After decades of back and forth over whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day or the one most likely to kill you, we are so done with over generalizations from some dietary prophet on high. If you wake up hungry, eat. If you don’t, don’t. But if you’re poo-poohing intermittent fasting because you have lady parts and pretty much all of the studies on its myriad benefits – from lowered inflammation to improved mental acuity to weight loss – have been performed, as Dr. Mindy Pelz quips, “on mice and men,” well… it might be time to take a closer look (You can read about my intermittent fasting experience, I tested it three ways. It's easier than you think).
“I like to look at the male studies and the mice studies as… hey, we’re getting in the ballpark; we understand that this could have a benefit to women.”
Compressing your eating window gives your body time to recover, reducing inflammation, repairing your gut, and regulating insulin, Dr. Pelz says. And these are benefits that can be reaped by anyone with a gut. The dearth of studies on women isn't, she says, due to intermittent fasting not working for women; it's just because (as we've always suspected) we're more complicated!
“We all have different hormonal swings," Dr. Pelz says. "So it’s hard to study us!”
But here’s the tea, ladies: intermittent fasting isn’t just for dudes. In fact, we can benefit from it even more than they can.
Some research has shown some distinct benefits of intermittent fasting for women, including one 2016 study finding that of the 2,000 participants with breast cancer, those who didn’t fast at all were 36 percent more likely to see their cancer recur than those who fasted for just 13 hours (aka cutting out that nightly popcorn in front of the TV).
Another study published just this year found that intermittent fasting improved the endocrine and metabolic profiles of women with PCOS.
Of course, as with most things, intermittent fasting is a bit more work for women. (Hold your pussy hats, friends – this ain’t about the patriarchy… it’s just about our hormones.)
When men fast, it’s fairly simple: they just restrict their eating to a given window of time (most go for eight hours of eating and 16 of fasting). While some pair intermittent fasting with another anti-inflammatory protocol, like keto or paleo, to reap even more benefits, Dr. Pelz notes that in reality, it's totally OK to eat whatever you want for those eight hours, citing a mouse study in Cell Metabolism that found that mice who ate a time-restricted, SAD-ish diet were immune to many of its metabolic downfalls.
“We could end chronic disease by just getting people to compress their eating window," says Pelz. "Not even changing what they eat. Just compressing their eating window and now the body is going into this repair phase.”
For women, another piece joins the puzzle: our monthly ebb and flow of hormones.
At various points in our cycle, our bodies may be working to make estrogen or progesterone. Estrogen, in particular, is difficult for our bodies to make when they’re insulin-resistant, which is a byproduct of an unhealthy diet – or one where we’re not giving our bodies time to repair.
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“If you’re insulin-resistant, you’re going to struggle to make estrogen," says Pelz, "and estrogen is really important for all ages, but especially for women who are trying to get pregnant, women who are menopausal.”
Fasting, then, can help regulate your periods naturally – as that study on PCOS patients showed.
But you don’t always want to keep your body's insulin resistance at bay.
“The week before our period, we are actually more insulin-resistant on purpose,” says Pelz. This allows your body to produce calming progesterone, which makes the uterine lining bleed.
For menstruating women, then, the best format is to fast every day except for the week before your cycle. (AKA, the week you're rage-devouring that organic chocolate you keep in a shoebox in the back of your closet, far from the wandering hands of your boyfriend, girlfriend, roommate, or any nosy houseguests.
“When we go to crave carbs the week before our cycle, it’s not because we’re crazy or undisciplined," Pelz says. "It’s because your body needs more carbs.”
But what about when your period is gone? For Pelz, that’s when fasting gets even more important – especially for women struggling to lose weight.
“As estrogen goes down, you become more insulin-resistant,” she explains, “So menopausal women start saying, 'God, you know, all my old tricks are not working; I’m gaining weight around my midsection; I just don’t know what to do to drop the weight."
What these women don't realize, she explains, is that as estrogen wanes, insulin-resistance skyrocketed.
"And there’s literally no better tool for men or women to overcome insulin resistance than intermittent fasting."
Menopausal women, then, should follow the same rules as women with a cycle: fasting, yes, but also stepping out of it every once in a while to eat what Pelz dubs “hormone-building foods” – things like potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, squash, citrus, and tropical fruits – to encourage the production of progesterone. The difference? The menopausal woman can do this whenever she likes.
“What I try to do, because people need more direction than that, is I tell women to do what I call a 5-1-1 variation," counsels Pelz. Post-menopausal women should intermittent five days a week, extend their fast to 17 or even 24 hours once a week, and then have one day a week where you eat those lovely hormone-building foods.
"That’s a really good, clear path for post-menopausal women," she suggests. And it's a bomb way to improve mental clarity, reduce inflammation, and just feel even more awesome every day of the month.
Related on Organic Authority
Intermittent Fasting Doesn't Have to Be Torture If You Learn to Listen to Your Body
Busting 5 Common Myths About Intermittent Fasting
I Tried It: Intermittent Fasting, 3 Ways (You'll Be Surprised What I Thought!)
Always consult a medical professional before making changes to your diet and lifestyle. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease and is meant for discussion purposes only.