Intermittent fasting, the practice of not eating for 12-16 hours, followed by a “feeding window” of typically 8 -12 hours, has increased in popularity in recent years.
While fasting (food restriction for an extended period of time) is nothing new, intermittent fasting is currently hyped as an excellent way to enhance mental clarity, build lean muscle, boost energy, banish bloating and rid of feeling “heavy.”
Forget trying to keep up with food rules, meal timing, or macro and calorie counting.
NOT eating is the new “black.”
INTERMITTENT FASTING & WOMEN: HYPE OR HEALTH?
Although advocates boast the euphoric-like benefits they experience from restricted eating times, very little—if anything—is discussed in current research about the impacts of intermittent fasting on women’s health—particularly hormones, the female brain, energy and long-term benefits and/or consequences.
Many women ask me:
- Is intermittent fasting bad for women?
- What—if anything—happens to women’s hormones when they intermittent fast?
- And how, if at all, are women different, than men, when it comes to the benefits from intermittent fasting?
Answer: It’s complicated.
Several women who try intermittent fasting report the opposite of the “benefits” it seems like everyone else s talking about—including: irregular menstrual cycles, stalled weight loss or metabolism, and hormonal imbalance, begging the big question: Why?!
If you’re a woman, here are 8 Things All Women Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting and how it affects your body)—both the Cons and Pros.
CONS OF INTERMITTENT FASTING FOR WOMEN
- Your Body Goes into “I Don’t Want to Make a Baby, Thankyou Very Much!” Mode
Generally, female hormones do not respond well to fasting.
Women are “blessed” with the need for a balance of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, and the patterns of these hormones are greatly dictated by cortisol—your stress hormone.
Typically if cortisol is “too” high, progesterone and estrogen production is reduced as the body favors cortisol production to reduce stress. And if chronic stress persists, and cortisol becomes “too low” (i.e. “adrenal fatigue”), the production of sex hormones altogether may also be radically reduced.
Your cycle is already sporadic enough without the addition of outside stress.
Throw stress into the mix—even healthy stress—and sometimes that stress is enough to inhibit your reproductive hormone production.
For instance: Exercise is a healthy stressor that pushes your body to work hard, develop muscle, decrease inflammation and enhance your cardio-respiratory endurance. But, push your body’s tolerance or threshold for exercise a little too far (upping your miles, or decreasing your caloric intake for example), and the FIRST system that takes a “hit” for a woman is typically her hormones.
The same thing goes for fasting.
Animal studies (Kumar & Kuar, 2013) show that female rats that are deprived of food at certain times become infertile. Their sleep and stress levels are also affected. While human studies on intermittent fasting still have yet to hit mainstream, we can look to the literature of how women respond to periods of caloric restriction (compared to men), and see a similar “phenomenon” including: Amenorrhea, infertility in healthy women (without unhealthy weight to lose), thyroid imbalances and elevated adrenal stress.
In short: Stress throws the yin-yang of healthy hormones out of balance.
- You May Lose Your Appetite
Another reason why women’s body’s may experience more stress when intermittent fasting is because your hunger is blunted.
While intermittent fasting initially may naturally help you balance blood sugar, and stop feeling “hangry” between meals, it can also backfire if your cortisol (stress hormones) are thrown out of whack (as discussed above).
And when cortisol is out of whack, hunger suppression can be a byproduct, resulting in a loss of appetite, increased constipation and digestive distress, and blunting of your natural cues to feed and nourish your body.
Although this may sound like a “good” thing (i.e. No hunger or “hangriness”!?!), it’s a double edge sword.
Chronic under-eating is associated with side effects including:
- Digestive distress, like constipation and bloating
- Quickly full after meals
- Low energy, despite sleeping enough
- Decrease in muscle tone and fitness
- Disordered eating tendencies and thoughts about food
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Lowered libido
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Stubborn body fat or difficulty losing “inches”
- Brain fog or poor concentration
- Dry or flaky skin, skin breakouts, brittle nails and hair
- Easily weepy, apathy or mood imbalances
- Hormone imbalances
- You May Feel More Bloated or Constipated
Despite the hype that intermittent fasting “boosts digestion,” it can actually backfire—particularly in women.
Why? Go blaming it on those hormones again.
When and if cortisol levels are elevated and/or sex hormone production, and potentially thyroid hormone production, is affected, so is digestion.
Constipation and bloating are natural byproducts of a “stressed out” body, and often go hand in hand with under-eating and/or hormone imbalance.
- Intermittent Fasting Can Turn Up the Diet Mentality It’s no secret the female brain is different than the male brain—especially when it comes to food and well-being.
- Men reportedly think about sex every 28 minutes (twice as much as women) (Fisher et al, 2012) whereas women think about food twice as much as men (every 62 minutes, as opposed to every 38 minutes)
- One study on people’s motivations to “be healthy” showed women are motivated to diet and exercise in order to look good and improve their body image, whereas men are motivated to “be healthy” to feel more in control of their health and “fix” it (Segar et al, 2012)
- Another 2001 study (Lafay et al, 2001)found that women are more likely to report food cravings than men (despite being more likely to report being concerned about their weight), and are also more likely to have frequent negative feelings associated with indulging their cravings.
- And a 2015 paper, published in the journal Social Psychology (Zhu et al, 2015 https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/abs/10.1027/1864-9335/a000226), found that both men and women are more likely to see unhealthy food options as masculine and healthy options as feminine.
These gender stereotypes with foods we eat start early.
From a young age, boys are praised for “eating their mom out of house and home,” “having an iron stomach,” or “having a hollow leg,” whereas girls receive the messages to “eat like a bird,” choose the salad, “be a lady,” and “watch their weight.”
In short: Women and men have a different relationship with food.
Thus, when you bring intermittent fasting into the mix, men and women may approach it differently too.
Although this is not the case for EVERY SINGLE man, or EVERY SINGLE women, awareness of your own personal relationship with food, and your motivations and thought patterns behind intermittent fasting can help keep you from falling into the “diet mentality.”
The diet mentality is a slippery slope that sets you up to binge when you break your fast; think or obsess about food more often than you’d like; and can even lead you to associate your own morality, identity or sense of achievement in your diet.
PROS OF INTERMITTENT FASTING FOR WOMEN
We can’t talk “negatives” without talking positives of intermittent fasting for women. Take a peak at these:
1, If You Have Body Fat to Lose or Want to Spike Your Metabolism, Intermittent Fasting May Help You See Results (At Least at First)
For those desiring healthy body fat or weight loss (read: not the classic “I always need to lose 5 pounds no matter what” mentality), intermittent fasting can help spark your metabolism and body’s ability to burn fat—at least in the short term.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to reduce body fat, while preserving lean muscle mass, in both men and women, as it boosts “human growth factor” (i.e. lean muscle mass), in turn raising metabolism (your body has more muscle to “burn” or feed).
However, take these claims with a grain of salt. Men (compared to women) still ten to experience “greater results” with intermittent fasting.
One study from cardiologists at the Intermountain Medical Center revealed that human growth factor levels were elevated by 2000 percent in men and “only” 1300 percent in women (Intermountain Medical Center, 2011).
In other words: All the marketing claims that boast, “lose body fat” with fasting may be talking more to men.
Nevertheless, many women with extra body fat may see benefits initially. (Keep in mind the balance your stress hormones need).
- Intermittent Fast Can Be a Positive Stress
Not all stress is bad.
We call positive stress “eu-stress” and a little bit does a body good.
Just like exercise stress helps you build a fitter body, “hard times” make you stronger and winter cold helps us appreciate summer heat, intermittent fasting—periods of not eating—can also be a positive “stressor” for actually allowing your body to take a break from eating, followed by a period of nourishment and replenishment.
In fact, for some, intermittent fasting is actually a positive stressor for promoting a state of “rest and digest”—a break from feeding may feel uncomfortable at first, but as the body adapts, your body actually has be opportunity to take advantage of a recovery (from eating) window, wherein it can fully absorb and digest the foods you have eaten.
- You May Conquer Cravings
Intermittent fasting and fasting has shown proven benefits for regulating blood sugar and taming cravings (particularly for things your imbalanced blood sugar craves—like sugar, refined foods and caffeine). (Arnason et al, 2017)
A review of studies (Carlson et al, 20017) of individuals who fasted, versus those who just restricted calories, found fasting individuals experienced “greater” insulin sensitivity improvements (20-30% change), and one more study found that intermittent fasting did not negatively affect Ghrelin levels (hunger hormone)—meaning it did not make people “hungrier” simply because they did not eat for a window of time (Alzoghaibi et al, 2014).
Hello ability to walk by a plate of cookies—and not feel tugged.
- Intermittent Fasting for Women Can Help You Simplify Food
Food is not complicated. However, the diet, health and weight loss industry often makes it out to be.
You were born with a natural intuition that tells you when you’re hungry, full and what (real_) foods your body needs—a balance of proteins (amino acids), healthy fats (fatty acids) and “sugars” (carbohydrates with glucose), and a variety of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) available in all sorts of foods.
Somewhere along the way, we got confused—and stopped learning how to listen to our body and trust our body.
Intermittent fasting can help take unnecessary time spent calorie counting, dreaming about your next meal or feeling like you have to eat—based on a 5-6 meal/day schedule—versus, eating and nourishing your body with abundance of real whole foods during a chunk of time in the day—then going on with your life. Not over thinking food.
(Note: this is NOT the case for everyone, as intermittent fasting can make some people overthink their diets MORE, but this is the most ideal scenario).
THE BOTTOM LINE
If You’re ALREADY a healthy woman, intermittent fasting may stress your body out more. Athletes, leaner individuals and those who are fairly fit or “healthy” (“eat clean,” good digestion, hormone balance) may be more at risk for the cons of intermittent fasting.
On the other hand, intermittent fasting has shown proven benefits for unhealthy individuals—such as those with obesity, overweight, diabetes and insulin sensitivity—at least in the short term. However, even for these individuals once improved health markers are attained, normalized eating habits (regular eating) and peace with food may prove most beneficial for all women in the long run.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if you are ALREADY under a significant amount of stress or see intermittent fasting with the “diet mentality,” then intermittent fasting may ALSO stress your body out more.
Face it, stress is inevitable and we already face a fair amount of stress in a given week
- Lack of sleep
- High-intensity workouts
- Emotional and mental stress
- Burning a candle at both ends
- Toxic burden from cleaning, beauty and food supplies (yes, even those of us who eat organic!)
As mentioned above, thanks to your beautiful hormones and unique chemistry, women’s bodies walk a more delicate line (at least compared to men), and the addition of stress—turned up a notch—without care to address that stress can throw your hormones and body “balance” over the edge.
Sure, we do our best to be healthy and battle these stressors, but if we don’t carefully pay attention to managing and recover from stress in our daily lives, another body stressor like intermittent fasting can throw more fuel to the fire—sending your body (cortisol and other hormones included) into the “overboard” zone.
For some, not eating is the LAST thing their body desires when it already has enough stress to face, and as it is forced to work even harder (to sustain your energy levels), hormone imbalances, mood imbalances, disordered eating habits and the diet mentality can happen more.
Coming from a girl who’s walked the walk and talked the talk (yours truly) and tried every single dieting or eating philosophy under the sun (intermittent fasting included), if there’s ONE thing I have learned about intermittent fasting for women it’s that: UNLESS you are in a place (in your head and your health) to truly listen to your body, and nourish it completely (instead of treat it like an object or project to manipulate, force or conform), intermittent fasting is not for you.
SO SHOULD YOU INTERMITTENT FAST?
I’m a big believer in being your own experiment.
As with most things nutrition and wellness, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and there is always exceptions to the rule.
The biggest thing to ask yourself is: Why?
Why “should I” or why would I intermittent fast?
- Is it because “everyone is doing it” and talking about it—and you think you should do it too?
- Have you been struggling with “conquering” your sugar cravings or on the “eat 6 meals per day” bodybuilding bandwagon—and it’s not working?
- Do you think it makes you more “righteous” or “hard core” if you intermittent fast?
- Are you struggling to shed some stubborn body fat and looking to try something different?
Only you know your truth and if a decision in the name of health is coming from a genuine place of health—or a desperation in the diet mentality. Go with your gut, and if anything, you have the power to change directions at any time.
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