How water fasting helps addictions
Water fasting is an extremely powerful tool to help overcome addictions caused by smoking, drinking and drugs in general, as well as any food addictions, such as those caused by sugar, salt, caffeine, chocolate, flavour enhancers… Unfortunately, the list is almost endless.
On a physical level, addictive substances cause changes to your biochemistry which induce your body to demand more of the given substance in order to sustain homeostasis – that is, the stability of your metabolism. On an emotional level, addictive substances manipulate the way you feel about and relate to a given type of food, drink or drug, so that you want more of it. More than just simple desire, you actually need more of the addictive substance in order to sustain your mood or ’emotional homeostasis’.
Because the physical and emotional elements of addiction are so closely intertwined, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a downward spiral. For instance, that bar of chocolate (literal or figurative) elicits biochemical physical changes in the brain as dopamine and other hormones are released. This makes you feel good emotionally. As a result, you crave more – and grab for another bar, thereby repeating and intensifying the cycle in a feedback loop.
Fasting works like a ‘reset’ button to bring addiction to an end. By not ingesting anything except pure water, you finally have a chance to start living without the influence of any outside factors. You can just be. The beauty of it is that, at the same time, water fasting also activates your cleansing and healing metabolism. This allows your body to start the process of recalibration towards a new homeostasis: one in which you have no need for that ‘bar of chocolate’. Instead, your body will begin to guide you towards what it already know is best for you. The most amazing feeling is when cravings for chocolate and sugar disappear during a fast, spontaneously replaced by thoughts of salad or fruit. I’ve experienced it myself, and I see it in my water fasting clients the whole time. It’s a joy to witness!
Dealing with detox and withdrawal symptoms
First, let’s be clear about the terminology. For all practical purposes, there is no fundamental difference between detox symptoms and withdrawal symptoms. Both present as a result of cleansing toxins from the body. Both also tend to result in a similar spectrum of symptoms. The main question simply concerns the source of the toxin. Withdrawal symptoms are caused by toxins arising specifically from an addictive habit or substance, whereas detox symptoms arise through the cleansing of any type of toxin.
Just as there are both physical and emotional elements to any addiction, giving up the source of your addiction is almost certainly going to result in both physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms. I won’t lie to you: it’s the price you pay for any addiction.
On an emotional level, cravings are inevitable until your body is well into the process of recalibration. Although challenging, facing your shadows doesn’t have to be a frightening or even negative experience. With the right attitude and with support, it can also be hugely illuminating: a process of discovery towards deeper self. Almost all emotional addictions arise through trying to compensate for a lack of love, respect or fulfilment elsewhere in life (often originating in early childhood). Consciously facing these emotional withdrawal symptoms during a fast helps to shine light on issues which otherwise remain anchored in the subconscious – where they are able to continue to exert unwanted influence over your life.
Since addictive substances usually create toxic byproducts, the cleansing of a water fast also tends to result in physical withdrawal symptoms. This is in addition to the more general detox symptoms of a fast, caused by the cleansing of accumulated environmental and metabolic toxins. Often it is impossible to distinguish between those symptoms caused by general detox and those caused specifically by withdrawal. However, it is certainly true that consequently the overall weight of symptoms during a water fast tends to be greater for those who also suffer from an addiction. Although these can be nasty – causing headaches, nausea, blurred vision and severe swings of mood – they are rarely dangerous in most cases.*
When things get really rough, the important thing is being able to distinguish between when to push through a detox symptom to reach a full cleanse and when to abort the fast because of safety concerns. Unfortunately, though, this is not an easy task, especially for someone fasting without a lot of prior experience. Some purists argue that you should almost always try to push through, but I would stress that such an un-nuanced approach is unnecessarily dangerous! There is a time and a place for everything…
In order to reduce withdrawal symptoms, it’s usually a good idea to try to reduce the consumption of addiction-forming substances prior to a water fast. (This is especially effective when combined with a cleansing diet.) For instance, people who want to heal from food addictions should try to adjust their pre-fast diet to reduce if not eliminate caffeine, sugar and salt. However, this can often become a double-edged sword, because as much as it is likely to reduce physical symptoms during the fast, it can equally elicit more severe emotional symptoms, as feelings of deprivation and cravings take hold even before the fast has begun.
For those who don’t consider themselves addicted to caffeine, sugar and salt, it’s still a good idea to reduce the consumption of these substances before a fast. This is because, even when consumed in moderate quantities, caffeine, sugar and salt almost always lead to headaches, cravings and/or low-energy levels during detox. Why weigh down your water fast with additional and unnecessary symptoms, when these can be addressed more smoothly before the fast?
During any water fast your emotional and physical condition are closely linked, so knowing how treat detox and withdrawal symptoms not only alleviates your physical condition, but it also contributes to a much smoother experience emotionally. And certainly, different symptoms respond with differing degrees of success to different approaches. If you need help with this, I offer a pdf on how to deal with detox symptoms.
How to get the most out of your fast
In order to maximise the chances of success, I would definitely recommend that anyone suffering from a clinical addiction – whether drugs, alcohol or food – consult with an expert in the relevant field (such as an M.D., nutritionist or psychologist), and then carry out the water fast under the personal supervision of a water fasting coach like myself. Even if you suffer from a less serious addiction, it’s still important to know that water fasting does not automatically offer a magical solution to your problem.
It all depends on how you approach your fast
For those with eating disorders, for example, water fasting can certainly help to alleviate and, in time, even overcome the abuse of food. But it is also all too easy for such people to abuse water fasting, thereby making the addiction worse. There are several ways for this to happen, such as attempting to undertake too ambitious a fast, which can easily lead to failure. Or it may simply arise from the fact that abstaining from food through a water fast already too closely resembles the illness itself – for in a way the withholding of food in an eating disorder such as anorexia already constitutes a kind of fast, albeit misguided. There are many potential pitfalls along the way, but someone who knows the ropes can help you from falling into them.
The length of fast required to clear an addiction depends on the given substance, as well as the degree of severity of the addiction. When it comes specifically to many food addictions, a single fast hardly ever catalyses permanent success – even after a 40-day fast or other extended fast. This is primarily due to the fact that specific food addictions are impossible to disentangle from the general, lifelong addiction to eating. Quite simply, it requires more than just one fast to heal from habits which have developed since literally the day you were born.
Although this may sound depressing, it can also be liberating not to feel like all your eggs are in one basket. The solution, therefore, is to conduct multiple fasts over a period of time. It is human to err, and inevitably old eating habits are likely to reassert themselves at some point and to some degree after your fast. In such cases, it is more useful to think of the process as ‘two steps forward, one step backwards’ Each fast provides a new, as well as renewed perspective on what it feels to live free from under the influence of an addictive substance. Over time you’ll approach your goal, and with a little patience, self-forgiveness and (most importantly) self-love, you’ll get there.
Once you do succeed, you’ll be able to experience the addictive substance for what it is. After a water fast, alcohol tastes like poison, tobacco is noxious, refined sugar is sickly sweet. Of course, for anyone with a serious addiction, it’s best to avoid the given substance altogether at this point – but a successful water fast should reduce or even eliminate the temptation to fall back in the first place. You’ll simply be able to enjoy the gifts of mother nature without the need for anything more. The gift of simple food. The gift of life itself. The joy of freedom from the physical and emotional chains of addiction.
What can be better than that?
*A few drugs, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines (eg. Xanax, Valium) and certain opiates (eg. Methadone) can cause serious complications and even death if detoxing takes place too rapidly. ALWAYS consult your doctor before undertaking a fast to tackle a serious addiction!
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