A Complete Guide to Intermittent Fasting for Women

Intermittent fasting is a really big thing right now.

Like really, big. 

There’s a lot of articles out there that talk about the best way to fast. The benefits of fasting. Workouts you can do while fasting. All kinds of different stuff.

The least talked about?

How it affects different genders. Specifically females.  There are many women who swear by it.

But there are also a few downsides that affect women specifically.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is basically not eating for a set number of hours and then eating whatever you want for the next set. Of course, there are certain foods better for you than others. And if you are looking for weight loss you may want to keep that in mind before you reach for that bag of chips. 

Since you aren’t eating for so many hours, it cuts down on calorie intake. Which generally equals weight loss. 

Some of the most popular methods are : 

  • The 16/8 method: Also called the Leangains protocol, it involves skipping breakfast and restricting your daily eating period to 8 hours, such as 12–8 p.m. Then you fast for the 16 hours outside that window.
  • Eat-Stop-Eat: This involves fasting for 24 hours, once or twice a week. One example of this would be not eating after dinner on a Tuesday until dinner time on Wednesday.
  • The 5:2 diet: With this method, you consume only 500–600 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week, but eat normally the other 5 days.
  • Alternate-day fasting: This routine is exactly as it sounds. You eat normally one day and then don’t eat at all (or only have a couple of hundred calories) the next. There’s a lot of different versions of this one. Make sure to find the one that works for you. 
  • The Warrior Diet: For this one you eat small amounts of fruits and vegetables for most of the day and then have a big meal at night.
  • Spontaneous meal skipping: This one is pretty self-explanatory. You randomly skip a meal. You don’t have to follow a structured guide to reap the benefits of IF.

Who is intermittent fasting for?

IF is most commonly used as a weight-loss tool. 

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other health benefits. 

People who do regular intermittent fasting also have improved markers of health, reduced risk of chronic health conditions, and improved brain health (1).

Have you ever skipped breakfast? Chances are if you consistently do this, then you may have been intermittent fasting and not even known it!

How does IF affect the body?

Overall intermittent fasting has the same effects on the human body in the following ways(2):

1. Changes the Function of Cells, Genes, and Hormones. 

It’s no surprise that not eating for a while can cause a change in your body. 

Here are a few things that happen when you fast:

  • Insulin levels drop: Dropped insulin levels are the reason that you lose weight. Because when your insulin drops you start burning fat.
  • Human growth hormone increases: This is the hormone that facilitates fat burning and muscle gain along with numerous other benefits.
  • Cellular repair:  The body starts cleaning out waste material from cells.
  • Gene expression: IF causes changes in several genes that have been known to relate to longevity and protection against disease.

2. Lose weight

It is fairly well known that it will help you lose weight. 

But how does it do this? 

As mentioned in the last point — insulin levels drop and human growth hormone increases. These combined functions cause the body to start burning fat.

It also increases your metabolic rate — which means you burn more calories in the same amount of time. 

3. Reduce Oxidative stress

Oxidative stress is one step towards aging and many chronic diseases.

Studies have shown that intermittent fasting may help the body fight off oxidative stress.

4. Heart Health

There are a number of risk factors that IF has been shown to help improve. These include blood pressure, total and LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, inflammatory markers, and blood sugar levels (3).

5. Brain Health

Several studies on rats have revealed that intermittent fasting may increase the growth of nerve cells. Which benefits brain function (4).

A Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has increased levels while fasting. (5, 6). Low levels of BDNF have been linked to depression and many other brain problems.

It’s also said that fasting brings mental clarity, letting you focus better, and improving your memory.

Now, on to the big question.

How does intermittent fasting affect women differently?

The short answer?

Yes. 

The long answer?

There’s a lot of differences between fasting for men and women because of our genetic makeup. Hormones in women react differently to a lack of energy supply compared to men. 

Below are a few ways that IF can affect women:

  • can affect blood sugar control (7)
  • alters reproductive (8
  • thin and weak 
  • missed periods
  • heightened stress response 
  • increased their spontaneous activity 
  • improved their learning and memory 
  • maintained elevated levels of circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor (4)
  • hormones

Because our hormones are so intertwined, throwing one off can throw off something else. This imbalance leads to the list above.

One of the most concerning ways IF can affect women would be missing cycles or menstruation stopping altogether. 

Why missing your period is a big deal

You may think that missing your period because of intermittent fasting doesn’t really matter.  

It may have even happened to you once or twice before now.

But our periods are a really big indicator of how our body is doing. 

Your period’s not only a sign of fertility – it is also a sign of your overall health. 

Even if you aren’t trying to get pregnant, having your period is important and can clue you in to what is going on with your body. 

There are a few things that can cause you to miss your period:

  • Weight changes: Chances are that you are losing weight with your IF. That’s a good thing of course, but also has an effect on your period. It should resolve itself over time and get you back on a normal schedule
  • Stress: Not eating or getting enough of the nutrients you need can cause stress on your body, which causes you to miss your period. 
  • Too much exercise
  • Thyroid problems 

There isn’t a lot of research out there for intermittent fasting on humans. But we can compare a few of its effects with other research like ones on metabolic and lifestyle traits and behaviors such as weight, exercise, and caloric restriction.

Caloric restriction is a stressor in the brain’s world. This can modify the release of sex hormones through what is called hypothalamic-pituitary-gonada (HPG) axis. Hormones on the HPG axis regulate reproduction and fertility. 

It can also affect the balance of estrogen. Estrogen is the hormone that plays a big hand in female development. I’m taking the reproductive system along with our female characteristics like breasts.

Basically, if a woman’s body does not have the nutritional or metabolic energy that it needs to support a pregnancy, it just goes ahead and shuts off the reproductive cycle. 

This is why you may want to hold off on fasting if you are trying to get pregnant. At the very least, reach out to your doctor and discuss your options.

Can you do intermittent fasting without affecting your period?

It’s hard to say how exactly it will affect your body and cycle. So there’s no set amount of fasting that says “stay under this #” and you’ll be fine.

A few days of fasting is unlikely to affect your period.

But it really comes down to diet quality, caloric intake, and BMI.

You need to keep an eye on what you eat and make sure that you aren’t having any nutrient deficiencies or low blood sugar levels.

And if you aren’t already, it’s a good idea to track your period. 

Not only does keeping track of your period let you know the length of your cycle better (no more surprises about your period coming) — it also helps you know what is normal for you. Some women’s periods are on a very tight schedule while others can vary from month to month.

It’s important to know what is normal for you before getting started.

If you know your normal cycle, you can more easily recognize what may have changed it.

And if your period does stop, reach out to your doctor to figure out what’s going on. You can also try switching to an easier exercise plan and eat foods with a healthy fat like avocados, coconuts, and almonds.

If you aren’t getting enough to eat it’s possible that you may develop amenorrhea. This is when you miss a period for at least three cycles. Generally, the most common cause of amenorrhea is pregnancy, which is a natural reaction from your body. It shuts down your period because it’s already pregnant. But low body weight, excessive exercise, and stress are also known factors. 

IF can cause hormonal imbalances as well. 

Hormonal changes can cause issues such as:

  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Your hormone levels run high instead of going up and down like they should with a normal menstrual cycle.
  • Thyroid malfunction: If the thyroid gland is over or underactive, it can cause irregularities in your menstrual cycle.
  • Pituitary tumor: A tumor in your pituitary gland can interfere with the regulation of hormones needed to regulate your menstruation.
  • Premature menopause: Generally happens around 50. But sometimes if the ovarian supply of eggs diminishes before age 40 and menstruation stops. 

A specific example of this is hypothalamic amenorrhea. 

This is when menstruation stops for several months due to problems with the hypothalamus — the hypothalamus is in the center of the brain and controls reproduction. This happens when there’s an energy imbalance, food restriction, weight loss, exercise, stress and genetics.

Now that you’ve got some awareness of fasting’s effect on your body let’s talk about some ways that you can do fasting.

You just need to take a more cautious approach.

Most Effective Fasting Approaches For Women

A lot of intermittent fasting studies have been done on rats, meaning there aren’t a lot of human studies to begin with. Even less for Women specifically.

This means there are a lot of opinions out there about fasting and it leaves us in a bit of a gray area. 

But some general guidelines are:

  • Don’t fast for longer than 24 hours
  • The ideal fasting window is 12 to 16 hours
  • Ease into fasting when starting out
  • Make sure to drink plenty of fluids while fasting
  • Keep exercise light on fasting days

Easing into fasting means don’t do consecutive days when you’re starting out. Start small with 3 days a week (every other day) for two weeks to start.

When to avoid intermittent fasting

As you’ve read so far, IF can be a great tool — but it isn’t for everyone.

A few reasons to avoid intermittent fasting:

  • Pregnant or trying to get pregnant
  • Breastfeeding
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Chronic stress
  • Previous history of eating disorders

IF is meant to complement a healthy lifestyle. So if you think you can eat junk food during your windows, you will most likely not reap the same benefits.

Should you intermittent fasting?

As with any kind of diet and exercise, there are risks associated with it. Make sure you take precautions.

And the most important thing you can do when trying out fasting is to listen to your body. There is nothing wrong with trying out a few different methods or tweaking them to find out which one works best for you.

If you have any questions or concerns, reach out to your doctor and discuss if it’s the right plan for you.

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