Intermittent fasting is the practice of alternating intervals feeding and fasting. The most popular method of intermittent fasting will be discussed in a later article, but for now, it’s enough to mention that there are differences between fasting methods, length of time of the fasting window and the placement of meals. The fasting period on specific plans can range from 14 hours to 36 hours. Though there are different fasting methods, each specific plan has benefits.
The exception for most people is the time in which we are asleep. When you’re sleeping, you’re fasting. Most people maintain a regular fasting period of six to eight hours per night until their first meal in the morning. The name “breakfast” literally refers to the “break” in the overnight “fast.”
What are the benefits of fasting?
It is commonly taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A study conducted in 2008 suggests that people who eat a calorie-dense breakfast will lose more weight than those who don’t eat breakfast. Authors of the study assumed that eating more calories in the morning results in less snacking during the day, and a reduced daily caloric intake overall.
First, there’s the improved insulin sensitivity that comes with fasting, especially when paired with exercises. More study evidence seems to support the notion that eating breakfast results in a slimmer waistline. There are some epidemiological studies that show a connection skipping breakfast and higher body weight. In fact, insulin sensitivity has shown to be better in those who eat breakfast in studies. I believe this has more to do with adrenal function, stress and hormone balance than the idea of fasting.
There are also hormonal benefits that lead to improved body fat to muscle ratio or body composition. Growth hormone has been shown to increase during intermittent fasting and may offset the effects of cortisol, which can lead to belly fat storage because it increases insulin resistance and fat storage.
This brings us to an interesting question about intermittent fasting. If insulin sensitivity isn’t higher just in the morning and it is really just higher after the eight to 10 hour fasting periods, then insulin sensitivity is higher when glycogen levels are depleted after a fast regardless of the timing of that fast if the liver glycogen will be somewhat depleted.
Generally, intermittent fasting does result in eating less frequently, which tends to result in eating fewer calories overall.
There is also a fascinating anti-aging mechanism of intermittent fasting. When you force the body to use another fuel other than glucose and fat, the body will use its own damaged cellular proteins for energy. When you eat again the cell will use the new nutrients to repair and replace the damaged proteins. This process occurs in short periods of times so the net effect is that the body cleans up cellular debris during a short fast.
But there is a caveat to intermittent fasting. For women, intermittent fasting may not be the panacea that we have all dreamed about. Many women find that when they intermittent fasting leads to sleeplessness, insomnia, anxiety and irregular periods, among a number of other symptoms and disruption of hormones due to the impact of fasting on starvation hormone regulation of leptin, cortisol, ghrelin and insulin. Additionally, women are more finely tuned to respond with physiological changes in relation to perceived starvation.
Intermittent fasting can be a mechanism to assist with optimizing health but it needs to be individualized to each person based on his or her hormonal and physiological stress levels.
Stay tuned for our next article in which we will discuss the different types of intermittent fasting.
Betty Murray, CN, IFMCP, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist & Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner with the Institute for Functional Medicine, founder of the Dallas-based functional medicine clinic Living Well Dallas and Executive Director of the the Functional Medicine Association of North Texas. A master of the biochemistry of the body, Betty teaches her clients how to utilize nutrition for autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, MTHFR and weight loss. You can find her book “Cleanse: Detox Your Body, Mind & Spirit” on Amazon here.
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