In the health community at large, one of the biggest trends right now is the concept of intermittent fasting (IF). It's tied up loosely with ketogenic diets as well (you can read about my keto experience here), as our body runs off of fat for fuel in the ketogenic state, making fasting a bit easier than those of us running primarily off of glucose (sugar) for fuel.
Many people who practice IF make it out to be a miracle, and it definitely can be when it's used by the right people in the right circumstances. However, it can also prove to be an additional stressor for those who are already stressed to the max and have cortisol and adrenal dysfunction. My goal today is to break down IF to help you decide if it is right for you, your body, and your lifestyle, and if it's not, help direct you down a different path.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Fasting is a period of time without food, and intermittent fasting is putting this into practice within a given day, week, or month. There are no set rules. Some like to do longer, more intense fasts (1-3+ days) in which you might eat dinner on Monday and not eat again until dinner on Tuesday or even breakfast on Wednesday. Other fasts are less intense but occur more frequently, such as eating only during an 8-hour window during the day, and fasting during the remaining 16 hours (eating between 10am-6pm, for instance, and fasting between 6pm-10am). It's really about finding what works better for your schedule and time frame when determining what your IF pattern looks like.
Why Might IF Be Beneficial?
There are several benefits of fasting that could occur in those who IF is right for, including:
1. Better Digestion
When you are eating during a condensed window during the day (like the 8 hour feeding window mentioned above), you are allowing your body time during the 16 hour fast to completely digest the food you ate, so that it moves through the stomach and at least part of the small intestine before you eat again.
2. Neurological Health
IF has been shown to help in the cases of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, as well as other neurological conditions, mainly due to its effect of reducing oxidative stress on the brain.
3. Cancer Treatment
There is growing evidence that points to ketogenic diets coupled with IF as a treatment for certain types of cancer. My understanding is that eating a ketogenic diet (high fat, low carb) that allows your body to produce ketones and use fat for fuel helps "starve" the cancer cells in a sense, that typically grow and respond to glucose (sugar). IF takes these benefits one step further by literally fasting as another way to "starve" the cancer cells.
4. Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin in our hormone that is released in response to glucose in our blood stream. Many of us are insulin resistant, meaning that our body doesn't produce enough insulin when we eat carbohydrates. When we are insulin resistant, we need more and more insulin to do the work of shuttling glucose around the body to where it's needed. When insulin is slow to do its job, glucose remains in our blood sugar for too long, leading, over time, to diabetes and other metabolic diseases. IF helps to make us more insulin sensitive, so that when we do need insulin, it comes and does its job in a timely, efficient manner.
Other benefits include: weight loss, increased energy, lengthens lifespan, and hormone regulation.
Who is IF Not Right For?
With all of these seemingly amazing benefits, wouldn't everyone be a candidate for IF?
Unfortunately, that's not quite how it works.
Many of us, myself included, are living in a state of stress due to dysregulated cortisol levels. When our cortisol is too high, too low, or irregular, the entire body suffers. Cortisol is effected by erratic blood sugar levels, lack of sleep, too much stress, poor food choices, environmental stressors, and hormonal issues. Therefore, if we are already in a stressed state and our body is inflamed because of it, the last thing we need to impose on the body is yet another stressor, especially if we are running off of adrenaline, stress, and glucose for fuel.
In addition, women tend to have a harder time with IF than men, mainly because of our extreme sensitivity to hormonal changes. Because we are meant to bear children, any major stressor on the body that makes the body think it is in a starvation state will create more chaos with our hormones. When not done correctly, IF can be too much on the female hormonal system.
Lastly, if you are eating a Standard American Diet with regular amounts of grains, dairy, and processed foods, and if you experience energy dips and spikes throughout the day due to the sugar/foods in your diet, I wouldn't recommend jumping right into IF. It would again prove to be too much on your body all at once. Instead, I would recommend getting your blood sugar under control first by switching to a PFC balanced, real food diet. Then, you can consider IF at a later time.
How to Practice IF
1. Switch to a real food diet following PFC balanced principles. Remove the common inflammatory foods from your diet for at least two weeks. These foods include grains, dairy, soy, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol. Eat plenty of healthy fat, and keep your carb intake lower by consuming tons of vegetables with limited amounts of fruit and starchy vegetables (don't eliminate them, just keep your intake a little lower).
2. Start small with a 8/16 hour split. Eat all of your food for the day during an 8 hour window (the time can be of your choice) and don't eat during the remaining 16 hours (this can include when you sleep). Still make sure your meals are PFC balanced, and make sure to drink plenty of water. After you've tried the 8/16 split for a while, you can experiment with shorter periods (6/18) or try full 24 hour fasts once or twice a week. Most of the studies on the benefits of fasting have shown the main benefits occur in the 16-24 hour time frame, so don't feel like more is necessarily better.
3. Don't undereat. IF isn't another way to skip meals or not eat enough food. When you practice IF, you still have to make sure you are giving the body the calories, nutrients, and energy it needs! Using IF as a fancy way of starving the body isn't going to give you the same benefits.
4. Sleep, practice stress management, and don't overexercise. All of these will make implementing IF much easier!
My Final Thoughts on IF
IF makes sense when you think about our ancestors. They didn't have readily available (and highly processed and palatable) food constantly surrounding them. Sometimes they went for days without eating, and they were just fine.
Honestly, with the state of society right now, I don't feel like IF is right for most people, especially women. We have so many stressors coming at us from a myriad of angles each day that the idea of adding IF on top of that seems a bit much.
However, I have witnessed IF work in many people who also have a strict eye on their inflammation levels and overall health. You can't just IF call it good - it takes a concentrated effort to make sure that you are sleeping enough, getting adequate calories and nutrients, and keeping your stress in check.
The best way to see if IF is right for you is to follow the steps above. Get your body used to real food and then just give IF a try a couple of times! It won't probably feel good the first time or two, but with time, it might prove to be beneficial. Or, it might not. What's key is that you really listen to your body and notice how it is responding to IF. It's not for everyone, but it can be extremely powerful in the right instances.