You’re totally forgiven for being completely bamboozled when it comes to how and when to eat. Truthfully, it’s confusing because there’s always something different that pops up, the latest fad or ‘movement’ with experts telling us why they think it’s the bee’s knees for all of time. But there is one approach to eating which really has stood the test of all time, it’s only now we’re giving it a title and putting it under the spotlight – Intermittent Fasting is here to stay.
We once thought it was crucial, to eat small and regularly to keep our sugar levels balanced and prevent the highs and lows that come with plummeting blood glucose. Turns out, for everything we knew about this, intermittent fasting totally blows it out of the ball park in terms of balancing blood glucose which may be standing right behind your hormone imbalance or rampant mood swings.
Throughout history, we have never had food as accessible as we do now. Fasting was (and is) a natural reality, something our ancestors may have experienced in ebbs and flows, through intense periods of lack (ie famine) or for religious reasons. Reality is we survived to date. Nowadays in the western world, we aren’t exposed to the same level of stress that surrounds scarcity to the availability of food, possibly disconnecting us even more from our natural state – truth is, we’re not supposed to be constantly full or ‘topped up,’ this very clear if you take a good look at how the digestive system works.
Fasting allows for regeneration and recovery and is somewhat essential for health, allowing the body to tap into it’s very own natural groove. In my own experience it has allowed me to really be able to listen to what my body is telling me, without the noise of over consumption.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theorises that your gut, (your spleen and stomach) are the center of your health and wellbeing. Everything starts here. Whilst it is absolutely essential to assimilate the nutrients in your food and drink, this is not where it ends. Your gut also shapes around 70% of your immune system which is crucial to your day to day health. TCM has also maintained this theory that our ‘Zheng Qi’ or upright Qi (aka immunity) is managed by the Spleen. We produce the majority of our feel good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the gut too (we once thought only the brain made these hormones- turns out around 90% is made in the gut!) making your it a key player in your emotional wellbeing too. If it is constantly dedicated to digesting, these other important functions get far less attention. For all the good food that you eat that contributes to your health, it’s also the absence of food that contributes to this same health landscape. Who knew!?
But let it be said – fasting isn’t starving ourselves. Fasting is quite the opposite. It’s eating during optimal digestion and resting outside of these times.
When you are in a state of fasting, the body is steered towards using fat rather than sugar as a food source. Many foods in our modern diet (ie grains) are quickly converted to glucose and used for energy immediately. This takes priority over fuel from fat stores and if there is any left over glucose, it goes straight to the liver to be stored as glycogen or in our muscles or body fat. Eat time we eat, we top this back up again. It’s not until we are in a state of fasting that we actually use our fat reserves.
Fasting actually influence insulin and leptin – two hormones that influence hunger. When these two are balanced, we should experience ‘balanced hunger’ which helps our body correctly signal what we require nutritionally. This demonstrates the innate wisdom our body’s have it we allow them too. I’ve found that my patients report a greater sense of calm when the adopt fasting, they are less fixated on food but quickly develop a very healthy relationship with food.
Research in this area is relatively new and we’re still working out the best way to fast (there are a few ways people do it). It is said that the positive effects are experienced at around 16 hours of fasting but can begin to be seen with as little as 12 hours of fasting. I like to look at the individual needs of my patients to work out what’s best, but as a safe suggestion I recommend crescendo fasting – this is fasting 2 – 3 non consecutive days per week. If you have obvious hormone imbalance, this may be the pick of the bunch and a great place to start. In any instance you would fast 12 – 16 hours (the majority being overnight).
So if your dinner is at 6pm, you would avoid food until 10am the following day.
This equates to 16 hours overnight of fasting, the majority of which you are asleep for (winning). This appears to be the easiest and safest. It’s important that we remember we’re all unique. Playing around to find what works best for you is important. I encourage patients not to focus on the 16 hours without food but focus on the 8 hours that you are eating and make it count.
There are a few common questions that surround intermittent fasting. I’d recommend you’d try fasting for at least 2 – 3 weeks to really allow your body to feel the benefits, you can feel a little odd the first few days but your body quickly finds it’s new groove and you’ll be reaping the benefits in no time! Here are a few more to really help you get the answers you need and work out if it is right for you.
Can anybody fast? Almost! With the exception of those expecting or breastfeeding. I’d recommend if you are breast feeding you’d be well established and have been doing so for at least 6 months before trying to fast – but everybody is different so it’s good to seek advice just to be sure. Young women who’s hormones are just finding their groove may also want to consider the best way to fast. I’d suggest from 18 years of age is best.
Will it ruin my metabolism? Unlikely – there is no evidence to suggest it does – in fact, it does quite the opposite! The first few weeks of fasting can be a little tricky as you find your groove, and this is where you can feel everything from hungry to jittery, however over the course of 12 months, research shows that insulin sensitivity improves.
Is it useful if I don’t have a period? I have had outstanding results especially with patients who have Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS typically also have Insulin Resistance (IR). Immediately after fasting, cells are more sensitive to insulin meaning that it gets used up instead of sitting outside of the cells, driving your hormones crazy. I’ve found for most women, healthy and consistent fasting works very well.
What do I eat? FOOD! Eat your normal, healthy diet within the 8 hour window. For something may mean 3 meals and for others this might be 2. There really is no right or wrong.
Written By: TCM Dr. Nat Kringoudis
Image by @murielle