So it has been a little while since I began giving intermittent fasting a go and I am extremely pleased to report back that it has become an essential part of my daily life ever since. I will often finish my main meal of the day at 8pm and then fast for 12-16 hours into the next day. That number is usually around the 14-hour mark though as I tend to break my fast post-gym at around 10am.
Whilst I haven’t been measuring myself scientifically (there are hundreds of studies already out there on the benefits of intermittent fasting if you haven’t checked them out already), I can certainly vouch for the anecdotal benefits. I no longer eat breakfast or feel the need for it. I can not only work out on an empty stomach now but am also hitting some heavy-lifting Personal Bests while in a fasted state. From a mental perspective, I feel I am more or less thinking, creating and processing at the same speeds and quality in both a fasted and non-fasted state. The key being though that I don’t feel any less impaired after 14 hours since food than 3 hours since food, which is a huge plus.
So these are some of the benefits that I have personally found since beginning intermittent fasting. On this journey though, not just my personal one, there are common questions that crop up again and again about intermittent fasting. Does coffee break your fast? Is it beneficial to the fast? Does fasting affect sleep? How can I enhance the benefits of fasting by coupling it with something else? What about training during fasting? Is it beneficial or even possible? I have had all of these questions and more at some stage that desperately needed answering so I could keep happy and on my fasting way.
It seems that I wasn’t the only one. After listening to Ben Greenfield’s recent podcast where he answered everything you could possibly want or need to know about fasting, I decided to compile some of the answers to the above questions here.
All in one convenient place.
It is great for your own personal reference to keep track of the ins and the outs of this awesome technique that you are using.
Does coffee harm of help your fast?
In short, a coffee with calories will take you out of a fasted state. Black coffee, on the other hand, will not only keep you in a fasted state but will also enhance the benefits of the fast. It can enhance cognitive alertness, enhance metabolism and if you are using a French press, the cholesterols in the coffee can get transported into the blood-brain barrier more easily. So if you are like me and have started putting things like butter, coconut oil or MCT oil in your coffee, you will want to have that delicious blend to break your fast or after you have already broken your fast. Stick to the black stuff if you want to stay in your fasted state and reap all of the benefits.
How does fasting affect sleep?
Some people out there who have taken on fasting complain that from time to time, fasting affects their sleep in a detrimental way. It is something that I have experienced sometimes too, where my stomach is grumbling and I can’t seem to drift off because my mind is occupied with the thought of food.
I later discovered that this was down to a lack of carbohydrates – particularly the good type – in the evening. Carbs in the evening assist in sleep not just because of their properties but also because they are the most satiating food variety. Sweet potato, beets and carrots are all of my go-to’s to be eaten in the evening which helps to see my fast easily through the night and into the next day. Carbs in the evening create a spike of insulin, resetting our circadian rhythms and inducing drowsiness and indicating to the body’s systems that bed-time isn’t far off.
The classic red wine and dark chocolate combo is also ideal not just for anyone who struggles to sleep when they’re going through periods of fasting, but anyone who has trouble sleeping full stop. Both dark chocolate and red wine create a serotonin release in the body followed by a subsequent melatonin release. This dual-hormone release is known to enhance sleep quality.
Meditation and breath work shouldn’t be overlooked too. They will both help to calm the mind, fasting or no fasting, and help the body into its parasympathetic ‘rest and recover’ state. Learning to use the mind to have some sort of control over the body can also assist in ‘turning off’ hunger sensations – at least temporarily.
How to enhance the benefits of a fast
Fasting, specifically intermittent fasting, is an extremely potent and beneficial practice for your body, mind and overall life as a standalone. However, it is possible to combine fasting with other practices that will enhance the benefits even further. If you are fasting, you may as well maximise all of the rewards while you are doing it.
Cold thermogenesis, or cold exposure, is one of those things where the benefits of the fast amplify the benefits of cold exposure and vice versa. Intermittent fasting induces the process of autophagy. Autophagy is the process of ‘spring-cleaning’ cells where all of the old and damaged tissues and cells are replaced by new, fresh and healthy ones. Because autophagy takes place at a cellular level, it is incredibly powerful for overall health and longevity and is also a necessary process in maintaining both muscle mass and mental health functions. Cold exposure in a fasted state can take this cell-regeneration process to the next level.
If you have access to them, regular sauna sessions are also known to be great for enhancing the benefits of fasting, including increasing autophagy much like cold exposure does. IST Magazine highlights further benefits of combining sauna therapy with intermittent fasting:
When hyperthermic conditioning (by sauna and sauna pod use) and IF [Intermittent Fasting] are combined, the wellness and health benefits work in conjunction with each other to enhance the cleansing period. Sweating via sauna, combined with time-restricted fasting promotes weight loss, improves mental acuity and physical fitness, and can help reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.
Drinking more tea (without calories), perhaps herbal tea, is also ideal for teasing out further benefits when you are in a fasted state. Tea reduces hunger pangs by lowering your body’s level of ghrelin. Ghrelin is known as the ‘hunger hormone’ and tea can be a huge ally in keeping your fast going for longer and thus getting further benefits. What’s more, tea also promotes autophagy much like cold exposure when combined with fasting and is a known champion detoxer of the body.
The best types of training to do while fasting
It is worth beginning with the types of training that you probably should avoid while in a fasted state. They include high rep, low weight exercises as well as higher intensity, highly anaerobic exercises that last for at least a continuous few minutes at a time. That would include any high-intensity interval training. This is because these types of exercises rapidly deplete glycogen and carbohydrate levels which 1. you don’t have a lot of stored during a fast anyway 2. it can leave you drained and unable to perform at your best not just in the gym but for the rest of the day.
Aside from this type of exercise, all of the other types can even see improved performance when undertaken in a fasted state alongside all of the other usual benefits. This includes things like very intensive high weight, low rep 5×5 deadlifts and squats or something like a Wendler 5/3/1 protocol. With these types of exercises, you aren’t dipping into glycogen stores and are relying on creatine instead. This brings out all of the benefits of the fast as well as the obvious benefits of exercise. The same can be said for more passive anaerobic exercises like swimming, yoga and cycling. Anything along these lines where you are going at a pace at which you could converse with someone, you are good to go.
In summary, the very passive, longer exercises and the short, very intense exercises are what you want to target in a fasted state for maximum benefit. Keep the medium-high intensity stuff for when you have some carbs and decent glycogen stores in your system.