As the month of Ramadan approaches, messaging around the health benefits of fasting have started. Ramadan is primarily known as a month of fasting, but beyond not eating or drinking during a 14+ hour window, the purpose is to spiritually reset.
With this month comes many posts on the Internet about how beneficial fasting is. Unfortunately, many of these are not based in science or a true understanding of how the body works. Especially when it comes to hormonal health.
Read on to learn more about what exactly intermittent fasting is and my thoughts on some myths about fasting.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Fasting is the act of voluntarily not eating food for a period of time. Intermittent fasting is choosing to do this with specific eating windows in mind and generally done with the intention to support health.
5 Different Types of Intermittent Fasting
1. Sixteen to Eight (16:8)
This is the most popular form of intermittent fasting. Essentially, you would fast for 16 hours, typically between 8 PM the night before and noon the following day. This means you likely skip breakfast and have an earlier dinner, leaving you an 8 hour eating window – 12 PM to 8 PM.
2. Five to Two (5:2) 24-hour Fast
This form of fasting usually means fasting for 24 hours on two days a week. The remaining five days of the week, you eat normally (whatever normal looks like for you).
3. Five to Two (5:2) Calorie Restriction
A five to two calorie restriction fast means eating about 500-600 calories on two days of the week. The remaining five days of the week, you eat normally (whatever normal looks like for you).
4. Alternate Day Fasting
This type of fast means alternating between eating normally and fasting for either 24-hours or significantly reducing your calories. This can look like 3 or 4 days of fasting (either 24-hours or fasting for most of the day) per week.
5. One Meal a Day
This form of fasting is exactly what it sounds like. You fast all day and eat one big meal at the end of the day.
Ok, now that we’ve reviewed what intermittent fasting is and all the different forms, let’s dig into a few myths people have about fasting.
Myth #1: Exercising While Fasting is Beneficial
Many people see the month of Ramadan as an opportunity to start building new habits, including eating and movement habits. But Ramadan is not the best time to start an exercise routine. Here’s why:
Exercise, above all of its benefits, is first and foremost a form of stress. It’s actually referred to as “acute stress” or short term stress. Stress, at its core is a demand for energy on the body. Energy from the body’s perspective is food.
When we go long hours (14+ hours) without eating, like we do when fasting, we are running on an energy deficit. Adding exercise into that mix or continuing a previously intense exercise routine means increasing our energy needs during a period of energy deficit.
Energy deficits are compensated for using stress hormones. Chronic exposure to stress hormones, which are meant only to be used in emergency situations increases risk for many diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Of course, Ramadan is a short-term period of fasting. But long-term intermittent fasting puts you in a chronic state of physiological stress.
For someone who has hormonal imbalances, like PCOS or hypothyroidism, chronic exposure to stress hormones makes it even more difficult for the body to balance other hormones, like thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, insulin, etc.
Myth #2: Fasting Helps the Body Detoxify
Detoxification is a big buzzword right now – especially with celery juicing making its rounds. But these recommendations for detoxification completely miss the mark. Because they are promoted by people who have no understanding of physiology or how the body detoxifies.
Can abstaining from food help with detoxification? Yes, to some extent it can. We abstain from food overnight in our sleep, and also in between meals. But chronic fasting can do the exact opposite. Here’s why.
The liver is the primary organ responsible for neutralizing all different kinds of toxins and drugs. The liver requires a wide variety and significant amount of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates) to function properly. When we fast, we drastically reduce the amount of nutrition we get. Especially if we’re not mindful of packing a punch with the meals and snacks we consume after we break our fast. Fasting, especially on a continuous basis, is more likely to slow the liver down than to help it function better.
The other component of detoxification is the gut. Many neutralized toxins are excreted out of our body through pooping. When we fast, our gut slows down because the body tries to preserve all its energy for more important functions, like keeping the heart pumping and the brain fueled. This is why many people might experience constipation while fasting. A slower gut also means less toxins excreted, and even more re-absorption of toxins back into the bloodstream that were meant to be excreted.
To summarize, fasting on a regular basis actually slows down the detoxification process as opposed to enhancing it.
Myth #3: Fasting is Energizing
Many people tell me that they feel better when they’re fasting or more energized.
Yes, fasting can make you feel better or more energized, but this is not necessarily a good thing.
The single biggest threat to our body is low blood sugar. This is why it has multiple mechanisms in place to handle the dip in blood sugar. These include:
- Liver stores of sugar
- Stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which break down fat and muscle tissue to make sugar
When we fast, especially for long hours like intermittent fasting, our body has no choice but to use stress hormones to regulate blood sugar. At least until we eat again. Stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, keep us alert and can make us feel wired. Which many of us easily confuse for being energized, especially if we have not learned how to understand the signs of high adrenaline.
The notion that fasting is energizing also conflicts with basic fundamentals of biology. In the body, the process of making energy, also known as ATP, requires several things:
- Nutrients, like vitamins and minerals
- Thyroid Hormone
Numbers 2, 3, and 4 are all negatively impacted when we fast.
Fasting elevates stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and causes a false sense of energy.
To summarize, there is a lot of hype about fasting, but at its roots, fasting is mostly just another way to lose weight, which results from the reduced calories while fasting. Many people believe fasting can improve their health by optimizing their workouts, supporting detoxification, or energizing them. As I discussed above, none of these are true and fasting can actually be harmful if done long-term.
Grab a copy of my workshop(s) to support your hormones during Ramadan, so you can focus on your most important Ramadan goal – nurturing your connection with Allah (swt).
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