Intermittent fasting seems to be everywhere! Most commonly, people attempt it for weight loss, yet it has many incredible benefits and it’s actually been practised for thousands of years. Yet does it suit our bodies in the current modern world, where diets are full of sugars and processed foods and where chronic stress seems to be the norm? The bigger question is, does fasting benefit women as much as men?
The practice of intermittent fasting, which involves abstaining from eating 16-24 hours at a time, perhaps once to twice a week, is associated with weight loss, improved blood sugar metabolism, and a reduced risk of diabetes, if carried out appropriately. Another popular fasting technique is time-restricted fasting, which refers to a certain window of eating e.g. 16-hour fasting window and an 8-hour feeding window.
Fasting can be powerful for diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, and may play a significant role in slowing down neurological diseases. It can also reduce inflammation in the body, such as leaky gut, asthma, acne and auto-immune diseases. In a fasting state, our genes that help the body recover turn on. Our antioxidant-producing pathways turn on, protecting the body against free radical damage, oxidants and pollutants in our environment. Recovery becomes much more efficient, which is why it can be a useful technique in healing digestive issues, muscle injuries, arthritis and/or traumatic brain injury.
Our digestive system gets a much-needed rest when we fast. We aren’t designed to be feeding all day, snacking and grazing. When we don’t eat for a few hours, a complex called the migrating motor complex within our gut kicks into action. A series of pulses propels any undigested food particles and bacterial debris through the gut. This improves our digestion and bowel regularity and reduces bloating.
Furthermore, something called autophagy takes place when we fast. Studies show we need around 18 hours of fasting to experience autophagy. “Auto” means self and “phagy” means to eat. It refers to an evolutionary self-preservation mechanism, through which the body can remove dysfunctional cells and recycle parts of them towards cellular repair and cleaning. Autophagy also slows down neurodegenerative pathways in the brain, by removing toxic proteins from the cells that are attributed to neurodegenerative disease. On a larger scale, it increases regeneration and healthier cells. I would always advise anyone who wants to start fasting to work with a healthcare practitioner since it is not suitable for everyone. At the very least, the body should be primed for fasting!
Not everyone has the ability to go into a fasting state and function well. Fasts are not beneficial if you have blood sugar issues. A higher carbohydrate diet (grains, sugars, fruits, breads) which lacks good quality protein and healthy fats at each meal can create fluctuating blood sugar levels throughout the day. If you struggle with blood sugar, whether it be low (irritability, dizziness between meals, lightheadedness) or high (fatigue after meals, cravings for sugar and caffeine to pick you up), you are not in the best health to start a fast. This is because extended periods without eating will exacerbate your condition, compromising mood, energy, gut function and exacerbating stress hormone production.
Fasting relies on ketogenic pathways. This refers to the ability of the body to burn energy from fat, rather than carbohydrates (glucose). How efficient are your ketosis pathways? If
you’re constantly grazing and snacking, your body doesn’t go into ketosis much. Your body will find it much harder to get into ketosis. Fasting will be unbearable. It is best to try a higher protein and fat diet, or a ketogenic-style diet for a couple of months. Transitioning from a ketogenic diet first, before fasting, is much better suited. If you are fasting, you must consume enough healthy fats, but also a diverse amount of vegetables, otherwise, your gut microbiome will become unhealthy.
Does fasting suit women as well as men? Interestingly, most studies on intermittent fasting were done on men.
I specialise in hormonal imbalance as a Nutritional Therapist (heavy, painful periods, PMS, hormonal acne, PCOS or missing periods). Many clients I see are skipping breakfast when they come to see me. Fasting or depriving ourselves of regular meals can hinder the healing process and may worsen hormonal imbalances. Our hormones are ‘brain-based,’ meaning the brain decides whether we should be ovulating. If the brain perceives too much stress in the body e.g. we skip meals, our hormones may go array. It does appear that women are more sensitive to fasting, due to our hormonal fluctuations and it’s something many experts suggest avoiding during child-bearing years (whether you want children or not).
Cortisol, which you probably recognise as a ‘stress hormone’ has a circadian rhythm in our body. In a healthy body, it rises in the morning to wake us up, and give us that motivation to ‘tackle the day.’ If we skip breakfast and drink coffee, we can exacerbate cortisol levels. Stress massively impacts hormone health, and so the best thing you can do is calm your nervous system with a protein and healthy fat-rich breakfast.
I do recommend to anyone and everyone a 12-hour fasting window, between dinner and breakfast. It is best to finish dinner earlier (7.30 pm) and then eat within the first hour of waking up, 7.30/8 am. As a dietary approach, I think it’s one of the healthiest eating behaviours we can adopt. You can still carry this out 4-5 times per week, and skip it when you are eating out for dinner over the weekend. It doesn’t need to be done every single night, but as many as you can. You should also aim to have sufficient protein, fats and carbs in your evening meal, to balance your blood sugar and prevent you from feeling irritable or hungry before bed, so you can sleep smoothly through the night.
An eating window is not a calorie-restricted diet!
Words by Flora Crichton – For consultations head to floracrichtonnutrition.com
If you need further support with menstrual cycle issues – PCOS, heavy, painful periods, amenorrhea or navigating menopause, Flora offers 15-minute discovery calls.