Is Intermittent Fasting MAGIC???
Not at all! It is the furthest thing from magic, but can almost seem like a secret magic spell you’ve just heard of once you start reaping its benefits: better digestion, stronger immunity, fat loss, more energy, deeper sleep, improved brain function – these are just some of the benefits that come from simply limiting the consumption of food to an eight-hour window, fasting for the remaining 16 hours of the 24-hour day.
These benefits and more make Intermittent Fasting (IF) a cornerstone of the work I do with my Functional Medicine clients, especially those going through the 10 weeks of my guided Solutions Reset.
Why is this true? How does intermittent fasting work?
Intermittent Fasting: Tried and True Wisdom
First of all, intermittent fasting is not new. It is actually the way humans have eaten throughout history: fasting until we found food, then eating it, then fasting until we found it again.
Fasting has been also been used for spiritual practices, to observe holy occasions or in conjunction with retreating from the day-to-day world.
In fact, in the known religious texts of the world, mentions of “fasting” outnumber mentions of “prayer!”
We are designed for fasting, and to go long periods without eating. We have many hormones that protect us in times of forced undereating (like ghrelin, estrogen, neuropeptide-y, etc), but only one that protects us from overeating (leptin).
We used to think that small frequent meals throughout the day was optimal to maintain and manage a steady blood sugar level. But now we know better (just like we know that the food pyramid is wrong), and we realize that in order to optimize blood sugar, we need to understand cortisol, the hormone whose main job in our body is to regulate blood sugar.
Breakfast: NOT The Most Important Meal of the Day
In the morning, cortisol is naturally highest. This gives us energy to “get up and get after it,” to hunt our next meal, and to exert ourselves so that we earn it. Our dopamine is highest in the morning, too, so that in the morning we are naturally excited, alert, movement-motivated. This is not the time to sit down and eat; it is the time to work, to move, to provide for our needs.
Digestion is actually optimal around midday. This is when cortisol and dopamine start to level off. We are meant to slow down at that point, to eat and digest, to rest a bit.
We Cannot Simultaneously Digest and Heal
Eating requires a lot of our energy. In fact, when we eat, our body send 40% of all available energy to the gut to process that food. It’s a very demanding process. Our brains constantly command 25% of our body’s energy, so that leaves only 35% of our energy available while we are digesting for any other needs in the body, such as healing our organs or fighting off infections.
10 Benefits to Intermittent Fasting
Specifically, how does Intermittent Fasting help us?
Fat stores toxins. This is by design: our body protects us by temporarily storing away toxins rather than have them circulate in our blood stream. However, we are meant to get back to that fat later and burn it off, thereby moving the toxins it has stored out of our body. This is called “lipolysis.” But if we are continually taking in more food, we never get back to that fat our body has stored to burn it off. We just keep layering more upon it.
Intermittent fasting forces our body to take the stored fat “off the shelf” and burn it for fuel, because we aren’t taking any more fuel in. This allows our body to rid itself of the toxins stored there as the fat is burned off. (You can aid this process while fasting with drinking increased water, sweating in a sauna, and making sure that your bowels are regularly eliminating at least 1-2 times every day.)
This word translates to “self-eating.” In our bodies, that means “taking out the trash.” Cells in our body can age beyond usefulness, and also become damaged. Left hanging around, these cells can go “rogue” and cause us harm, as in cancer or neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease.
During times of fasting, our body actually digests its own damaged and aging cells, recycling those that are no longer needed so the remaining cells can behave more youthfully.
In the process, our bodies are also able to destroy “foreign invaders” such as bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
Intermittent fasting (IF) raises our natural metabolic rate, so that we become more efficient at burning calories, whether at rest or activity.
IF decreases insulin levels, thereby reducing our body’s signaling to store extra calories as fat.
IF trains our bodies to access fat already stored – especially visceral (abdominal, or organ) fat, which is a major indicator of cardiovascular risk – and burn it for energy. Again, it’s like a pantry that’s been overstuffed, continually restocked without ever being emptied – those back shelves are actually full of food that can finally get used once we stop continually stuffing it with more and more.
IF preserves muscle mass, which helps create leaner and stronger bodies (which by the way is the #2 prognosticator of longevity, right behind lung capacity).
Reduces Insulin Resistance
The pancreas has two main functions: 99% is its exocrine function to produce enzymes into the digestive system; and only 1% is its endocrine function to produce hormones, mainly insulin, into the bloodstream to control the amount of blood sugar there.
Insulin is needed whenever food is consumed and turned into glucose in your bloodstream. The insulin is what enables the sugars (glucose) to get into the cells to be used for fuel, and to get the glucose out of the bloodstream. But the pancreas is not meant to be continually pumping out all that insulin, and the cells are not meant to process such an onslaught of insulin. The cells become resistant to it, the pancreas cannot keep up and the blood glucose rises.
IF is one of the best – if not THE best – way to lower insulin.
This is critical because insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer and many other diseases. Raised insulin signals the body to store energy as fat. Lowered insulin signals the body to burn fat for energy.
When cortisol and insulin are kept in balance (as they are by intermittent fasting), blood sugar stays balanced. The cells are happier without being bombarded continually by insulin, and the mitochondria inside the cells – our bodies’ “power packs” – stay happier.
Part of what I teach my clients to incorporate into their practice of intermittent fasting is to stop eating at least two – and preferably three – hours before bedtime. This allows the body to normalize its “circadian rhythms,” which are its natural daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness, hunger and digestion, hormonal activity, and other bodily processes.
Energy that gets diverted to digest food cannot be accessed for the healing that is intended to happen during sleep, such as the deep reordering and reorganization of your brain, or the regeneration of mitochondria.
When your body wants to wind down and head towards a healing sleep, but then you eat, it gets confused: is it now morning? Is it time to reenergize?
It is best to head into sleep with an empty stomach so that your heart rate can lower as it should, allowing a natural progress towards the deep restorative sleep it craves.
Improved Gut Health
A huge proportion of your microbiome lives in your “gut” (the overarching name assigned to the organs that contribute to digestion, such as the esophagus, stomach, and intestines), particularly in the thin mucosal lining that coats your colon and intestines. The microbiome – whose cells outnumbers our human cells by upwards of 200x, and which can weigh upwards of five pounds – serves an amazing variety of functions in your body, among them producing upwards of 70-80% of your immune system to protect us from disease, regulating our bowels, producing vitamins and helping to digest our food.
That thin layer of the microbiome in the mucosal lining keeps in the gut what should stay there, and keeps out what should stay out.
A disruption of that ability is called “leaky gut,” which can have far-reaching ramifications such as impaired immune function, irritable bowel syndrome, increased allergies, gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation, fatigue, skin problems, nutritional deficiencies, “brain fog” and headaches, among many others.
Fasting rests and rejuvenates the gut microbiome. When it isn’t being overtaxed for digestion of too much food too often, the microbiome can be about its business of keeping us well in all the many other ways that it does.
Optimized Brain Function
Intermittent fasting is great for the brain! It can help boost your mood, improve memory, trigger generation of new neurons, and lower the risk of age-related cognitive decline.
As touched upon previously in talking about sleep, during those first few hours of sleep, the brain is intended to get kind of “wrung out” like a saturated sponge of all it has taken in, so that it can be reordered, regenerated and repaired in a beautifully orchestrated detoxification. This process fights brain fog and helps us stay sharper, which is one of the first results many of my Solutions Resetters notice.
But if the body is focused on digestion because of food intake within 2-3 hours of bed time, this regeneration does not occur as it should.
Did you know that the belly has an inverse correlation to the size of the brain? Big belly, small brain. Yikes. Think how much more brilliant you could be with a smaller waits circumference!
IF is an amazing – largely untapped – tool that can be deployed effectively against the epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases we are facing as a world, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Better Cardiovascular Function
Intermittent fasting decreases visceral (abdominal, or organ) fat, which is an outward sign of major risk factors present for cardiovascular disease, which is the NUMBER ONE cause of death in the United States.
That big belly is a dangerous hormone-releasing ticking time bomb, and IF is the bomb squad that can safely disarm it.
Fat is stored energy. Five pounds of it represents 20,430 calories. Translated, that equates to 204 miles of walking, or 408 miles of cycling, 68,100 body weight pushups or squats, or 10 – 14 days of energy.
No wonder my clients feel a surge of energy as their body is reprogrammed to burn this excess stored fat for energy, rather than keep it hanging around, with all the inflammation, toxicity, and hormonal imbalances it represents!
Stem Cell Production
Stem cells are the body’s “master cells.” They are the building blocks of all organs, tissues, blood and the immune system. In many tissues they serve as an internal repair system, regenerating to replace lost or damaged cells for the life of a person. Their importance in our bodies cannot be overstated.
There is exciting research that correlates stem cell production with cycles of fasting – intermittent fasting, in other words!
Stem cells keep us young by repairing damage within our bodies. So stronger stem cells mean increased longevity and vitality.
Bonus Benefit: Longevity
Intermittent fasting helps us live longer. It rejuvenates and strengths our stem cells, helps us maintain lean muscle mass, helps fight infection, reduces risk factors for deadly diseases, improves our sleep, and optimizes our brains.
And, intermittent fasting helps us live better: increased energy, less body pain from inflammation, and a sharper brain help us feel younger during those added years.
In other words, intermittent fasting slows down aging! Who wouldn’t like that?
How to Intermittent Fast, For Beginners
Here is a very basic set of instructions to get you started:
- Check with your health professional to make sure this is a good strategy for you personally. If so, proceed.
- Stop eating 2-3 hours before bedtime.
- Do not eat again until 16 hours has passed.
- While you are fasting, you may have: coffee, black (especially with mushroom blend containing ganoderma or reishi mushroom, which aids in detox and other functions); tea, black; water (drink 1/2 your body weight pounds in ounces of water daily. Every day.); other non-caloric beverages, but stay away from artificial sweeteners (those are a NO for many reasons).
- Once your 8-hour window opens, you may begin eating – your first bite.
- Have your last bite before that 8-hour window closes. No snacking during fasting.
- Example: finish eating by 7:00pm. Bed at 10:00pm. Eat again at 11:00am. Your 8-hour eating window is 11:00am – 7:00pm. Your 16-hour fasting window is 7:00pm – 11:00am.
If this is too challenging, begin with a 12:12 schedule and work your way towards a 16:8 schedule.
You may work out in a fasted state, but may want to dial intensity down until your body adjusts.
Watch the caffeine; it may hit harder in a fasted state.
Alcohol: realize that it is a poison, no matter what you have heard. There are better ways to achieve any of its supposed benefits. If you do imbibe, it may hit harder in a fasted state. Consider it a meal or snack and do not drink outside your eating window.
It would be difficult to find another health strategy that works synergistically across all of the body’s systems to improve our health so dramatically. It is as simple as skipping breakfast, really, which opens the door to this safe, time-tested, powerful tool.
I am asked so often, “What should I eat for [X…Y…Z…]???” Often the answer is “Nothing! You will improve [XYZ] better by NOT eating!” Sometimes the best tactic is elimination, not addition.
[An important note: we have done a deep dive here into the benefits of how to eat. What to eat is just as important.]
As you can tell, I am a huge proponent and fan of intermittent fasting. I hope that I’ve convinced you to become one as well.
Leave me a comment below and tell if you have use or have wanted to try IF. Share with someone who needs to hear this!