You may have heard recently about the popular diet trend of fasting to lose weight and get healthy. People are touting the benefits of fasting combined with diets to control their appetite and crush cravings, but is fasting safe? Are the mental and physical benefits worth the commitment?
Fasting has been done for centuries as a spiritual act of denying one’s self while praying and petitioning God. However, the mainstream world has now brought fasting into the light as a way to a healthier body and mind.
Benefits of Fasting for Your Mental Health
If you could improve your emotional and mental health by delaying the time you eat, would you? That’s what many people are reporting with fasting for mental health. Fasting causes the human body to deplete its glucose stores which is what is used for energy. With no available glucose, the body converts stored fats into ketones.
These ketones work as a fresh fuel to power-up the brain’s processes. Therefore, after the initial “brain fog” you might experience at the beginning your mind becomes much clearer and your ability to focus is sharper.
A study published in Current Neuropharmacology in 2015, found that the short-term calorie restriction from fasting can boost anti-depressant chemicals in the brain. As our brain runs on ketone fuel, intermittent fasting may help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.
The neurons in the brain use the new fuel to enter a growth phase and create new synapses. These synapses help to improve memory and brain functioning.
Some people experience irritability or moodiness when they first start intermittent fasting until their bodies adjust to the delay of food. Therefore, it is important to start slowly. Eventually, fasting will help to improve your self-control, make it easier to cope with anger and stress, and alleviate depression.
Benefits of Fasting for Your Physical Health
Since your body switches from burning glucose to burning ketones (the fat released by your fat cells and converted in the liver), you may find a boost in your energy levels, especially toward the end of the fast. Many people choose to exercise before they end their fast to take advantage of the energy and the fat-burning potential.
The reason many people opt to fast is for weight loss benefits. Between the calorie restriction from only eating during a specific window of time or on particular days, plus the fat-burning potential from ketones, the body may begin to lose weight – water weight (extra fluid) first and then fat. You may find that your clothes begin fitting comfortably again.
Giving your digestive system a break from the constant input of food is healthy for your body. This can help those people with digestive issues such as gas, diarrhea, reflux, and heartburn. The practice reduces the risk of obesity by allowing your systems to rest and repair. Fasting boosts longevity.
Depending on the length of the fast, you may see an improvement in chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases the risk of developing illnesses, diseases, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, certain cancers, and therefore shortening your lifespan. Some inflammation is a response to a cut or acute infection and is natural and beneficial, but chronic inflammation from too much sugar and other inflammatory foods can be detrimental to your health.
This type of inflammation can cause problems throughout the body including the cardiovascular system, increasing your chances of developing heart disease. Chronic inflammation affects your mental health as well as your physical wellbeing. Inflammation can increase your risk of depression and anxiety.
Types of Fasts
Intermittent fasting is the practice of delaying your first meal of the day for as long as possible. Whether you realize it or not, you intermittent fast for a period every night while you sleep. For example, you eat dinner at 7 pm and then fall asleep at around 10 pm.
If you wait until morning to eat again, you will break your fast with breakfast probably somewhere between 7 am and 9 am. This gives your body 12 to 14 hours of fasting and a much-needed break from the process of digestion.
What you consume during a fast is up to you, but you will want to make sure that you stay hydrated. Depending on the type of fast you choose and your personal health history, you could consume coffee, tea, or broth without breaking the fast.
Coffee known as “bulletproof” coffee has become popular in recent years. The person adds a concoction of coconut oil or MCT oil and grass-fed butter to their black coffee in a blender. Once mixed thoroughly, the drink becomes creamy and frothy. People report reduced cravings and little appetite after drinking one cup and the healthy fats in the absence of carbohydrates are metabolized differently by the human body.
Although experts disagree on the addition of optional sweeteners to coffee or tea in the morning, some people find that a packet of stevia or a tablespoon or two of sugar-free flavored syrup in their hot drink does not break their fast – and makes their daily cup more enjoyable.
Popular fasting windows are 16:8, 18:6, and 20:4. With the first type, you fast for 16 hours and then eat your two to three meals within an eight-hour window. This could mean that you skip breakfast and break the fast around noon, but then finish your last meal by 8 pm.
With the 18:6 and 20:4 methods, you would delay breaking your fast until much later, shortening your eating window. Many people who adopt the 20:4 lifestyle will have a small meal around 4 pm and then consume a larger dinner. Some people will only eat one meal during their shortened window. They will finish their meal within that four-hour window.
The One-Meal-a-Day (OMAD) method goes a bit further. The person fasts for most of the day and only consumes one meal within a two-hour period. The one meal should be a balanced meal of protein, complex carbohydrates like non-starchy vegetables, and a dose of healthy fats such as olive oil or coconut oil.
Another popular method is the 5:2, however, it is not about eating windows so much as eating days. The participant chooses two days during the week to fast (for example, Monday and Wednesday) and only eats a small amount during the day. Some people choose to only drink water on those days, while others will eat around 500 to 600 calories spread throughout the day.
What You Need to Know to Get Started
You should not consider attempting the fasting lifestyle if you have a history of eating disorders. Although there are several health benefits of fasting, you do not want to trigger the eating disorder behavior. Speak to your physician and mental health care provider if you want to try fasting for health reasons.
People with diabetes should consult with their primary care physician before attempting to fast as the blood sugar levels may dip too low, especially if the person isn’t adhering to a healthy diet during mealtimes. You don’t want a blood sugar high and then crash an hour later.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid fasting as they need to ensure the baby is receiving adequate nutrition for growth and development. Although the baby in utero will absorb many nutrients from the mother, not consuming enough food during this time can cause health concerns for both the mother and the child. Not eating enough calories throughout the day can cause the breastmilk for the baby to lessen and eventually stop.
If your physician gives you the go-ahead to fast and you are a healthy individual, start small. Choose to fast for 12 hours if you are used to eating breakfast. Then every three days or so, push your mealtimes back by a half-hour to an hour.
Choose mealtimes that work best for you and your family. If you typically serve dinner around 7 pm due to everyone’s schedules, then perhaps consider an eating window of 8 am-8 pm, 12 pm-8 pm, 2 pm-8 pm, or 6 pm-8 pm (depending on the fasting type) to make sure you have finished your meal by the cutoff time.
Start with small steps in the right direction and you will see that fasting for mental health is beneficial and easy to do. It will become second nature to consistently intermittent fast.
“Salad Bar”, Courtesy of Dan Gold, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Oatmeal with Nuts and Raisins”, Courtesy of Margarita Zueva, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Keep Climbing”, Courtesy of Bruno Nascimento, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Raspberries”, Courtesy of Glen Carrie, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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