How to do a water fast and what to expect

I previously wrote about water fasting and its impact on type 2 diabetes.

In that post, I mentioned the late Dr. Herbert Shelton (1928-1981) who took more than 25,000 patients through water fasting from 3 to more than 60 days.

His words are encouraging: “The sick get well, the well get better, and all gain the priceless knowledge needed to stay well.”

I’ve personally seen dramatic improvement with arthritis, headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue, rashes, water retention, and more.

Let’s visit the details of how to do a water fast safely and effectively.

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What happens during a water fast

Water fasting sounds daunting but remember, after the third fast day your hunger naturally shuts down and going without food becomes easier. Of course, you must always stay well hydrated.

As long as you drink plenty of water (e.g. 2 liters of water daily), the cells of nearly every tissue of your body undergo a molecular change when you liquid cleanse. You’ll release unneeded material that has accumulated in your system over months — even years. These unneeded molecules that you’ll wash away are from chemical food additives, cosmetics, deodorants, and their metabolites.

These molecules act on the body much like microbial invaders during an infection. In an infection, your immune system recognizes the invaders and mounts an immune response resulting in diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, fever, cough, congestion and other methods to fight off the invading organism and restore your health. But with a dietary cleanse, the waste molecules introduced over the years are released from various tissue cells, with far less severe symptoms than in an acute attack of the flu.

In summary, the health effects of water fasting are:

  • Breaking down fat reserves and mobilizing stored toxins for elimination
  • Quieting inflammatory processes, which are at the root of every chronic disease. One of the ways this occurs is by giving the digestive system a rest and allowing for healing of the lining and to reduce leaky gut (a hyperpermeable intestinal membrane) which is a major underlying cause of chronic diseases.
  • Shrinking your stomach, wakes up your taste buds and prepares you for a lifestyle of consuming whole foods.
  • Awakening your awareness of emotions

Getting started on a water fast

A water fast will require some preparation. As you know, a water fast requires a dedicated series of days when there are very few extra physical, emotional or mental demands upon you. It is best done when you can stay warm, relaxed, and have time to meditate, read, and focus on healing your body. Each day you deal with high stress while on your water fast, you extend the time required to detoxify by an additional one-half day. Therefore, you will want to tell others you live with and even co-workers so they will support you; prepare your kitchen for your return to solid foods again at the end of your water fast. Coming off the fast is the most important part of it if you want real change in your health to last.

Also, you will want to decide how long you will water fast. This depends upon your cleansing experience, physical strength and condition, mental attitude, level of chronic illness, and work schedule.  The real detoxification and cleansing benefits of water fasting only begin on day four of the fast.

What to expect on a water fast

 Here are possible detoxification symptoms you can expect to experience:

  • Diarrhea, and associated loss of water, minerals, and water-soluble vitamins. In this case, you’ll want to be sure to replenish minerals with EmergenC or similar mineral electrolyte supplements that are over the counter
  • Lightheadedness or possibly even headaches
  • Mild sweating or increased urination

Beyond the third day of water only, your liver starts to dump waste products from detoxification into the bloodstream.  This may cause you to feel flu-like symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, chills, trembling or even increased respiratory rate. This is known as the Herxheimer reaction, or “healing crisis.” This is where you feel worse at first while your body detoxifies — and then releases chemicals.

Additional days on water only will take your cleansing even further so that you’ll begin to experience deeper cleanse symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, general malaise, worse bad breath, body odor or skin eruptions. or even chills that feel like the flu. If you are worried that you are experiencing something that might be dangerous for your physical health, call your trusted healthcare practitioner.

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How to come off the water fast

If you read the writings of the late Herbert Shelton, M.D., there are some indicators as to when your body is detoxifying and is ready to return to foods again. First and foremost, your hunger returns; less importantly, your breath becomes sweet and clean (which during all or most of the fast will be offensive), your tongue becomes clean from the thick coating you see on the fast; your skin reactions subside; the bad taste in your mouth goes away; your eyes become bright, your eyesight improves; your stool odor improves significantly; your urine becomes light colored; and finally, you feel elation. These are all indicators that it is time to end your cleanse.

Returning to solid foods again is the most important part of your cleanse because when done slowly and wisely, you can easily continue to cleanse by predominately eating “cleansing” foods.  Therefore, in addition to using juices and soup broths to come off your cleanse, also use herbal teas, lime aide, and water.  Do this for the first day coming off your cleanse. Dr. Shelton found it best for patients to end their longer water fast with fruit juice — usually orange juice — or tomato juice, watermelon juice, or vegetable broths — but just half a glass to start. After an hour, another half glass.  Then, small amounts of juice every hour the first day.

On the second day drink more of the same. Always stay well hydrated.

The third day is for you to eat the whole orange or grapefruit… and on the fourth day, you can begin to introduce a nutrient-rich fruit smoothie containing rice or almond milk, but stay away from the sweet fruits (bananas, grapes, pineapple, mangos, raisins, dates), especially if you craved sweets before.

Finally, on day five or when you feel ready, introduce solid veggies such as a small salad with light salad dressing, steamed veggies (carrots, broccoli, squash), and fresh fruits in small portions 5 times a day.

Then each day thereafter you’ll want to introduce a new food group such as starchy veggies (potatoes, corn, beans), soaked and cooked grains such as steel-cut/rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, then eggs, meat, and finally bread, noting how you feel with each. Start carrying raw food snacks in little plastic baggies such as almonds with craisins, whole apples or oranges, trail mix with nuts and seeds and dried fruits to help you from eating large meals or junk foods.

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  1. Dr. Herbert Shelton — National Health Association
  2. Mu Q, Kirby J, Reilly CM, Luo XM. Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune DiseasesFront Immunol. 2017 May 23;8:598. PubMed PMID: 28588585.
  3. Lamprecht M, Frauwallner A. Exercise, intestinal barrier dysfunction and probiotic supplementation — Med Sport Sci. 2012;59:47-56. PubMed PMID: 23075554.
  4. Fasano A, Shea-Donohue T. Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseasesNat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2005 Sep;2(9):416-22. Review. PubMed PMID: 16265432.
  5. Fasano A. Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases — Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012 Feb;42(1):71-8. PubMed PMID: 22109896.
Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.