THE BACK STORY
It's no secret that I suffer from digestive issues (more specifically IBS), I'm super open about it with you guys because I know that it's something that a lot of people suffer from and we as a society don't really talk about it enough. Did you know that to be classified as having good digestion means that you're going to the bathroom at least once a day (yes I mean number two), when you go to the bathroom it passes easily and without much effort, you're not waking up bloated or getting bloated after you eat and you are not left feeling crampy, nauseas, gassy or uncomfortable more often than not after eating. If you just read any of those and thought to yourself "uh oh" then you may be suffering from digestive issues and not even know it.
For a long time I had no idea that I was suffering from digestive issues let alone IBS, I just thought it was normal to not go to the bathroom regularly and be bloated all the time. You may read that and think how could you possibly think that that's normal but after that being my every day life for 2 years it was my normal.
I've tried everything, supplements, vitamins, cleanses, elimination diets - the list goes on and on and on. I have purposely gotten my body to a place where my metabolism fires effectively and quickly between meals because I have been told that this would improve my digestion, I have eaten every 3 hours for over 2 years now and I thought that I was doing everything right - I never would have thought that eating so frequently could actually be making my digestion worse.
Most fitness professionals, weight loss specialists and personal trainers tell us that we should be eating 5-6 small meals every 2.5-3 hours daily to increase our metabolism and make sure that we are moving in the right direction towards our fitness goals and while this does in fact increase our metabolism, it also causes our insulin levels to dramatically spike and drop more often than they should. Insulin is one of the most important hormones in the body and it’s important that we understand and manage it properly - when you eat a meal sugar enters your blood stream in the form of glucose, your pancreas then secretes insulin to manage the sugar in your blood and transports the sugar to your cells and then basically asks your cells if the sugar can enter. If you are constantly spiking your insulin and forcing your pancreas to over work then over time both your pancreas and cells become tired and your cells will no longer respond as well to insulin - this is called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is commonly caused by eating a highly refined and processed diet, what most people don't know it it is also caused by poor gut and liver health and depleted gut flora - the good bacteria in our guts. When we eat as frequently as every 3 hours it can actually often times back up our digestive system causing food to sit stagnant in our intestines and - for lack of a better term - start to decompose or rot which in turn can deplete our gut flora.
I'm sure you can imagine that as a Nutrition Student this kind of stuff is fascinating to me and I luckily have access to tons of different sources of information so when I want to get to the bottom of something I know exactly which resources to use and I can hunt down the answers. So obviously once I discovered the harm I may be causing to my digestive system due to the frequency of my eating habits I decided to look into other eating methods/habits/practices specifically for optimal digestion and I came across Intermittent Fasting.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS INTERMITTENT FASTING?
From an unknowing outside perspective intermittent fasting - aside from being hard to pronounce - didn't really sound like something that would have ever interested me. I figured that it was just another weight loss strategy and I never really paid much attention to the posts or videos that I have seen mention it in the past. It wasn't until I actually started researching it that I realized the benefits are far greater than just weight loss.
Let me start off by saying that intermittent fasting is NOT a diet, it is not a form of restriction, you don't cut your calories and you don't eat less than you normally would in a day. To sum it up into simple terms intermittent fasting (let's call it IF for short) is fasting for a prolonged period of time and then eating more substantial amounts of food during a shorter period of time than you normally would. No I don't mean fasting for 24 hours or anything crazy like that (people do this) I just mean eating a little later than usual and not snacking right before bed - we all fast while we sleep so think of it as just pushing your breakfast a few more hours.
IF can actually regulate your digestive system and get your bowel movements back on track because it gives your system a longer rest from processing foods. It can also kickstart your metabolism to burn through calories more efficiently when you do eat! By fasting for a prolonged period of time you're actually allowing your body to digest everything from the previous day and be completely clear before you put anything new into your system.
There are a ton of different methods, schedules and preferences when it comes to IF, as I just said some people fast for an entire day - I could never do that, I would be miserable - there is also meal skipping, alternate-day fasting, eat stop eat and a ton of others. I chose to try the more popular method which is the 16:8 method. This means that I fast for 16 hours and eat during 8 hours, keep in mind that most of my fasting time is while I'm sleeping so it really isn't too crazy. On a day when I'm fasting I wake up at 6:30am, have my lemon water and then my coffee, do some work and then head to the gym to do my workout fasted and then I get home and eat my first meal at 11am right after my workout and I stop eating at 7pm - this actually works really well for my schedule and still allows me to eat an actual breakfast before noon which is important to me because breakfast is my favourite meal of the day (duh)!
You're probably wondering about the fact that I just said I have coffee during my fasting period, you can have coffee, tea and BCAA's (if you workout) during your fasting period and it will not disrupt anything. As long as what you're consuming is under 100-200ish calories then you're good to go. So I have a coffee with Vital Proteins Collagen Creamer when I wake up - this has been game changing when it comes to IF - and then I have my vegan BCAA's a couple of hours later during my workout and this allows my body to still stay in a fasted state! I also drink a ton of water to keep my hunger under control and my body hydrated during fasting.
It's also important for me to note that as a woman you actually are not supposed to practice IF every single day because our hormones are very sensitive to our energy intake (food). When we fast our hormone production can increase and some women who practice IF daily experience missed periods, metabolic disturbances, and even early menopause. AKA practicing IF every day as a woman is a BIG NO NO. So my own personal preference and solution to this is; I do IF 5 days a week and on my 2 leg days I do not fast at all, I wake up and eat breakfast right away which is actually really beneficial because those are my 2 heaviest training days so i need the food and energy prior to my workout.
Going from someone who has eaten within 30 minutes of waking up and then eaten every 3 hours 6x a day for over 2 years to someone who doesn't eat until 11am and then eats 3 large meals and maybe 1 snack was absolutely daunting at first but I have been doing IF successfully for about 3 weeks now and honestly my digestion has never been this good. I go to the bathroom right when I wake up, every single day and I can't remember the last time that that was the case for me. I'm not bloated when I wake up or after I eat, I don't experience any indigestion, cramping or nausea after my meals and I actually feel full and satisfied all the way until my next meal. I'm also making sure that I'm not too strict to the point where I feel like I'm implementing something negative into my life, if I'm hungry 30 minutes earlier than the start of my eating window in the morning or after my eating window ends in the evening then I will eat, to me it's all about listening to my body and doing what makes me feel good.
Working out fasted was a little bit challenging at first and there were a few days that I felt light headed towards the end but just like with everything else that I do in life I made sure to listen to my body and did not push myself to a point where I was unable to workout or needed to leave the gym. I know my body's limits and now that I'm used to the fasted workouts I feel amazing during and after, I'm also noticing much quicker results than I am used to - if you don't know, I've been on a gradual cut for about 8 weeks now for a vacation I'm going on in 3.5 weeks and I'm already almost at my goal. In the last 3 weeks while doing IF I have lost 2lbs of fat and still been able to maintain and gain muscle mass which is usually unheard of for my body!
I want to make it clear that I am in no way saying that IF is a magical weight loss strategy. I eat a very clean, mostly plant based diet, I exercise quite intensely 6 days a week and I know my body and am actually certified in the fitness and nutrition industry so adding IF into my life was not challenging for me. Every single body is so different and what works for me may not work for you but if you are suffering from digestive issues and on paper it seems like you are doing everything right for your digestive system and you just can't seem to figure out why you can't poop (sorry) then IF could actually work for you.
If you're thinking of giving IF a try I would definitely recommend not jumping in head first - start my pushing your breakfast back an hour every few days until you feel comfortable prolonging it until 11am or 12pm. You also do not need to be ridiculously strict about your eating and fasting windows, as I said there are days where I eat 30 minutes before or after 11am or 7pm just because of how my schedule or hunger levels are that day.
Just like anything else in fitness, health and life you have to base whether things work for you off of your own experience and you have to do what feels right for you!