History tells us that as far back as Hippocrates, fasting was known for its many health benefits. We can even go farther back, to Biblical times, where there are many references and admonitions about fasting in the Bible. It’s interesting to note that most of these admonitions produced not only spiritual health, but physical health as well. Intermittent fasting is becoming very popular because of its ability to help people eliminate or slow down many health issues; however, if you are a women, there are some things about intermittent fasting in which many health care practitioners may not realize.
Although research is limited on intermittent fasting in humans, there’s a growing number of health experts who believe the results gathered from animal studies hold excellent potential for better human health and even future research endeavors.
Some of the impressive benefits of intermittent fasting for women and men are improved weight management, better cardiovascular health, better sleep, less inflammation, improved digestion and even improved cellular repair which may result in slowing down aging and disease.
As great as intermittent fasting is, especially in fostering good health, if you are a woman, intermittent fasting could lead to hormone imbalance which can then lead to other concerning health issues. Let’s discuss the possible side effects of intermittent fasting on women’s hormone health.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is defined as an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting during the same day. Some people choose to embrace the intermittent style of fasting into their daily life for a prolonged period. There are several methods of intermittent fasting that have been developed. Personally, I prefer the 16/8 method. Choosing this method of intermittent fasting can actually be as simple as not eating anything after 7:00 PM, and skipping breakfast with your first meal of the day around 11:00 AM. For some women, it is recommended that they only fast 14-15 hours, since they seem to do better with slightly shorter fasts. During the fasting period you can drink purified water (highly recommended), organic coffee, herbal teas and other non-caloric beverages (no sugar or artificial sweeteners), which can help reduce hunger levels. Making sure you are consuming enough healthy fats during your eating window will greatly help you feel less hungry. The most important part for women is to understand that when doing intermittent fasting, it’s extremely important to eat healthy nutrient-dense food during your eating window.
Nutrient-dense foods can be defined as real and unprocessed as opposed to foods that are chemically altered, man-made or filled with synthetic ingredients. Some examples of nutrient-dense foods are: leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens, spinach, bok choy, cabbage, romaine lettuce); red, yellow, green and orange bell peppers; broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts; carrots; parsnips; asparagus; strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and other berries; tomatoes; mushrooms; sea vegetables; wild-caught fish; cage-free pastured eggs; beans and peas; raw nuts and seeds; grass-fed lean meats and poultry; and ancient/whole grains.
Intermittent fasting won’t work nearly as well if you eat lots of junk food or excessive amounts of calories.
What are the Benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
Changes the function of cells, genes and hormones
Can help you lose weight and belly fat
Can reduce insulin resistance
Can lower risk of type 2 diabetes
May be beneficial for heart health
Can lower blood pressure
Helps to promote a cellular “waste removal” process called autophagy
May lead to a reduced risk of cancer
Protects your brain
May help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
May help you to live longer
Intermittent Fasting – A Therapeutic Way to Eat
Most women decide to try intermittent fasting in order to lose some weight. While that’s not a bad idea since most people do end up losing weight while on IF, intermittent fasting has many more health benefits than just losing weight.
Once you look at the research on the benefits of intermittent fasting, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it is actually a therapeutic way to eat. As listed above, intermittent fasting can help to increase energy, reduce inflammation and support brain health. It supports your immune system and may help you live longer. All of these super health benefits are much more important than stressing about a number on the scale.
On the other hand, when you look at intermittent fasting as just another diet to try and not as a therapeutic way to eat, it becomes very easy to not consume enough calories which can then initiate hormone havoc.
Can Intermittent Fasting Balance Women’s Hormones?
The short answer is probably not. The health benefits of intermittent fasting are very individualistic. Fasting is known to improve insulin levels and growth hormone which has been called “the fountain of youth hormone”. Growth hormone helps preserve your muscles and bone density. It also makes us look and more importantly feel “youthful.” Over a five-day fasting period, growth hormone secretion more than doubled.
With so many women exhibiting hormone imbalance from toxins and chemicals in food, water, air, personal care products and the environment, trying to balance your hormones with just intermittent fasting may actually do more harm than good.
Women are very sensitive to signals of external starvation, and if the body feels like it’s being starved, it will begin to produce more leptin and ghrelin which are hunger hormones. When women undergo insatiable hunger after under-eating, they are experiencing increased production of these hormones. This is the female body’s way of protecting a potential pregnancy—even if a woman is not pregnant.
In animal studies, after just two weeks of intermittent fasting, female rats stopped having menstrual cycles and their ovaries shrunk while experiencing more insomnia than their male counterparts (though the male rats did experience lower testosterone production). What does this tell us? For women, some do great with IF, but some come away with a less than positive experience. Does this mean that women who are sensitive to intermittent fasting shouldn’t do IF at all? Not entirely. It’s just best to take it slow and make sure you are eating nutrient-dense real foods. Always listen to your body, and remember, stress can cancel any positive effects of intermittent fasting.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis permits your brain to communicate with your ovaries. Your brain communicates by sending hormones to your ovaries, which then triggers your ovaries to release estrogen and progesterone. You can see why a healthy HPG axis is essential for your hormonal well-being as well as your ability to get pregnant.
Because of the hormone kisspeptin, some women could experience sensitivity to intermittent fasting. Kisspeptin, a protein-like molecule made in the hypothalamus, is an important hormone that starts the release of estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Kisspeptin is also connected to puberty and may even help stop the spread of cancer. Kisspeptin stimulates GnRH (gonadotrophin-releasing hormone) production in both sexes, and we know it’s sensitive to leptin, insulin, and ghrelin, hormones which react to hunger and satiety. Women tend to have more kisspeptin and the GnRH pulses are very sensitive to environmental factors, and could be thrown off by fasting. This could be the reason fasting more readily causes women’s kisspeptin production to dip, tossing their GnRH off kilter. This can cause women who try intermittent fasting to miss their period, throw off their menstrual cycle, or make them feel hormonally unbalanced overall. In theory, this might even have an effect on fertility as well as metabolism; however, more studies are needed. Even short-term fasting (like three days) alters hormonal pulses in some women.
For those who have adrenal issues, intermittent fasting becomes more valuable when used with a very gentle approach. Adrenal fatigue happens when your brain-adrenal (HPA) balance is not working properly. Women with circadian rhythm issues (adrenal issues) may experience difficulty with intermittent fasting.
As far as IF, I am a little concerned with women who have thyroid issues, especially those who exhibit symptoms of thyroid issues, but have never been adequately tested. Thyroid hormones affect every single cell of your body, so if your thyroid isn’t working well—neither are you. Autoimmune thyroid issues such as Hashimoto’s, low T3 syndrome, thyroid resistance (similar to insulin resistance), and thyroid concerns that are secondary to brain-thyroid (HPT) axis dysfunction are all pathway disorders that can respond differently to intermittent fasting.
All in all, if not done properly, intermittent fasting could easily become a big trigger for hormonal imbalance because of the stress it can cause on your body. Monitoring sex hormones, cortisol and thyroid hormones is a good idea, especially if one has thyroid concerns or experiences adrenal issues. It’s wise to check on the state of your hormones before beginning an intermittent fasting. If you are already dealing with a hormonal imbalance of any kind, it’s a good idea to address that imbalance before beginning an intermittent fasting plan. The best way to do this is to test your daily cortisol rhythm and your sex hormones using a saliva test. I would also suggest appropriate thyroid function serum testing.
While scientific data is minimal about intermittent fasting in women, the few studies available indicate that while men usually experience very positive results with intermittent fasting, women’s results are mixed.
Reasons for Women to Stop Intermittent Fasting
- Menstrual cycle stops or becomes irregular
- Experience issues with falling asleep or staying asleep
- Hair begins to falls out
- Start to develop dry skin or acne
- Noticing you don’t recover from exercise as easily
- Injuries are slow to heal
- Come down with every sickness-bug going around
- Tolerance to stress is lower
- Experience more mood swings
- Heart starts beating irregularly
- Interest in sex goes down
- Digestion slows down
- Always seem to feel cold
While intermittent fasting comes with many health benefits and is safe for most women, if you decide to try intermittent fasting 1) understand that intermittent fasting is not a diet. You must consume healthy fats and nutrient-dense food. You will experience better results if your food is organic and/or locally grown and 2) saliva test sex and stress hormones and serum test thyroid function before attempting intermittent fasting. Not taking the time for due diligence in this area could cause your experience with intermittent fasting to be less than great and could actually make any existing hormone imbalance worse, thus leading to other health issues.
If you are suffering from a lack of experiencing optimum health and wellness, I highly encourage you to look for things you can change to get your lifestyle under better control. Just take it one step at a time. Are you incorporating exercise and a healthy eating plan such as intermittent fasting in your life every day? Would making some important lifestyle changes help you experience better health and well-being? When was the last time you cleansed your body? Often these are important factors in experiencing optimum health and wellness, but not always. At any rate, if your current lifestyle choices aren’t putting your health where you desire it to be, I suggest making a decision to further check out the health information in this article and others at www.OAWHealth.com. Dealing with everything that comes with being unhealthy and unwell is not easy, but the good news is that any health situation can be improved. You are also only one decision away from beginning a journey that could change not only your health, but your life!