My Masochistic Five-Day Water Fast Was the Ultimate Reset

Autophagy isn’t just for tech bros: A trip inside Santa Rosa’s TrueNorth Health Center

February 11, 2022 2:30 pm
a composite, edited image of a woman eating
Courtney Kocak

A true masochist, I have yearned to go to TrueNorth since I first read about it almost a decade ago. 

TrueNorth is a health facility tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood in Santa Rosa, famous for guiding clients through water fasts of between five and 40 days. It was founded in 1984 by the husband-wife team of Dr. Jennifer Marano and Dr. Alan Goldhamer, a cheery, eccentric, middle-aged man who seems to be endlessly delighted by sharing the world’s best-kept secret: not eating your way to better health. 

Within 30 minutes of my initial inquiry, I was surprised to get a speedy response — first via email and then voicemail, followed by a phone call with Dr. Goldhamer himself. Great customer service, but I didn’t need a sales pitch.  “I’m actually looking forward to it,” I said.

Pre-Fast Preparation and Feelings

I’ve done some intermittent fasting and a few one- to two-day water fasts, but 43 hours was my previous record — which felt like an eternity at the time. Occasionally I’ll skip breakfast, but I rarely make myself wait more than a few waking hours before stuffing a highly processed food product into my mouth. Categorically, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet with a very rare pescatarian indulgence. If we’re keeping it real, I’m a strict junk-food vegetarian.

I watched my grandma die of a heart attack five years ago, and though it was profound and oddly beautiful to be there as she passed, it’s really sad not to have her around. She wasn’t particularly active and never made it a point to exercise aside from walking around her driveway to try to maintain her mobility in her later years — and she looooved sweets, which is something we always had in common. Living to 88 is a great run, but I’m greedy. I wish I could have had more time with her, and I want as much time as possible on this planet. Healthy, active time, without a walker like my grandma had for her last chapter. Part of that comes down to luck. But I’m interested in making myself luckier if it’s possible.

I’ve read countless research studies and personal accounts touting the benefits of fasting. Sure, it’s not for everyone, and it’s not a panacea for every ailment. (The whole talk to your doctor before trying this disclaimer applies here.) Still, people have been fasting, intentionally and not so intentionally, since the dawn of humankind, and there’s increasingly promising science to back its lifespan- and healthspan-extending qualities. In 2016, Yoshinori Ohsumi even won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his research on the process of autophagy, how cells recycle and renew their content, which is activated during longer fasts.

Obviously, taking a big risk wouldn’t be worth it, but five days felt safe, considering my weight and general health, especially in a supervised setting (seriously, do not try this at home). Given my tendency to break my fast at the McDonald’s drive-thru, my biggest concern was whether I would have the willpower to make it through.

a photo of true north facility
The TrueNorth facility in Santa Rosa
Courtney Kocak

Day 0: Check-In

I left LA in a torrential rainstorm that I had to contend with for most of the eight-hour drive north — sufficiently rough that I passed a bunch of accidents along the way. The irony that I was risking my life to maybe extend it a few years was not lost on me. 

The preparation packet encourages you to eat clean for a few days before your water fast. I tried to eat healthy on the drive, but my options were limited to gas station hummus and pretzels. After driving all day in the rain, I splurged on an Impossible Whopper and fries from Burger King for my last supper before checking in. 

When I finally got to TrueNorth Health Center — a former apartment building turned fasting camp — it looked so nondescript I blew past it the first time. This was the fountain of youth I’ve had on my bucket list for nearly a decade? 

I made it in time for the after-hours check-in, with a quick vitals check and a rundown of the policies and procedures. I took a walk and was tempted to find a bar, but I didn’t want to make a total liar of myself during my official intake the next day — plus I was eager to hit “Start Fast” on the Zero app — so I slammed my last sugar-free Red Bull (outside food, drink, booze, vapes, etc. are banned) and went to bed not totally satisfied. I figured it was good practice for what was to come.

Day 1: Water Fast

I was awoken by a knock at the door for morning rounds at 7:30 a.m. — part of a daily routine. Then I peed in a cup and had my intake appointment with Dr. Csilla Veress. One of the most thorough histories and exams I’ve been given by a medical professional, maybe ever. She approved my five-day water fast and reviewed the rules. When she got to the one about how I’m not supposed to shower, I had to plead, “Please, I drove all day yesterday. I am truly nasty. Can I take a shower real quick after the appointment since I don’t normally eat breakfast anyway?”

“Fine,” she said, but no others. ”You could faint in the shower and fall and hit your head. It’s dangerous.” Then she recommended that I give myself an enema so I wasn’t backed up going into my fast. 

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” I said. This was exactly the kind of torture I came for.

Day 2: Water Fast

Fifty hours later, I was getting deep into my water fast, with a dull hunger not just in my stomach but extending throughout my listless body. Or maybe I was just bored without food? Because now, when actors pretended to eat on TV, it was borderline erotic. I stayed in my room whenever possible, avoiding the dining room and kitchen at all costs. I couldn’t risk being seduced by a raw cucumber. 

I wasn’t even halfway done, so my focus was on trying to lay low and not get hung up on the countdown. Today, my main accomplishment was finishing Selling Sunset season four. I came for the drama and stayed for the gorgeous spreads. Those bitches are mean, but damn they know how to cater a party.

Day 3: Water Fast

I canceled a morning phone call because when I woke up for rounds, I looked like hell, felt worse, and didn’t want my intro to a potential client to be, “Hi, I make questionable choices.” I got my energy back up by afternoon and finished a big job by the projected deadline. This last day had a lot of final deliverables, but it wound up being a welcome distraction from thinking about food … and the pain that was beginning to shoot around my lower back. I pressed the doctor icon on my phone. The medical assistant reassured me that it was normal. Just the toxins being flushed out of my system. 

a photo of double screenshots
Courtney Kocak

Day 4: Water Fast

Today was rough. I felt a vague combination of lightheadedness and nausea, though not quite either — perhaps it’s fatigue — anyway, it makes you not want to get out of bed. If I do literally anything, my heart rate goes wild. You’re required to drink four glasses of water a day, minimum, but during afternoon rounds, I learned that the fast is harder if you drink fewer than six. I chugged a couple of glasses back-to-back and felt a bit better by evening. 

I wasn’t just dehydrated; I was turning into a bed lady. So I (slowly) got up, moved around a little (just in my room), took a quick shower (against the rules), and felt refreshed. What really perked me up, though, was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I had less than 37 hours left. And when I woke up in the morning, it would be just 26, basically one day at that point! Would that be when the euphoria would kick in? So far, I was just dazed and fatigued.

Day 5: Water Fast

AHHHHHH! Only 15 hours left. I can’t fucking wait to drink a juice in the morning. I’m usually not a juice fan, but it seems like heaven right now. I thought tomorrow was all juice, but during p.m. rounds, intern Steven informed me that I get to eat raw veggies for dinner tomorrow. Fantastic news! I had already toyed with the idea of stealing a few scraps of solid food but talked myself out of it, so as to not deviate from the program. Now I don’t have to cheat.

This day was brutal, spent almost entirely in bed. I didn’t have much energy when I got up, but somehow I managed to straighten my hair mid-afternoon. I streamed interviews, lectures, and documentaries on TrueNorth Health TV continuously all day in an attempt to ingest the whole catalog. In the evening, I got a second wind and did some work  on my laptop. My heart rate has become a slight source of concern, and tonight, I lost the remote in the bed and got winded trying to find it. Oh yeah, and my new hobby of ravenously looking up plant-based food and recipes online reached a fever pitch. My boyfriend received an onslaught of texts and DMs consisting of alternating recipes, “Think u can make this??” and heart emojis. But consuming all this nutritional content is making me want to eat healthier. Which will mean this self-experiment has been worth it!

Day 6: Refeeding

I’d lost 12 pounds when I woke up for my morning weigh-in at 7:30. The finish line was so close, a mere two hours away. 

I broke my fast after rounds at around 9:30 a.m. with an unsweetened watermelon juice that almost made me cry. I needed the juice, and then I had to go to the bathroom immediately after. I had another juice at noon, and same thing — I pooped again, right away. I didn’t get my 3 p.m. juice for some reason, but that was fine because I had nothing left to give. Plus, I had the promise of solid food for dinner. 

I went to the dining hall at 4:45, eager for a small plate of raw radishes, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and a little slaw. Incredible, five stars! It’s astounding how quickly tastebuds and cravings can be recalibrated, and the most basic foods become as thrilling and exotic as the first time you had them as a toddler. 

After dinner, I had my exit appointment with Dr. Veress. Her office was nearby on the property, but I got lost and had to go around the long way, stopping every 15 to 20 feet or so to catch my breath. Once I got there, Dr. Veress patiently answered all of my questions. Fasting is so individual, but nothing I experienced was cause for concern. As a preventative reset, it served its purpose, but I wouldn’t need to worry about fasting again for at least a year. Moving forward, my focus should be on maintaining the whole food plant-based diet. “The magic is in the food,” she told me, “It’s really important to follow that refeeding chart. That’s probably the single key to success post fast.”   

a photo of some small food
Courtney Kocak

Day 7: Refeeding

My last full day at TrueNorth. I’d been there for a week, so I finally met the COVID restrictions to get a massage with Tina. Tina was awesome. She moonlights as a bounty hunter. I told her to go hard. She replied, “Okay, but just warning you that I always go hard.” I was like, “Perfect.” And she was true to her word.

I had a plate of raw fruits and veggies for dinner, then I went back for steamed brown rice and broccoli, and then soup. The three-course meal was a game-changer. I sat and chatted with the other diners. Walking back to my room, I felt more like myself. I made it about 100 feet without stopping to rest. My heart rate was still high during afternoon rounds, but Steven came to retake my heart rate after dinner, and it was back to 67. Hooray! 

Day 8: Refeeding

Checkout was at 10 a.m. They gave me some food to-go, so I didn’t spoil my pure new diet straight away. Hauling my stuff out to the car was exhausting. It was just two loads — a suitcase, backpack, and a few other small items — yet it hit me like a Tough Mudder obstacle course. I felt spent, like a wet cloth that had been rung out after a deep clean. I cried a few times on the drive home. It was cathartic. 

Back in LA that evening, my boyfriend took one look at me and said, “You look wizened,” with a laugh. 

Post-Fast Reflection

As of last writing, I have a few weeks of real life under my belt. I’m not 100 percent whole-food plant-based perfect, but I have new daily habits like drinking water (two to three cups is better than none, honey) and eating more fruits and vegetables that I’ve been able to maintain. Several people have commented that I’ve got a nice glow. 

After my first few days home, I was strong enough to resume my 10,000-a-day step goal. I’ve regained all but five pounds, which I like to think of as the permanent shedding of my pandemic cushion. During my exit appointment, Dr. Veress had said the weight loss would be mostly water. 

This Christmas, my favorite gifts were the ones I gave myself — a break from every single vice in my life (even caffeine!) for a whole week, a new craving for fruits and veggies, and an immune system reboot. I’ve even been thinking that I might want to go back and do it again at the end of this year. Maybe I brainwashed myself with all that TrueNorth Health TV. 

The biggest benefit has been a holistic health reset that I desperately needed. Before my fast, I was a runaway train of bad habits, and during my time at TrueNorth, I had to make a hard stop. It gave me a chance to consciously assess how I’d been taking care of my body and restart with more intentionality. I would consider my TrueNorth water fast a form of torture had I not inflicted it upon myself, and yet it’s been one of the best experiences of my life thus far. I’m pretty sure this is a Dr. Goldhamer quote from one of the videos, but: “Sometimes the best medicine is nothing at all.”

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