We live in a sometimes-hectic world that takes a toll on our health. Pollutants, unhealthy food, high levels of stress, a lack of exercise and unhealthy lifestyle choices all contribute to poor health, especially illness and weight gain. While many people still rely on medical treatment for their health concerns, others are turning to alternative approaches to find balance and achieve a harmonious, stable lifestyle that protects and defends their bodies and minds against the negative effects of our fast-paced, often stressful lives. Just one of the most acclaimed and most popular methods of achieving this balance is the water fast.Â People the world over undergo a process called ‘water-fasting’, for all kinds of reasons. You may be asking yourself what exactly is a water-fast, and how can it be used safely and effectively to reap the benefits its proponents promise? Is fasting for everyone? Let’s check it out to find the answers.
What is it?
Water-fasting is pretty much what it says on the tin: fasting from all foods and beverages except water. In terms of dictionary definitions, it is the abstinence of all nutrients: that means no juice, no smoothies, no vitamins, no nothing. Even cucumber or lemon slices flavouring your water is a no-no when it comes to water-fasting. Many consider it to be the most pure, therapeutic, effective, but also the most challenging, type of fast. It is most commonly used for religious purposes: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Baha’i all promote the use of fasting as part of their religious practices. But water-fasting can be used to achieve other benefits. Many advocates for fasting argue that it is a natural process that many species, especially humans, are meant to experience.Â Some fast with water to cleanse the body of toxins and promote healing, while others use a water-fast to jump-start a weight loss program. A water-fast can last as long as the practitioner desires, but generally speaking, the average fast lasts anywhere from one to ten days.
The most important step to take is to find a health-care provider who has experience supervising water-fasts, and develop a relationship with them. They can help you through all of the transitions of a water fast, as well as create a fasting schedule that is tailored to your body and your needs. To get ready for a fast, gradually decrease your food intake for a couple of days beforehand, to ease the transition from feasting to fasting. Eating full meals and then immediately switching to a fast can make the fast more difficult and take longer for your body to adjust. Avoiding exercise and strenuous activity will also give your body a break while it’s in fasting mode. If it’s your first time fasting, having shorter practice fasts and building up towards a longer fasting period can be a good way to get into a fasting rhythm. Start out with one day, and note how your body reacts to the change. Then gradually work your way towards two days, then three, and so on, till it becomes comfortable and you know what to expect from your body. Know that this may take some time: be gentle with yourself and your body, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t completely successful right away.
The effects of water-fasting are many and varied, depending on who you ask, and for what purposes you are using it. Some swear by it as a means of clarifying the mind and re-setting the body. By basically emptying the body of food, water-fasting gives the digestive system a break, and many find that their bodies are rejuvenated as a result. After a bout of holiday excess and indulgence, fasting can be a good way to give an over-worked tummy a little vacation from digestive stress. Other health benefits have been associated with water-fasting, but some of the most well-documented have been improvements in heart health. However, this link may be co-relational rather than causal. People who fast more often do so for religious reasons, and they tend not to smoke or drink to excess, which has proven cardiovascular benefits. Fasting may also be an indicator of self-control with regards to food intake, so people who have a regular fasting schedule might simply be good at not indulging too much too often in the first place. What has been suggested, however, is thatÂ regular fasting periods can decrease low-density lipoprotein, also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, and improve how the body digests sugar. Many health-care providers also claim to see a reduction in joint pain, inflammation, swelling, and high blood pressure. They also note improvement in respiratory function, increased mobility, and significant improvements in the quality of skin, hair, and nails of those undergoing water-fasts. Furthermore, water-fasting can be used a way to cleanse the body of toxins, sometimes referred to as a ‘detox’, short for detoxification. Water flushes out existing toxins from the body, especially the liver and kidneys, while fasting prevents new toxins from entering the body. Essentially, water-fasting can be seen as a kind of ‘reset button’, where you give your body and all its systems a chance to rest, reset, and restore themselves.
But fasting isn’t just about physical benefits. People who fast for spiritual or religious reasons also indicate that their fasting experiences help to focus the mind, improve reactions to stressful situations, and aid in relaxation. Basically, reducing or completely removing food intake encourages practitioners to slow down, and take life easy for a little while, giving them time and opportunity to meditate or think more clearly and deeply about concerns that a more hectic pace, which unfortunately has become normal life for many, prevents. Religious fasting is often not only about sacrifice or abstinence for its own sake, but also to encourage mediation on non-physical matters. Fasting in this instance is meant to be a reminder that we are more than just our bodies. As such, fasting can be used as a tool to connect and sync the body and mind, to induce a relaxed state of being, and to allow contemplation and meditation in a busy world.
With that being said, one of the most popular uses for fasting is, ironically, weight loss. After the body uses up excess calories to perform functions, basic or otherwise, it begins to burn fat to fuel these functions. If we have any excess fat stored on our bodies, this fat will be burned up to provide energy. People have reported remarkably rapid weight loss with water-fasting in very short periods of time: during a normal regime of healthy eating and exercise, men tend to lose two pounds per week, while women usually use about one pound a week. During a fasting period, that rate increases for both sexes: the average weight loss rate ramps up to one pound a day. While this sounds great, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea for everyone. While you may lose weight quickly during the fast itself, once you break your water fast and return to your previous eating habits, the weight will inevitably come back. This rapid change in weight and eating habits is tough on your body, especially your metabolism, and can actually lead to more weight problems in the future. However, if you use a water fast to break a cycle or habit of bad eating, and then replace junk food and processed foods with a healthier diet and increased physical activity, you’ll likely see the weight come off, and stay off for the long term. As such, water fasts are often recommended as a way to kick-start a change in lifestyle and start off on the right foot with a new living plan, but aren’t meant to permanently replace exercise, eating well, reducing stress and getting good, restorative sleep.
Water-fasting, especially for those of us who are new to this practice, can come along with some negative effects, but you can prepare and prevent these effects to make your fasting experience a smooth and relatively pleasant one. First of all is perhaps the most obvious one: hunger. Most people report noticeable hunger pangs for the first forty-eight hours of a fast, especially for their first attempts at fasting. These usually subside by the third day, although some people continue to feel hungry for longer. These pangs of hunger are often accompanied by weakness and dizzy spells. To avoid too much discomfort, resting and relaxation, as well as avoiding strenuous activity, is often recommended. Other side-effects include halitosis, changes in urination and bowel movements, and body odour, which are often considered signs that your body is detoxifying. These symptoms generally fade after a few days, but can be alarming to the uninitiated. This is just one of the reasons why an on-going relationship with and careful supervison from your health-care provider is a good idea.
How it Works
Emptying the body of food means your digestive system gets a break from working. Approximately fifty percent of our body’s energy is spent digesting food every day. By giving your body a ‘vacation’ from all that work, practitioners believe energy can be used for other tasks in the body, namely healing and restoration. It also works as a means of cleansing the body of toxins and other potentially harmful chemicals: time off from a diet heavy in salt, for example, will give the body time to adjust and reset itself, and get itself back into working order. One of the most important parts of a water fast isn’t just removing nutrients in the form of food from our bodies for a while: the water itself is key. Water is the great transportation system in the body: with water, nutrients move from cell to cell, toxins are gathered and then released from the body, and most importantly, oxygen, and energy in the form of glucose are moved throughout all bodily systems, keeping us alive. Practitioners and experts in water-fasting generally recommend drinking seven to ten eight-ounce glasses of water a day, but depending on your circumstances and health, you may require less or more. Water-fasting gives the digestive system a break, as well as allowing the liver and kidneys a chance to cleanse themselves. The body is wonderfully adept at healing itself: often, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to healing. We get in our own way. Water-fasting gives your body the chance to restore itself on its own, without impeding its progress or intensifying already existing problems.
If you are considering a new fasting schedule, want try fasting for the first time, or are simply curious to learn more, then visiting a knowledgeable health-care practitioner who has experience in fasting is the best thing you can do to start out your fasting process correctly. A fasting practitioner or expert can guide you through your experience, give you detailed information about what your body needs from a fast, and can work with you to create an individualised fasting program to keep you safe, happy, and healthy throughout. Fasting unsupervised, especially if you are new to fasting, is not necessarily a wise decision. A health-care expert will give you valuable information, guidance, and peace of mind, knowing that you are doing the right thing for your body, and that your situation merits a fast. They can also give you personalised assistance regarding how to adjust to fasting, and offer support for difficult or stressful moments. Long story short: you want a health-care practitioner on your team to help make your fasting experience the best one possible.
That being said, there are some general warnings that people who fast need to keep in mind to prevent serious health complications. If you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, are nursing, suffering from post-partum depression, or are menstruating, then fasting is likely not a good idea. Similarly, if you suffer from any of the following conditions, then an open, full-disclosure discussion with your health-care provider can help you figure out whether or not a fast will work for you.
- liver or kidney disease
- AIDS or HIV
- H1N1 or H5N1
- avian influenza
- atrial fibrillation
- cardiovascular disease
- cardiac disturbances
- post-mycardial infarction
- cardiac homeopathy and valvular heart defects
- anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or similar eating disorders
Normally, anyone dealing with these conditions should avoid fasting until seeking professional attention. Anyone using medication of any kind should also seek professional consultation before engaging in a water fast. Children and adolescents should not fast.
Also, be aware that if you are using water-fasting for weight loss, and you have what appear to be excellent results, that your rapid decline in weight may not actually mean a rapid decline in fat. Your body may have also lost some of its vital mass. Vital body mass is the weight of those parts of the body that we cannot live without: bones, organs, muscles, and connective tissue. Most people experience a loss of vital body mass on a water-fast to some degree, as the body goes into a state of ‘calorie emergency’ called ketosis. The body recognises that it is not receiving the regular amount of calories it usually needs to survive, so it begins to break down vital systems for energy, to replace the energy it normally gets from calories. To reduce the likelihood of ketosis becoming a problem, lots of rest and removing strenuous activity or exercise from your schedule during a fast is a good idea. Otherwise, you may actually be doing more harm than help. Instead of losing excess body fat, you run the risk of seriously damaging very important systems in your body, which can lead to significant health problems in the future. Again, as always, discussing this with your health-care provider is recommended.
So let’s say you’ve just completed your first water-fasting experience, and it was a success! You lost the stubborn pounds that previously had refused to budge. Your body cleansed itself of toxins and impurities, so that your skin is glowing, your digestive system is in tip-top shape, and those aches and pains are a thing of the past. You’ve also had great results with decreasing stress and blood pressure, and you feel more relaxed and in sync with your body. But the process isn’t over just because your allotted number of days has passed. Now that the fast is complete, what you do afterwards is just as important as the fast itself. Slowly introducing healthful foods back into your system is key. Most practitioners recommend eating small portions of raw fruit over the first few post-fast days, and carefully adding in vegetables and grains over time. This way, you avoid putting weight back on right away, and you won’t shock your digestive system with more food than it can handle. You’ll still want to take it easy when it comes to exercise: gently starting up your exercise routine will reduce the risk of faintness or dizzy spells. Finally, you’ll want to continue to consume lots of water, to keep yourself well-hydrated and avoid shocking your body with drastic changes to your diet. The key to remember is that any sudden or severe change will result in a sudden or severe reaction in your body, so be gentle and go slowly.
If you want to learn more, there are lots of resources available to you about water-fasting. A quick internet search, a peek at the phone book, or asking around can reveal where you can meet with a medical practitioner or health-care provider who has experience in water-fasting. They will be your most important ally and resource in this journey. For extra advice, information, and general background knowledge, there are plenty of sources to get your hands on. Author Joel Furhman writes several excellent guides to traditional and alternative medicine, which include information about water-fasting. Another great and easy-to-access resource are videos, all of which are available online, from fasting expert Loren Lockman, who supervises a fasting retreat and health facility in Costa Rica. If you are struggling with your fast, and want advice or support, seeking help from friends, neighbours, or people in your community who fast for religious reasons can also be a great source. They’ll know the ups and downs of fasting, and be able to give you guidance on what to expect and how to adjust to the changes you see in your body.
Water-fasting isn’t for everyone. In fact, there are some people who should definitely not fast. But for many, fasting is an excellent method of jump-starting a weight-loss program, cleansing the body, and slowing down to re-balance the mind. Whatever the reason, fasting should be done under well-informed, careful supervision. Attention should be paid to the responses the body has to a fast, and adjustments made accordingly. Water-fasting may be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, stimulating, and part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.