Intermittent fasting is awesome for weight loss, sharper mental focus and cognitive health, blood sugar management, and it might even be able to extend your lifespan. But is it smart to do it when you’re faced with severe acute stress?
I’ve had tremendous success with intermittent fasting over the last few years. Just by skipping breakfast and avoiding eating late at night, I’ve gotten leaner, saved time in the morning (and money by no longer buying $10 breakfast burritos), increased my energy and focus. And considering that I had a recent bout of the ‘rona bug that was very mild, I also credit intermittent fasting with supporting my immune system.
But over the last week, I quit intermittent fasting (IF) cold turkey.
Why would I give up a lifestyle that has blessed me with so many health benefits?
Hopefully, I’ll hop back on the IF very shortly. But for now, I’m in survival mode. You see, I recently moved for the first time in 15 years. Moving sucks. I don’t remember ever being this stressed out, at least not since a tumultuous breakup over 20 years ago.
The acute stress I’m experiencing has caused me to be ravenously hungry in the morning. Do I ignore the hunger pangs knowing how much IF has improved my health? Or do I give in to ghrelin, the hormone that’s screaming, “FEED ME!”
My intuition told me to listen to my body. That’s not a good thing when your brain—or is it your stomach?—is telling you to eat a pint of ice cream.
But when your stress levels are off the charts and you have more cortisol coursing through your veins than you do blood, and your hunger hormones are calling the shots, should you cave in and eat a ginormous bowl of oatmeal at 8 a.m. when you only fasted for 11 hours instead of your usual 16 hours?
Beyond going with my gut, I wanted to explore what the research says about intermittent fasting during times of intense stress.
Intermittent Fasting & Stress
It was difficult to find research about IF and its effects on acute extreme stress. That’s because nearly every article about stress and IF focuses on how time-restricted feeding actually makes us more resilient to stress. So, if I’m feeling stressed out, should I ignore my hunger pangs knowing that fasting will make me more bulletproof?
Not so fast (pardon the pun), according to registered nutritionist, Charlotte Faure Green, who wrote in this article, “Fasting is something I would rarely recommend in my clinic for uber stressed or clients with anxiety,” she explained, adding the analogy that doing IF when you’re extremely stressed is like burning the candle at both ends.
Fasting for 16 hours might make you leaner, but if you’re stressed to the max, it can worsen sleeplessness and anxiety. In addition, IF can lead to irregular menstrual cycles.
The main problem with doing IF when faced with acute stress is that fasting increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Now, if you're living on easy street, the stress and increase in cortisol caused by fasting isn’t problematic. When we fast, our mitochondria—the powerhouse of cells—are better able to fight free radical damage that leads to premature aging. A little extra stress at the cellular level when you’re not super stressed to begin with goes a long way.
Another benefit of a healthy dose of stress at the cellular level is that under a fasted state, our cells turn to fatty acids (stored body fat) for energy instead of glucose. This is how you end up needing a new skinny wardrobe after doing IF for a long time.
The Cortisol Paradox
Numerous studies suggest that IF may reduce the risk of chronic disease. But if you are going through a very stressful period, the increase in cortisol can promote fat storage in the body. This is physiologically contrary to why most people hop on the IF bandwagon in the first place.
There’s more bad news for time-restricted feeding when you’re stressed out. An increase in cortisol may also lead to thinning hair and feeling colder than normal. Granted, that’s not a bad thing if it’s summer in Miami. But Buffalo in winter … brrrr!
Intermittent fasting might make us more sensitive to insulin, help us achieve a Greek God physique we’ve always desired and may even prolong our life because of its benefits at the cellular level.
But it’s not a question of “if” you should do “IF” when you’re super stressed out. Just say no and enjoy a hearty breakfast.