Some people with chronic conditions say they feel better when they fast. Intermittent fasting is a hot topic in the health world right now. What does it mean? And how can it make you feel better?
Look at it this way—if your body isn’t spending all its time digesting food, it has plenty of time to do other things. Like work on the symptoms that your chronic condition is causing. That’s why some people feel better when they fast. The trick is to hit that sweet spot where you aren’t ravenously hungry (maybe just a little) and you have eaten enough to get the energy you need, but you aren’t tying up all your bodily functions in digestion. That’s where intermittent fasting comes in.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting isn’t a diet—it’s an eating pattern. You don’t count calories, or even try to reduce them. There are no “diet” foods or restrictions. You don’t change what you eat, you change when you eat. (Remember that what you eat needs to be healthy no matter when you eat it.) Is it possible to stay healthy with this type of eating pattern?
Yes! Our bodies are geared toward intermittent fasting. Our ancestors often fasted out of necessity—food just wasn’t available. Fasting now and then is probably a more natural body rhythm than the forced “3 meals a day” we often eat. Intermittent fasting has been part of the world’s major religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, to emphasize our spiritual nature over our physical nature. Now, people are doing it to improve health and simplify life.
How do you do it?
There are lots of different ways to fast intermittently. You can schedule by the day, by the week, or even longer. You’ll find advantages and disadvantages no matter what you try, but there is likely an option that will work best for you. Keep in mind that whenever you choose to eat, you need to make sure you are eating healthful foods and getting the nutrients your body needs. Here are a few popular fasting methods:
- 16/8 Days: This involves fasting for a 16-hour period and eating during an 8-hour period. For most people, breakfast is the easiest meal to skip, because eating isn’t just about the food, it’s often about socializing. So if you normally eat breakfast alone, you can still eat lunch with friends and dinner with family on this type of an intermittent fast. But if that doesn’t work for you, pick another 8-hour period during the day when you want to eat and fast for the other 16 hours.
- 5/2 Week: This weekly method involves eating normally for five days out of the week, then eating 500 calories or less for the other two days. For example, you can eat normally with friends and family over the weekend, then cut down to 500 calories on Monday, eat normally Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then eat 500 calories on Friday. Or pick two non-consecutive days that work the best for you.
- Eat-Stop-Eat: Fast for 24 hours once or twice a week. For example, eat dinner one night then the next day, possibly when you have an extremely busy schedule, fast until dinner time. Just make sure you spread out the days when you’re fasting.
- Spontaneous Meal Skipping: Listen to your body. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Or if you have a really busy day, one where you normally eat junk food because you feel like you should eat SOMETHING, just don’t. Let your body have a rest instead.
What are the advantages?
Here are some of the processes that your body can focus on while it’s not digesting food:
- Hormone functions: For example, the levels of human growth hormone (HGH) in the body skyrocket when fasting. This can help with many other bodily functions.
- Insulin levels: Insulin sensitivity improves while you’re fasting and your insulin levels drop.
- Cell repair: Your body has time to focus on cell repair processes, such as digesting and removing old, non-functioning protein build up.
- Gene expression: Changes happen in your genes, especially the ones that are related to longevity and immune system function.
Who shouldn’t try it?
Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone. Some reasons to NOT try it are as follows:
- Blood sugar medications. If you take anything that regulates your blood sugar levels, like insulin or metformin, you need to eat regularly so your blood sugar doesn’t fall too low—a dangerous and life-threatening situation.
- Eating disorders. Anyone who has any kind of history of or tendency toward anorexia or bulimia should avoid this type of eating as it could trigger a flare up.
- Pregnant, planning to be pregnant or nursing. Women in this stage of life should focus on getting good nutrition all day every day.
- Medications that need to be taken with food. It’s possible that you can use some butter or coconut oil to help avoid the discomfort and stomach upset that come when you take some medications on an empty stomach. It’s best to check with your doctor, though, before trying intermittent fasting with these types of medications.
Tips and Tricks to Make it Work for You!
- Keep it healthful. Your body still needs a balanced intake of protein, carbs, and fats to keep you well and functioning correctly. You might need to work even harder at getting those nutrients into your body in a shorter period of scheduled eating time.
- Don’t stop drinking. While you’re fasting, keep drinking water and other non-calorie fluids, like coffee or tea.
- Work up to it. You may want to start by working on eating a healthful, balanced diet. When that is working for you, consider some intermittent fasting. Start with one day a week or even one day each month, and work your way into it. Or start by fasting 12 hours, then 13, then work your way up to 18.
- Try it once. Once you get over the mental barrier and realize that you really aren’t going to die if you don’t eat on the schedule you’re used to, it’s all downhill from there.
- Give it a little time. You probably eat about the same time every day—it’s a habit. Not eating can be a habit, too. Give yourself some time to adjust to changing your behavior.
- Remember, it’s just a sensation. Hunger comes and goes. Sometimes you feel hungry because you’re used to eating at a certain time. Sometimes you feel hungry when really you’re just thirsty. And sometimes you’re hungry because you always eat during a certain activity. Acknowledge the feeling and move through it. Remember that you are letting your body work on other things! After about three weeks, people generally aren’t hungry on fasting days.