I recently sat down with Intermittent Fasting expert, Cynthia Thurlow, NP, who has a viral 10 million and counting viewed TEDx talk on the topic, to talk about fasting basics and how what you eat affects your mental health and more specifically anxiety and depression.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
When it comes to questions about diet for improving mental health, one of the most common questions is what is intermittent fasting and how is it different from just skipping breakfast.
Cynthia noted that while a lot of people think of IF as being new and novel, it's been around for a very long time, as it dates back to Biblical times. IF is a part of all the major religions largely because it was incorporated into spiritual events.
According to Cynthia, the easiest way to think about fasting is eating less often. It's really that simple. We like to make things complicated, but it's about eating less often and creating fasting windows where you don’t eat.
And so it could be as simple as eating dinner at six o'clock at night, and then you don't eat breakfast till 8:00 am the next morning. That gives you 14 hours in a fasted state, which most of the time you're sleeping, so you're not even cognizant of it.
This is a large departure from the kind of traditional methodology that we need to eat three meals a day and snacks, which has led to increased eating and health issues.
Intermittent fasting is eating less often and it can be flexible, it can shift from day to day, and it can work around your lifestyle. It's not designed to be complicated, although people like to make it complicated. Cynthia likes to keep it pretty simple, because the more simple we can make it, the easier it is to make those changes and have them be successful.
Some people do a keto or paleo diet with intermittent fasting and if that works for someone great, but keeping it simple helps people not only get started, but sustain the diet.
Why are Autoimmune and Mental Health Disorders on the Rise?
What we have is a public health threat resulting from people eating too frequently. Moreover, the rise of the processed food industry coupled with a lot of ingredient changes, such as the use of high fructose corn syrup has led to chronic disease states, the likes of which we've never seen before inflammatory disorders, metabolic disease, etc.
The foods that we eat can be the most important and impactful decisions that we make, not just on physical, but also on emotional and spiritual health. The food we eat impacts the gut microbiome and impacts a whole lot of other things.
How is Intermittent Fasting Different From Skipping Breakfast?
It is really important for people to understand that IF really has a lot to do with getting the body in a fasted state. There are counter regulatory mechanisms in the body that help get rid of toxins and waste within the body that improve physical and brain health.
This process is called autophagy and it's like taking out the trash. The only time that it's really potentially aided or magnified is when we're in a fasted state.
So when we're looking at caloric restriction versus fasting, the differentiators are really important for people to understand that the beauty of fasting is what goes on in the body in a non fed state.
It is not as simple as ‘calories in calories out’. This is something that's a very reductionist way of thinking, As Cynthia notes, “Our bodies are far more sophisticated because they can recognize macronutrients, protein, fat and carbohydrates.”
Calories is a unit of energy, it is a reductionist way of thinking about food and food intake. So while fasting involves skipping a meal, what is different is a person is eating within a condensed feeding window. Moreover, it’s what goes on behind the scenes, sometimes the things that are not able to be visualized outside the body, that’s where the beauty lies with fasting.
Here you can really tap into some intrinsic survival mechanisms that are in the body. However, in our chronically overfed state where we have access to this hyper palatable processed foods, and the overeating that most of us are doing, that's when these mechanisms are blunted, or they're not able to be fully utilized.
How does Autophagy Improve Mental Health?
For mental health, in general, if you have specific conditions, you always want to check with your physician or your provider whenever you're starting something new but many use intermittent fasting to reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, OCD and depression because people are looking for natural remedies for mental health.
So we know that with a 12 hour window the body begins autophagy, which I always refer to the dishwasher cycle, because what it does is it cleans things up. And when you're cleaning up the brain, we're getting rid of mycotoxins and things that interfere with how our brain works.
An extended fasting window does improve functions that improve mental health such as regulating our blood sugar and supporting hormone, cell, and neurotransmitter activity.
What are the Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
There a lot of the brain and physical health benefits from fasting. There are short term benefits such as weight loss and long term benefits such as a reduced chance of Alzheimer's Disease (Kenna et. al, 2013). When we tap into fat stores, we can use specific types of ketones that diffuse across the blood brain barrier, which often improves mental clarity.
Fasting has the direct benefit of better hormonal balance. When we are fasting, our insulin levels are low and we are able to eventually get into a process where we can tap into fat stores for energy.
Physiological Benefits of Fasting
- Improved mental functioning
- Healthier gut-brain connection
- Increased serotonin and melatonin
- Lower insulin levels
- Hormonal balance
- Weight loss and weight management
What is the Optimal Time Window For Intermittent Fasting?
If you're eating three meals a day and snacks, Cynthia’s first recommendation is to stop snacking because you have to get to a point where you can structure your meals properly, so that you're not hungry in between meals.
If you're hungry in between your meals, you didn't eat enough protein. It’s critically important for people to understand that most of us are not consuming enough protein and too many carbohydrates.
How Do You Start Intermittent Fasting?
When thinking about where a starting point is, Cynthia suggests 12 hours of digestive rest or where you're not eating for 12 consecutive hours. For example, if you eat dinner at six o'clock, you don't eat again until 6am.
The reality is that most of us when we wake up, we're not hungry but due to habit we eat.
“Oh, my stomach growls, oh, I need to eat. No, actually, you don't. If you're an adult, generally speaking,” You don't need to eat with that first hunger growl. It can be something else such as dehydration, it can be your body's way of alerting you. Especially with mask wearing, everyone is struggling to stay hydrated.
Slowly working your way to fasting for 16 hours with an eight hour feeding window is the next step for most people.
Just know that the more processed and carbohydrate laden someone's diet is, typically the longer it's going to take them to extend that window because their body needs more time to adapt.
Then does that mean that once someone is fat adapted, once their body is metabolically flexible to switch between fats and carbs as a fuel source, that people want to stay in that gear all the time?
Should You Always Have the Same Intermittent Fasting Feeding Window?
Cynthia says, “Absolutely not.” While consistency is good, changing things up when it comes to fasting windows, food and exercise is also important too.
So we don't do the same thing every day. It's a really good point to say, I'm going to work up to 16 hours fast. And it may be that you go from 12 hours to 12 and a half to 13. It may take four to six weeks. Some people effortlessly do it and within a week they're doing 16 hours fast, they feel great. Other people take longer and that’s ok too.
It is about retraining your body and you're going to have to get a little hungry and have to work around it. In her book and IF 45 program, Cynthia teaches people all of the tricks that can help people work through their hunger mechanisms.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe for Teens?
Cynthia stated that it's an important kind of distinction to mention that, when someone is still growing, such as preteens and younger children, no it's not a good choice.
When kids are still growing, I think you have to be really deliberate about ensuring that they're not missing opportunities to have nutrient dense feedings.
Although still growing, teens have natural eating habits that may or may not lend themselves toward long fasting periods. While one teen may eat two breakfasts, another may not eat until 2 PM, and if they are growing and developing, that is okay.
Focusing on an anti-inflammatory diet with nutrient dense food with an emphasis on healthy fats and consistent protein. That is one of the most common missing components that I see with our clients that we work with all over the world, especially when they are struggling with conditions such as anxiety, depression, PANS/PANDAS, OCD, and ADHD.
Many of our clients in our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program, where we combine science-backed tools that calm the brain, such as neurofeedback, PEMF, and nutrition with new learning through counseling and coaching in order to reset behaviors, use food to optimize brain health and improve focus and mood. We also take a common sense approach to food and are mindful of conditions such as ARFID and sensory sensitivities.
How Can Moms Benefit From Intermittent Fasting?
During perimenopause, or the five to ten years preceding menopause, women can benefit from fasting. Cynthia wrote the first book, it's not a chapter, but an entire book devoted to and honoring the unique needs of women’s physiology and in this book, there is information that has profound health benefits beyond just the physical things a lot of people like to focus on, what I think is most important is that people feel good from the inside. And so this is a great strategy to embrace.
This book is a starting point for women and Cynthia has compiled the best information for you to guide you. There may be many myths about intermittent fasting, but she has broken down the details of intermittent fasting in a way that's usable and digestible, which is equally as important for busy moms.
It’s 2022, and we mothers have come through a lot in 2020 and 2021, and it’s about mothers taking care of themselves, and you can get her book to make one step to self care and better mental health in 2022.
Intermittent fasting is a wonderful way for you to reduce stress and mental health symptoms, get your brain optimized and focus on yourself. Self care became a buzzword, but it only works if you do it, and this is that first step.
I would encourage everyone who wants to learn more or start Intermittent fasting to check out Intermittent Fasting expert, Cynthia Thurlow, NP’s book Intermittent Fasting Transformation.
You can watch this interview on my YouTube Channel.
Kenna, H., Hoeft, F., Kelley, R., Wroolie, T., DeMuth, B., Reiss, A., & Rasgon, N. (2013). Fasting plasma insulin and the default mode network in women at risk for Alzheimer's disease. Neurobiology of aging, 34(3), 641–649. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2012.06.006
Manchishi SM, Cui RJ, Zou XH, Cheng ZQ, Li BJ. Effect of caloric restriction on depression. J Cell Mol Med. 2018;22(5):2528-2535. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcmm.13418
Zhang, Y., Liu, C., Zhao, Y., Zhang, X., Li, B., & Cui, R. (2015). The Effects of Calorie Restriction in Depression and Potential Mechanisms. Current neuropharmacology, 13(4), 536–542. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159×13666150326003852
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime.
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