Have you heard about intermittent fasting yet? To tell you the truth, I’d be very surprised if you haven’t. Anyone searching for ways to lose weight is sure to stumble across this method – and with good reason. There are a lot of benefits to eating this way, and people are seeing such great results, they want to share the news.
I’ve been suggesting that women try intermittent fastingfor a few years now. I even wrote about it in an article in January of 2019. That’s because it can really help your body – and your brain – by reducing inflammation. Research has demonstrated that fasting decreases inflammatory activity and the number of cytokines the body produces. Inflammation has an impact on so many conditions – and on your ability to lose weight. So reducing systemic inflammation is really important. Especially these days.
Other benefits of intermittent fasting include improved mood, better energy, increased cardiovascular function, longer life expectancy, a better relationship with food, and of course fat burning and weight loss (a big reason people adopt this lifestyle these days).
But there’s some concern around how intermittent fasting can impact hormonal balance, and that concern is valid. For some women, especially those already struggling with imbalanced hormones, intermittent fasting can increase symptoms, including weight gain. That rather defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
That’s why it’s important to consider your own unique circumstance. No weight loss program is right for everyone! But intermittent fasting works for many people, partly because it’s not about what you eat, but when you eat.
Let’s take a look at what intermittent fasting is, how it benefits health, and how it can impact hormonal balance in women. Then I’ll give you five tips on how to fast without upsetting hormonal health.
What is intermittent fasting?
You likely know that fasting means going for a specified period of time without eating. Beyond that simple definition, fasting can get confusing. There are so many ways to fast – skipping one meal a day, fasting on alternate days, fasting for 24 hours a couple times a week, setting a specific window of time for eating each day. It can be hard to know which one is the “right” one. And the truth is, the answer may be different for everyone (we are, after all, unique individuals).
What I want to point out is that intermittent fasting is all about when you eat – there aren’t typically restrictions on what you can eat. Still, a healthy diet is key to sustained weight loss and good health, so don’t expect to be able to binge on desserts and fried foods constantly and still lose weight. And remember that you might have unaddressed food sensitivities that need attention. Intermittent fasting won’t make those disappear.
So, it’s not a free-for-all, and it’s not about going wild during your eating times; it’s more about not having to avoid any specific category of food in your attempt to lose unwanted pounds. No calorie counting, no measuring, no expensive shakes or special “diet” food. Simply eat a well-balanced diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and lean protein during your eating times. And you can throw a treat or two in now and again!
That’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of intermittent fasting: it’s a lifestyle, not a diet! There’s no fad diet out there that someone could reasonably stay on for the rest of their life. But with intermittent fasting, once you set the routine, you are on your way to lifelong healthy habits.
How can intermittent fasting help my health?
I’ve already said that intermittent fasting can help lower risk of many chronic conditions AND help control weight; now I’ll illustrate how.
Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death, according to information from the World Health Organization. Some of the top risk factors for developing heart disease are high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and high triglyceride concentrations.
There is some research that has shown that intermittent fasting can lower all of these things, though the studies have been small, and further research is needed. Still, even the possibility that IF can help lower risk of heart disease is encouraging, since heart problems claim so many lives.
Diabetes has been steadily increasing in the US for decades. Intermittent fasting has a positive impact on some risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes, specifically by lowering insulin levels and reducing insulin resistance.
One randomized, controlled study of more than 100 obese or overweight women found that intermittent fasting for six months reduced insulin levels by 29% and insulin resistance by 19%. Other research has shown that intermittent fasting lowered insulin levels 20-31% and blood sugar levels by 3-6% in individuals with pre-diabetes in just 8-12 weeks.
It’s important to note, however, that a small study showed a negative impact on blood sugar control in women (but not men) after 22 days of alternate-day fasting, demonstrating that fasting can have different impacts in women than in men. That’s why it’s important to know how and when intermittent fasting may work best for your own circumstances.
Inflammation, as I said earlier, is behind many chronic conditions. Some research has shown that intermittent fasting can reduce some of the key markers of inflammation, including interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and homocysteine. A small study conducted during Ramadan, for instance, showed significantly low levels of each of these markers during fasting (which happens during daylight hours for a month) compared to levels taken one week before Ramadan began. Other research has had similar results, though more research is required to really understand the impact of fasting on inflammation.
Beyond physical health, research has also demonstrated that intermittent fasting can have a positive impact on mood and overall psychological well-being, including decreasing depression and binge eating behaviors, as well as improving body image in obese adults.
When compared to traditional calorie restriction diets, animal studies show that intermittent fasting seems to help retain muscle mass. A 2011 review of research found that in obese individuals, alternate day fasting resulted in less lean mass loss than daily calorie restriction. For most people, weight loss is about getting rid of unsightly fat, not reducing muscle mass!
Aside from religious fasting, the primary reason many people try intermittent fasting is to lose weight. Research indicates that intermittent fasting is as effective for short-term weight loss as traditional calorie-restricted diets. And because you can make intermittent fasting a part of a regular healthy lifestyle, these results can be sustained far longer than many traditional diets. That’s because traditional “diets” often have an end point, and once calories are no longer tightly monitored, the weight can come right back.
Intermittent fasting can be complicated for women
With all those benefits, you might be wondering why anybody wouldn’t try it. I do recommend it to most of my clients – as long as they take specific considerations into account.
Weight loss is a complicated matter for anyone, but particularly so for some women, it seems, who have reported serious issues when trying intermittent fasting, including binge eating, a pause in menstrual cycles, metabolic disturbances, and early-onset menopause, even in younger women. While much of this evidence is anecdotal, I’ve heard it often enough to recommend caution when starting a regimen of intermittent fasting.
Talking with a trusted healthcare professional is crucial to approaching fasting in a careful, thoughtful way. Every woman has unique circumstances, some of which may make their bodies highly sensitive to restricting calories. Calorie restriction, in some women, can lead to lower metabolism, fatigue, loss of fertility, nutrient deficiencies, weaker bones and higher risk of infection or illness due to a compromised immune response.
I’m not saying these things to scare you, and I still believe intermittent fasting can work well for most women. But it’s important to understand the potential risks of any weight loss effort.
Where do these adverse effects come from? It’s all (like so many health concerns, particularly in women) about hormones. If you’ve read much of my work, you know that hormonal dysfunction can wreak havoc on almost every aspect of health. That’s why it’s so important to attend to hormone health as part of the complete picture, no matter what your goals are.
Low calorie intake can have an impact on your hypothalamus, disrupting the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which aids in the release of two reproductive hormones, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). These hormones are supposed to relay messages to the ovaries, and when they cannot do so properly, irregular periods, infertility, and other issues may arise.
This disruption in communication also has an impact on estrogen and progesterone, which are required for ovulation and healthy pregnancy – and so much more!
So, what does all this mean? Should women just avoid intermittent fasting altogether? My answer is a resounding NO. You just have to listen to your body and determine what will work for you. And if you experience symptoms of hormonal imbalance after starting intermittent fasting, it’s essential that you work with your healthcare provider to determine whether or not you should continue.
Additionally, there are a few groups of people who should avoid fasting, including pregnant women, infants and young children. Others may want to do this with the help of a trained functional medicine practitioner, people with eating disorder issues, those with Type 1 diabetes, anyone who is severely underweight, extreme athletes, and people on certain types of medications, especially medication for diabetes, anti-seizure medication, and corticosteroids.
5 Tips for Hormonally Balanced and Safe Fasting
Now that you understand what intermittent fasting is, how it can benefit your health, and the potential risks, particularly for women, I want to give you my top tips on how to reduce those risks. There is no right approach that works for everyone, but with all the fasting options out there, I’m confident that most women can find one that works for them.
1. Find the best fasting method for you
In general, either keeping fasting times shorter (perhaps 12 hours instead of 16) can help limit the hormonal impacts of fasting. Fasting on alternate days, rather than a daily fasting routine, or eating a small amount of calories (about 25% of usual intake) on fasting days are other methods that women help women achieve weight loss success without side effects.
2. Avoid nutritional deficiencies that can spur hormonal dysfunction
Whatever weight loss method you choose, making sure your body has the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients it needs is important. That’s why eating healthy, whole foods during non-fasting periods is key. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough. Getting the right nutrients can be difficult any time, because of agricultural practices and nutrient depletion. That’s why I always recommend a high-quality multivitamin to my clients, whether they’re dieting or not. You may also need specific support for hormonal balance; work with your provider to determine the regimen right for your needs.
3. Take it easy on the exercise on fasting days
That’s not to say you shouldn’t exercise at all, but if calorie intake is very low, you simply don’t have the energy necessary for high impact cardio workouts. Yoga, stretching, Pilates and walking are all good choices to keep your body moving without pushing it too far.
4. Don’t fast during your menstrual cycle
Your hormones are already working overtime during your monthly cycle. It’s best to honor your body and the hard work it’s doing, rather than adding extra strain. Remember, limiting calories is a strain on your body and it activates the stress response as if there’s a true famine. Too much stress can lead to chronic issues with hormonal balance and much bigger problems.
5. Pay close attention to how you feel and address any issues immediately
You know your body best, and you’ll know if something doesn’t feel right. Working with a trusted professional means access to expert advice and the ability to find a new approach quickly if the one you’re using simply isn’t right for you. Remember, for weight loss to be sustainable, you must change your mindset as well as your eating habits. That’s why it’s so important to tweak your approach to find long term solutions.
Intermittent fasting can be an amazing way to shift habits from constant snacking and obsessing over food to eating only when truly hungry. Often, once you begin a fasting routine, you’ll realize that you may have been eating for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger!
Jumping right into a rigid fasting routine isn’t the best approach, however. Start with setting a time to stop eating in the evening. Be sure to eat a balanced dinner large enough to satisfy you through the evening hours, then simply don’t eat anything else until breakfast. Slowly stretch out the time of your fast by pushing dinner a little earlier or breakfast a bit later. Another option is to choose just one day a week to fast, whether that means no food at all, or a substantially lower amount of calories that day.
The frustration of yo-yo dieting might leave you wary but fasting can help you change old habits and still allow you to eat what you want (within reason, of course) a lot of the time. Less restrictions and more freedom is certainly appealing to me – that’s why I’ve been intermittent fasting for years! Join me and see what intermittent fasting can do for you!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD