Intermittent Fasting: What To Do And How To Do It
New Fad or Century Long Adaptation?
By Dr. Bahareh Moshtagh, ND
Fasting In History
Fasting has been practiced throughout history over thousands of years and is universally employed in the animal kingdom and via religious and spiritual practices. It generally describes going long hours or days without food and sometimes water.
Ramadan is a religious practice in the Islamic faith whose dates generally fall in April - May and depend on the cycle of the moon in that region. It is of no coincidence that this is done during Spring, a time of rebirth. During this time muslims focus their attention to their spirituality rather than physicality in hopes of drawing closer to God. Likewise, the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Taoism all practice some form of fasting in their religious practices. Some are prolonged periods of fast, and some are daily fasts.
Although mind-boggling at first, we are hard-wired to go hours without food as a multi-century long adaptation to food scarcity. Long before grocery stores, refrigeration and block-chains, our ancestors would gather food based on seasonality and a successful hunt and would occasionally run hungry.
Health Benefits Of Fasting
Fasting is one of the fastest ways to stimulate the body into repair mode, enhance waste removal, and boost metabolism. Think of it as a period of rest and repair for your body, both physically and mentally. As an opportunity to break old habits, increase self-awareness, become more resilient and self-disciplined. Eventually your taste buds will also change and your cravings for “junk food” will ameliorate. You may find yourself craving healthier foods, experiencing far less bloating and may even feel more energized. Other benefits of fasting include having to spend less time and money on food and not having to eat during the middle of a busy day at work.
Scientific literature boasts about the health benefits of fasting in a host of medical conditions: diabetes, epilepsy, obesity, psychological illness, arthritis, heart disease, skin disease, toxin poisoning, vascular dementia and concussion rehabilitation. In general you will experience: weight loss, increased energy, clearer skin, decreased pain and inflammation, increased focus and concentration, reduced gas and bloating. New emerging research on fasting shows that the quality of the components inside cells called organelles (especially the mitochondria) improve in quality, subsequently improving the overall functioning of all cells in the body. This also applies to the pancreatic beta-cells and their overall health and survival, even shown to help with regeneration of these cells in obesity induced diabetic mice.
In fact there is a lot of supportive literature demonstrating that in the span of someone's lifetime, the less caloric intake they had, the better health outcomes when it comes to prolonging life (mortality) and reducing illness (morbidity). This also applies to individuals who over consume to acquire a certain physique.
One very important way fasting works to improve our health is via a process called autophagy. When the body goes into ketosis after 12 hours of not eating, certain cells in the body get hungry enough to eat up dead cells and tissue, this way removing unwanted debris from dead tissue that are in the way of healing
Intermittent Fasting- An Alternative?
A gentler way to fast called intermittent fasting, can carry much of the same benefits. This is largely because it, too, cycles between periods of fasting and eating. As such, it is less of a diet and more of an eating behaviour. Intermittent fasting involves splitting the day or week into eating and fasting periods. Self-explanatory, you eat during the eating period and eat nothing (except fluids - discussed later) during the fasting period. There are generally 2 ways in which intermittent fasting is done: daily at 16hrs, or weekly at 24hrs, twice a week. Although you should listen to your body and slowly ease into this type of fasting. It is ok to start with a shorter fast and build up.
While there are a number of ways you can divvy up periods of fasting, here are the most popular methods:
The 16/8 Method restricts eating to an 8 hr period and 16 hrs of fasting, and is often referred to as the Leangains protocol. One someone gets comfortable with this ratio, they can apply it daily and reap the rewards.
There is also the 2 day fast which you can apply whenever you are ready. You can drink water and tea during this time.
Longer fasts are more beneficial for chronic diseases and need to be carried out in an in-patient facility.
Many have found the 16/8 method to be the simplest, most sustainable and easiest to stick to. It’s also the most popular.
Is Fasting Safe?
There should not be any fear when it comes to fasting. Especially when starting with intermittent fasting a few days a week to start off. We have adapted over millions of years and have survived in settings of extreme famine. That being said, I typically warn individuals experiencing extreme depletion, fatigue, or hormonal or sleep disruptions should avoid fasting. Women especially should be cautious and slowly introduce fasting before doing so on a routine/daily basis. Women’s sex hormones are sensitive to sudden caloric deficits. Many women who cut calories suddenly, drink pre-workout powders and push their bodies aerobically beyond their capacity, burn out after some time and begin to have menstrual irregularities and possibly low sex drive as a result of hormonal dysregulation.
Preparing for Fasting
It is imperative that you possess or acquire a positive and strong mental outlook regarding fasting before you take on the challenge as it is not easy at first.
Remind yourself of the benefits and other reasons you may be doing this like becoming more resilient. The more you stick to it, the easier it will get.
Prepare Your Pantry
It is a good idea to fill your pantry and fridge with fresh whole foods. Breaking your fast with fresh food is best. (see below “Breaking Your Fast”)
If you focus on eating nutrient dense foods, your fasts will be easier. If you have nutrient deficiencies, it may be harder for you to get through the fasts.
Make sure that you continue to drink water, herbal tea is also ok (caffeinated or not). Adding mineral drops to your water is also helpful. Filtered or spring water is best. The quantity should be based on your level of thirst, but in general you should strive to drink half your weight (in pounds) in ounces of water.
You may initially have a hard time focusing when starting to fast. Try to find a time when you can rest and take it easy when starting to learn to fast. Body Temperature usually drops during a fast, along with decreased blood pressure, pulse and respiratory rate. Your body has wisdom, and is trying to conserve energy. Try to stay warm with blankets or a hot water bottle so your body can focus on other things.
Make sure to reduce physical activity to a minimum during this short time of fasting. The more rest you give your body during this time the better your body can focus its energies on healing. Heavy workouts tax your body and impair repair and elimination. If you need to take a nap, make sure you listen to your body and do so. As you get good at it, you may find it beneficial to workout in the morning then break your intermittent fast after with a nutritious meal.
Detox And Pathways Of Elimination
As a general rule I draw my patient’s attention to reducing their use of synthetic deodorants, soaps, sprays, detergents and shampoos or choosing to opt for more toxin free options. She also stresses the importance of sunlight and recommends getting at least 10-20mins per day of sunlight (not during peak hours) without SPF - a difficult ask for those living in rainy Vancouver.
Luckily neither enemas nor colonics are needed during a fast, but depend entirely on your individual health needs. A pre-fast meal of fresh fruit and vegetables helps set the stage for the start of a fast and can help hydrate the colon.
Side Effects Of Fasting
Especially initially in your fasting journey, possible side effects you may experience are: Headaches, dizziness, nausea, coated tongue, bad odour, mild palpitations, mucous discharge and weakness.
These symptoms are generally normal and may not even arise. If your symptoms persist and result in discomfort, break your fast with fruit and notify your physician.
How to Break Your Fast
Always break your fast with fruits, especially low glycemic index ones. They have natural enzymes, vitamins that are hydrating and carry electrolytes. Eat seasonally and in small amounts at first. Do not branch from the fast straight into a cleanse (i.e. juicing), alternate these and leave a space between them when you are having solid foods.
Your pancreas and its insulin production are very sensitive at this time to blood sugar irregularities. Introducing a high amount of sugar in the form of fruit juice will be counterproductive and spike your sugar and insulin, unless it is simply a green juice with very minimal sugar added. Stick to whole fruits and vegetables. This is especially important and applies if you are fasting for a few days or coming off a keto diet.
If you are a coffee drinker, make sure to drink it black while you are still waiting to complete your intermittent fast. You will not come out of ketosis or autophagy by doing this. Remember that drinking tea and water during fasting is ok.
Always consult a healthcare provider before adopting new health practices. Nothing stated on this page should be taken as medical advice.
Dr. Bahareh Moshtagh is a naturopathic doctor in Vancouver and focuses her practice in hormones, gut health and regenerative medicine.
Sign up to get email updates