I’m sure you have heard all the rage about intermittent fasting. In fact, many people, especially our male counterparts, swear by this method. However the difference is that they are men and we are women. And simply put, women are different than men!
When women attempt fasting in a manner that is inappropriate for their physiology, it can backfire. Meaning rather than creating health benefits, it can end in hormonal disruption.
So why is this?
Because women’s bodies are built for reproduction. Now even if you never want to get pregnant, the rules still apply to you and are very important to understand. Why? Because ANYTHING THAT AFFECTS YOUR REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH ALSO AFFECTS YOUR OVERALL HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE.
Alright now hopefully all of those caps were enough to get your attention. Your female physiology and health is so very important. Please never take that for granted.
In addition, It is very important to understand that each and every person’s make up is different. While one diet may be your friends grand truth, it does not necessarily mean it will be yours as well. This is where people become all too confused in the health world today. Take great heed to not fall prey to brainwash and fad diets, rather listen to your body and approach your health individually. If you find this challenging, working with a practitioner may be a great tool.
Now with that said, let's dive into some of the potential benefits of Intermittent Fasting (why it has become all the hype in today’s health world), the nasty cascade of symptoms that can plague women when they do not follow it in a manner properly aligned with their unique physiology and the How-To’s for properly following Intermittent Fasting as a woman in the reproductive years.
The Intermittent Fasting Hype
Intermittent fasting is all the rage nowadays and for good reason. Intermittent fasting, when followed correctly, can be a great tool for:
Decreasing insulin resistance
Increasing Growth Hormone (which aids in fat burning and muscle repair) (1)
Decreasing Cortisol and Increasing Melatonin (which helps balance the sleep-wake cycle) (1)
Regulating blood glucose and control blood lipids (3)
Reducing the risk of coronary disease and cancer (3)
These results can vary from person to person and have much to do with the current state and needs of your body. This is why it is very important to always listen to your body during any type of diet or lifestyle change, especially intermittent fasting.
Triggering a Hormone Cascade
For women, following intermittent fasting can be disruptive to our hormones due to our unique reproductive physiology. Because our bodies are set up for procreation, it senses this “starvation” as a danger. These outside stimulations or “threats” throw off the production of Gonadotropin Hormone (GnRH), which is responsible for the release of Luteinizing hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) (5). Simply put, these latter two hormones then communicate with the ovaries, letting them know if ovulation is appropriate or not.
If these hormones are disrupted, imbalance cascades down to other essential hormones in reproductive health, such as: estrogen, cortisol and thyroid hormone. These hormone imbalances may then manifest themselves in a number of ways.
Estrogen disruption may appear as:
Low energy / fatigue
Poor glucose control
Impaired cognitive function / brain fog
Decreased bone density
Poor muscle tone
Changes in skin and hair health (such as dryness, acne or hair loss)
Infertility and anovulation
Reduced cardiovascular health
Cortisol disruption may appear as:
Low energy / fatigue
Feeling wired but tired
Thyroid hormone disruptions may appear as:
Dry skin / hair
Feeling cold all the time
While these symptoms are anything but fun, they are only just the tip of the iceberg. If not properly addressed, these hormone imbalances may lead to much more devastating conditions after menopause, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia (4). All the reason to approach Intermittent Fasting in a manner appropriate for your physiology, right?
Safe Intermittent Fasting Strategies for Women
With all the potential benefits of intermittent fasting, it would be crazy not to want to try to use it in aiding your health goals. However understanding your body must be the starting line if you truly wish to improve health and avoid unwanted side effects. Listed below are some effective strategies women should follow when utilizing intermittent fasting.
Choose not to fast on consecutive days - rather choose alternating days and limit fasting to no more than 2 or 3 days a week (2)
Choose not to fast for more than 12 to 13 hours at a time (2)
Avoid intense workouts on fasting days - rather engage in light activity such as yoga
Consume a nutrient-dense whole food diet appropriate for you and your body during periods of eating. It is important to replenish yourself with the nutrients essential to your body's proper functioning.
If after trying these steps for a couple months, you feel you are benefitting from IF, you can try to move up to 16 hours of fasting at a time, if you wish. However pay close attention to the signals your body sends you. If you experience any symptoms of hormone imbalance, choose to either regress back to where you were or stop IF all together.
Signs your body is telling you to back off a bit include(2):
Irregular or missing periods
Problems falling asleep or staying asleep
Changes to metabolism or digestion
Injuries are slow to heal / you are continuously getting sick (3)
You aren’t recovering well after your workouts
It is also necessary to mention that there are a select few who should NOT try intermittent fasting.
These individuals include:
Those with a history of an eating disorder(s)
Those who are pregnant or trying to conceive
Those who have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up in the morning
Those who are new to diet and exercise(3)
Those who suffer from chronic stress or adrenal “burnout”
Those with PCOS, Fibroids, endometriosis, or other diagnosed hormonal issues(2)
What to take away from all of this
When done appropriately, Intermittent fasting can be a great health tool, but we must first recognize our unique physiology and work in accordance with it. It is most essential to always listen to your body and when in doubt seek help from a practitioner, health coach or nutritionist. Knowing and understanding the signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance can guide you through Intermittent Fasting and allow you to recognize when your body is alerting you that something isn’t quite right.
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1- Bates, A. (2018, August 06). 3 Ways Intermittent Fasting Can Balance Your Hormones. Retrieved from https://www.autumnellenutrition.com/post/3-ways-intermittent-fasting-can-balance-your-hormones
2- Vitti, A. (2018, October 23). Intermittent Fasting and Hormone Health: What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://www.floliving.com/intermittent-fasting/
3- Kollias, H. Intermittent Fasting for women: important information you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/intermittent-fasting-women
4- Epidemiology Branch. (2018, June 06). EB Research: The Biocycle Study. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/about/org/diphr/officebranch/eb/biocycle
5- Meczekalski, B., Katulski, K., Czyzyk, A., Pdfigurna-Stopa, A. (2014, September 09). Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and its influence on women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25201001