Overcoming addictions through water fasting


  • How water fasting helps addictions
  • Dealing with detox and withdrawal symptoms
  • How to get the most out of your fast
  • Healing from within through fasting
    • It all depends on how you approach fast

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.

Check out the webshop on waterfasting.org

The webshop offers downloadable fasting plans and guides to help make your water fast a success.

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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17 responses to “Overcoming addictions through water fasting”

  1. Bradley Horwith Avatar
    Bradley Horwith

    Hi Tallis.
    I first stumbled on your site probably a few months ago. I had previously done the keto diet, as well as supplements, nootropics, caloric restriction, and many other things off and on to varying levels of success. I remember stumbling on your site a few months ago. I did a 3-day water fast and it was tough but it set me off on a journey for sure.
    I recently discovered Dr. Sten Ekberg, he’s very worth checking out. I really love things explained in a detailed way that show the way processes work chemically in a detailed way, so his videos have been instrumental to me. It seems to make things easier (at least mentally for me) when one is in an informed state about what is happening chemically with their body. I’ve since come to believe that out of control insulin resistance is the root cause of probably 90% of all chronic disease in our modern society.
    I have since gotten pretty used to fasting with coffee (which stimulates autophagy but also doesn’t provide the gut rest benefits) I’ve been getting to the point where 24-48 hour fasts are essentially second nature to me. That may be because I follow keto macros and only eat fresh unprocessed food. I believe I am ready to jump back into my water fasting journey. I do see how it’s a journey that gets easier over time, and it often is “two steps forward, one step back”
    I’ve always been obese and a huge junk food addict. I am now 30 years old, and the lowest weight I’ve been since probably 15-ish. My I’ve never felt better in my life, physically mentally or spiritually. I’d like to continue on this journey, as pure water fasting would provide the additional benefits to my body’s homeostasis and gut rest, among other benefits.
    I just wanted to express my profound gratitude for discovering your website and what an instrumental part of my journey it has been. You have my sincere appreciation. Please keep doing what you are doing, you have made such a huge difference in my life and no doubt the lives of many others. Thank you!

    1. Tallis Barker, D.Phil. Avatar
      Tallis Barker, D.Phil.

      Hi Bradley,
      Thanks for your kind words :-). I’m glad you’ve already found water fasting to be so beneficial!
      Since you bring up fasting with coffee, I’d just like to throw in a word of warning here. There are several otherwise reputable sources on the internet who advise this, but what they don’t understand is that what can work for a short fast often DOESN’T work on longer fasts. I’ve had numerous clients who come to me precisely because of this… On fasts longer than three days, the short-term suppression of appetite caused by the caffeine usually turns into increased hunger caused by the acidity of the coffee as well as the increase in metabolic rate. For those with sensitive digestion, this often leads to stubborn acid reflux, nausea and even cramping. So, if and when the time comes on your fasting journey to extend the length of your fasts, do be careful about your sources! Many of those with a training in traditional medicine (MDs) simply don’t have clinical experience with or a full understanding of extended fasts.
      All the best,

      1. I’m not sure who Rhonda Patrick interviewed but there was a scientist who researches fasting who was explaining that there are essentially two levels of fasting, one in which we consume xenobiotics, and one in which we consume no xenobiotics. Essentially a xenobiotic in this context is counted as anything that activates the liver to process it, including coffee and medications. I don’t recall the exact difference, but it was a big difference.

  2. Hi Tallis. Thanks for the great articles. I am relatively experienced in fasting. Mostly 3 day, although I support my wife through 7 day fasts. I am curious if there are ‘ideal’ times to to incorporate sauna sessions during 3+ day fasts. Also, any tips for kicking smoking while fasting would be great. That’s my most urgent goal. For me, It’s an emotional addiction as a much as physical for sure. Thanks again!

    1. Tallis Barker, D.Phil. Avatar
      Tallis Barker, D.Phil.

      Hi Jeremiah,

      Sauna session are always good as a means to sweat out toxins as well as move the lymph – which can otherwise have a tendency to accumulate toxins in the lymph nodes, thereby lead to aches and pains. Just be careful not to overdo the heat or duration of the sauna. Your body will always be more sensitive to heat regulation while fasting.

      The easiest and most reliable way to give up smoking is always on a fast. Even for hardcore smokers, the body often becomes disgusted by the smoke and nicotine by Day 3 or 4. When this doesn’t happen by itself, it’s still usually straightforward to give up smoking while fasting. I currently have a client who gave up smoking halfway through her 21-day fast. Although her body didn’t spontaneously reject the cigarettes earlier on, she did it with no difficulties or temptation to smoke after I suggested she simply try cutting them out. Even now, well after the end of her fast, she has no desire to return to smoking.

      Hope this helps,

  3. Are you suppose to eliminate daily medications, such as thyroid and ADHD meds while fasting?

    1. Tallis Barker, D.Phil. Avatar
      Tallis Barker, D.Phil.

      Hi Karah,
      Dealing with meds while fasting is an extremely important issue. A few meds (such as Metformin) interfere with fasting metabolism and are downright dangerous. Others, such as most thyroid meds, need to be reduced while fasting in order to prevent side effects. In principle, the more meds you can SAFELY reduce and eliminate during the fast, the better. This enables your body to establish a new ‘zero point’ around which to calibrate. But you need to understand how each specific med interacts with the body in order to decide whether to eliminate, reduce or retain their pre-fasting dosage.
      All the best,

  4. I desperately need to start now. I could use support. Where to go?

    1. Tallis Barker Ph.D. Avatar
      Tallis Barker Ph.D.

      Hi Susan,

      Sorry for the slow response over New Year’s. If you need support through your fast, I offer online coaching and consultations here:

      The only thing I’d say is that if you’re ‘desperate to start now’, it’s really important that you don’t rush into things too fast! This is a big reason that people break off their fasts early. I know it may sound paradoxical, but it’s usually much more fruitful to give yourself a little time to plan things out, know how long you want to fast for, and get accustomed to the idea of not eating for a while.

      Hope this helps,

  5. There’s a great book about this!

    Shelton, Herbet M. The Hygienic System, Vol. III, Fasting and Sun Bathing.

    1. Tallis Barker Ph.D. Avatar
      Tallis Barker Ph.D.

      Hi Kat,
      Yes, you’re absolutely right. Dr Shelton is one of the best sources there is for (historical) information about fasting. ‘The Science and Fine Arts of Fasting’ is probably his greatest work.
      Thanks for sharing,

  6. can i break sex addiction with water fasting ?

    1. Tallis Barker Ph.D. Avatar
      Tallis Barker Ph.D.

      Hi David,

      This is a question which does occasionally recur. Addiction to sex is primarily an emotional addiction, not a physical one. If you have a high level of sex hormones, then water fasting might help regulate this – but many people have high levels of sex hormones without it translating into an addiction, so I’m not sure how this would necessarily help you. Water fasting can also help people break emotional addictions too, but this is much harder and is usually something which must take place over several fasts. It’s often two steps forward and one step backwards in this respect. If you have a serious addiction, it would be worth working together with a therapist if you want to involve water fasting as part of the healing process.

      All the best,

  7. I’m currently two days into a 5-7 day water fast. I actually want to break up my water fasting to 3 days a week for 10 weeks. Will it benefit me doing this?

    1. Tallis Shivantar Avatar
      Tallis Shivantar

      Hi Marcus,

      It’s certainly possible to fast 3 days per week over a long period. I have a client who has been doing so for more than a year, in order to control the pace of a Stage 4 cancer. A lot depends on the reasons you’re fasting. Depending on those reasons, fasting 3 days a week may or may not be the most efficient method.

      All the best,

  8. Sara Burnside Avatar
    Sara Burnside

    Seems like one would have to fast for a while when really addicted. What’s the minimum effective dosage for this type of thing? I realize everyone is different and some addictions are much worse than others, but is anything less than a week effective?

    1. Tallis Shivantar Avatar
      Tallis Shivantar

      Hi Sara,

      I don’t want to be vague, but it really does depend on the person, the addiction and its severity. Having said that, fasts of less than a week can help to a degree in some cases.

      Hope this helps,

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