Fasting and Gut Health Go Hand in Hand
The sheer power of fasting and the tremendous benefits of having a happy and healthy gut are some of the most considerable developments to emerge from health research in recent years. Furthermore, additional research highlights that the clever combination of the two, fasting for gut health, can aid substantially in making you healthier, stronger, fitter, and happier.
If you happen to be on HealthTok like me, you’ve likely seen the shift toward focusing on the importance of gut health. But what happens when you combine it with intermittent fasting? What you eat– or don’t eat– has a direct impact on your gut health that builds the foundation for overall health and happiness. It’s time to dive into the relationship between fasting and gut health because they go hand in hand!
- Fasting is an eating pattern that cycles between eating periods and fasting periods; there are multiple approaches to fasting and each can be catered to anyone who partakes.
- Having a healthy gut sets the foundation for our general health because the gut has a direct impact on nearly every aspect of our bodies.
- Fasting triggers anti-inflammatory responses in our guts that keep us healthy and fight off illnesses, resulting in a happier mind and body.
What is fasting?
It can be hard to distinguish between fact and fiction and “good” versus “bad” in the world of health and wellness. With varying trends, misinformation, and the knowledge that health and wellness looks different for all of us, experimenting with new ways to practice #selfcare can be headache-inducing and daunting.
Fortunately, fasting is a safe and effective approach to your diet. Rather than focusing on what foods you can and can’t eat like traditional diets, fasting uniquely emphasizes when you can eat. Essentially, fasting is an eating pattern that alternates between periods of fasting and periods of eating. During fasting periods, only water, black coffee, and plain tea can be consumed, and during eating periods, it is critical to consume nutrient-dense meals that meet daily calorie and macronutrient needs.
To keep things easy, there is no right or wrong way to fast. There are multiple methods to approach fasting, and all can be catered to you as an individual should you choose to partake! Here are some of the most common methods of fasting:
The 16/8 Method
Likely the most common fasting strategy, this daily method involves fasting for 16 hours at a time and limiting your eating window to a short eight hours. Most people who choose to fast in this way skip breakfast and limit their meals to lunch, dinner, and snacks (although I suppose you could get your breakfast fix in by cooking breakfast for dinner).
For example, the eating period could take place between noon and 8 p.m. every day, and thus, fasting the rest of the day (and night). This approach dives into the benefits of skipping what is (conventionally) the most important meal of the day!
The 5:2 Method
If fasting for 16 hours seems overwhelming, the 5:2 method may be more your speed. This approach allows you to eat what you like for 5 days of the week; however, on the other two days, it requires you to limit your caloric intake. Typically, this looks like eating around 500-600 calories on those days, as opposed to the general 2000 calories. It is important to note that these two days should be spread out throughout the week to avoid limiting calories on back-to-back days.
The Eat-Stop-Eat Method
This approach requires fasting for 24 hours at a time one to two days a week and eating normally every other day. Similar to the 5:2 method, 24 hour fasting should not be practiced on consecutive days to maximize the benefits.
In order to reap the full benefits that fasting offers, it's critical to fill your eating periods with nutrient-dense meals that provide a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. This means eating colorful produce and loading up on healthy fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates for your meals. Binge-eating your favorite junk foods because of how hungry you are will not do you any favors. Food is fuel – so make sure you’re fueling your body with energy to get you through the day.
Why is gut health important?
Having a healthy gut truly builds the foundation for a happy and healthy mind and body. The trillions of small, but mighty bacteria that populate our gut play a key role in nearly every aspect of our health, as gut health has a direct impact on every major bodily system. Research connects gut health to our immune systems, hormones, mental health, autoimmune disorders, and skin. With such a large impact on our bodies, it sounds like it's time to start trusting our guts a little more.
But let's back up and define what “good” gut health even looks like. A healthy gut occurs when there is an equilibrium between healthy and (potentially) harmful bacteria in your digestive system. The microbiome is a complex community of these healthy and harmful bacteria that populate your gut. The cool thing is, just like a fingerprint, each and every one of us has a unique microbiome that has been carefully created from the foods we eat, our genes, our age, medicines we take, and even the way we were born (via a C-Section or a vaginal birth).
With a pretty extensive list of duties, the microbiome is always busy. The job description includes, but is not limited to:
- Helping the body absorb nutrients from food
- Helping the body digest proteins and fibers
- Producing vitamins B and K
- Forming the foundation for the immune system
- Staving off harmful pathogens and protecting the body
- Communicating with the brain to send signals throughout the body
As previously mentioned, our gut health sets the foundation for the health of our bodies as a whole. When this spirals out of whack, your serotonin levels, immune system, and the digestive system won’t work properly, leading to discomfort both physically and emotionally, and making it hard to stay healthy. An unbalanced gut can lead to chronic fatigue, brain fog, illness, constipation, gas, joint pain, and inflammation throughout your entire body. The gut is often referred to as your “second brain,” thus, when your gut is struggling, so is your mind.
Getting a full night of sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and practicing mindfulness to manage stress levels can all heal an unbalanced gut. It takes time, dedication, and consistency, but it's an investment worth making.
How does fasting impact gut health?
So where does fasting fall into all of this?
The research shows that fasting may be a valuable tool to protect your microbiome, and because they go hand in hand, those healthy bacteria can help to protect your body while you’re fasting. It is important to understand how quickly and often the microbiome changes based on the food we eat; it can change day-to-day, or even hour by hour. Long story short, research has found that any sweeping change in one’s diet can rapidly shift the microbial makeup of the gut and change the function of the bacteria.
While it has been known that your gut has a direct impact on staving off illness, more research done on fruit flies (which are not even close to humans, but have similar metabolism-related genes as we do) has shown that fasting triggers an anti-inflammatory response in your gut that protects both you and the good bacteria. The same research found that the flies that fasted and triggered that response lived twice as long as those that didn’t.
While this doesn’t mean that fasting will double your life expectancy, this does serve as more evidence of the immense full body benefits. Note, however, that more research needs to be done on humans before any definite conclusions can be made. Additional studies were conducted that compared participants’ gut microbiomes via their stool samples before and after a radical diet change. Results show that a gut reset took place, resulting in extremely different microbiomes before and after.
There is also a deep connection between our circadian rhythms and our gut health. Every night while we sleep, and we unintentionally fast, our guts get a well-deserved break from that hefty job description. This period helps to reset the gut and prepare it for another day back at work. Thus, unintentional fasting brings about substantial benefits, so extending the period longer by intentionally fasting brings about even more.
In conclusion, we rely heavily on the trillions of gut flora that populate our intestinal tract. Fasting is one of the most effective ways to support the healthy bacteria that support you. Deciding to skip breakfast may have more of an impact than you may realize.
Written by Morgan Taylor