Ladies, if you’re interested in intermittent fasting but don’t know where to start, this article is for you.
However, women who practice intermittent fasting should take into consideration the fact that it can affect their hormonal balance, and should be more careful when experimenting with it, in order to make sure that they’re getting the most of it without doing any harm.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting means eating within a certain “feeding window” that is usually 8-10 hours, and fasting for the rest of the time (also referred as “fasting window”).
For many people, one of the main benefits from IF is being able to better manage their calorie intake – instead of eating 3 or 4 smaller meals, most people who do IF eat 1 or 2 bigger meals, which helps them feel fuller and therefore eat less.
Additionally, it is said to have a positive effect on your cognitive abilities, energy levels, cardiovascular health, cellular function, and it might help diminish the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and certain types of cancer (1, 2, 3).
Women need to be cautious when starting an IF regimen, as it might affect negatively their hormonal balance and have the opposite effect to what you hope to achieve – for example, instead of helping you better control hunger, it might make you feel ravenous. Which kind of defeats the purpose of it, right?
Before we look into the different things women should consider when fasting, just keep in mind that there are very few scientific studies on human to investigate the side effects and the differences between intermittent fasting for men and women. So far we have found animal studies on young rats only (4).
After searching on the internet, the following side effects are complaints about intermittent fasting from women. You might or might not experience these, but let’s have a look.
Fasting and Hunger
Women tend to be more sensitive than men to any major changes in their diet, and if you have never fasted before, going for 20 hours without food will most likely be a challenge for your body.
Leptin and ghrelin are two of the most important hormones when it comes to appetite regulation – leptin decreases hunger, while ghrelin increases it (5).
If you experience insatiable hunger after a period of fasting (or simply of eating too little), this likely means that your body is producing more ghrelin than usual. Your body likes balance and will fight any drastic changes in your weight or in your eating patterns.
In order not to provoke excessive hunger when fasting, ease your way into it – start with shorter fasting periods and slowly increase.
Lots of women find it easier to control their hunger if they only fast some days of the week, and not every day, which is also known as crescendo fasting – a fasting method that works with female hormones instead of against them.
There’s not much scientific research on this crescendo fasting topic for now but the way you do it is pretty simple. Instead of fasting everyday for 12-20 hours, you fast for 12 to 16 hours, 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days (i.e., Monday, Wednesday and Friday).
Additionally, you’re likely to have a much easier time with fasting if you’re fat adapted, so if you’re prone to having difficulties controlling your appetite, try fasting 3-4 weeks after starting keto, and not straight away.
Fasting and Female Reproductive Health
When fasting, some women might experience menstrual cycles that are irregular or disappear completely. While this might not bother you at the moment, especially if you’re not planning on getting pregnant anytime soon, your reproductive health is a reflection of your general health.
Nutritional stress of any kind – be it eating at a deficit, intermittent fasting, or even becoming fat-adapted – usually affects women more than men, and they tend to experience more severe side effects, especially as far as their reproductive health is concerned.
Amenorrhea (missing periods), your ovaries shrinking, early menopause might all be side effects of a fasting protocol that is too aggressive. In order to avoid these side effects, start slow and fast for no longer than 16 hours.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, the safest thing to do for you and your child is to not fast. Pregnancy and nursing are two periods of your life when it’s essential not to mess with your hormones, and doing it might have very negative consequences, so your best bet is to just wait with it, even if you have successfully fasted in the past. You will have plenty of time to experiment with fasting without putting your – and your baby’s – health at risk.
Fasting and Eating Disorders
While fasting could actually help you better manage an eating disorder by providing you with a generally healthy behavioural frame and by teaching you that there’s nothing wrong with eating to fuel your body, for some women it might aggravate a pre-existing eating disorder, or trigger a new episode of disordered eating, and women appear to be more susceptible to this than men.
If you have an eating disorder, we recommend staying away from fasting, or only doing it under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
Fasting and Sleep
For some women, fasting can have a negative effect on sleeping, and if you see that you have troubles falling or staying asleep, or are waking up too early, your fasting strategy might be too aggressive for your body.
Chronic stress can also aggravate problems with sleep, so if you are dealing with lots of stress in your life at the moment and find yourself tossing and turning at night and not waking up well-rested, fasting might not be the best idea.
How Should Women Fast in Order to Minimize The Negative Side Effects?
We’ve looked into the things to consider before fasting, and now you’re probably impatient to know how to fast safely.
The good news is, you can definitely do it, and there are different methods to try out.
First of all, when you start fasting, ease your way into it. Fasting for 24h straight, if you have never fasted before, is not a good idea, and your body will resist to it by making you feel weak, hungry or sick.
Instead, try fasting for 12 hours, then increase your fasting window to 13-14 hours, and once you feel comfortable with that (and if you do), try a 16-hour fast. Fasting for 12 hours should be pretty straightforward, and it’s actually how most people eat – if your last meal was at 8 PM on the day before, you just need to have your breakfast at 8 AM. Pretty easy, right?
Another strategy you could try is called crescendo fasting. This means fasting 2-3 times per week, on non-consecutive days, for 12 to 16 hours. In this scenario, you could start by fasting on Monday and Wednesday, and later on add a third day, if you feel comfortable with it.
It’s essential to stay well-hydrated when fasting. You can drink water, black coffee or tea (beware of the diuretic effect of coffee and tea and compensate by upping your water intake), and you can also add salt to your water to make sure your electrolytes are in check.
When fasting, it is extremely important to listen to your body. Fasting does not need to be a struggle and it shouldn’t make dieting harder for you – if it does, you need to re-evaluate your strategy. If you start feeling dizzy or weak, eat something. Remember, fasting is not some sort of competition and you do not need to set any sort of personal records.
Fasting can feel very empowering, and in order to experience its multiple benefits, you need to be self-aware when trying it, and do it if it feels natural for you.
We’d love to hear from you – what is your personal experience with fasting? Has it helped you lose more weight, and have you experienced any of its other benefits? What are your strategies for success when fasting?
Share your experience in the comments below!