Last week, we scratched the surface of how Intermittent Fasting (IF) can be a beneficial practice to incorporate. Really, the word “beneficial” doesn’t quite do it justice when what we’re talking about are major shifts to our physical, mental and emotional well-being, such as prevention and even reversal of chronic diseases, improved insulin resistance, weight loss and the possibility of a longer life (to name just a few).
What’s even more fascinating is that initial research shows for reasons we’re not 100% sure yet why, IF seems to affect women’s hormones more than men’s. This could have to do with a protein-like molecule called kisspeptin, which plays a role in neuron communication and interacts with our hunger and satiety hormones like leptic, ghrelin and insulin, which women typically have more of or are more sensitive to their impact than men.
With that said, a much simpler way to think about it is this: women’s hormonal shifts over our lifetime contribute to particular health concerns, and various forms of IF have been used throughout history as a safe and natural therapeutic method to both support health and vitality and prevent disease. Unless you belong to certain groups of women who are probably better off avoiding fasting of any sort (more on this later), you are very likely to reap some serious health benefits.
Curious if the health condition you’re working on is part of the list of health conditions that intermittent fasting can support you with? Keep on reading to see if yours is included here. And in case your condition isn’t one of the ones noted below please don’t infer that IF isn’t right for you! The following is just an intro to the myriad of ways IF improves women’s health. Stick with me because in future articles I will be rolling out the many conditions that women struggle with and how to use IF to help as a positive, safe and effective intervention to dial in your health and wellness. Ladies, this is just the beginning!
Studies have clearly shown that the use of therapeutic fasting is beneficial to reproductive health in women. One main reason for this is that various health conditions related to endocrine dysfunction in women such as obesity, metabolic syndrome and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) can be helped by the correct use of fasting, including IF.
Several studies have come to the same conclusion. One study conducted specifically on women with PCOS concluded that fasting reduced stress neurohormone levels, which positively affected both mental and physical health. Another study found that short-term caloric restriction increased luteinizing hormone in women with PCOS, which is a hormone produced in the pituitary gland that is a key player in normal, healthy ovulation patterns. Not only does this bode well for balancing hormones but it is a marker for fertility. Of course, if you are using IF to increase fertility and you do become pregnant, please work with your practitioner to adjust your eating schedule to nurture your body through a safe and healthy pregnancy. While IF is not appropriate for pregnancy, there are variations and companion eating styles to IF that are. For example, it is not only safe to increase healthy fats and restrict refined and processed grains during pregnancy – it is strongly suggested! Many of leading dietitians specializing in fertility and pregnancy are currently recommending a carefully designed very low carbohydrate, high fat diet for pregnant women diagnosed with gestational diabetes. This example drives home just how safe and therapeutic these companion “fasting” models are.
Sadly, it has become more and more common to see how common chronic pain disorders have become. These run the gamut from arthritis (autoimmune and non-autoimmune), chronic back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and more. I know so many friends in their 40’s struggling with this and it pains me that at a time when we women should be reaping the most wisdom, joy, and insight from life, I see so many stunted by debilitating pain. It’s just not normal. And there must be a better way!
There is: one markedly fascinating (not to mention exciting!) benefit of therapeutic fasting regimens is its effectiveness in supporting musculoskeletal conditions in women. One study found that fasting affecting parathyroid hormone, which is known to improve bone health. It is also thought to be helpful in cases of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). By improving symptoms of intestinal permeability (you may know it better as “leaky gut”), and thereby decreasing food intolerances, fasting can decrease inflammatory markers and prevent the vicious circle of inflammation that RA is also apart of. What we do in one part of the body directly affects another. So if we remove inflammation in the gut, which is thought to be the seat of health, we will inadvertently decrease the same inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins causing pain and discomfort elsewhere in the body.
Weight loss supports musculoskeletal health too. Since fasting promotes the normalization of hormones that determine our weight, fasting can also be used as a tool to remedy our musculoskeletal health via weight loss – another win!
Unfortunately, women’s risk for Cardiovascular Disease (CD) dramatically increases post-menopause. There are several reasons for this, the primary ones being increased belly fat (aka, intra-abdominal or visceral fat), increased LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as elevated insulin and glucose levels. The good news is, studies have found that use of IF can significantly improve metabolic health in this group of women, therefore helping to prevent against CD (not to mention type 2 diabetes, oxidative stress, and its physical manifestation of wrinkles, fine lines and dull skin!).
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that women have far higher rates of mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety. The reason behind this sad statistic is another topic entirely, but a lot of it has to do with the layers of stressors women take on. One particular mental burden constantly plaguing women is food! Unfortunately, the diet, supplement and beauty industry has framed our weight and outer appearance as something we need to constantly fix. That we aren’t pretty or thin enough, good or worthy enough without their products can be a very hard message to hear throughout our lives as women. As a leader in the supplement industry who has been part of groundbreaking work empowering women to feel beautiful from the inside out, I make it a point to not prey on women’s insecurities but instead to open their eyes to the wellness already within and readily available to them. Fasting is one opportunity to harness our inherent health (that is our rite!) while also simplifying the mental burden of constantly wondering what to eat. For a few mornings each week, instead of eating a woman can choose to practice a self-care activity such as meditation, a walk outside, stretching, a bath, hand-writing letters, drawing, or some activity that feels spacious and calming. Not only does the meditative activity relax stress hormones, but the fasting resets the metabolic biology making this time a high-value moment in a woman’s day.
The hormonal instability of menopause is yet another factor that seems to bring on symptoms of emotional pressure, tension, depression and anxiety, and fasting has been shown to support all of these symptoms. In general, fasting has been found to improve self-esteem and mental status, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and increase social functioning.
Of course, all of this depends on the person (and IF could go very well hand in hand with certain types of therapy), but the initial research is quite promising. While we have known for a while that lifestyle interventions are paramount in balancing women’s mood, it’s not common for therapists to be educated in the benefits of IF. If you are curious how fasting would complement your therapeutic journey, please definitely have a conversation with your provider.
Another very promising field in the IF research is that of fasting and cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the most common types of cancer affecting women include breast, colon, endometrial, lung, cervical, ovarian and skin cancers.
Fasting has been proven a valuable prognostic tool against not only metabolic diseases (as discussed above) but cancer, as well. While further research is needed, the initial studies have found that the act of fasting seems to be able to inhibit certain pathways in both the development and progression of cancer, and also decrease risk factors related to cancer. Studies specifically targeting breast cancer found that fasting dramatically decreased tumor growth by inhibiting angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels).
Obesity affects women more than it does men, and as discussed above IF can seriously (and safely) boost weight loss. Contrary to popular relief, IF does not just increase weight loss due to a decrease in overall calories (this also helps), but also works on a hormonal level. In fact, studies show that it is much harder to consume the “normal” amount of calories on a non-fasting (feast) day than it is to actually fast on a “fast” day. Imagine that… women finding it challenging to eat enough!
When we fast, levels of circulating insulin are lowered which facilitates fat burning, while human growth hormone (HGH) increases, also aiding in both fat burning and muscle gain. More norepinephrine is sent to our fat cells, signaling them to break down body fat, which is then burned for energy. Simply put, fasting decreases our fat-storing hormones and increases our fat burning ones.
One study found that fasting could boost the metabolism by up to 14%!
Cravings and Relationship to Food
I’m sure you know a friend or family member (or maybe even yourself) with an unhealthy relationship to food. Uncontrollable cravings, binge-eating, compulsive and impulsive eating and other eating disorders plague so many women and can make social situations and life really hard to navigate. I think we’re hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t experimented with failed yo-yo dieting or overly strict and unrealistic “dieting tools” in her lifetime.
One of the most interesting features of IF is not only its effectiveness but its simplicity too. Fasting is a safe and effective tool to reset our relationship with food as well as the faulty neurobiology that becomes imbalanced after a lifetime of dieting. If you have a history of a serious eating disorder however fasting may not be appropriate unless carefully managed by a trained practitioner. Many experienced fasters will report a certain “high” while their body is running on ketones (the fasted state) that energizes them mentally and physically, this same “high” may not be as benign for women vulnerable to eating disorders.
Women Who Should Not Practice IF
While most women can safely adopt an IF regimen (stay tuned for an upcoming article on different approaches to find which one is right for you), women who are pregnant, breastfeeding and/or have a history of eating disorders should probably avoid any types of fasting. Our caloric needs are greater during pregnancy and lactation, and if you have struggled with an eating disorder, IF could set you down a dangerous road. As always, check in with your trusted healthcare professional.
IF is an exciting tool for women to take charge of our bodies and our health, and it’s surprisingly easy to do! I’m here to help you get there and am honored to be on this path with you. So tune back in next time as we discuss my best tips on how to get started with your own trial of intermittent fasting!
In health and adventure,