What to Know about: Intermittent Fasting and Your Hormones!
Q: Is Intermittent fasting beneficial for female hormone balance?
A: I.F. can help lower insulin levels and reduce inflammation, however the stress response caused by restricting foods for a prolonged period of time can negatively impact adrenal glands that are already compromised or fatigued, causing erratic cortisol levels which can lead to lows of progesterone and relative excesses of estrogen. If interested in trying intermittent fasting, it’s important to understand your unique body first.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a term used to describe a lot of different protocols, most often what’s called time-restricted eating (TRE) which simply means restricting the period of time you eat to a set number of hours each day. There are many ways to intermittent fast, but the most popular is typically anywhere between 12 & 18 hours. For example, if you choose to do a 14 hour fast, you might stop eating at 8pm and then have your first meal at 10am the next day.
One of the most common questions we get asked by clients is whether or not intermittent fasting is a good tool for hormone balance, weight loss and overall well being. There are thousands of articles circulating the digital space, including an array of books, podcasts and Youtube channels dedicated to this topic so it makes sense that people would be interested in reaping the potential benefits!
If you’ve stumbled upon any of these resources, chances are IF sounds pretty enticing (weight loss, improved brain function, graceful aging, disease reversal & more). But with so much information out there on how to properly fast and an array of different techniques, it can be overwhelming to navigate and understand if it’s right for you, your hormones and your health goals.
This area of science is still very new and many of the studies conducted have been done on rats or small groups of people (many of which are male dominated). We still have a long way to go to verify the research, but there is no denying the vast number of reputable experts (Dr. Will Cole, Dr. Josh Axe, Dave Asprey etc) who tout the benefits and recommend the process to their dedicated communities and clients.
Is Intermittent Fasting Right for All Women?
The straightforward answer? No.
As women, our hormones are always fluctuating and are very sensitive to our environment including the foods we eat (or don't eat), the personal care products we use and toxic environments we are exposed to (chronic stress, air pollution, unhealthy relationships, etc).
In a situation perceived as a stressor by the body (such as long periods of fasting), your body will prioritize the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline over progesterone (the great balancer). This is not the ideal outcome because progesterone plays a key role in crucial processes like your monthly ovulation, menstruation and your sleep and stress response.
Too little progesterone (in relation to estrogen) can result in unpleasant side effects and symptoms such as bloating, anxiety + depression, lethargy, fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, intense sugar cravings, creeping weight gain (that's very slow to come off), and unbearable PMS.
Additionally, when it comes to the impact of fasting on the stress response, Hormone Expert Alisa Vitti makes the point that “anytime a woman’s body gets a “starvation signal” from her environment (like not eating for a stretch of time), it goes into the preserve and protects mode, where it holds onto weight (to survive the famine), increases the production of the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin (so that you feel famished and rush to get food ASAP), and slows down non-essential functions like reproduction (so you can keep yourself alive and not waste energy on growing a baby).”
So when people choose to experiment with intermittent fasting for the potential benefits of increased insulin sensitivity (see our most recent blog post on insulin resistance here), better energy levels, brain clarity, and weight release, etc, the symptoms that can result from low progesterone (and heightened stress response) will be the opposite of what they're trying to achieve!
That said, if done in a healthy way, when you take a longer break from eating, insulin levels will naturally start to decline once it’s burned up the sugar in your bloodstream. The longer these levels stay low, the easier it is for your body to access its own fat stores to use as energy, and the more body fat you have the potential to burn over time. Additionally, according to Dr. Will Cole in this article, “Mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and brain fog are on the rise, and studies are showing that IF improves brain function and mood through an effect, not unlike antidepressant medication. Even neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s seem to respond positively to IF, and several studies have shown that IF may actually protect neurons from genetic and epigenetic stress factors, meaning it can essentially slow down brain aging.”
So what’s the right way to Intermittent fast?
First, you have to learn to tune into your own body. Just because certain experts, influencers, or family members have touted the amazing benefits of fasting, doesn't mean it's exactly right for you...or for your hormones!
If you'd like to give it a try, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Try a smaller fasting window (12-13 hours max is best for women, ex: 8 pm-8 am). Going longer may result in negative hormonal reactions, especially in women with cortisol and progesterone imbalances (which are hormones we test via our at-home saliva hormone testing)
2. Don’t fast on consecutive days. Choose no more than 2-3 non-consecutive days in a week to practice IF
3. On fasting days, swap intense training for something lighter like yoga, pilates, or brisk walking. On days you are going to do higher intensity workouts (HIIT, steady-state cardio like running, boxing, etc), avoid fasting all together, and enjoy meals composed of healthy proteins, fats, fiber, and nutrient-dense carbs.
4. Do not fast right before or during your period as your hormones are more sensitive to fasting and you will already have a drop in progesterone
5. Support your body with nutrient dense meals that will balance blood sugars and prioritize protein, healthy fat, fiber & veggies at every single meal. Adding fiber (i.e. raspberries, avocado, chia, flax, coconut, beans, legumes, oats etc) is extremely important in detoxifying the body and keeping your BM’s regular so if you struggle getting it in, we’d recommend adding this fruit flavored fiber beverage, Bellway into your routine!
6. If you’re interested in trying IF, we’d highly suggest starting very slow with this approach and easing into it. If, after a couple months you feel the benefits, you can think about extending the window a little bit (up to 14-16 hours) but you must be very attentive to how you feel and either STOP or go back to a much shorter fasting window if you experience any symptoms of hormonal imbalance.
7. Add a healthy fat to your morning beverage! Healthy fats like grass-fed butter and coconut oil don’t cause insulin levels to rise but carbs and protein do require insulin in order to be digested. Adding a nutrient-rich source like grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut, MCT oil or cocoa butter to your morning hot beverage like a matcha, chai latte, or @foursigmatic mushroom elixir (which is our preference for hormone balance), will keep you fuller for longer, provided better sustained energy levels and higher brain focus. Cholesterol is the backbone for hormone production (not to mention our brains are 60% fat!) so without eating enough fat to fuel our brain, it is normal to feel fatigued, run down and experience intense brain fog. Enjoying healthy fats (like omega 3’s & monounsaturated) is also important for healthy ovulation, reducing inflammation in the body, and keeping our bodies satiated for longer periods of time!
We do NOT recommend IF any of these apply to you:
1. You have a history of eating disorders, restrictive or dysmorphic eating
2. You’re pregnant or are trying to get pregnant
3. You struggle to fall asleep, staying asleep waking up with energy in the morning
4. You have adrenal fatigue (which can be detected via our saliva hormone testing)
5. You are currently dealing with PMS, PCOS, Fibroids, Endometriosis or other serious hormonal issues
As with any trend or a new way of eating, it’s important to do your research to make sure it’s something that will be more helpful or harmful to your specific desires & goals.
**DISCLAIMER: if interested in starting a new lifestyle like I.F., it’s important to consult your doctor and make the decision that feels best for your unique body and hormone levels!**
Interested in testing your hormone levels and getting started on an all-natural rebalancing plan? Check out our at-home hormone testing + consulting packages HERE.