Water Fasting: How-To, Benefits & Risks
Fasting has been around since ancient times and has grown increasingly popular with the latest fad diets and quick fix healing modalities. Fasting has been known to improve health, lose weight, boost energy levels and even enhance spiritual awareness. From juice fasts with fruits and vegetables to intermittent fasting, the types of fasting are endless. One only needs to google the word fasting and come up with numerous ways on how to do it, when to do it, and with what. However, in this article the aim is to inform the reader on a specific type of fasting that has gained incredulous attention not only in your local community but worldwide since the time of the ancients! This type of fast is referred to as water fasting.
- Types of Water Fasts
- How to Water Fast Safely at Home
- Benefits of Water Fasting
- Dangers and Risks of Water Fasting
- Who Should Not Fast?
- Preparing for a Fast
- Breaking a Fast
What makes water fasting such a hot topic and what makes it one the most sought out regimes in history? In order to get a better understanding on the intricate aspects of a water fast we need to first establish the importance, value and facts about water. According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%. If we take into account the human body consisting up to 60% water and two thirds of the earths´ surface is covered by water there´s no question that water is one of life´s major and valuable resources. Water is responsible for keeping not only humans alive, but every other living organism and species. Through an active circulatory system water transports, dissolves, replenishes valuable nutrients and organic matter through our bodies as well as the bodies of water of our planet.
Additionally, water is also responsible for eliminating waste from our bodies. An extreme decrease in the amount of fluids in our body affects the efficiency of our cell activity. Considering our bodies contain on average 42 liters of water, with just a loss of 2.7 liters a person can experience extreme dehydration displaying an array of dangerous symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, weakness and headaches, just to name a few. It’s important to drink the right amount of water each day.
So What Exactly is Water Fasting?
A water fast is simply going without food and living only off water for a certain amount of time. The point is to consume zero calories and allow your body to do what it naturally does in the absence of the digestive process. During digestion our bodies work overtime to break down food and process the food particles to eliminate it as waste products. It’s a long and exhaustive process especially if one eats a diet that consists of hard to digest foods such as meats and raw vegetables. During a water fast, the digestive process is halted therefore the energy that is normally used to digest can be directed towards other important functions, such as self-healing. A water fast is also known as a water cleanse because it cleanses the body of impurities and toxins that we take in with day to day activities. But just like there are many different types of fad diets, there are also different types of water fasts. In the next section we will go over the types of water fasts as well as the reasons they are generally used for.
Types of Water Fasts
Religious and Spiritual
The most common type of fasting that actually has the oldest roots in ancient history are religious fasts. In essence, religious fasts are done for religious reasons to either strengthen their connection with God or to obey a set of laws and rules that the particular religion calls for. Christians fast and pray to receive answers to their prayers and to strengthen communication with God. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and called for his disciples to also follow a regime of regular fasting. Following is a list of biblical reasons for why Christians fast and their corresponding biblical passages.
- Fasting to be like Christ – Matthew 4:1-17; Luke 4:1-13
- Fasting to repent from sins – Jonah 3:7-8; Samuel 14:24
- Fasting to mourn for the dead – 1 Samuel 31:13
- Fasting to ask for God’s help – Ezra 8:21-23; Nehemiah 1:4-11
- Fasting to strengthen prayer – Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:17-29; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5
Islam also follows a regular strict regime of water fasts. They believe the fasts strengthen their quality of life by being in a constant awareness of God. It is disciplining the ego to relinquish the loved for the sake of the Beloved. The loved being the desires of the flesh while the beloved being Allah, or the Exalted One. Taqwa is piety, righteousness and consciousness of God. Taqwa requires patience and perseverance. Fasting teaches patience, and with patience one can rise to the high position of Taqwa.
Buddhism follows a similar process in which they abstain from eating and other indulgences during times of intense meditation. In Buddhism fasting is used for political, medical, as well as spiritual reasons which is commonly referred to as The Middle Path, or also known as the Middle Way.
Mystics and shamans from all over the world partake in regular water fasts and some even do dry fasts, which includes abstaining from water as well. They claim that they are able to receive divine answers, or information from the cosmos, during their fasts.
Some people can’t handle a complete water fast usually because of health reasons or other practical reasons such as work. Therefore, a more limited approach is available and has become increasingly popular in various medical and fitness fields. Intermittent fasting is basically partial fasting in which a person undergoes a period of time of taking nothing in but water and the remaining of the time eating. Common methods of intermittent fasting include 24-hour fasts and the daily 16-hour fasts.
In this method of intermittent fasting a person will fast for 16 hours of a day and the remaining 8-hour window of time is spent eating. Generally, there are no set rules on what to eat during the food intake period. Most people prefer to start their 16 hours at night time before bed so they get most of their fasting done while sleeping which prevents them from thinking about food during the day and also allows sufficient amount of time for rest. For example, a fast can start at 9pm until 1pm the next day. Between 1pm and 9pm the person can eat.
As the name clearly states, a 24-hour fast is simply fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week depending on the persons activity level and personal needs. For instance, a person can stop eating after dinner until dinner the next day every Monday. Or they can do a 24 hour fast every Monday and every Friday.
Both forms of intermittent fasting greatly reduces caloric intake which aids in weight-loss and also allows sufficient amount of time for cell repair and rest which will be discussed further later in the article.
Another type of common water fasting is a medical fast in which the person refrains from eating in order to obtain more accurate results for a medical test or for safety purposes before an upcoming surgery. Fasting is usually required for a blood test the morning after having had nothing to eat for 8 to 16 hours. Before major surgery in which the person will be put under anesthesia the patient will be required to fast for at least several hours before the procedure. Other tests that require fasting include a gastroscopy and colonoscopy. Before any type of medical fast make sure to take special considerations and precautions to avoid any negative side effects.
Detox and Cleansing Fasts
In the health and fitness professions one of the main proponents of fasting is called a water cleanse commonly used for the purpose of detoxifying the body of unwanted toxins and impurities. In general, a water cleanse used for detoxification purposes contains mainly just water as its ingredient but often times you will find cleanses that incorporate certain fruits or fruit juices that aid in the elimination of certain toxins because of its natural cleansing effects on the body. One such cleanse that has gained popular attention especially with Hollywood celebrities is called the Lemonade Diet which is more often referred to as The Master Cleanse. Some may even prefer to add slices of natural fruits into their water for personal taste if they find it hard to drink plain water.
How to Water Fast Safely at Home
Having a general idea of what a water fast is will not suffice. You have to know how it´s done properly. Below is a list of how to successfully complete a water fast.
What Can You Eat
As a rule of thumb there is no eating involved during a water fast. The person is only to consume water. The only exception is during an intermittent fast in which the person has a window of time which eating is allowed, in which case the person can eat during that specified time frame depending on her/her diet plan.
What Can You Drink
Water. Try to aim for 9-13 glasses of water per day if you are going for 24 hours or more. In general, men should drink more than women. Try to drink the purest form of water you can, we recommend going with a water filter such as a water filter pitcher or a countertop water filter to encourge good water drinking habits. The amount of water to be consumed should be spread out throughout the day, never all at once. Avoid drinking too much water at once as this can cause the levels of salt and sodium in your blood to drop too low known as water intoxication, which can be fatal. Exceptions to water are unsweetened herbal teas.
Whether it´s safe or not to exercise during a fast really depends on the type of fast you are doing as well as the duration. If you are fasting longer than 24 hours you should keep your physical activity to a minimum. It is vitally important to get enough rest during a water fast as your body is already being considerably exerted for lack of calories. Food gives us energy to do our daily tasks so when we are not ingesting any calories our energy reserves become depleted. Performing strenuous activities while fasting can cause faint and dizziness. However, walking should not be a problem and will actually assist in expelling toxins from the body. Allow your body to sweat a little bit but nothing that causes you to lose your breath. A 1987 study showed that during a 72-hour fast, a healthy adult can continue to perform high-intensity exercise for brief periods of time (30 minutes or less). Moderate intensity exercises can be performed for a longer duration (30-45 minutes).
Before deciding on doing a water fast you need to decide first how long you plan to fast for. The duration of a fast is a personal decision and should be based on what your goals and intentions are. If this is your first time fasting starting with a 24 hour fast may help to get an idea of how your body reacts and if you feel you can handle one day then try 3 days. If your goal is to detox and cleanse a week should give you qualifying results without pushing the body too hard. After three to five days your body has already begun eliminating toxins and cleansing the blood, therefore initiating the rebuilding of the immune system. Then you have the experienced fasters who go on 21 or even 40 days for spiritual or religious purposes. Again, this all depends on what you feel comfortable with.
Finally, before attempting any fast you should always consult first with your doctor.
Benefits of Water Fasting
Water fasting wouldn’t be so popular if it wasn’t for its amazing health benefits and advantages. Below is a list of the most common benefits you can experience with a full, as well as partial, water fast. Always keep in mind the extent to which one receives the benefits will always depend on the type of fast and the duration.
Obviously when you restrict your caloric intake to 0 you will lose weight. How much weight will depend on various factors including how long you fast and your physical activity level. It´s common to lose up to 14 pounds in about 10 days. Ben Kim, a chiropractor and acupuncturist in Toronto, says you can expect to lose about a pound a day on a water fast.
Keep in my mind that at the beginning of a fast the weight you lose is water. After about 3 days is when your body will start to burn its fat stores and enter a state of a ketosis. Normally, our body breaks down glucose for energy from the foods we eat, but when there is a depletion of glucose levels the body has nowhere else to turn to so it starts to break down fat stores. When our bodies reach the point of ketosis, ketones are released into the blood and the body starts to burn fat for energy instead of glucose.
Our bodies tend to be filled with a substantiate amount of toxins due to various environmental and biological factors. We breathe in toxins from the air, we ingest toxins from the foods and drinks we consume and we even contract toxins from other people. Toxins weakens are immune system and a water fast helps to eliminate and expel these toxins out through our sweat and eliminatory systems. Recent studies at the University of California Berkeley stated that 3-day water fasts reset your immune system by activating the stem cells and enables you to perform at the optimum level.
Self-healing and Regeneration
Thanks to the wonderful mechanisms of our bodies we are able to heal ourselves and regenerate our cells all on our own without any help. Our bodies contain an innate intelligence that, if given the right time and environment, can heal many ailments, diseases and even restore broken bones! Unfortunately, with our busy lifestyles and constant eating we are not giving our bodies the rest it needs from digestion and other bodily functions to allow it to restore itself to its natural health. A water fast does just that. It´s an extreme method that gives the body maximum potential to self-heal.
Here is an excerpt from the book “Fasting and Eating for Health” by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. that gives credence to this claim:
“The job of fasting is to supply the body with the ideal environment to accomplish its work of healing.
“The body’s wondrous ability to autolyze (or self-digest) and destroy needless tissue such as fat, tumors, blood vessel plaque, and other nonessential and diseased tissues, while conserving essential tissues, gives the fast the ability to restore physiologic youth to the system. By removing or lessening the burden of diseased tissue, including the fatty tissue narrowing the blood vessels, fasting increases the blood flow and subsequent oxygenation and nutrient delivery to vital organs throughout the body.”
Getting Rid of Cravings
Some foods are actually known to be addictive. The more processed food we eat the more we crave it. The number 1 culprit in these processed and unnatural foods is sugar. Sugar has been known to cause cravings as strong as cocaine. According to researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), excessive sugar consumption increases the dopamine levels in a similar way to other drugs such as cocaine. And just like with any other drug addiction the best way to get rid of cravings is through abstinence. During a fast the person will reach a point where they no longer crave the foods they eat and even lose interest entirely!
As mentioned previously, when we fast our cells regenerate. In both mice and a Phase 1 human clinical trial involving patients receiving chemotherapy, long periods of not eating significantly lowered white blood cell counts. In mice, fasting cycles then “flipped a regenerative switch,” changing the signaling pathways for hematopoietic stem cells, which are responsible for the generation of blood and immune systems, the research showed.
Better Mental Health
Water fasting has been known to reduce stress and anxiety. People who fast for spiritual and religious reasons do so because it increases mental clarity. Water fasting has also been used as a treatment for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
More and more people everyday suffer from digestive issues. A water fast allows the digestion to restore its abilities and gets rid of toxins more efficiently. Toxins disrupts the natural balance of flora in the intestines.
Slows Down Aging
A diet that mimics fasting appears to slow aging. The benefits were demonstrated in mice and yeast and three cycles of a similar diet were given to humans.
Another added benefit to water fasting is the process termed as Autophagy, a cellular maintenance process, stimulated by fasting, that is critical in disease resistance, longevity and general body and brain vitality.
Dangers and Risks of Water Fasting
Just like with any other diet regimen there are always risks involved in starting a new plan. In this section we will go over the possible dangers that one may experience during a water fast and how to avoid them.
Losing the Wrong Type of Weight
Losing weight on a water fast is obviously one of the leading reasons people decide to fast. Granted, you will lose weight but what exactly are you losing? As previously mentioned in the beginning of a fast you will lose water weight which many people mistake it to be fat. The fat burning process doesn’t usually begin until about 3 days the start of the fast. The risk is that with longer fasts it´s possible to lose muscle mass as well, although Some claim that it´s just a myth. However, if muscle loss is something you are worried about then you can implement some resistance exercises during the fast so that the muscles are still being worked, but nothing strenuous.
Another common concern regarding a water fast is the lack of vitamins and nutrients the person takes in. Usually, this is a concern for those who plan to fast for an extended length of time but how long is too long? While fasting, the body conserves its essential reserves, and this includes vitamins. Additionally, taking vitamins or other supplements will require the digestive system to become active by producing enzymes in order to digest it. During a water fast, the digestive process is supposed to rest.
However, if a person already has a vitamin deficiency problem before a fast then they should talk with their doctor about the options available for fasting. Some people resort to liquid vitamins or drink herbal teas during their fast but some argue that since its not a complete water fast, it may take away from some of the benefits of the fast by adding additional vitamins and supplements. Also, some people may not handle taking vitamins on an empty stomach. If you are drinking reverse osmosis water, be sure that it has a remineralizer to add important calcium and magnesium back into your water.
Stress on the Body
Restricting your calories to zero is obviously going to put a strain on your body. Your body will have to work harder for energy and you will be feeling the effects of the fast such as tiredness that may make you weaker. The most important thing you can do to prevent this is to get as much rest as you can and keep yourself hydrated.
Even though it´s called a water fast some people actually forget to drink their water. Don’t make the same mistake. You need to keep yourself fairly hydrated without going overboard. Common symptoms of a dehydration include very little or no urine, no tears when crying, feeling disoriented and confused, or faint. During the hotter months like summer there is a higher risk for dehydration so take necessary precautions. If you feel any of these symptoms you should stop the fast and go see a doctor. To prevent dehydration during a water fast it is important to drink throughout the day in regular intervals.
Faint and Dizziness
It is actually very common for people to feel some slight dizziness or even faint during a water fast. The body is not getting any nutrients in and since there are no calories consumed the body needs to exert itself even more whilst adding strain to the normal functions. To prevent this from being a problem make sure you are drinking enough water. Another remedy is to have a salty drink since we lose some of our important electrolytes during the fast. And most importantly, rest as much as you can!
Also commonly known as postural hypotension, orthostatic hypotension is when a person´s blood pressure falls too quickly and suddenly from a sitting or lying down position. Sometimes this can be due to dehydration in which case, the person should drink some water and see a doctor. Certain factors may actually in
crease the probability of orthostatic hypotension such as pregnancy, heat exposure, alcohol and certain diseases. To avoid getting dizzy while standing up, maneuver yourself very slowly and don’t make any brash or sudden movements.
Who Should Not Fast?
Let´s face it, not everyone is up for the task of water fasting! And it´s usually not because they don’t want to, but because their health or physical limitations keep them from doing so. Of course, anybody who does not feel comfortable going a long period of time without eating food or even skipping meals should not attempt a fast. Following is a list of some examples of people who should not do a water fast.
Women who are pregnant need to eat to supply vitamins and nutrients to the unborn fetus. Fasting will restrict nutrients from the baby therefore putting its life in danger and also risking the mother´s health. Breastfeeding women also need to eat for their milk supply and fasting may deteriorate the process by depleting the milk.
Young children, and even teenagers, are still in their developmental stages in life therefore their bodies are not fully grown. In order to develop healthy bodies, they need adequate sources of vitamins, minerals and proteins. For this reason, a water fast is not recommended for young people. Exceptions to this are certain religious and spiritual sects like Muslims for example. Muslims go through a period of fasting during Ramadan, which includes children once they’ve reached puberty. This process is usually done in a supervised setting. In general, unless it is advised by their doctor, children should not try to fast. If they do decide to fast they should get permission from their parents and medical practitioners and be regularly monitored.
People with Blood Sugar Issues
People who suffer from any type of blood sugar problems are not advised to do a water fast without medical provision because their bodies cannot go too long without consuming some type of glucose. This may include people who suffer from hypoglycemia, adrenal fatigue, liver problems or any dysfunction related to insulin levels such as diabetes.
However, it is not to say that people who have these issues shouldn’t fast, but rather, shouldn’t faster without medical supervision. In fact, there have been some cases in which water fasting has even helped reverse diabetes in some people. In these cases, what´s important is that the blood sugars are regularly monitored and insulin levels are in check. It´s common for diabetics who fast to incorporate some juice into their routine if their blood sugars drop too low. Normally, in these types of situations where a prolonged water fast is not recommended, partial (or intermittent) fasting may prove to be a better option without putting too much stress on the body and still reap the benefits of a fast.
Respectively, there have been studies and even success stories of people who have cured diabetes with fasting.
People with Other Serious Illnesses
Any person who suffers from any serious or chronic disease or illness should always consult their doctor before attempting any new diet. People who have serious illnesses usually take some form of medication and need to apply specific dietary factors into their lives to maintain their health. Some people with diseases require certain foods and some medications may cause side effects that require the person to eat or drink something. As mentioned in the previous section, it´s possible a fast may be beneficial to someone who suffers illness but it´s a case by case basis in which the person needs to be advised and closely monitored by their doctor who manages their illness.
Preparing for a Fast
Preparing for a fast is just as crucial as the fast itself. If you delve into a fast right away without any prior preparation you may be in for a rude awakening, especially if it’s a fast longer than 24 hours. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to make the transition from eating to fasting a smoother experience. Always keep these important tips in mind before starting any water fast regardless of the duration.
Adjust Your Diet
During a fast your body will go through some changes and you will be abstaining from anything that your body may be accustomed, or even addicted, to. Regular consumption of sugar and caffeine, for example, can cause dependency and actual addiction. An abrupt decrease or elimination of this consumption can cause some serious withdrawal symptoms in some individuals. To prevent withdrawals, it´s recommended to taper off slowly before the fast so by the time you start fasting your body already had time to adjust to the change. If junk food is your issue try going a few days of healthy eating with fruits and vegetables so the fast won´t be such a shock to your system. Some people drink cleansing teas like, like green tea and lemon, to initiate the body to start releasing toxins so it doesn’t get overloaded.
Get Your Mind Right
Another great way to prepare for a fast is by mentally envisioning a successful fast. Make sure you know all the common side effects so you don’t end up surprising yourself. Be aware that fasting, although doable, is tough. Especially if this is your first time fasting you have to be mentally prepared to deal with negative thoughts and feelings that a water fast can conjure up. Just remember it´s perfectly normal.
Have a Plan
This means have a set goal planned as to how many days you plan to fast. Additionally, have a backup plan, or an emergency plan, in case you come across some unwanted side effects. Know the difference between danger signs and a healing crisis. It´s normal to have days in which you want to quit your fast so be prepared and have a plan as to how you´re going to get through those times.
Finally, before starting your fast talk to your doctor to make sure you have no prior health concerns that may hinder your progress and keep you from successfully completing the fast.
Breaking a Fast
Probably one of the most important parts of a water fast is how to break the fast safely. Ending a fast without considerable preparation can actually be dangerous and undo all the benefits and advantages that was previously reaped from the fast. Your body has gotten use to not ingesting any food, so when you start to add food back into the diet do so gradually or else you will experience some adverse reactions to the body. Also, keep in mind your body after a fast is cleaner so breaking a fast with junk food and unhealthy foods will probably make you sick. Don´t end a fast immediately with food but adding in nutritious liquids first to get the digestive system a safe start and so that your body adjusts to the transition from fasting to eating. Introducing foods and drinks gradually is the key to a successful break to a fast. Follow an important guideline to breaking a fast so that you don´t end up reversing all your efforts.
We have gone over the basics and most essential elements of a water fast. Being equipped with the right information a person can go into a fast with more awareness, more faith, and an acute understanding of the workings of the body that will enable a higher success rate. No person should attempt a water fast without being thoroughly knowledgeable of what a fast essentially is and the common side effects. Enjoying a fast means completing it safely. Safety is essential. Additionally, it is evident that water fasting has been proven to be a highly rewarding regime in terms of health and other various forms of advantages to the person. A fast can benefit your body, your mind, your emotions and even reverse major illness! It has been the preferred method since ancient times of connecting spiritually with God and seeking answers to life´s greatest challenges and questions! So, enjoy your fast! Enjoy a new outlook on life! And most importantly, enjoy great health! Another great thing you will get from a fast is learning to differentiate between real hunger and head hunger. That way you will eat when you really are hungry and not out of boredom, stress, etc. Provided are additional tips to get you started on your fasting journey:
- Always keep your objectives in mind and set clear goals.
- Acknowledge that it won’t be easy.
- Keep a positive mindset from start to finish.
- Clear out your schedule so you can focus more on your task.
- Allow the emotions you feel during a fast to be a learning experience.
- Let the fast be an incredible spiritual growth opportunity.
- Drink enough water and get plenty of rest.
- Stay committed to your original plan when you start to have doubts.
- Remember, a fast is not a quick fix.
And most importantly, be safe!