Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is currently one of the hottest topics in health and wellness.  It is a strategy that has been used for hundreds of years.  Its popularity is well deserved as it provides numerous health benefits, but as with anything it is not always an appropriate strategy to implement.  This article will help to explain some of the benefits of intermittent fasting and also some of the instances in which intermittent fasting would be a poor choice.

Before we get into the benefits of fasting you should know that there are numerous types of fasting.  While we are not going to list them all in this article it can be very helpful to understand why there are so many and what they are trying to accomplish.  Fasting can deal with the following variables:

  • Increasing the number of hours without food
  • Reducing the daily ‘feeding window’, or the time when you are allowed to eat
  • Reducing the number of calories at specific feeding windows
  • Specifying which types of foods you can eat during feeding windows

Some fasts will manipulate many of these variables while others just focus on skipping meals.  Regardless of the exact type of fast, the benefits that you are attempting to achieve are the same.  Many systems in the body begin to work more efficiently when periods of fasting are introduced.  In fact, our bodies were designed to be able to ‘switch gears’ in times of reduced food supply.   After all, food in abundance is a relatively new phenomena in human existence.  This article is not designed to review all the different types of fasting, but rather to explain more about how fasting works, when to avoid it, and things associated with fasting that you need to pay attention to.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

The benefits of intermittent fasting are evident.  The body has a physiologic response to food deprivation and many of those responses are beneficial.  This doesn’t mean that not eating is the best way to live, it just means the using this as a dietary strategy can provide many benefits to our health.  Here are some of the benefits that you can achieve when you are fasting.

  1. Increases the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH)

HGH is a hormone that is involved in body composition, cell repair, and metabolism.  Many people have heard about athletes using this illegally to help with muscle gain and recovery.  It is a vital hormone to optimal health and we lose production volume as we age.  Helping keep this hormone active can help support weight loss while preventing muscle loss.

2.   Reduces insulin and improves insulin sensitivity

Insulin is released by your pancreas when blood sugar levels rise.  So, when you don’t eat you don’t release insulin.  This has a secondary effect on your cells.  When less insulin is present in the body the cells become more sensitive to insulin.  This means it takes less insulin to the same job.  This is a really good thing because it means that your pancreas has to produce less insulin when you eat.  The flip side of this coin is when your cells become insulin resistant, meaning there is excessive, chronic insulin in your body and the cells stop accepting insulin.  This is exactly what leads to and causes diabetes.  So, long story short, insulin sensitivity is a great thing!

3.  Burns fat instead of sugar

When you fast you are not putting any carbohydrates of sugars into your body.   Your intelligent body senses this and switches to start burning fat for fuel.  Your body’s main source of fuel is sugar (which carbs eventually become), but when sugar is not available it can make fuel from fat that is stored in your body.  So, fasting makes your body switch to fat-burning in order to keep your body running properly.

4.  Improves cellular health

During periods of fasting it appears that your body begins to ‘clean house’ more efficiently.  A process called autophagy begins to be increased and your body begins to remove waste and recycle cellular parts to create new healthy parts.  Other healthy cells begin to become more resilient and work more efficiently in the presence of less nutrients.  Basically, healthy cells start to work better and damaged cells get recycled and improved.

While all of this sounds amazing it doesn’t mean that we should just constantly be in a state of fasting.  That is one of the biggest problems when something becomes popular in the media.  People always assume that if a little is good, more must be better.  This is many times not the case.  The body does needs constant supply of nutrients in order to achieve optimal health.  The real trick is to know how to implement it as one dietary strategy.   There are definitely times when applying intermittent fasting would not be beneficial to health.  Some of the most common instances of this are listed below.

Bad Times to Use Intermittent Fasting

Poor Adrenal Function

If your adrenal system is dysfunctional, intermittent fasting can make this worse!  One of the jobs of cortisol (a hormone produce by your adrenal system) is to pull sugar from cells and bring it into the bloodstream for quick use.  If you begin to restrict food under these circumstances it is going to put more stress on your adrenal system and never let it return to normal status.  Restoring normal adrenal function should be the priority before turning to intermittent fasting.  In these instances keep blood sugar stable with healthy, low-sugar, whole foods is the best strategy

Chronic Caloric Deficit

I have seen many people in my office who are chronically under eating.  There can be many reasons for this but adding calorie restriction or reduction of feeding windows will only make this problem more intense.  A perfect example is the active person who trains intensely 5-6 days week and doesn’t eat enough calories to support this activity level.  In this situation the body is already lacking the calories that it needs to match output, so adding more calorie restriction would be a poor idea. 

Hormone Dysfunction

When hormones are not at proper levels restricting food can make it worse.  The production and regulation of many hormones can be affected by food intake.  While intermittent fasting can in many instances make hormones work more efficiently, it should not be attempted if you know that hormones are already at poor levels.

Eating Disorders

For anyone who has an eating disorder, concentrating of eating less will only make the problem worse.  The negative consequences of adding intermittent fasting to this situation far outweigh any benefits that may be achieved.

If you think you may fall into one of the categories above it is best that you consult with a healthcare practitioner. Improving those situations first will make a massive, positive impact on your health.

Assuming that you are in a good position to attempt intermittent fasting one of the easiest ones to begin with is a 16-18 hour fast.  This is the easiest to do because it takes advantage of the hours that you are sleeping.  So, simply put, it is really just eating dinner at a normal time (between 5-7pm) and then not eating again until lunch the next day.  Many of us have probably done this inadvertently when we were rushed in the morning and didn’t have time to eat breakfast!  So, you unknowingly completed an intermittent fast.  However, there are three really important pieces of the puzzle that you must consider as well.

1. Restricting feeding windows doesn’t have to mean restricting calories

Just because you spend less waking hours eating doesn’t mean that you should necessarily be restricting total calories.  If you are fasting for 24 hours or more then obviously you will be reducing calorie intake, but a 16-18 hour fast doesn’t mean that you have to, especially if you are an athlete or very active person.  You can still realize the benefit of fasting without dropping your calorie consumption too low.  Just consume the same amount of calories in less time.  This is often time reported as reducing feeding windows, or time that you consume food.

2. The types of food you eat really matter

Gaining the benefits of intermittent fasting and then filling your body with processed and unhealthy foods doesn’t really make sense!  Many of the benefits of the fast will be negated by putting harmful foods into your body after the fast.  If you are using intermittent fasting as a health strategy then you should also be conscience of the foods that eat when you are eating.  Eating whole foods can help to continually promote internal health and boost the benefits of intermittent fasting even more.

3.  Re-feeds can be where the magic is

There is some research that shows the real magic and benefit to fasting comes when you break the fast and ingest food.  Your body is ready for nutrients to assimilate and use more efficiently than ever.  Also, restoring your levels of glycogen (stored carbohydrate, or sugar) will help get your body primed for activity and ready to operate smoothly.  So, paying attention to what you eat and how much eat post-fast can be a very important part of the process.  Don’t think that its all about how many hours you can avoid food.

Hopefully this can help you understand more about intermittent fasting and whether or not you should do it yourself.  As was previously mentioned, there are many different ways to fast so if you are interested in it, begin with a 16-18 hour intermittent fast and then begin to experiment with other types of fasts. You may start by a simple fast once a week and then graduate into multiple times per week.  From there, you can increase the fasting windows and see how you feel.  Just remember that it is supposed to be done to improve health, so if you notice negative symptoms when you attempt it, maybe you are not in a good position to do it.  Best thing is to always consult a health professional to uncover the best fasting strategies for your situation.