Intermittent fasting for women is controversially discussed in many places.
At one time, intermittent fasting should only be suitable for men, while there are no gender-specific differences at another time.
As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Thus, this guide aims to derive essential intermittent fasting information for women based on science.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that alternates between fasting and eating windows.
Although there are various intermittent fasting types, which we will look at in more detail, the most popular is eating within an 8-hour window.
Therefore, the 16/8 intermittent fasting plan involves fasting for 16 hours daily. However, you can also fast for 12, 14, or 18 hours daily.
Since scientists have proven health benefits such as increased insulin sensitivity or weight loss, intermittent fasting has recently gained popularity (Halberg et al. 20051).
In short, intermittent fasting helps you lose weight by lowering insulin, a hormone crucial for weight gain and loss.
Once insulin levels are low, your body can deplete its carbohydrate stores. When these are empty, your body must tap into fat for energy.
Should Women Practice Intermittent Fasting?
You have probably heard about specific, gentle fasting methods for women, such as crescendo fasting.
Moreover, even articles circulating on the Internet claim that intermittent fasting only benefits men.
Nevertheless, fasting is a natural state that our ancestors mostly did not choose.
Our existence stresses out the fact that not only the male body is built for fasting. Therefore, women, in particular, have had to survive food shortages.
Difference Between Men and Women
Nevertheless, hormonal and genetic differences exist between men and women, which plays a role in intermittent fasting.
However, the claim that intermittent fasting is fundamentally unsuitable for women is a myth. Often, people base that claim on a study conducted on rats (Kumar et al. 20132).
But such animal studies are not the most conclusive. Ultimately, physiological differences do exist between rats and humans.
After rats live only a few years, one day of fasting for these rodents is equivalent to several days for a human.
If rats eat only every other day, as in this study, this corresponds to a fast of several days for humans.
The rats’ hormones were thrown out of balance after two weeks, their periods stopped, and their ovaries began to shrink – a terrible result.
Nonetheless, the rodents had to starve excessively in a way that intermittent fasting does not.
Moreover, the rats experienced a drastic reduction in calories. Intermittent fasting, however, does not require calorie reduction to work.
Instead, it establishes a healthy balance between eating and fasting, balancing the hormones responsible for weight gain and loss.
Therefore, people can lose body fat even though they don’t restrict their caloric intake since how often you eat matters a lot.
However, whether Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) is the best intermittent fasting approach for women may be doubted.
In contrast to the rat study, a randomized clinical trial in humans failed to find different ADF health effects on women and men lately. In this study, the researchers examined (Trepanowski et al. 20173):
- Blood glucose
- Insulin levels
- Blood pressure
- Blood lipid levels
- Insulin resistance
However, this does not mean that a woman’s hormonal balance will respond the same to intermittent Fasting as a man’s.
Female Hormones and Intermittent Fasting
Female hormones are more sensitive to diet and other external circumstances. For example, the hunger hormone ghrelin increases when you feel underfed.
Because from an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is the stated goal of the female body.
However, periods of hunger or other stress jeopardize the health of the offspring. Moreover, the body focuses on the woman’s survival in these exceptional situations. Otherwise, she cannot give birth at all.
Therefore, the following situations can affect the female hormonal balance:
- Infections and inflammation
- Poor diet choices
- Too little food
- Too much exercise (physical stress)
- High stress in everyday life (psychological stress)
- Too little sleep (also a stress factor)
Accordingly, one study shows that excessive caloric restriction can have adverse effects on the release of two female hormones (Meczekalski et al. 20084):
- Luteinizing Hormone (LH).
- Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH).
If these reproductive hormones cannot communicate appropriately with the ovaries, periods, or, in some cases, the entire cycle may stop.
Likewise, the same study states that excessive exercise and psychological stress throw hormones out of balance (Meczekalski et al. 20145).
However, if you do intermittent fasting correctly, it doesn’t cause hormonal imbalance.
Above all, intermittent fasting is flexible. Therefore, choose a schedule fitting your daily routine that doesn’t add stress to get started.
If you can’t go without breakfast, skip dinner instead. If 16 hours of fasting per day is too much for you, start with 12 or 14.
Lastly, intermittent fasting is not about eating particularly few calories. Instead, it concentrates food intake on specific points in time.
A natural balance between eating and fasting rests the digestive tract, lowers insulin levels, and enables fat burning.
However, before you try intermittent fasting, talk to the doctor you trust.
Best Intermittent Fasting Schedules for Women
People are diverse – and so is intermittent fasting.
I have selected the five methods known to be particularly popular among women.
According to sense, different methods also have individual advantages and disadvantages. Let’s find out which intermittent fasting plan suits your everyday life.
16/8 Intermittent Fasting
The classic 16/8 method, also known as the peak fasting or lean gains method, allows you to gain muscle mass while losing body fat.
With this method, you eat between noon and 8 p.m., allowing the body to fast for 16 hours, followed by an 8-hour eating window. Since you sleep 8 of the 16 fasting hours, regular intermittent fasting is easier than you might think.
Although you can start with fewer fasting hours with this method, 16 hours have proven effective because autophagy’s health benefits need a 14-hour fast to kick in.
- Fasting window: 16 hours
- Eating window: 8 hours
The Crescendo Method is a softer form of 16/8 Intermittent Fasting.
Instead of fasting daily, you fast on specific days throughout the week—for example, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
It is especially suitable for intermittent fasting beginners. You can test how your unique body and hormonal balance react to the change. If you feel comfortable, gently approach the 16/8 intermittent fasting schedule.
- Fasting window: 12-16 hours
- Eating window: 8-12 hours
Alternate Day Fasting (ADF)
This method is just as simple as it sounds – eat one day, fast the other day.
However, most people eat a small meal (about 500 calories) on a fasting day. Therefore, this method is not a favorite of mine.
Not only does a small meal make you hungry, but it also negates the benefits of autophagy.
Also, it is more challenging for many people to incorporate into their daily routine than other methods.
Furthermore, many people abuse ADF because it allows them to maintain their Western Pattern Diet, dominated by refined carbohydrates.
Thus, many people miserably use ADF because what you eat matters a lot, even with intermittent fasting. Moreover, you may experience side effects such as headaches if you maintain a poor diet.
- Fasting window: 24 hours (with a small meal)
- Eating window: 24 hours
24-Hour-Fasting or 6:1 Diet
The better version of the ADF is 24-hour fasting. You strictly don’t eat at all one day a week and drink only water, coffee, or tea (without additives).
Since you usually fast for two nights, the fasting window often lasts longer than 24 hours. From dinner to breakfast, the day after the next is usually about 36 hours.
Therefore, you can benefit more from the anti-aging effect of autophagy and burn body fat much more efficiently for energy.
Especially for athletes and people who don’t want to restrict themselves daily, 1-day fasting is a popular option on a rest day.
- Fasting window: 24-40 hours
- Eating window: Rest of the week
48-Hour-Fasting or 5:2 Diet
In the popular version of the 5:2 diet, calorie intake is limited to 500 calories per day for two consecutive days per week (with two meals of 250 calories each).
For the remaining five days of the week, you eat regularly. For example, you could eat only 500 calories daily on Monday and Tuesday and normally eat Wednesday through Sunday.
Although approaching fasting with small meals might sound more comfortable, it destroys the results. As insulin levels rise from the meal, you stop fat-burning and autophagy in the middle of the fasting window.
Moreover, small meals make you hungrier than not eating for long since the hunger hormone ghrelin decreases with fasting duration (Natalucci et al. 200532).
In my opinion, it is therefore much smarter to fast for only 24 hours, but strictly. This allows your body to cleanse itself and burn fat more efficiently.
Additionally, it is far more practical to limit fasting to one day of the week. And if there are two nights within the fasting window, all the better because it is easiest to fast while sleeping.
Moreover, cell renewal is even more efficient to fast strictly for 48 hours. Nevertheless, this duration is not suitable for beginners.
Furthermore, fasting periods of 48+ hours are better used selectively as therapeutic fasting methods than regularly putting the body under severe stress.
- Fasting window: 48 hours (with small meals)
- Eating window: 5 days a week
Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting for Women
While many women start intermittent fasting for weight loss, most stick to it because of various health benefits.
1. Weight Loss
With many diets, the question arises: Will I lose weight? Will it work?
Intermittent fasting, on the other hand, is simple.
When you don’t eat, your energy must come from stored energy. Once the body uses up stored carbohydrates, it has to tap into body fat for energy (Heilbronn et al. 20056).
In doing so, the body burns fat under the skin and visceral fat in organs, which is particularly harmful (Catenacci et al. 20167).
2. Muscle Gain
16/8 Intermittent fasting is also known as the lean gains approach since bodybuilders have been using it for decades.
Contrary to popular belief, fasting does not cause muscle atrophy.
Your body releases growth hormones to maintain muscle mass during fasting. This way, your body protects muscle and bone mass (Rudman et al. 19908).
Accordingly, intermittent fasting, combined with appropriate exercise, is one of the most effective natural stimulators of growth hormone and helps build and easily maintain muscle (Ho et al. 19889).
Fasting activates autophagy, a process in the body that replaces worn-out cell parts with new ones.
Accordingly, it activates a self-healing force that conducts damaged, harmful, and toxic compounds out of the body.
Since this detox helps fight cancer, diabetes, liver, or autoimmune diseases, the discovery of autophagy was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 (Levine et al. 201710).
Moreover, because it can slow the aging process, autophagy is arguably one of the most incredible health benefits of intermittent fasting (Nakamura et al. 201811).
According to studies, you must not eat food for at least 14 hours to activate it (Yang et al. 201712).
Furthermore, fasting can prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease due to autophagy (Raefsky et al. 201713).
In addition to autophagy, reducing inflammation in the body also contributes to the anti-aging effect of fasting.
Fasting lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, which reduces inflammatory markers and free radicals that cause disease.
Accordingly, a recent study suggests that increased life expectancy significantly benefits intermittent fasting (Catterson et al. 201814).
Moreover, numerous studies also show intermittent fasting can lower inflammatory markers contributing to weight gain and insulin resistance (Faris et al. 201215).
5. Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
In particular, our Western diet’s refined carbohydrates and sugars stimulate insulin secretion tremendously.
Since insulin levels that are too high can be life-threatening, the body must protect itself by making cells insulin resistant.
As a result, the cells need even more insulin to react and ensure essential bodily functions. Thus, you set off a vicious cycle. Insulin resistance fuels itself.
Therefore, insulin resistance is not only a major cause of type 2 diabetes but also contributes to other modern diseases:
- Alzheimer’s disease (Ferreira et al. 201816)
- Parkinson’s disease (Athauda et al. 201617)
- Cardiovascular disease (Herman et al. 201718)
- Cancer (Orgel et al. 201419)
- Metabolic syndrome and obesity (Kong et al. 201320)
Nonetheless, researchers have known for more than 50 years that intermittent fasting can combat insulin resistance (Jackson et al. 196921).
Accordingly, a study of over 100 overweight women showed that intermittent fasting over six months could reduce insulin levels by 29% and insulin resistance by 19% (Harvie et al. 201122).
Furthermore, research has underlined intermittent fasting as a safe treatment for insulin resistance (Catenacci et al. 201623).
Some studies suggest that intermittent fasting not only can reverse insulin resistance but also type 2 diabetes (Halberg et al. 200524).
6. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
While excessive fasting threatens fertility for some women, proper, targeted intermittent fasting can positively affect fertility.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is the most common metabolic disorder in women. It characterizes the development of cysts on the ovaries based on hormonal imbalance.
Like type 2 diabetes, PCOS is characterized by obesity and hypertension. In short, it is even caused by strong insulin resistance, which increases the risk of diabetes in affected women (Ali 201525).
Nevertheless, in a recent study, intermittent fasting was able to help overweight women with PCOS. Accordingly, fasting could increase the release of luteinizing hormone, which helps promote ovulation.
Additionally, weight reduction and improved mental health due to fasting contributed to their fertility (Nair et al. 201626).
7. Mental Health
Also, intermittent fasting may help reduce the accumulation of toxic proteins in the brain that promotes dementia (Li et al. 201727).
Therefore, intermittent fasting may counteract neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s (Raefsky et al. 201728).
One signaling agent that increases memory function is the neuronal growth hormone BDNF, responsible for forming new neurons.
For this reason, high levels of BDNF are associated with increased intelligence. When you release BDNF, the brain can form new neural connections (Witte et al. 200929).
Also, fasting stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing the body to release adrenaline, cortisol, and growth hormone.
That could be why many people report increased perception and mental clarity during intermittent fasting.
Furthermore, in one study, intermittent fasting significantly reduced depression and cravings after two months and increased mental health (Hoddy et al. 201530).
8. Gut Health
Since fasting periods give the gut a rest, they help starve out bad gut bacteria and reduce inflammation.
As a result, a recent study suggests that intermittent fasting increases gut health and life expectancy.
In this regard, even short periods of intermittent fasting at a young age can increase life expectancy significantly (Catterson et al. 201831).
Furthermore, intermittent fasting has the positive side effect of improving intolerances.
In addition to the numerous health benefits, the simplicity of intermittent fasting has made it popular in recent years.
Hence, the most common 16/8 intermittent fasting only has two rules:
- Skip breakfast
- Stop snacking
The simpler the rules, the easier to implement diets in everyday life.
It also brings a time efficiency to your everyday life that traditional diets can’t offer:
- You don’t have to prepare breakfast
- Instead, you can establish a morning routine (e.g., yoga)
- You can still enjoy dinner with the family
- You don’t have to cook as often, but you cook better quality food
When people start intermittent fasting, they realize how much time is wasted daily by conventional eating habits.
Additionally, with intermittent fasting, you never have to be prepared. You can do it anytime, anywhere by skipping a meal.
Since Intermittent Fasting is all about the time you don’t eat, you don’t need any new recipes. On the contrary, you must choose which food you don’t prepare.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe for Women?
Although many people achieve significant results with fasting, it is not necessarily right for everyone.
Additionally, there are situations in which intermittent fasting may be inappropriate. Therefore, fasting is often not a good idea under the following circumstances:
- Pregnancy: Although there is a lack of long-term studies on the subject, there are better intermittent fasting times than pregnancy. During pregnancy, the focus is on the nourishment and growth of the child. Plus, you don’t need the added stress.
- Chronic stress: Although intermittent fasting can be a healthy form of stress, there are times in life when it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If you’re currently going through a mentally challenging phase of your life, focus on stress relief instead.
- Eating disorders: When you try intermittent fasting, self-care is mandatory. If you develop a questionable relationship with food, return to a standard eating pattern. If you have a history of anorexia or another eating disorder, fasting may not be proper for you.
Intermittent fasting can be a simple but effective way to increase your long-term health.
Nevertheless, it is unsuitable for every woman and every situation in life. That is why, for example, pregnant women should not do intermittent fasting.
The main practical advantage of intermittent fasting is flexibility. Although there are standardized intermittent fasting plans, you can adapt them to your unique everyday life.
Moreover, you can always spontaneously skip a meal since fasting requires no preparation.
Notably, a ketogenic diet suits intermittent fasting best. Not only that you will improve your fat burning with it, but also stay full longer.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How many hours should a woman do intermittent fasting?
Most women feel comfortable with a 16-hour fasting window. Nevertheless, many start with 12 or 14 hours to learn about their bodies’ responses and later adopt 16 hours.
How much weight can you lose with intermittent fasting in a month?
You may lose up to 6 pounds in the first week of intermittent fasting due to emptying your carbohydrate stores and breaking down stored water with them.
Does intermittent fasting affect female hormones?
Female hormones are sensitive to diet. Therefore, excessive fasting can stress the body and affect female hormones.
What is the best schedule for intermittent fasting?
I believe 16/8 intermittent fasting is still the best schedule for intermittent fasting because it’s easy to incorporate into everyday life. Skip breakfast and stop snacking – done!
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Mag. Stephan Lederer, MSc. is an author and blogger from Austria who writes in-depth content about health and nutrition. His book series on Interval Fasting landed #1 on the bestseller list in the German Amazon marketplace in 15 categories.
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