A Radical Form of Rest

Water fasting promotes a deep form of rest. When people go longer than they’re used to without food, they tend to crash. They get exhausted, and they generally interpret this fatigue as a bad sign. How could it be heathy to do something that makes you feel like your body is falling apart? Aren’t you just starving your body of nutrients? But I would argue that this is a misinterpretation of the body’s signals. When you fast, it’s not that your entire being loses vitality. It’s that your energy is allocated away from conscious behavior and toward your body’s healing-related systems, which operate at a high level of complexity despite being unconscious. Although as conscious entities we feel like our consciousness is our whole self, this isn’t true. There are a lot of systems that we don’t consciously control, such as our immune system. Fasting feels like it shuts us down, but in doing so it actually wakes up a different part of us.

When you’re 5 days into a fast and you’re so exhausted that you can hardly get out of bed, a lot is going on behind the scenes. When you’re exhausted, you of course do very little. You just lie in bed, hang around the house, or go for a walk. And doing very little frees up a ton of energy that your body can use for other purposes. You feel exhausted, but your body is actually hard at work.

As an analogy, imagine that you have some structural damage in your elbow and you feel some pain on a regular basis. If you’re grappling with someone at a high level of intensity, your elbow might feel perfectly healthy. You’re determined to win, and your body goes along with that sentiment. It turns off the pain in order to let you prioritize performance in the moment. But then you may wake up in more pain than before. The psychological intensity wears off, and your body goes back to complaining about the damage in your elbow. Basically, the subjective sensation of pain in your elbow is the indicator while the objective structural damage is the indicated. There’s a strong relation between the indicator and the indicated, of course, but they can also move autonomously at times. You’re not always in pain when your body is damaged.

I bring this up because I believe that your energy levels are also an indicator, with your health being the indicated. When you’re unhealthy, your body will often feed you feelings of fatigue. While pain in one of your joints is your body asking you to rest that joint, a general feeling of fatigue is your body asking you to rest everything. And like taking pain medication to remove the pain in a localized area without actually fixing the damage, you can drink coffee to make yourself feel energetic without actually improving your health. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t drink coffee, but too much and you might start burning the candle at both ends!

Water fasting, then, has the opposite effect of pain medication, coffee, and even the psychological intensity that goes along with determination to perform at a high level in a sport or any other endeavor. Rather than dulling the indicators (pain or fatigue) without changing anything about the indicated (localized damaged or poor health), it makes the indicators much louder. When you get pain or fatigue during a fast, it’s not that the fast has caused a problem. It’s that the fact has made your body complain much louder than normal about the problems you already had.

In other words, water fasting is where your level of symptom expressiveness reaches its apex. Your body starts trying to get your attention about all sorts of problems you normally sweep under the rug. You get exhausted, your joints start aching, maybe you get a headache. Everyone’s symptoms are different during a fast, but that’s because everyone has a unique set of health problems. It feels like your body is breaking down, but in reality the symptoms are the healing. You lie around all day feeling too broken to do anything, but that’s just you listening to your body’s request for you to rest as fully as possible.

Coffee is an example of a substance that allows us to feel energetic even if our bodies aren’t in the best of shape. Coffee, then, is a device that allows you to upshift. If you drink coffee, it’s like putting yourself into overdrive. This is useful for getting things done, to be sure, but abusing coffee puts you at risk of burning out over time. Suddenly quitting coffee, on the other hand, is a downshift. You suddenly feel more tired than normal, but during the day or two of withdrawal-based fatigue your body gets a chance to heal. Going through withdrawal isn’t fun, but during the feelings of subjective fatigue your body gets a lot of repair work done.

Many substances let you upshift or downshift. The most dangerous stimulants are those which let you wire feelings of energetic enthusiasm even when your body is falling apart. Methamphetamine is famously hazardous because it gives you a prolonged surge of energy even if you’re already at the end of your rope. It allows you to dig much deeper into your reserves than coffee, until you’re excitedly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Water fasting, by contrast, is the ultimate downshift. Even a reasonably health person will experience pain, fatigue, and other symptoms, and by the end of the process their reserves will be at an even better position than before. While methamphetamine makes you burn all your savings in a flurry of frivolous activity, water fasting does the opposite. You work on your savings whether or not you’re close to going broke.

At all times, you’re both spending health points through exertion and recovering lost health points through healing. When you spend more health points than you recover over a certain period of time, you degenerate. And when you recover more health points than you spend, you regenerate. While methamphetamine makes you spend a ton of health points without worrying about recovering the lost ones, water fasting makes you focus on recovering the lost health points. How loud or quiet the indicators are determines how careful you are to promote regeneration and avoid degeneration. Your level of symptom expressiveness determines how low or high your standard of health becomes.

Water fasting also puts you out a commission in a way that opens up the possibility for your body to undertake long-term healing projects. By analogy, consider what it would be like to run a supermarket with a lot of foot traffic from 9 AM to midnight 7 days a week. With every minute passed, the shelves get a little bit emptier. The floor gets a little bit dirtier. The registers get a little bit more run down. You can restock little-by-little during the day, and you can have a night-shift crew do a major restocking at night. You can also clean throughout the day, repair any registers that break, and do a bit of a deeper cleaning at night. But what if you want to do a longer-term project? What if you want to do a deep cleaning that would render the store unusable for a whole week? What if you want to renovate the entire store? You would have to close down the store to customers for that period of time.

Water fasting works the same way. While your body can regenerate little-by-little throughout the day, and can take on a somewhat deeper healing project each night, it’s only during a long fast that you get such a strong and protracted downshift that your body is able to do deep healing and a full renovation.

If you have a knee injury that allows you to walk but not run, for example, your body will try to keep you on your feet during the day while working toward a somewhat more thorough repair while you’re asleep at night. But even sleep doesn’t give your body much time to work with. Your knee generally needs to be ready for business the next morning. You’ll be walking around and going about your day. During a long fast, however, your body is safe to undertake longer-term healing projects. You’ll be out of commission long enough for a much deeper healing process. Your body is free to break down damaged structures in a way where they become barely usable in the short term, for the purpose of producing a major renovation in the long term.