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How is Intermittent Fasting Different for Women?

Published October 02, 2018 (Revised: June 10, 2020) Read Time: 8 minutes
Caitlin Beale

Written By: Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN

Caitlin is a registered dietitian with 9 years of experience. She holds a Master’s of Science in Nutrition as well as a Bachelor of Arts in English. She is also an ACE certified health coach.

<script type="application/ld+json"> { "@context":"", "@type":"BlogPosting", "author": { "@type": "Person", "name": "Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN" }, "publisher": { "@type": "Organization", "name": "Warrior Made", "logo": { "@type": "ImageObject", "url": "", "image": "" } }, "headline":"How is Intermittent Fasting Different for Women?", "datePublished":"2018-10-02", "dateModified": "2020-06-10", "description":"Intermittent fasting has many health benefits for women. Learn the differences of intermittent fasting for women here.", "image": "" } </script> <script type="application/ld+json"> { "@context": "", "@type": "FAQPage", "mainEntity": [{ "@type": "Question", "name": "What is intermittent fasting?", "acceptedAnswer": { "@type": "Answer", "text": "Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that alternates between set periods of eating and fasting. While fasting, you avoid eating or drinking anything with calories. You can drink black coffee, herbal tea, and sparkling or still water, but all other options are discouraged." } }, { "@type": "Question", "name": "What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?", "acceptedAnswer": { "@type": "Answer", "text": "Intermittent fasting has many health benefits beyond simply eating less often. Here are a few: Weight loss, Longevity, Metabolic health, Cognitive health, Immune support." } }] } </script> <article> <div> <ul> <li><a href="#section1">What Is Intermittent Fasting?</a></li> <li><a href="#section2">What Are The Benefits Of Intermittent Fasting?</a></li> <li><a href="#section3">How Is Intermittent Fasting Different For Women As Compared To Men?</a></li> <li><a href="#section4">Should All Women Avoid Intermittent Fasting?</a></li> <li><a href="#section5">How to Get Started With Intermittent Fasting</a></li> </ul> </div> <section> <p>If you’re tired of diets that focus only on reducing calories, then you might want to consider intermittent fasting.</p> <p>Listed by Google as one of the top ten trending diets, intermittent fasting is a popular diet pattern because of its flexibility and health benefits.</p> <p>But is it safe for everyone? Research suggests that women may respond differently to fasting than men. While not all women need to avoid intermittent fasting, there are a few important factors to understand before giving it a try.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section id="section1"> <h2>What is intermittent fasting?</h2> <p>Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that alternates between set periods of eating and fasting.</p> <p>While fasting, you avoid eating or drinking anything with calories. You can drink black coffee, herbal tea, and sparkling or still water, but all other options are discouraged. Even <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">artificially sweetened beverages</a> aren’t allowed because they can actually signal your body to release a small amount of insulin and trick the body into feeling more hungry.<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">1</a></sup></p> <p>Intermittent fasting is different than the typical reduced-calorie diet because it focuses more on <i>when</i> you eat than <i>what</i> you eat (although that’s important too). This is why some people who don’t like following a “diet” like IF. It allows you to still choose what food you want to eat within your meal window, giving you flexibility and choice.</p> <p>There are many types of intermittent fasting, but here are the most popular: </p> <ul> <li><strong>The 16/8 method</strong>: In this popular pattern you eat in an eight-hour window and restrict intake for the remaining 16 hours in a day. </li> <li><strong>The eat-stop-eat method</strong>: For more advanced practices, people following this pattern eat as usual for one or two days and then fast for the next 24 hours. </li> <li><strong>The 20-hour fast</strong>: Inspired by the work of <a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Ori Hofmekler</a>, this IF pattern has a four-hour eating window while fasting the remaining 20 hours. </li> <li><strong>The 5:2 method</strong>: In this pattern, there are no days of full fasting, but instead you limit calories to 500-600 calories twice a week and eat normally the other five days. </li> <li><strong>The alternate day or crescendo method</strong>: These methods are modified versions of fasting where you alternate days of following either the 16/8 or 20-hour fast with days of normal eating. This tends to be a gentler version and may be a better choice for women, as you will learn more about in the next sections. </li> </ul> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <img style="max-width:100%;" class="img-fluid" src="" alt="healthy fit woman"> <h2 id="section2">What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?</h2> <p>If your first thought is that people lose weight on this diet because they are just eating less often, you are partially correct. </p> <p>People who follow IF patterns do tend to cut out late-night snacking or mindless eating because they are limited in <i>when</i> they can eat. You may also be more conscious of your food choices when starting to follow any kind of new diet, which can naturally lead to weight loss.</p> <p>But intermittent fasting has many health benefits beyond simply eating less often. Many of these health benefits appear to come from something called autophagy (a natural body mechanism to remove old or damaged cells). During this process, your body can work on repair instead of growth – and it only occurs during periods of fasting<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">2</a></sup>. Think of the fasted state like your body's own self-cleaning-oven feature. </p> <p>Autophagy has been shown to protect the body against inflammation and the natural effects of the aging process, such as susceptibility to disease and cognitive dysfunction<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">3</a></sup>.</p> <p>Beyond autophagy, benefits of fasting include:</p> <ul> <li><strong>Weight loss</strong>: People following IF can lose the same amount of weight as those who follow reduced-calorie diets without having to restrict all day, every day<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">4</a></sup>. This is especially helpful for people who feel deprived following strict diet plans.</li> <li><strong>Longevity</strong>: IF may reduce the risk of diseases related to aging and increased the length of life in animal studies<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">5</a></sup>. This is likely related to autophagy.</li> <li><strong>Metabolic health</strong>: IF support improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">6</a></sup>. It also may reduce fasting insulin and improve your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, helping to balance blood sugar and reduce fat storage<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">7</a></sup>. <p>IF also may raise a hormone known adiponectin<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">8</a></sup>. Adiponectin can increase insulin sensitivity and even support fat burning in your body.</p></li> <li><strong>Cognitive health</strong>: One study showed that after a year of fasting and caloric restriction, adults who had previously been diagnosed with cognitive impairments had improvements in memory and cognition<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">9</a></sup>.</li> <li><strong>Immune support</strong>: During fasting, our white blood cells drop as autophagy does its clean-up job. Once you start eating again, the immune system bounces back, and new white blood cells are formed. This was seen in a study on people receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer who, after fasting, had an increase in white blood cells once they started eating again<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">10</a></sup>. Since chemotherapy can cause low white blood cells, the authors suggested that while more research is needed, fasting may help improve <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">immune function</a>.</li> </ul> <p>While the benefits of IF are certainly well supported, the results are mixed when it comes to women’s health.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <img style="max-width:100%;" class="img-fluid" src="" alt="woman drinking water"> <h2 id="section3">How is intermittent fasting different for women as compared to men?</h2> <p>Intermittent fasting may affect women differently because of their hormones. </p> <p>Some studies have shown that women have a different response to IF than men. For example, one study that compared the effect of fasting on blood sugar found that women experienced negative blood sugar responses after three weeks of IF, while men did not<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">11</a></sup>. This may be because women experience a different stress response to fasting.</p> <p>Intermittent fasting puts the body in a state of physiological stress. </p> <p>When you think of stress, you may immediately think of tense situations like illness, work, or a death in the family. These are external stressors. But in this case, stress from fasting comes from the body’s natural response to not receiving nutrients temporarily. This isn't necessarily bad though—just like exercise, which stresses the body so we can rebuild our muscles and gain strength over time. </p> <p>The hormone adaptations and autophagy that occur from fasting are a biological response to the body under stress – and are health-promoting for many men and women if the stress is short-term.</p> <p>But for some women the added stress from fasting is not always a good thing and can cause negative hormonal adaptations. Women’s hormones are very sensitive to any stressors. For some women, fasting can signal a protective response to shift into defense mode.</p> <p>Because women’s hormones are all deeply connected, there are several that appear to be more affected by fasting.</p> <h3>What female hormones are sensitive to fasting?</h3> <p>Women make a hormone known as kisspeptin that’s part of the hormonal cascade involved in reproductive health<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">12</a></sup>. It signals a release of another hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH stimulates the eventual release of estrogen and progesterone, the primary female sex hormones. </p> <p>Kisspeptin also happens to be sensitive to stress in the body, including fasting. A study conducted on rats found that fasting may reduce the body’s production of kisspeptin, which in turn would affect the natural balance of hormones in a woman’s body<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">13</a></sup>. This study has not been reproduced on humans but signals a crucial clue on why some women may respond less positively than others. GnRH is also highly sensitive to environmental stressors, including fasting for some women<sup><a target="_blank" href="" rel="nofollow noreferrer">14</a></sup>.</p> <p>If the production of either of these hormones is decreased, it affects the balance of all other hormones down the line, particularly estrogen and progesterone. </p> <p>Estrogen and progesterone are essential hormones for reproduction and fertility. They are important even if a woman is not trying to have a baby because alterations in the balance of these hormones can lead to unpleasant side effects like hot flashes, PMS, weight gain, irritability, insomnia, brain fog, irregular menstrual cycles, and more.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section id="section4"> <h2>Should all women avoid intermittent fasting?</h2> <p>If women’s hormones are affected by IF, does this mean all women should avoid it? The short answer is no, and actually, intermittent fasting can be a healthy choice for some women. But there are a few things to take into consideration.</p> <p>Beyond the hormone fluctuations, there are certain groups of women who definitely should avoid IF, or at least have a conversation with a practitioner before starting. This list includes women (or anyone) with a current diagnosis or a history of:</p> <ul> <li>Amenorrhea (lack of periods)</li> <li>HPA axis dysregulation</li> <li>Pregnancy or breastfeeding</li> <li>Eating disorders</li> <li>Excessive stress and insomnia</li> <li>Hypoglycemia</li> <li>Underweight or malnutrition</li> </ul> <p>If you don’t fall into these categories (and/or you've discussed it with your health-care practitioner), just take these safety considerations into account before starting out with IF.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <img style="max-width:100%;" class="img-fluid" src="" alt="intermittent fasting"> <h2 id="section5">How to get started with intermittent fasting</h2> <p>The best way to start IF is to start small. </p> <p>Begin with a shorter fast, such as 12 hours with a 12-hour eating window. If this feels comfortable, you can gradually move to a longer fast. </p> <p>From there, note that the 16/8 fast and the alternate day/crescendo methods tend to be the easiest and likely safest for women. Days of regular intake allow the body to understand it is not in danger of losing out on nutrients and become overstressed.</p> <p>Also something to keep in mind: although IF focuses on when you eat, what you eat also matters.</p> <p>While you don’t necessarily need to count calories, meals during your eating window should be healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Breaking your fast with a meal full of processed food or sugar will counteract any positive benefits from fasting. And make sure to always drink plenty of <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">water</a>, especially in periods of fasting.</p> <p>Not every woman will have negative hormone responses to fasting. But if you notice any symptoms of lightheadedness, excessive fatigue, disruptions in sleep or your menstrual cycle, or even food obsessions, IF may not be the right choice for your body.</p> <p>Women should be extra cautious about overstressing the body. Like any diet, what works for one person may not be the best choice for you, so it’s essential to pay attention to how your body responds. </p> <p>The key is to choose any diet plan for its health benefits. When followed correctly and strategically, fasting methods provide numerous, optimal benefits for many people—both men and women. </p> <p>Starting with a smaller window of fasting (or choosing a few days a week to practice IF while regularly eating on other days) may be the best choice for women to support healthy hormone function.</p> </section> </article>

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