If the thought of going more than three hours without food has you reaching for a snack in sheer panic, you probably won’t be keen to jump on the intermittent fasting bandwagon.
Intermittent fasting basically means extreme calorie-restricting or going a lengthy period without eating, for just a few days a week. Although experts might advise various ways to carry out intermittent fasting, the general consensus is to eat normally for five days and fast for two. On fasting days, either restrict your intake to 500 calories (600 for men), or go an 18 hour block without eating (for example, eat your last meal at 8pm and don’t eat again until 2pm the next day).
Historically, my eyes have tended to glaze over whenever someone mentions all the benefits of fasting (weight loss! Longevity!) because I don’t do well with starvation (no thanks!).
The last time I was asked to review a book about fasting, it was written by Lee Holmes and was called Fast Your Way to Wellness. I’m a huge fan of Lee’s and I loved all the recipes, truly I did, but the problem was that I wanted to eat everything, and all throughout the day.
So Fast Your Way to Wellness has been gathering dust. Until, that is, I heard fasting can positively impact your gut microbiome. Given that Lee is considered an expert on the gut (she’s also authored Heal Your Gut and has another gut-focused book on the way), I asked her to connect the dots between taking a break from eating and healthier gut flora.
What is the connection between fasting and the gut microbiome?
LH: Eating all your fermented veggies, organic foods and sipping on those green juices are all amazing ways to keep your gut health at bay but sometimes, your digestive system needs a bit of a rest. This is where fasting comes in.
Intermittent fasting gives your body and particularly, your gut, time to heal so it can carry on being supercharged and fabulous.
You may or may not know that a few years ago, I was suffering from an autoimmune condition and fibromyalgia. I managed to restore my health and improve the symptoms I was experiencing through healing my gut. As my gut microbiome started to repair itself, many aspects of my health began to dramatically improve too. However, I just knew there had to be more to it.
Our gut, just like each and every one of us, needs time to rest and recover. Fasting is a much-needed timeout for your gut which your body and health will thank you for. By just reducing your calorie intake two days a week, the load on your gut is lightened and ready to work at its optimum.
Do we understand the mechanism of action?
LH: Overall, research is beginning to point towards amazing cell-recycling and cell-regenerating mechanisms that are a direct result of intermittent fasting.
Think back to when you were last sick. Did you feel like eating?
For me, and many others, the answer is usually negative. This is because when our immune system is compromised, the body kicks into a mode of immune-cell sacrifice and regeneration, upgrading the immune system within the gut. During fasting periods, the immune system tries to save energy by recycling unused immune cells, especially those damaged by things such as ageing, antibiotics, and a toxic lifestyle. Fasting also lowers levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a hormone linked to ageing, tumour progression and cancer risk.
Fasting stimulates the acceleration of protein activity that suppresses oxidation and the formation of free radicals. This is why fasting is linked to boosting brain health and reducing our likelihoods of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and strokes.
Is there anything else you can do to support the process if you’re fasting to improve your gut microbiome?
LH: Our bodies are not made to handle the modern lifestyle of over-snacking and widely available high calorie processed foods that most of us lead. This has made us susceptible to developing weight-related diseases such as obesity and Type II diabetes.
So, what’s the easiest way to avoid this?
Stop doing it!
I restrict my calorie intake on two days a week. I find that two days of fasting is enough for me to gain all the amazing benefits without tampering with my usual routine, so that’s what I recommend. On fasting days, men restrict their calorie intake to 600 calories and females restrict their calories to 500 calories. The food eaten on fasting days should be wholefoods and not low-calorie, low-fat processed junk-food.
The best way to optimise intermittent fasting is by choosing highly nutritious foods on the fasting days, as well as every other day of the week. Think of intermittent fasting as a time of self-care; for yourself and gut health! Fasting is the time to fuel the body with the right nutrients and will bring the most health benefits if the food consumed is of the highest quality.
Try this recipe from Lee Holmes. Yes it’s Cauliflower Raspberry ice cream.