Timing is Everything: Intermittent Fasting Gives Your Body Time to Heal

By Jeffrey Field
January 11, 2018

Intermittent fastingThere once was a time when government guidelines encouraged almost nonstop eating.

Americans were advised to eat a series of small meals and snacks throughout the day – roughly every 90 minutes or so – in order to promote health by stimulating blood sugar and insulin. Experts now think those guidelines have the opposite effect.

“What it did was upset hormone balance,” says clinical dietitian Randy Evans of integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System. “When insulin blood sugar dominates those other hormones, proper gene expressions for longevity, healing and recovery won’t occur much or very well.”

A temporary break from eating can give those healing hormones time to do their jobs.

“It’s actually very anti-inflammatory and can be corrective to hormone and metabolic issues, just to stop the food,” Evans says. “It’s just counter to everything we’ve been taught.”

This is why there’s new interest in intermittent fasting, the practice of spacing out your meals in order to make sure your body gets plenty of recovery time. In contrast to traditional water fasts, which involve prolonged periods without food, intermittent fasting is more akin to eating on a schedule.

“If you have dinner at 6 p.m. and don’t eat breakfast until 6 a.m., that’s a 12-hour fast,” Evans says. “So it’s not like it’s crazy.”

Having food available whenever we want to eat is only a recent historical development. Early civilizations often went long periods without food. From an evolutionary standpoint, Evans says humans are probably programmed for fasting and energy storage.

“Metabolism is very protective for survival. Well, now we’ve got food surrounding us 24 hours a day and we never stop eating it. It’s killing us,” he says.

He advises patients that intermittent fasting can be as simple as curbing your snack habits.

“We certainly challenge most people to stop eating between meals,” Evans says. “Try to get breakfast, lunch and dinner. That kind of gives people a 5-7 hour fast between those meals and then certainly push that overnight break.”

Evans says following up an overnight fast with a carb-heavy breakfast can throw those hormones right out of whack again. He suggests eating foods with a higher level of fat and protein instead of bagels, muffins, cereals and other foods that spike insulin levels.

“Even if it’s healthy stuff, it’s still high in carbohydrates. It still affects insulin blood sugar and kind of then sets you off hormonally that way,” Evans says.

A high-fat, low-carb breakfast, such as eggs, bacon, salmon or a protein smoothie, on the heels of a nightlong fast can keep insulin blood sugar at a level where it’s almost as if you skipped breakfast, too.

“You go from 6 p.m.-6 a.m. and have a fatty meal and you’ve extended your fast to noon. That’s a huge space. You’ve basically turned that from a 12-hour to 18-hour fast every day, so that’s pretty cool,” Evans says.

If the very thought of going several hours without food, let alone 12, makes you hungry, Evans says it helps if your diet has plenty of healthy, nutritious foods – especially healthy fats.

“Typically, if people are having trouble getting between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner, it’s because they’re not getting healthy fat,” Evans says. “If they have good protein and good fat, they sail through that time period.”

He says some people, especially those who need to manage their blood sugar, may go a step further and try what’s known as a 5/2 intermittent fasting plan.

“A 5/2 plan just has you fast two days a week, but on those two days, you actually get one meal in the day,” Evans says. “It’s a small meal, kind of a moderate fast.”

He says people who follow this plan will have dinner at 6 p.m. and not eat again until lunch the next day. They will have a small lunch and then dinner at the normal time.

“So you have kind of a one-meal day,” he says. “That’s a kind of fast that’s been shown to do wonderful things, even though it’s not that hard.”

There are even more extreme versions, but Evans encourages patients to ease into fasting. And while anyone planning a dietary change should discuss it with their doctor, between-meal and overnight fasts don’t carry much risk, even for people battling major illnesses.

“If you’re talking about the well-known chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, MS, Parkinson’s, arthritis or any kind of inflammatory problem – it’s perfect for that. And really no danger,” Evans says.

The Food and Drug Administration now says fasts of more than 11 hours are beneficial to breast cancer survival.

“There’s actually science saying it’s pretty good for us with nearly every kind of chronic health problem,” he says.

Evans says he believes that as research in this area continues, we’ll eventually learn that fasting is helpful to the bacteria that live in our gut.

“That’s who we’re really manipulating here. They control way more of our metabolism than we know right now,” he says. “That fasting period is probably more connected to gastrointestinal flora than anything else, because when we stop the sugar, it allows the good guys to take back over the space.”

If you’d like to know more about fasting, Randy Evans recommends Dr. Jason Fung’s book, “The Complete Guide to Fasting.” You can find more about the book and other helpful resources on his website.

Integrative Medicine at The University of Kansas Health System can help you learn good nutritional habits and a personalized pathway to better health. Call 913-588-6208 to make an appointment with a member of our team.

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