We all practise intermittent fasting, we just don't commonly refer to it with such fancy terminology. From our last food of the day to our first food of the next day, is a period of intermittent fasting.
I discovered Intermittent Fasting after learning that many strength and endurance athletes had been getting great results from it, so I had been considering incorporating it into my routine for a while.
The idea of giving my digestive system a break and that it helps to balance your hormones really appealed to me, as did getting over my obsession with thinking that I have to eat every couple of hours or I will waste away!
Allowing our bodies to have a more prolonged period of fasting helps to balance our hormones, enabling our internal systems to carry out a complex array of different biological processes and results in a multitude of benefits for us, not least of which is excess fat metabolism and greater carbohydrate sensitivity – meaning our bodies won't be so inclined to store carbohydrates as fat!
Why do we need to implement periods of fasting?
We have evolved to have very effective fat storing mechanisms so that we can store energy for use at a later time, our bodies evolved to expect a cycle of a feast, followed by fasting.
This is an amazing evolutionary trait and was vital for our survival, but since the advent of food abundance and 24 hour supermarkets in the modern world in which we live, where most of us top up with food around every two hours during our waking hours, it no longer serves us.
In order to complement this evolutionary trait, we need to balance the yin with the yang, the fed with the fasted state, so that we can re-establish our bodies sensitivity to carbohydrates and create stable blood sugars throughout the day with no peaks and troughs, letting our bodies insulin and glucagon cycle work to its natural rhythm.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
The main benefits which have been observed as a result from fasting are:
- Improves insulin sensitivity & glucose uptake – we don't fill up fat stores so easily and we are less prone to diabetes
- Promotes autophagy – the body breaks down and recycles old and damaged cells
- Reduces circulating IGF-1 levels – this is a known cancer promoting hormone
- Decrease in oxidative damage – delays the aging process and keeps us looking younger
- Increased cognitive function – our levels of BDNF increase so we can think more clearly
- Reduction in body fat – during the fasting period our bodies utilise excess fat for fuel
- Lowers blood pressure – this is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality
The light of the world will illuminate within you when you fast and purify yourself. ~Mahatma GandhiClick To Tweet
Methods of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting is an age-old practice which is commonplace in numerous religious rituals and traditions around the world. This is usually done as a test of faith and devotion, but it seems that there are many health benefits which can be attained from this technique too.
The fasting itself does not have to go on for prolonged periods of time either. There are many methods, but at its most basic level, it is the simple act of skipping one or more meal times. It can, in fact, be done on a daily basis where only certain time periods are sectioned off as eating times and the rest of the time is spent fasted.
How you perform it is entirely down to personal preference but some of the more common approaches are:
- Eat for an 8 hour window during each 24 hour full day (The 16:8 method)
- Have a cycle of a day of caloric excess followed by a day of fasting (The Alternate Day fasting method)
- Have two calorie restricted days per week of around 500-650 calories (The 5:2 method)
My Experience with Intermittent Fasting
After learning all about it, I started Intermittent Fasting 18 months ago and it has been a daily practise ever since. I started by slowly implementing one of the daily methods over the course of a few weeks. I gradually delayed my first meal of the day by half an hour until I reached where I wanted it to start on a daily basis. You may end up struggling to call this breakfast anymore, but it is still break-fast!
I eat in an eight hour period (since I am not trying to lose weight I eat the same amount as I would have eaten over the course of a full day previously, but just condensed in to eight hours).
Any six-ten hour ‘eating window' is fine, but it seems that it is psychologically easier to delay your first meal and go to bed on a full stomach – something which assists in making us sleepy anyway – rather than having breakfast and stopping eating in the early afternoon.
What To Expect
Initially you will be aware of the feeling of your stomach walls retracting, but don't let that put you off, because it doesn't mean that you are starving, your stomach is simply returning to its natural size when it is empty.
During the course of this it has been surprisingly easy and I have actually been really enjoying it. I initially presumed that I would feel starving, shaky and weak, but just the opposite happened. It helps you feel more alert and more in control with no hunger pangs (this is something which has been commented on by all of the sources which I have found across the Internet too).
After a couple of weeks any hunger feelings during the fasting time become almost non-existent. During my running days I done my morning running training and all races on an empty stomach too, which felt fantastic. I was able to perform to the same intensity when going for an early morning track session and when going for a longer run, but I felt light and springy instead of weighed down by food.
In the morning during your fasting hours it is nice to fill up on lots of liquid, to really help with flushing your system out and keep your stomach feeling full. Dependent on the temperature I usually start the day with a large sports bottle filled with filtered water followed by a hot drink such as peppermint tea. I drink lots of water throughout the morning to assist the flushing process.
There doesn't need to be rigid rules with Intermittent Fasting, after all we are attempting to mimic nature, which means sporadic cycling between fed and fasted states
Won't I lose muscle though?
I think the main benefit of this method of eating is simply that it reminds us that we don't need to be constantly within reach of energy top ups from food. I learned through running that we have more than enough glycogen stored in our muscles and liver for us to be able to run a half marathon on an empty stomach, that's before we even start on our fat reserves!
Now that I am weight training instead of running I have also learned that intermittent fasting supports muscle building by increasing our human growth hormone by as much as 5 times the amount!
Provided that you strength train regularly, your body will preferentially burn fat for fuel, rather than muscle
Initial detoxification symptoms
Be prepared to possibly experience some detoxification symptoms such as strong smelling urine, skin breakouts and headaches in the initial stages of starting I.F. Although this doesn't happen to everybody, it seems that it is dependent on how unhealthy your lifestyle was previously.
Your body is going to start burning up all of those fat stores which potentially harbour a lot of toxins which your liver was unable to process at the time, so it kindly stored them in the adipose tissue ready for a time when it was able to deal with them at a later date! That later date has come now that you have decided to fast, so all of those old toxins which are metabolised and released into the system means that you may experience some short term side effects.
It's no big deal though and it feels great to finally be freeing your body from these unwelcome impurities and giving your body the break which it deserves (once it has got over the detoxing anyway – just keep drinking water!).
In situations where psychological triggers occur it is going to take a little practise though. For instance, I have now noticed the many occasions where I will give myself food rewards when in certain situations, even though I am not remotely hungry. It feels good to be getting on top of these feelings, because they are ultimately addictions.
I definitely do not need to be topped up with food every couple of hours, my body does much better with having a break and the hormonal responses which it causes actually stops you from feeling hungry so often.
It's a nice feeling to not worry about having to eat so regularly and it has also helped with being more mindful and grateful of the food which I am eating. Initially your stomach will rumble a little but it's no big deal, rest assured you can still get all of your necessary calories and nutrients, just in a condensed time-frame.
When I first started this practise, I enjoyed the psychological challenge of it, even though it was still relatively easy. But, once the habit was established, it is such an ingrained part of my life that I don't give it a second thought and never feel hungry until I am psychologically expecting food because it is a time when I usually eat.
I have harnessed the willpower which I tapped in to when I started fasting and directed it in to other areas of life too!
Next Steps For Success
- Keep Hydrated – To put off those hunger pangs it is crucial to drink lots and lots during your times of fasting. This helps assist in flushing out any toxins which may be released as a result of detoxification too. As well as water, you can also have herbal and fruit teas. I personally think it's best to minimise caffeine consumption, since it could hinder the hormonal balancing effects of fasting due to the stimulated release of cortisol.
- Keep Busy – It is important to keep busy so that we don’t allow psychological triggers to get the better of us. If we allow ourselves to sit and do nothing it may prompt our desire for stimulation which we could seek to get from food. If you’re stuck for something to do, how about some exercise? Fasted cardio or resistance training will prompt your body into using up fat reserves for energy and it will set your hormonal balance up perfectly to utilise the carbohydrates, proteins and fats which come from your next meal.
- Be Mindful – Learning to recognise the difference between feelings of hunger and psychological triggers plays a key part in intermittent fasting success. The majority of our hunger cues are delivered out of habit. Just the same as when you quit something such as smoking, it can take several months or even years until we can move beyond our old trigger points. There are going to be many times when certain smells, actions or places will trigger an old habit. These can be things such as always having cake when meeting up with a certain friend, or always getting a burger when walking past the vegan fast food shop simply because, well, it’s a vegan fast food shop! We must work on shifting our collective mindset to focus on long-term health and vitality, rather than immediate rewards.
Eat, Stop, Eat by Brad Pilon (This is absolutely the best book I've read on the topic – Concise but fully comprehensive)Abstinence and fasting cure many a complaint. ~Danish ProverbClick To Tweet
What do you think of Intermittent Fasting? Is it a short-term fad, a current trend which will soon fade out? Or, is it the almost glaringly obvious answer to what our bodies crave – a break from constantly digesting and an opportunity to work on maintenance? Let us know your experience in the comments! 🙂