In the increasingly large group that is the "biohackers" and others trying to modify their cognitive performance by engaging in an intermittent fast, we must question the potential downfalls. As someone who has had to pull clients out of adrenal fatigue that stemmed from a lack of adequate rest, overexertion and intermittent fasting, I can tell you this a real and growing problem.
Intermittent fasting may not right for you.
What is intermittent fasting anyways?
I won't go into extreme detail here. The basic idea is that by mimicking our ancestors natural tendency to operate in a fasted state and eating in certain time windows, as opposed to having food available every hour around the clock, that we can gain increased mental clarity, fat loss and reduced risk for disease along with many other related and tangential benefits.
Fasting raises cortisol
Cortisol is commonly portrayed in a negative light in the alternative health community due to the fears and perpetuated dangers of too much cortisol. While this problem is warranted, having a basic understanding of the evolutionary role of cortisol is important.
Cortisol is triggered by many things including bright light. Getting bright light exposure in the morning is a critical step for creating enough energy to get moving. Bright light stimulates cortisol production. This is why gloomy mornings and days spent under artificial light in an office make it more difficult to "fire up your engines". Clients report grabbing a cup or second cup of coffee on gloomy or winter mornings compared to the rest of the year. A full-spectrum light box can be a savior those coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Cortisol is naturally highest in the morning and is supposed to gradually fall throughout the day, dropping to its lowest point near midnight.
In the evolutionary lens, cortisol is what gave us the boost necessary to forage and perform tasks necessary for survival. Cortisol is hormonal motivation. This boost kept us alive.
Was fasting natural and normal for our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
Of course, but our modern way of life presents variables that should make fasting a more cautious decision.
We no longer live in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state for the majority of our lives like we used to, where fasting and the subsequent cortisol boost shifted us into the sympathetic state to help us get up and go.
Our body and nervous system is already on high alert and stuck in the sympathetic mode due to:
- Poor blood sugar regulation
- Artificial light at night
- Sound pollution and traffic
- Financial stress
- High demands at work
- Too much exercise
- Lack of sleep
- Nature deficiency
- Mineral deficiencies
- Negative attitudes
- Lack of relaxation
What does all of this have to do with fasting?
Fasting can be the final straw for people that have more energy "going out" than coming in.
A study with 16 healthy young females went on a 48 hour fast under medical supervision which resulted in parasympathetic withdrawal and reduced heart rate variability. These are two changes that showed these young females were now under significant stress.
You could say, "duh! they haven't eaten for 48 hours, of course they're stressed. I don't ever fast for that long" and you'd be correct. This evolutionary response basically forces us to eat! However, by willingly putting ourselves into a fasted state for fat loss and increased mental performance, we are encouraging increased sympathetic (stressed) activity.
Most people have very poor blood sugar regulation
Dr. Hagmeyer has the perfect illustration of the blood sugar roller-coaster.
Blood sugar naturally rises and falls, it just should not move in such extreme fashions.
When our blood sugar drops due to fasting in this context, we may get cravings for quick fuel. Ingesting quick fuel in the form of caffeine to stimulate cortisol production and therefore raise blood sugar is very common. Ingesting sugar, bread or other forms of dietary rocket fuel will create a similar response.
Once the spike happens after eating a high-glycemic meal, one can expect a crash to follow. This cycle is treated like an emergency situation to the body, resulting in a tired pancreas and adrenals.
In human history, we've never had an emergency need to lower blood sugar. That is before the introduction of sugar and refined carbohydrates into the diet.
After the adrenals get tired, the body begins to enter a state of low cortisol. If you ask anyone who frequently runs Adrenal Stress Index labs, low cortisol is becoming more common. Since cortisol that is too low is also an emergency situation, the body then hurries to create homeostasis by releasing adrenaline to raise insulin which will then raise blood sugar levels if the body is functioning properly.
The problem is, most people are "deaf" to insulin's message that is trying to raise blood glucose levels. The body then secretes more insulin in an attempt to raise blood sugar levels. Doesn't all of this sound like chaos? It is.
A study wanted to figure out exactly how much the blood sugar was raised from adrenaline and found a 50% increase in blood glucose concentration.
To make it clear, more frequent meals containing sources of fat and protein, which do not cause an insulin and blood sugar spike, are necessary to normalizing energy levels and suppressing sugar cravings. You can NOT lose body fat when high insulin levels are present.
Most people have some sort of adrenal disfunction
As we've discussed, the plethora of factors affecting the adrenals are on the rise. We are fighting a losing battle if we expect to keep up with extremely high demands and a fast-paced lifestyle with no time for rest and recovery. No, sitting on instagram in your bed does NOT count as adequate rest. You may want to remember why artificial light is ruining your sleep and making you fat.
If adrenal function is not working properly, it can be nearly impossible to fix these issues of blood sugar regulation. Reducing their workload by cutting the amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars is beneficial and necessary, but it won't bring them back to 100% health.
A diligent and focused regimen of self-care, relaxation and healing is essential to be able to safely and effectively intermittently fast.
Self-care methodologies that can support healthy adrenal function can include:
- Forest therapy
- REST therapy
- Epsom salt baths
- Essential oils
- Magnesium lotion
- Phosphatylserine and Vitamin B-6
- Vitamin C and Zinc
There are many other adaptogenic herbs and compounds that I could recommend for you, but I really want to emphasize the importance of cultivating a more relaxed lifestyle to naturally induce a parasympathetic state. I've talked with Dr. Tim Gerstmar on the subject of adaptogens here if you insist. I've outlined more detail about studies regarding forest therapy and acupressure here.
Remember that fatigued adrenals may become more fatigued by the stress of intermittent fasting.
How to become healthier and burn fat without fasting
This is a topic that deserves an entire book, which I'm not prepared to write yet. However, here are some bullet points that will hopefully relieve your confusion and anxiety about this subject:
- Eat a protein and fat containing breakfast within 2 hours of waking up.
- If you are struggling with hypoglycemia and the associated energy slumps, food cravings and anxiety, eat a fat source every 4-5 hours until symptoms improve
- Continue to eat protein and fat sources throughout the day
- Keep an "emergency stash" of beef jerky, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, butter and canned sardines or wild-caught fish to prevent you from becoming shaky and fatigued, or even worse, a sugar and carbohydrate binge
- Listen to your body and eat when you feel it's necessary. This inner wisdom comes with time
- Exercise moderately. Exercise should energize you, not kill you. Pay attention to your recovery time and note anything longer than 2 days as an indication you should take it a little easier
I'm not against intermittent fasting for healthy individuals and people that are managing their stress well. A study showed that oxidative stress, inflammation and asthma in overweight adults was improved with intermittent fasting. Another study found that optimal weight loss can be attained by intermittent fasting and exercise.
Intermittent fasting has many benefits and more studies will show the benefits soon. However, attaining the relatively calmer state of life necessary to make intermittent fasting really show it's benefits of the utmost importance.
What's your experience with intermittent fasting? Comment below!