neurological switches being flipped in people, you know?

Ari J. Brattkus said...

Since our daughter is in recovery from anorexia we take a different approach to the Yom Kippur fast -- we decide what thing we can live without from sunrise to sunset, or set a goal for ourselves for the day. TYom Kippur should be about contemplation and deep evaluation of the past year, and fasting usually just makes everyone cranky!

This year I "fasted" from using the computer and my cell phone, my 9 year old fasted from talking (this lasted about 20 minutes) and my recovered daughter "fasted" by eating! It was truly a good fast.

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Unknown said...

I'm puzzled with lots of exercises. I was afraid I could not do the right time despite my hard work. I need a support person.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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