Mudita Journal

Water fasting: What it is, why it’s good, and how to do it

August 29, 2014 · Filed under: Health, Water Fast

Over the past fifteen years I have completed perhaps ten fasts, during which I drank only water. They varied in duration from five days to twelve days. This post summarizes what I’ve learned.

I find water fasting to be far superior to modified fasts, such as the so-called “Master Cleanse.” Most of my fasts have been good experiences, with only periodic discomfort. Below I share my tips for making it a more rewarding experience.

Please note, I am not a doctor. Do not mistake anything I write for qualified medical advice.

Find a physician to help supervise your fast. Ayurvedic doctors, naturopathic doctors, doctors of oriental medicine, and other alternative health care practitioners commonly have experience in this area. Conventional health care providers are, as far as I can tell, almost universally ignorant on the topic.

Water fasts vs. modified fasts

Today I do only pure fasts, where I drink solely water. Many people recommend modified fasts instead. These may involve various combinations of juice, tea, syrups, etc. Their reasoning is that, by drinking easily-digestible sources of calories, you still get sustenance. Some people feel this is easier on their body.

My experience is exactly the opposite. Nothing has ever made me feel as miserable as a modified fast. When I tried a juice fast, my blood sugar levels were all over the place, I got headaches, and I had to abandon the fast by the second day.

On a water fast, by contrast, you ingest no calories. After 2-3 days your body switches to a protein-sparing ketone metabolism. You are no longer hungry and your body burns fat to get the glucose your brain needs. Done right, it’s much easier than I would have expected. But it helps if you know how to approach it.

The benefits of fasting

The main benefits I experience from a water fast are that I feel clear headed, I feel more in touch with my body, I have more time, it changes my relationship to food, and I seem to have — and take — more opportunities for spiritual reflection. It often feels like a sacred practice, full of meaning and insight.

It is incredible how much energy we normally spend buying, preparing, and eating food, and then cleaning up afterwards. Remove the need for those activities, and suddenly you have a lot of extra time on your hands.

A similar process takes place inside your body. Digestion, as a chemical process, requires enormous energy. Freed of that burden, your body devotes far more energy to healing and self-repair. I understand, from Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s writings, that fasting can be particularly good for the treatment of arthritis and inflammation. It is perhaps humanity’s oldest medical treatment.

For those of us with food sensitivities, a water fast provides a strong and unmistakable “reset” for our digestive tract. Once you resume eating, you experience food in a completely new light. The flavors and textures are exquisite. It feels natural to be selective about what you put in your body, favoring high-quality foods.

I typically lose about two pounds of fat per day. As man who is naturally slender, this isn’t always a benefit, for me. But if I’ve been eating unhealthily and do gain weight, this often feels like a natural time to fast. Once you break the fast, several pounds come back quickly simply because you once again have food in your digestive tract.

Beginning your fast

I begin by choosing a target length for my fast, while acknowledging that I may go shorter or longer, depending on how my body is responding. Then I block out my schedule, so I don’t have deadlines or significant work commitments, allowing me to work only as I feel ready.

Commonly today I fast for five days, perhaps once or twice a year. During my first fast, I fasted for twelve days. During the final week of that fast, I was often surprised by how clear headed I felt and how much energy I had. On other fasts, I’ve abandoned on the third or fourth day because I felt unusually achy or disoriented.

When it comes to choosing a length of your fast and sticking to it, don’t try to be “strong.” Listen closely to your body, take good care of yourself, and don’t require it to do things that feel unhealthy.

Before you start your fast, make sure you have these items on hand:

On the night before you begin your fast, eat a light, healthy supper and get a very good night’s rest.

Drinking water

When you wake on the first morning of your fast, drink plenty of water. Continue this practice throughout the fast.

When you are hungry, take a little swig of water. When you feel light headed, take another swig of water. If you are thirsty, take two swigs of water. When you feel bored or restless or achy, take another little swig of water.

The water is important because your body is metabolizing a couple pounds of fat per day. Fat cells commonly store toxins. As they’re being metabolized, you have a larger quantity of toxins getting released into the bloodstream. Water helps flush them out.

Add sea salt to all your water. Keep it saline. Otherwise the water can begin to feel harsh, perhaps causing an electrolyte imbalance. Add just enough salt to make it taste a little salty, almost like tears, perhaps around a half-teaspoon per liter, assuming you’re using a medium-sized rock salt.

Store your water at room temperature, rather than keeping it in the fridge. You can also heat it up and drink it from a tea cup. This can be particularly nice if you begin to feel chilled, from the lack of usual calories in your diet.

Do not skip putting sea salt in your water. It makes a significant difference.

Enemas

Enemas are a crucial important component of a water fast. When you stop eating, your digestion stops as well. This means feces stay in your intestines. Your intestines are porous, which means your bloodstream is absorbing these byproducts from your intestines. Without enemas, the toxins will give you strong headaches and nausea.

Add sea salt to your enemas, just like to the water you’re drinking. Use filtered water, rather than tap water. Warm up the water to body temperature, so it feels more comfortable. Avoid putting your enema reservoir (bucket or bag) too high, or the water will enter with too much force.

Lay down on a towel on the bathroom floor. Apply generous lubricant before inserting the enema tip into your rectum. Start by laying on your back, then turn to your left side, to allow the water to rise up your colon. Then onto your back again and eventually your right side, if you can. Hold the water inside for a few minutes, if possible, and then void on the toilet.

Plan on a couple enema sessions each day during your fast, especially in response to any headaches or nausea. Each session may require two or three enemas. Ideally you keep doing them until the fluid that comes back out is relatively clear.

What to expect

On the first day, I often feel surprisingly clear headed, with occasional bouts of wooziness. Toward the end of the first day is a good time to do your first enemas.

The second day is typically the most challenging. You may not sleep as well on the first night of the fast, and your body hasn’t yet switched fully to ketone metabolism. So the second day often produces the most fatigue. Mild headaches may come and go.

By the third day I’m often beginning to feel better, still weak but more clear headed and feeling like I’m over the hump. Ketosis usually has kicked in by the third day, and any physical craving for hunger subsides.

You’ll get light headed, especially when you stand up, and especially in the early days. This is normal. Stand up gradually and take care not to lose your balance.

You’ll notice how much you use food as entertainment. Long after the hunger passes, you’ll see you still think of food, as a habit, often as a way to self-stimulate, when you are bored. This softens with time, typically after about the third day.

You’ll get cold. Since you’re no longer burning calories, you are generating less body heat. Wear warmer clothes, drink warm water, and take plenty of breaks to lay in bed under the covers.

If it’s winter time and you normally keep your temperature relatively low, take extra precautions to keep warm. Staying warm is important, to avoid stressing your body.

You may sleep less. For some reason, while you’re fasting, you often need less actual sleep. Perhaps it’s because the body is working less to digest food.

Without needing to focus on food, you’ll have lots of extra time. Enjoy it. It can be a good time to take up a writing project, read a few books, or catch up on family phone calls. Just be careful, if you set any goals, not to push yourself. Your first priority is to rest as much as your body needs.

Absolutely, positively avoid thinking about food or spending time around food. Once, midway through a fast, I spent an afternoon crafting meal plans for after my fast. Visualizing food that much derailed my fast, however, and I had to end it early.

Troubleshooting

It’s normal to have light bouts of dizziness, headaches, or nausea. If they get particularly strong, however, here are the most common causes:

You should only work when it feels nearly effortless to do so. Those periods will come and go, and are more common after the first few days. At other times, you should relax and keep your productivity goals to a bare minimum. With frequent cat naps, however, you may be surprised how much (non-physically intensive) work you can do. This is particularly true after the first few days.

If you are doing things right and you still feel quite bad, then it’s best to break your fast and try again another time. Sometimes my body is more receptive to fasting than others. Don’t pressure yourself to stay on a fast that feels wrong.

Breaking your fast

When it’s time to break your fast, choose soft foods that are easy to digest and unlikely to irritate your digestive tract. Cooked food is often better than raw. Avoid anything spicy (such as black pepper) or acidic (such as oranges). Start with small portions, since your stomach will have shrunk.

Great foods for a first meal include steamed squash or easily-digested raw fruits, like watermelon or avocado. Some experts recommend not eating animal protein the first day. I’ve often eaten scrambled eggs on the first day, however, without problems.

Consider taking a probiotic, to help replenish any intestinal flora that may have receded during your fast. I sometimes have a bad reaction to probiotics, however, and have skipped them without noticing problems.

Reintroduce foods into your diet very consciously, paying close attention to how you feel afterwards. Does acne come back when you reintroduce milk? Do you get intestinal bloating again when you eat wheat and corn? You’ve just been on the mother of all elimination diets. Be sensitive to your body’s signals.

And if you want to adopt a truly healthy diet afterwards, and maintain the many benefits of your fast, consider trying the Whole30.

Finally, enjoy yourself. After several days away from eating, food will have an entirely new meaning. Smells and flavors will seem exquisite.