Fasting should be easy to do and feel good. If you feel hungry, irritable, light-headed, or experience cravings during your fast, maybe you don’t have the right technique.
Before we begin with tips to implement fasting into your life, we’ll look at the anatomy of our digestive tract and why intermittent fasting can be SO powerful when used as a tool to improve one’s wellness. If you’re just looking for the how-to part, you can scroll to the last section of this post.
Fasting has been a common practice among humans for 2.5 million years of our hunter gatherer existence. With the onset of modern agriculture 10 thousand years ago, food became widely available, so we ate more often. Today, most of us have continued this practice of eating regularly throughout the day. To understand why fasting can be so beneficial, it’s important to have a basic understanding of our gastrointestinal tract and how it handles the food we eat.
Anatomy of our digestive tract
First Stop: The Mouth
Our digestive tract comprises a long tube that extends from our mouth to our anus. Digestion begins from the moment that first bite of food touches our lips. As we chew our food, we release enzymes that begin the breakdown of carbohydrates.
Second Stop: The Stomach
The stomach is where digestion ramps up. The stomach moves vigorously (like a washing machine during the spin cycle) to break down food to prepare it for the small intestine. The stomach also releases acid to kill bacteria, fungus and parasites that may have gained access to our body via our food. When the stomach has done its thing, it gradually releases the food into the small intestine.
Third Stop: The Small Intestine
The small intestine is where the magic happens. It’s where 90% of our caloric absorption occurs and it comprises 56% of our intestinal tract (that’s more than half of our digestive tube, from mouth to anus!). Why is it called the “small intestine” if it’s such a prominent part of our digestive tract? It’s because its diameter is smaller than that of the large intestine!
The lining of the small intestine is only one-cell thick. It is very fragile and prone to damage and inflammation. There are few bacteria in the small intestine compared to the large intestine. However, there are many immune cells that protect us from infection and disease! In fact, the largest number of immune cells in our entire body is in our small intestine! Who knew the small intestine was the hub of our immune system?
Fourth Stop: The Colon (Large Intestine)
After making its way through the small intestine, the food moves to the colon, which comprises 20% of our intestinal tract. The colon is not as fragile as the small intestine. It contains lots of bacteria that breakdown hard-to-digest food (plant fibers like veggies and fruit) through a process known as fermentation.
Maybe you’re wondering why our small intestine is bigger than our large intestine? Believe it or not, it used to be the other way around! Thousands of years ago, our large intestine was bigger! Our ancestors ate mostly hard-to-digest leaves and grasses so they needed the large intestine to be bigger to digest all that plant matter properly. As they became better hunters, they ate more animals. Their intestines changed to accommodate this new diet.
A break from food can be SO powerful!
We’ve discussed how the lining of the small intestine is fragile and prone to damage and inflammation. Just like you can injure any part of your body, you can ALSO injure your gut lining. If you have a gut injury and keep shoving food down your pipe every day, three times a day, you’re never giving it the time it needs to heal.
How Gut Injuries Develop
The Standard American diet contains foods that are damaging to the lining of the gut (think grains, sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods). Remember how I said the lining of the small intestine is one-cell thick? When damage to our gut-lining occurs because we’re eating too many of the SAD inflammatory foods, it causes the spaces between these cells to grow bigger and bigger. Eventually, molecules that have no place in your bloodstream, such as incompletely digested allergenic proteins from foods, can find their way into the bloodstream and cause an immune response. The term for this phenomenon is “leaky gut”.
This immune response can take on many forms. Mood issues, increased mucus production, aches and pains, food cravings, reduced energy, fatigue, dizziness, changes in skin, itchy eyes or mouth, increased need to clear your throat, headaches, and trouble sleeping are all signs that your gut could use a break from food.
Why Fasting Poses an Issue for Some People
The body breaks down the carbohydrates we consume into glucose for our cells to use as energy. Trying to intermittent fast for too long, without fine-tuning your diet first, can cause the glucose in your blood to drop below normal levels and leave you feeling all kinds of horrible. Your body goes into panic mode because your cells don’t have the energy they need to keep everything running properly.
There are many factors that can cause your blood sugar to go off balance when you fast, but the one I see most often is diet. If you’ve been eating a high-carbohydrate diet for most of your life and supplying your body with food every 3-4 hours each day, your body is still primarily burning glucose as a fuel. Since glucose burns quickly, you run out of energy quickly and fasting becomes impossible.
Recurring blood sugar lows can affect your hormones and have a negative impact on how you feel so you want to avoid them as much as possible. Overtime, experiencing too many blood sugar lows can lead to issues such as weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, brain fog and even low libido. If you’ve tried fasting before and noticed you don’t feel good, stop. It may be because of a drop in your blood sugar.
When you fuel on carbs AND eat often, THAT’S what your body EXPECTS. If you take the carbs and the constant snacking away in a flash because you want to fast, your blood sugar will drop and your body will panic.
Before you begin to intermittent fast, PREPARE your body for what’s coming and then TRAIN it to fast slowly. How does one prepare their body for fasting? We want to make sure your blood sugar is stable from the start AND encourage your body to burn fat for energy. This begins with tweaking your diet, because what you eat determines if your body burns glucose or fat for energy.
How To Implement Intermittent Fasting Into Your Life
Most people begin by fasting right from the get-goー but if your diet isn’t in check, things could go wrong quickly! Before you jump in, look at what you’re eating on a day-to-day basis. To prepare your body for intermittent fasting, it’s best to fuel with natural, unprocessed, whole-foods 80% of the time.
Another facet of your diet you might need to adjust is your carbohydrate consumption. Carbohydrates affect your blood sugar THE MOST out of the three macros (carbs, proteins, fats). Reducing your carbs and focusing on protein and healthy fats will help tone your metabolic machinery in favor of burning fat for fuel and make fasting a lot easier. You might even find you can go longer between meals and that you have less energy dips in the afternoon even BEFORE you consciously attempt a fast.
Once you feel comfortable with the adjustments you’ve made to your diet and have been implementing them for some time, you can practice intermittent fasting!
You should always start small and work your way up. Begin with a simple overnight fast: stop eating after dinner and delay breakfast by an hour the next morning. This means if you usually eat breakfast around 8:00 am, try to eat breakfast at 9:00 am instead. Push your breakfast by one additional hour over several weeks until you can fast comfortably from after dinner until 12 noon the next day. If you find you can’t push your fast past a certain time, that’s okay and you can stay there as long as you need. You could repeat this fast every day, or 1-2 times a week. Remember to do what feels good.
If you still find it difficult to fast after changing your diet, you can perform a liquid fast by sipping on a homemade broth, lemonade, or elemental shake throughout your fast. These will provide nutrients and support your blood sugar. Because your digestive system can breakdown these fasting solutions easily, you will still give your gut a break and the opportunity for repair.
Fasting is not for everyone. If you have a serious metabolic disease such as diabetes, it’s best to consult with your doctor before changing your diet or lifestyle.
Ruscio, Michael (2018). Healthy Gut Healthy You: The personalized Plan to Transform Your Health from the Inside Out. Las Vegas, NV: The Ruscio Institute