What is fasting?
The term fasting comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word that means, “to abstain” although we currently use it to describe a variety of dietary constraints. A juice fast for example, or another kind of mono-food fast is simply a restricted diet – which is not the same as fasting and the effects on the body are quite different. In a literal sense, fasting means the abstinence from all food or more accurately, from all nutrients for a specified period of time. It refers to the consumption of water only.
Fasting is not the same thing as starving. The difference between fasting and starving is that fasting refers to the complete abstinence from food as long as nutritional reserves of the body remain adequate to support life and normal function and starving does not. This post is about my own recent fasting experience (consuming water only) for a period of 7 days.
Some people fast for religious and spiritual reasons, others to reduce the symptoms of, or treat a compelling health issue. I fasted because I wanted a serious cleanse – a whole-body reboot. According to Dr. Alec Burton, rejuvenation, which literally means to make young again, can only be achieved through nutritional stringency, or fasting. Fasting gives the digestive tract time to rest and strengthen its mucosal lining. A healthy digestive tract helps to protect the blood and inner organs against a variety of environmental and metabolic toxins. During a fast, the body’s self-healing mechanisms are at optimum levels and will begin to repair and strengthen damaged tissues and organs. I believe that through fasting, the body can remove accumulated toxins resulting in a completely revitalized foundation from which a healthy body can be built and maintained.
What happens in the body during a fast?
Generally, the body’s blood sugar level falls, the heart rate slows down and blood pressure drops. To restore normal glucose levels in the blood, the body mobilizes glycogen from muscles and the liver, converts it into glucose (sugar) and releases it into the blood. After the first 24-48 hours of fasting for women and up to 72 hours for men, the body’s basic biological processes shift to ketone production, which is the use of fatty acids as fuel instead of glucose. Essentially, the body switches from utilizing carbohydrates as a source of energy to utilizing fat as a source of energy and will continue to do so until either the body runs out of fat or the fast is terminated. The biological processes that kick in during this stage are evolutionary and designed to protect muscle tissue and vital organs from damage during periods of abstinence from food.
Healing is a biological process that is in continual operation whether you are fasting or not. Fasting simply enables the digestive system to take a break and the body to divert all of its energy to remove toxins and heal and regenerate damaged tissues and organs. It is important to understand that fasting is simply a physiological rest. Fasting doesn’t heal; healing takes place during a fast.
Should you rest while fasting?
Yes! The reason that rest is so important during a fast is because at any time you need more energy than can be supplied by your fat reserves, the body will compensate by burning muscle (since muscles provide a faster source of energy during physical activity). That said, for the average person in good health, and depending on your occupation, it is entirely possible to continue working while you fast. At least, it was for me. I sit or stand in front of a computer most of the day and worked 4 of the 7 days during my fast. Although I experienced a sharp decline in physical energy, nothing interfered with my ability to commute to and from work or handle my usual workload. The drop in physical energy I experienced was a strong signal to me that engaging in physical exercise, such as going to the gym, would have been highly taxing on my body. So for the week of the fast, I abstained from any form physical exercise. In hindsight, had I driven to work rather than commute by train (which involves 4 flights of stairs up and 3 down, just to reach the train platform), I might have conserved even more energy.
My mental energy wasn’t negatively affected by fasting. Mental clarity actually heightens during a fast and I actually felt more alert and clearheaded than normal.
What type of water should you drink?
There is no shortage of information on the best type of water to drink during a fast and much of the confusion may have to do with what part of the world you live in. Municipal tap water is generally less preferable to distilled, bottled or filtered water due to the variety of contaminants it may contain, such as chlorine, fluoride and dioxins, to name a few. Calgary is one of a growing number of Canadian cities that has banned fluoride from its public water supply but chlorine is added twice during the water treatment process. Chlorine has been used to disinfect drinking water and kill various microorganisms and viruses that can cause disease for most of the 20th century.
Federal laws set stringent standards for bottled water in Canada, and provinces and territories may have additional requirements for their own jurisdictions. Water filter systems are not held to the same scrutiny though, so the effectiveness in removing contaminants using water filtration devices differs between manufacturers.
Some claim that distilled water is best for cleansing and detoxifying since it is able to actively absorb toxic substances from the body and eliminate them. Many medical professionals however, caution that distilled water is free of dissolved minerals and consumption beyond a short period of time, such as a few weeks may contribute to mineral deficiencies. Others argue that the perceived value of minerals is misleading because the inorganic minerals are like huge boulders to the cellular membranes, making them impossible to assimilate.
Since water was the only thing I would be consuming for 7 days, I wanted to get it right, but at the same time I didn’t want to be overly bogged down by overthinking the options. I ended up consuming both distilled water and filtered tap water during my fast – filtered water when I was at work, (because that’s what was available) and distilled water the rest of the time.
This is not my first water-only fast, but it is my longest. I ended my previous fasts after two and three days respectively. Prior to each one, I spent a substantial amount of time reading and researching the subject of fasting, not only for guidance, but to better understand the pitfalls and symptoms I could expect to encounter during the fast. In addition to articles written by medical experts with extensive knowledge about water fasting from personal or professional experience, I watched YouTube videos, and read articles and blog posts by people that have fasted and documented their personal journeys. All of this was done to prepare myself mentally for the experience to come. Mental preparation is an important step in the fasting process. In fact, it is key. For the average person, most of the challenges during a fast are mental rather than physical so the more firmly your reasons for fasting and your desired outcomes are entrenched in your mind, the better your chances of success.
My first two fasts were preceded with a couple of days of “light eating”. That means I ate less food overall, mostly raw, and eliminated sugar, all oils, bread, meat and dairy for a couple of days leading up to Day 1. (Full disclosure; I began eliminating oils, refined sugar and soy from my diet about a year ago and am a vegan-in-progress, so this wasn’t hard to do). However, this time around I attended a dinner the night before the first day of fasting, which interfered with my ability to eat light and be selective with pre-fast foods. The timing of this fast was strategic in that I wanted to fit it in between two social events at which eating would be a big part of the events, so I needed to start when I did. Timing my fasts between events involving food has always been a challenge for me and the reason my previous fasts were shorter.
What to expect during a fast
There are a variety of things people may experience at different stages during a fast. Longer fasts sometimes produce a temporary recurrence of aches and pains associated with old injuries as the body’s healing mechanisms work to remove causative agents. Once the causative agent is removed, the body works to replace damaged tissue. While a short fast will reduce the symptomatic aches and pains, a longer fast can completely heal. Some people also report old emotional wounds surfacing during a fast. I didn’t experience any serious physical or emotional issues but it is possible that things may have surfaced during a longer fast. Fasting was a positive and pleasurable experience for me. My own experience includes:
- Feeling hungry for the first day or so. This will pass. Understand that there is a difference between wanting to eat and true hunger.
- Bowels virtually cease to function during the fast. There is no need for enemas as the stomach, intestines and colon are simply getting a complete rest. Bowel activity will resume naturally 2 or 3 days after the fast is terminated without any type of interference.
- Physical energy levels drop
- Weight loss
- Mental clarity
Day 1 is the day that most people fasting for the first time struggle with in terms of hunger. In my case, I wasn’t expecting any problems given my previous fasting experience and the mental preparation I had done before starting. My only concern was that I had eaten fairly heavily the day before and I wasn’t sure what, if any effects that might have. As it turned out, there were no negative effects.
I definitely wanted to eat at least a few of times on Day 1 and I thought about food a quite lot, but I kept myself busy to stay the course. This wasn’t as hard as it might sound. My desire for food wasn’t overwhelming nor was I craving anything. I was also at work on Day 1 so there were plenty of things to keep my mind occupied. I drank water when I was thirsty or felt like eating and continually reminded myself of the reasons I chose to fast in the first place until the feeling passed.
On Day 2, I wasn’t hungry at all. (I had the same experience in my previous two fasts). I attribute this to the body adapting to less food intake, but also to mental preparation. Really, if you have never fasted before make sure you prepare for it mentally. The challenges you’ll face when fasting will be mental rather than physical. And remember, there is a difference between wanting to eat and actual hunger.
By the third day, weight loss was significant enough to fit into clothes I hadn’t worn in a while. My stomach was flatter and the whites of my eyes were brighter. My skin looked and felt better too. My facial pores seemed smaller. I was lightheaded but I also felt very alert. Mental clarity is a well-noted benefit of fasting, and I certainly felt clear headed.
By Day 4 my body seemed well adapted to the fast and on Day 5 I decided to prepare a couple of recipes that I would later post on my blog. I was thinking about food almost constantly but oddly enough, I didn’t feel any hunger. The temptation to eat while I was in the kitchen cooking just wasn’t there, which speaks to the value of mental preparation. I will say that the cooking aromas were more intense than usual, which may just mean that I’ve become a bit more sensitive to smells.
At the end of Day 7, I had mixed feelings about ending the fast. On the one hand I was looking forward to waking up the next morning and having something to eat. On the other hand, I felt good enough to continue the fast and allow cleansing and detoxifying to occur at a much deeper level. However, I had a staff Christmas party coming up and I wanted to slowly re-introduce food for a couple of days prior to that to avoid overloading my digestive system on the night. So, I stuck to the original plan for a 7-day fast and will consider a longer fast next time.
Ending the fast
Some sources say that the refeeding process should be a slow reintroduction of food that lasts as long as the fast itself. Others claim that it really doesn’t matter how soon or what type of food you eat after a fast, citing the feast and famine eating patterns of animals in the wild and Paleolithic people. I believe that it is best to slowly introduce food for at least one full day after the fast has been terminated. It’s even better if you can reintroduce food slowly over 2 or 3 days before resuming a normal eating pattern. This isn’t actually all that difficult because it can take a few days to feel hungry again after fasting. Regardless of the specific number of days you take to reintroduce food to your digestive system, start with foods easiest to digest, such as fruits and raw vegetables, followed by those hardest to digest, such as grains and meat (if you’re a carnivore).
On Day 8 my weight had dropped to 116 lbs. That means I lost a total of 9 lbs. during a 7-day fast. Again, weight loss was not my purpose for fasting nor is fasting a practical strategy for losing weight. In order to maintain any weight loss from fasting, energy output needs to match or exceed food intake after the fast, just as it would in any other weight loss maintenance program.
Upon waking, I drank 16 oz. of natural spring water and then began to slowly reintroduce food as follows:
- 2 oz. of fruit every 2 hours, starting at 8 am and ending at 8 pm
- I drank water when I felt thirsty.
Because I know that digestion begins in the mouth, I ate slowly, making sure the fruit was well masticated before swallowing. The fruit tasted absolutely sublime but my stomach was upset for several hours once I began to eat again. However, sometime in the late afternoon, my stomach settled quite suddenly and after that I felt completely normal.
My fruit of choice was papaya: one because I love it, and two, because I happened to have one on hand. I considered choosing a locally grown fruit given that the papaya would have been picked before it was ripe to survive it’s several thousand-kilometre trip to Calgary, but since the papaya is known to contain enzymes that help with digestion and I already had one, in the end I went with that.
On Days 9, 10, my weight was back up to 117 lbs. I followed the same eating format until 6 pm both days. I also added a heaping tablespoon of fresh pomegranate seeds to the papaya, (increasing the amount of fruit to about 3 oz. every 2 hours). My level of energy was returning to normal. Bowel activity returned on Day 10, and by then the thick white coating on my tongue had disappeared. My breath, which was foul during the fast, became normal – even pleasant. The dryness in my throat that I experienced on the last couple of days of the fast also vanished.
A few of the benefits I noticed were that the whites of my eyes are clear and bright; my skin looks and feels wonderful and I am really enjoying the mental clarity. Actually, I feel incredible mentally and physically!
The day-by-day details of my fasting experience, including weight loss and symptoms are presented in the following table. For each day of my fast I drank roughly 4 litres of water (about one US gallon). This was not a prescribed volume; I was not trying to consume a specific volume of water per day. I simply drank when I felt thirsty and the volume of water for my own level of comfort ended up being roughly 4 litres daily. I weighed myself with a regular bathroom scale upon waking every morning. The only exercise I had for the 7 days was my daily commute by train to and from work and one casual 30-minute walk on Day 3.
Going into this fast I wondered if I could actually do it. Would I actually be able to get through 7-days of nothing but water? Could I continue working while fasting or would I have to take time off for this? There were many unknowns. I had never fasted longer than 3 days before and I wasn’t sure how I would feel after the first few days. What I learned is that I absolutely could have fasted longer, and would have, had it not been for that Christmas party on my calendar. This was not a miserable or painful experience in any way for me and I would definitely like to try a longer fast some day . In fact, I am already looking forward to it.
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