There is a mounting body of evidence supporting intermittent fasting (IF) as a strategy for improving numerous markers of health. However, there is very little concomitant research about the specific effects on women. Although IF represents a significant lifestyle shift, and may require additional individual adjustments for women, fasting is for everyone. These challenges can be easily addressed, making IF a powerful tool that women can benefit from. In general, IF has positive effects on immunity, longevity and cognition. We encourage women not to be intimidated and to adjust IF protocols to work for their individual needs!
The primary challenge for women is maintaining appropriate metabolic balance. Hormones in the female body experience a greater degree of flux and the demands of the reproductive system are high (even when a woman is not pregnant). A study in mice showed that female mice experienced menstrual derangement, ovary shrinkage and insomnia.1The overall impact on their health was drastic compared to the male mice in the study. While this does not directly translate to humans (and indeed, human studies are both necessary and lacking when it comes to sex differences in IF effects), it supports the idea that women need to approach fasting differently than men. Women may become discouraged by the data, believing that fasting may lead to metabolic disturbance, loss of period, or osteoporosis. These fears are largely unfounded. Unless a woman's BMI is under 18.5, she will experience [metabolic benefits] (intermittent-fasting/metabolism). Fasting is, of course, not suitable for pregnant women or women trying to become pregnant.
Women are also more prone to sleep disturbances than men. Someone who already doesn't get enough sleep may find that the combination of caloric restriction and lack of quality sleep can take a toll on the immune system, metabolic balance, and overall health. However, many people experience sound sleep when they fast. If any disturbances are present, they tend to disappear as the body adapts to fasting.
The restricted eating patterns of intermittent fasting may act as a trigger in people with a history of disordered eating. While eating disorders affect both men and women, an overwhelming majority of sufferers are young women of reproductive age. Concerns about triggering disordered eating are frequently cited as a challenge for women biohackers. However, the two should not automatically be conflated. The emphasis in IF is fasting for health and mental acuity rather than weight loss. Participants are encouraged to eat hearty meals after fasting, establishing a routine to follow. Anecdotally speaking, even women in recovery can successfully adopt an IF regimen. However, anyone with a history of disordered eating is urged to consult a doctor before beginning an IF regimen.
There is also a social aspect to consider. While much of our society revolves around consumption as socializing, women who don't partake may draw additional scrutiny and assumptions about disordered eating. Sadly, it is often the case that to be a woman is to invite comment on one's weight and eating habits.
Intermittent fasting can pose some additional challenges for women because of a more complex metabolic balance and health concerns such as amenorrhea, osteoporosis, and eating disorders. An IF regimen is still well suited for most women. The key is to individualize the regimen rather than adhering strictly to one that isn't working for you.
A good approach is to start with a gentle fast 2-3 days a week and monitor your health. To begin, try to schedule more intense workouts for days you aren't fasting. Many women also struggle to maintain an appropriate level of hydration, so make sure to drink plenty of water. It may take a little experimentation to find an appropriate regimen. Be sure to consult a doctor if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
You may also wish to join the WeFast community on Facebook to connect with a supportive group, share your experiences, and get advice on your fasting protocol.
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